Tales of flying and of
This is the story of an average California beach girl who
marries her high-school sweetheart, becomes a “right stuff” Air
Force jet pilot’s wife, learns first to inspire and then to edit
the pilot’s aviation writing. They have six children, and are
living happily ever after… until one day, her mentor, lover and
friend is gone...flown away with the seagulls.
Bette Bach, in the depths of despair, lost all hope for
the future. With an old airplane her only possession and her
children trusting her to lead the little band, she gathered
herself, determined to prove she was a worthy person.
They took to the road and the skies and plenty of
mistakes were made, but they found a way to live with the past,
deal with the present, and face the future. Bette gave her
children the only gifts she had, even though today they might
not yet know what they are.
These tales of a life of flying show how it was done.
WHAT AM I DOING UP HERE?
That was one of the thoughts that crossed my mind as I
circled my little airplane at two thousand feet. John and Joan Edgren’s
white Aeronca Chief was over the fence and down on the grass below me,
now rolling under the high tension lines, now pulling up beside the
awkward-sitting 1929 Parks biplane. It seemed like a dream being up
here, when usually I was down THERE.
I could see the bright flash-flash of the big metal prop on the colorful
red and yellow biplane, still ticking around. John had already shut down
the Chief ’s engine. So now it was my turn, my decision to land or no.
Dick, husband and flight instructor, kept the biplane running in case my
decision was no. The long wide field looked very smooth in the late
Wisconsin afternoon. Plenty long enough for the likes of us, out on a
weekend cross-country, looking for a spot to camp for the night. The
late sixties found the mid-west still a bit naive...there was still a
lot of country there that no one cared if you used, as long as you
didn’t abuse it.
The field must have been about
fifteen-hundred feet long, but the stand of trees at the end near the
river and the imposing wires right across the middle made for a downwind
approach, and white knuckles for me. My mouth was dry, and palms were
Both of the other planes...down so easily. As I wondered why I was up
where I was, I turned onto an upwind leg. That big prop still turned.
Dick was giving me every chance to say no, find another field, guys. I
had about forty hours of solo flight, but didn’t have my license yet.
This was a confidence-builder, this event to be witnessed by a few
people who cared what happened.
Final approach looked okay to me, except I was way too fast. Why hadn’t
that instructor down there ever made me practice downwind landings? Over
the fence at fifty-five and flare, but I was too hot! Touch down...a
little bounce...trees coming up fast...make a decision...full throttle,
hold that nose down, flash under the wires and back on the stick. Wonder
of wonders I remembered to push the carburetor heat knob in for that
extra bit of power.
We cleared the trees, the Champ and I, by a good margin and climbed at
fifty and the trees slipped away behind, with their attendant cliff and
riverbank. I was still over the wide blue water of the Wisconsin River
as I started my turn. On the next approach I used a long flat final
approach, which felt better to me, but I still didn’t know why, and I
was over the fence with a little altitude to spare, plunking her down
good and proper.
Yes, down good and proper. Down. Where pregnant mothers of five children
should be. Dick had always been the pilot of the family, and because of
his writing about flying, was well-known at airports. I had been the
support system, until now.
I pulled up beside the two airplanes, the biplane prop now freshly
still, and the welcoming committee approached. I hopped out gladly, for
the moment, to face a big bouquet of assorted weeds, a forehead kiss for
courage in the face of difficulty. John Edgren came over, shaking his
“I thought you were going right through those wires,” he said. John’s
sight-angle must have been an odd one, but Dick just grinned. He’d
emphasized over and over in my lessons about going around if it didn’t
feel right. Of course, in those lessons, nothing was ever said about
flying downwind under high-tension lines.
