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PAUL BROKAW THE PILOT
Written by Bill Brokaw
Paul was a developing mechanic when he was only 13 years old. It was the summer of 1919 and he was able to score a job with the Miller-Campbell Aircraft Co. which was headquartered not too far from his home in Waterloo, Iowa. The primary business was as a flying circus and selling rides. He replaced a young fellow who had failed to secure a plane during a storm, resulting in damage. He would be expected to do all manner of odd jobs as well as stay the night in one of their large tents that comprised their workshop for maintaining the airplanes. Helping with mechanical work such as cleaning parts and making gaskets etc. allowed his mechanical aptitude to come through despite his young age.
Weather started turning nasty one night and Paul hurriedly started double-staking the eight planes the company owned. The wind got violent just before he was able to complete the last wing tiedown so he grabbed the lone rope and hung on. His weight evidently was enough to keep the wind from pulling the tiedown loose. He slid into the mud when the wind let up and promptly fell asleep from exhaustion. When the pilots arrived the next morning they found him asleep and still clutching the rope. The wind had broken many tree limbs but the planes were unharmed due to the double staking. Paul was given the credit for saving the company from a heavy loss and a $125 tip was his reward.
One of the pilots had a motorcycle and he had warned Paul not to try and ride it. But as kids would, he figured that he could be very careful how he reparked it and the fellow would never be the wiser. So he proceeded to get it fired up and took a few turns in the field during the night. He did not succeed in fooling the pilot however. Evidently he had scored enough points with the fellows of the flying circus that he did not get into deep trouble. I cannot say that this adventure was the start of both his flying and motorcycling, but it had to have contributed.
THE JENNY AND SOLOING
World War I ended and the government had Curtiss Jenny airplanes coming out their ears. These were sold to civilians for little to nothing, so young men went flying and crashing. Paul was one of them but escaped the crashing. It was not because of good sense in the beginning. In 1928 he was able to buy a Jenny that had been assembled from parts of several wrecked planes. The Jennys that were built in Canada had some different features and they were nick-named Canucks. Paul’s plane had enough of these parts that he always referred to the plane as his “Canuck.” He bought the plane from his friend John Livingston who had three flying fields, one in Monmouth, Illinois where Paul took delivery. An aside, John would become a pilot of note and the book and movie “Johnathan Livingston Seagull” was named for him.
Working for John was an accomplished flyer and instructor, Dave Baker. Dave was Paul’s instructor and the two were to become lifelong friends. Dave set about giving Paul dual instruction and found him to have a steep learning curve. Reference to today’s world, ten hours of dual is the standard before allowing a student to solo, and that is in a tricycle landing geared plane. Tail draggers take another step. Dave pushed Paul along quickly and when all of two hours and forty five minutes of instruction rolled around, Dave climbed out of the front cockpit and told Paul to take it around once by himself. Paul obliged by doing just that.
Dave was a personal friend of Lindbergh. It was a small world back then. It seems that Lindy was not shy about talking about himself and he made all aware that he had soloed in three hours. Dave had found a student that he felt could end Lindbergh’s brag, and he had. Paul did not understand the significance, one way or another, of such a short time to solo. He just did as he was told. Dave later showed Paul a copy of the letter he had sent to Lindbergh informing him of his student’s accomplishments. My mother, Neda, when she learned the truth, was furious with Dave for possibly making her a widow just to have something on Lindbergh. He never apologized.
I have no knowledge about how long he flew the Jenny but it was through one summer for sure. That is where he learned that if he warmed up the OX5 engine in stages, that is killing the engine after a bit and letting the heat soak through the castings, an increase in power was gained. The thinner summer air made the Jenny feel underpowered on take-offs. Evidently distortions from metal expansions were reduced. This method of warm up was routine in all my race bikes, following dad’s instruction.
ALEXANDER EAGLE ROCK
The bike shop was evidently doing well as Paul traded his Canuck for an Alexander Eagle Rock biplane. This also had an OX5 engine but it had huge wings that produced a great deal more lift than the Jenny. These planes were built in Colorado Springs and would fly over Pikes Peak. As he said, it was like flying a sailplane. The Eagle Rocks were fully aerobatic as well, and with that much lift, Paul was encouraged to learn stunts. With his building confidence, getting into barnstorming for some extra money was a logical development. I will relate stories of these adventures but I have no knowledge of their order in time.
The airports were all grass fields then so a certain freedom of takeoff and landing direction could be enjoyed by the pilots. So spot landings and three point landings became the goal to tighten up the challenge. Also Paul explained that with the general lack of confidence in the engine, a high approach was always used to assure a landing would not be short of the field. This involved the nose high side-slip which was accomplished by crossing the controls. Full rudder with the stick held in the opposing direction accomplishes the side-slip. This pitched the plane several degrees sideways which not only provided a great deal of wind drag but gave the pilot a full view of his landing spot. With this, the plane literally sank onto the field to then be straightened out a few feet off the ground while maintaining near flying speed with attitude. To accomplish the desired three point landing of a tail-dragger the plane must be held off the ground as it slows until the attitude of the plane equals the parked attitude at the moment of touch-down. So to do this and roll to a stop, sans brakes, at the pre-selected spot made quite a challenge. Paul spent many hours developing this skill and explained that it was far more than a game. With the uncertainty of an ideal landing field in the event of an engine failure, this training could be the difference of washing out his Eagle Rock or not.
