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Inside the Blue Line: Plain talk about planes

Saturday, September 29, 2012 - Updated: 8:09 PM

Last week, I was out in my back yard communing with nature when I heard the faint roar of an airplane off in the distance. It did not sound like those high-flying jets that leave their cloudy streaks across the sky, or the medical helicopters that noisily circle our house to land at the Nathan "LeTour" Hospital. I kept my eyes to the sky to see what I could see; it was not flying at high speed but soon came into sight. I recognized it as one of the large, four motor planes from days gone by. It was flying low so the four propeller blades could be seen spinning on the wings. It brought back memories of B19s, B29s, and P38s, among other planes of my youth. I wondered what it was and where it was going.

My first encounter with flying planes was during World War II. Dad moved us from the farm to the village when he went off to fight the enemy so we would be safe. We became involved with the blackouts and the associated air raid drills. The eerie sound of the wailing sirens signaled the turning off of the lights so the enemy would not see our town and bomb us. Some of my pre-teen friends developed a fear of airplanes and when an occasional plane was heard in the sky, they would drop everything and run for the house, possibly on instructions from their nervous parents. It was wartime. We also knew that airplane spotters were always watching the sky for enemy planes. Later, we did get to see a giant B24 when Walker LaRowe brought one to the Edinburgh Plateau Airport.

The four-motor B19 used during the war, known as the "Flying Fortress," went through five improved models. It was the world's largest bomber, weighing 82 tons, and flying 7,000 miles at a time. When tested on the flying field at Santa Monica, Calif., it flew the 65 miles to March Field at 150 mph, with Stanley Umstead as pilot. It was a major accomplishment at that time which took $3.5 million and four years to build. Boeing then made Flying Fortresses -- B17, D, C, and E, that could fly 3,500 miles at 300 mph. The U.S. was in the airplane business, big time.

In my boyhood airplane scrapbooks, I have a list of the early bombers. In 1935 the Boeing 299 had four engines and was one of the first Flying Fortresses. The D15 in 1937 was a long-range bomber. The 1938 Boeing 314 became transoceanic and the Boeing 307 joined the fleet as a high-altitude plane in 1939. Whenever I see four motors on the wings of a plane fly over the Adirondacks, I wonder if it is one of these wartime planes.

My favorite planes are the Flying Tigers used in China before U.S. involvement (that's another story), and the Lockheed P38s with their twin fuselages. They were used by our U.S. Air Corps as well as the British RAF. Their claim to fame was going a mile high in less than a minute as well as flying over 400 mph. The nacelle in the center of the P38 held the pilot in a cockpit with his armaments on the nose. It must have been a big thrill to pilot such an exciting plane.

Today, smaller planes are seen throughout the Adirondacks along with the occasional military plane on maneuvers flying over the rugged mountains. Municipal airports include the Fulton County Airport near Johnstown, the airport at Piseco, one in Keene Valley, and at Saranac Lake, among others. Dozens of smaller airstrips are scattered throughout the Adirondacks; in today's economy it appears that airports are an asset to all who, for business or pleasure, use air travel. In my estimation, the day is not too far away when greater use will be made of air travel for the public to get where it's going. The day has gone when we say, "run for the house; there comes an airplane."

DON WILLIAMS was born and raised in the Adirondacks. He is a retired Gloversville school principal and magazine author. He lives in Gloversville.


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