That night around the campfire at the cliff-edge, I pondered again what
I was doing, and how I’d gotten there. And why it should be so. I
thought back to the small replica of the Parks turning in circles over
the couch in the den. Dick was sitting on that couch, talking about me
always being in that front wide seat as a passenger and sometime
navigator. We talked about the years we spent flying the old Fairchild,
with him taking photos for flying magazines while I flew the airplane
from the right seat. I had the flight experience, but he wanted me to
taste flight first-hand, alone with the clouds. I couldn’t see any real
reason for it. I loved to fly with him, I enjoyed it, for after all,
wasn’t he the best pilot around? Being off by myself wouldn’t be any
fun, except as a break from the kids, and that certainly was a poor
reason for flying. Dick believed I could discover so much more freedom
and enjoy so much more of the sky, but he was the dreamer in the family.
Since with my short legs I couldn’t physically fly the biplane and
surely wouldn’t consider renting another airplane, then I needed one of
my own. Right. With Dick’s on-and-off income as a writer, we had trouble
keeping a car paid for, and we needed another airplane? But almost every
flying family we knew had the same “warped” priorities, so we didn’t
feel odd. Dick narrowed the choices down to an Aeronca Champion. There
were many around, almost all of them built in 1946. They were small
enough, with good visibility as you soloed from the front, economical to
fly. They also cruised at about the same speed as the biplane, for
formation flights. The first thing Dick did was build a wood and fabric
model and painted it to match the biplane. He hung it in the den over
the other end of the couch. The model turned there in the draft, in
formation with the biplane, for months, just an image in thought...a
right idea waiting to be expressed in the right way, at the right time.
First priority was children, of course, and child number five, little
Jonathan, was only three months old and had come through a grave illness
that month of June. But before too many weeks passed, the right way
opened up. A photojournalist from New York was assigned a story about
barnstorming and spoke about a thousand dollars given him to rent an
airplane. He suggested we buy one instead.
Dick and I set out on a car trip to Chicago with stops at every little
airport near the highway and much peering into Aeronca windows. The
money permitted a peculiar set of qualifications: poor fabric covering,
average interior, but the engine must be good and the plane must have
been loved. At Lombard, Illinois, we peered at a slightly tacky cream
and green Champ, tied down in the corner of a run-down, weedy airstrip
next to a big shopping center. The interior of the Champ was a bit
rough, but the stick was firmly secured back by the seatbelt. A little
soup-can sat over the fuel tank cap to keep out water, and it had a
beautiful front windscreen, no oil leak indications or black exhaust
marks. The owner had cut a tidy square in the brushy grass where it was
tied down. Here was the idea expressed. But was the plane for sale? A
call to the owner proved that he indeed loved his little plane, but he
was a lonely pilot because his wife wouldn’t fly with him. It didn’t
take him long to decide.
I drove home from Lombard alone, five hours from Chicago with Dick in
our new friend overhead. My airplane. Overhead! She looked so jaunty in
flight and perked right along, just as fast as the old Ford I drove.
Those last days of autumn were front seat days. Not the familiar front
seat of the big biplane, but my own little front seat, the Captain’s
seat! And I did pretty well. After the front rudder pedal blocks were
installed to give me more control, and I got over my nervousness about
proximity to asphalt, I soloed within ten hours. Admittedly, it was
after almost twelve years of flying copilot in other airplanes, but
nonetheless, I was proud.
Solo day is always a special moment for a pilot. I had received a tiny
bouquet of strip-side weeds for my effort. For weeks I flew and flew,
around the patch, across the Iowa countryside, getting my cross-country
skills honed, getting those bouncy landings to a minimum.
After fifty flying hours, Dick got around to checking out my progress
and hopped into the back seat. We taxied out to the one
thousand-foot-long grass island which he insisted I use instead of the
long ex-military cement runways of Ottumwa. There was no one in the
tower anymore, so I lined up into the wind and down the grass we went.
Halfway down, feels heavy, we’re not getting airborne, abort now? Yes.
Power back, light on the brakes.
“What’s the matter?” Dick asked.
“Something wrong with the engine.” I said.