In those fairly early days of aviation, reliability was not a common attribute of airplanes. Paul told that he would always have a field picked out that he figured he could set it down in. Preferably it would be a field he could also take off from. As soon as one got out of range he would have already picked out another. He explained that if the engine conked, not already knowing where you wanted to go would likely lead to a dumb decision. Forced landings were a way of life and not usually because the engine quit. A leak in something, or an engine misfire, or who knows what, could have the pilot looking for a place to get on the ground to set things right again. Paul’s worse day had him setting it down in some farmer’s fields seven times. One such time the farmer came after him with a shotgun and declared that he was going to shoot the wings off that thing. Paul reasoned that if he did, it would then be impossible for him to get it off the field. Reason won out and the farmer allowed him to fix the ailment, so long as he did it quick. On one occasion my mother, Neda, was with him when he snagged some brush on a take off and tore the fabric on the bottom on one of the lower wings. He set it down as quickly as he could and Neda, laying on her back under the wing, set about sewing the torn fabric with baseball stitches. Evidently such supplies were part of the emergency toolkit that was carried in the plane.
BIG HEAD WIND
One day Paul was flying with a friend as passenger when the wind started blowing something fierce. By the time they got back to the home field the wind was blowing faster than the landing speed of the Eagle Rock by a bit. This meant that if he would throttle back for a landing he would be going backward. Those big wings were a real problem in this situation. Paul sized up the slim options and, noting that the wind was coming from the direction of the hanger over a area of good grass, concocted a plan.
He yelled up to his passenger to get out of the plane while he flew it with the wheels bouncing on the ground but at no actual ground speed. Then run up to the hanger and get some guys to grab the wings. Paul lined the Eagle Rock up with the hanger and into the wind. When he got the wheels to the ground the fellow did as instructed and jumped to the ground. He rounded up the few available bodies in the hanger and they all came out and grabbed onto the lower wings. The extra weight kept the wheels on the ground but it took throttle to move the plane toward the hanger. At the moment the hanger broke the wind the plane started accelerating so Paul had to quickly chop the throttle. The big prop did not stop immediately, of course, so it pulled the plane, and the dragging feet of the fellows hanging on, halfway into the hanger before it stopped rolling. No wheel brakes in those days. Paul explained that he was way too close to piling into the other planes hangered there.
Paul could rattle off the names of the different maneuvers and learning to do them seemed an integral part of flying in those days. Similar, motorcycle riders back then were not “real riders” until they could ride standing in the saddle. Paul did not talk about performing these feats so much as they were more a part of the thrill rather than the adventure.
But if something went wrong, then we got a story. I have to conclude that the closest he came to losing his life was during an aerobatic session. Loops were not uncommon to see executed. Pulling those early planes over the top in a loop relied more on momentum gained in a dive rather than horse power. On that day Paul explained his miscalculation of speed needed. As he was reaching the top of the loop, and upside-down, his plane ran out of forward speed. It started sinking straight down which meant that the air was not moving over the controls correctly. To make matters worse, his seat belt was not fully tight and his feet did not reach the rudder pedals. The dirt that had accumulated in the bottom of the cockpit was now raining in his face. His camera fell earthward. All he could do was witness the developing tragedy. A parachute, back then, would have been a rare luxury plus jumping out of a perfectly good airplane was not considered an option and may not have been in this situation.
Finally the nose started to drop but so was the earth coming up. Paul held the stick to his crotch and awaited his fate. Had he had a few less feet elevation when he tried this stunt I would not be writing this today as the landing gear was kissing the tall grass as he zoomed out of the dive. So he survived to stunt another day, but with more elevation from then on. A lesson learned in a frightening way.
Another pilot who flew around there during those days was a marvelously skilled stunt pilot. Paul explained that he could not come close to the precision of this fellow but a vital element was missing. If his engine failed the fellow came apart, simply losing his faculties of judgment. This resulted in his severely damaging two planes during forced landings and the third time it occurred he washed out his plane and his life. So Paul observed that keeping a cool head when the unexpected happened, was a far more desirable skill.
Pilots of those days were motivated to raise money to afford their flying by selling rides. This involved going to the people in and around the small towns. In Iowa, there was no shortage of small towns. So the pilot, with his assistant in the front cockpit, would pick out a likely town on a Sunday and circle the town at low elevation to attract attention, then head for his prechosen and nearby pasture. Cutting the ignition in and out got everyone expecting a crash and crowds would head in the direction of the descending plane. Finding the plane they also found their opportunity for the ride of their life. The pilot’s assistant was ready to sell them tickets. My mother, Neda, was usually Paul’s assistant. The tricky part of this program was to get the cooperation of the farmer who’s pasture they wanted to use. This was quite commonly achieved with the offer of a free ride. We still have a ticket book that Paul had printed and the price of a five minute ride was $5. Twenty bucks could easily be a week’s wage for those buying rides. Aerobatics were offered at a higher price but I have no memory of what that might have been. This whole process became known as “Barnstorming.”
The front cockpit of the Eagle Rock was large enough for two normal people side by side. So often, two were taken together and also Paul preferred to have two assistants along, one to help people in and out of the cockpit and the other to sell the tickets and keep ticket holders in order.
One passenger who desired some stunting could not keep his lunch down. They got the fun task of cleaning out the vomit from the cockpit. Barf bags were yet to be invented.
Although the controls in the front cockpit could be disconnected, the throttle control could not. This was a solid tube that ran between the cockpits with handles for each pilot. Sliding it forward shut the throttles. A couple drunks were loaded in the front cockpit and Paul was barely airborne when the guy on the left discovered the handle. So he shoved it forward to see what would happen. So the plane tilted downward but Paul quickly was on the throttle bar and got the power back on. The goon had found a game though and again the throttle was shut down and again Paul had it on again. Unfortunately his temporary air field had a row of tall trees at the end and they were quickly running out of room for such shenanigans. So it turned into a tug of war with Paul yelling at the guy and him laughing since he had found new sport. They flew through the tops of the branches with the prop scattering leaves. Another adventure in the life of a barnstorm pilot.
Getting enough gasoline for these ride-selling days was another challenge. Paul would occasionally line up some kid to take gas cans and some money into town and bring them back full for the promise of a ride when the action had cooled down.
PAUL MAKES THE NEWSPAPER
The newspaper’s headline was “Airplane explodes over Waterloo.” Neda was in the front cockpit as they flew over the city when all hell broke loose. The OX5 aircraft engine that was pulling them through the air one moment blew two cylinders off the crankcase the next moment. Hot water and oil were pouring back on Neda and the whole plane was shaking terribly. Paul was immediately afraid that the then out-of-balance engine might tear loose from its mounts. Fire was an obvious danger as well. He quickly cut the ignition and headed for the clearing that he had already had his eye on. He successfully set it down in the field and they counted their blessings.
A few days passed and one morning a fellow walked into Paul and Neda’s motorcycle shop. Looking up Paul, he asked if he was the one in the newspaper story about the airplane exploding over town. Of course he was, so the fellow said that he had something that Paul would find interesting. He went out to his car and returned with one of the OX5 cylinders. He said, “Remember the rain we had last night?” Paul said he was aware. “A big wet spot appeared in my dining room ceiling and when I went to the attic this is what I found under a large hole in my roof.” Paul quickly acknowledged that he owed him a house repair. That cylinder was kept as a souvenir to finally be lost when we made our move from LA to Colorado. When Dad discovered that we did not get to Colorado with that cylinder he got pretty moody. We still have the clipping from the newspaper at least.
Based on the note in Paul’s first Pilot’s Log, this happened in the Jenny. His later log books that would have covered the Eagle Rock were stolen when in storage.
THE DEPRESSION COMES AND THE EAGLE ROCK GOES
The depression took awhile to get to Iowa. In fact it was a subject that for months Paul thought was just something happening on the east coast. But when it finally hit Iowa it was with vengeance. Most of the motorcycles they had sold the year before on time payment plans came back. Suddenly holding onto the fine shop building that Paul had built was all that was important.
The Eagle Rock had to be kept hangered at all times and although there was no money owed on the plane, the hanger rent was no longer affordable. Paul advertised the plane for sale and a farmer appeared to make his offer. He pulled $150 out of his overalls and told Paul that he could give him that or some quantity of corn that he would keep cribbed for him until he could sell it. Paul knew nothing about selling corn and figured this was not the time to try to learn. So he said he would take the $150 if the fellow would fill it with gas and let him fly it out as his last flight. The guy, not being hard, allowed he would do that. They filled it up, pulled the OX5 through with the prop to prime the cylinders. On Paul’s last word of “contact,” the prop was spun with gusto and the big V-8 roared to life. Paul told how he flew it through every aerobatic maneuver he knew in the process of flying it over the field until he had the engine sputtering for fuel. He killed the ignition and floated it down for a dead stick landing near the hanger.
They pushed it to the pump and filled it for the second time. The farmer replaced Paul in the cockpit, obviously a pilot, and flew it away leaving Paul crying like a baby knowing full well that he would never have another airplane. He was right in that he never did. By the time the ultralights made flying easy for those with the urge, he was too old.