Laughing in the back, he pointed out that I had flown solo for fifty
hours or more, and now had two hundred extra pounds of baggage! I taxied
back with a new mind set, we took off using almost all the grass, and
later he pronounced me okay to continue my flying solo.
That winter had turned into “learn what’s inside an Aeronca” time. The
name of the game was see how much rust you can sand off tubing, and that
exercise ended in sandblasting the tail section, which dissolved what
metal there was left and we ended up buying another set of control
surfaces. The Champ got special treatment there in the basement, with a
hand-rubbed mahogany instrument panel and lots of carpeting, a new vinyl
interior and Grade A cotton for the cover. With red and yellow dope, it
was model-building all over again, only larger, and filling the house
with noxious fumes! A touch of gold paint here and there, a bit of fur
on the control stick for fun, and a wildly-colored print seat cover and
matching baggage sling finished her off.
We were flying by early summer, and I didn’t forget too much of what I
had learned the previous fall. I even learned some new things out alone,
like tight turns near the ground aren’t such a good idea. Oh yes, THAT
day had been one for the memory books.
A big movie company was starting production in the little town of
Greenfield, filming a movie called “Cold Turkey” with Bob Newhart and
Dick Van Dyke. The story premise was a little town whose residents were
to give up smoking to win some dubious prize. The bad guys from the
cigarette companies wanted to drop cigarettes from the air over the
fictional town, get the folks to smoke again, and win the bet. The movie
people thought that an old biplane doing the drop would look great on
film. Just what we happened to have! Dick and I got into our airplane
fleet, me with the map, as my closed cabin had no breezes, and flew over
to Greenfield. The producer looked over the airplanes, took us into town
to have lunch at the largest motel in town, with Dick Van Dyke and
lesser lights in the movie at other tables. Dick and I in our leather
jackets, rubbing shoulders with the stars! After lunch we were taken
back to the airfield and prepared to take to the air. Dick headed down
the runway first with me right behind him. He swung around back the
other way down the corn rows to say good-bye up close and do a steep
pull-up, so they could imagine what the biplane would look and sound
like on the screen. I whipped around to follow, immediately lost half my
airspeed and sunk into the tall corn!
All I could hear was the bang-bang of mature corncobs beating on the
wheels. I didn’t want to land in the corn! Full power...I glanced at the
airspeed...needle bouncing on thirty nine miles an hour...airplane
stalls out at thirty-eight, on a good day...ahead of me, telephone
poles...I couldn’t pull the nose up any more...was the corn taking off
my wheels, I couldn’t look down to check...the plane lifted a bit out of
the corn stalks and I headed under the telephone wire.
Climbing out, I wondered what that show looked like from a producer’s
viewpoint, sheepishly pointed the nose the opposite way and headed home.
Dick, who had given them another pass and completely missed my show,
joined up on me, a bit below and behind my wing.
I looked over at him. I didn’t dare look at my wheels, because from the
beating they had taken, I just knew they weren’t there! All Dick did was
put his head back in that open cockpit and laugh into the wind. All he
saw was a lovely row of corn stalks nicely cut and bent over the entire
length of my wing struts.
I led the flight to the nearest airport and landed. Looking at the
Champ, even I had to laugh. Bits of corn tassel were jammed into the
carburetor intake, and the corn stalks looked quite nicely cut. Later
they told me I had de-tasseled fifty feet of that farmer’s crop.
Dick patiently explained about lifting off the ground, keeping the nose
low, power in, until you had plenty of airspeed with which to play, THEN
making a turn. By then he didn’t have to explain. I kept the sheaf of
corn tassels on the wall of the den as a grim reminder of what could
have happened if the little Champ hadn’t given extra to save me from
myself. So, now, in Wisconsin, being around the campfire had a different
feeling than all the camp-outs before. I wasn’t along as a passenger and
grease-wiper, but as a full-fledged member of the caravan. It was then I
felt sorry for John’s wife Joan, sitting across from me with the fire
flickering across her face. She was still a passenger, still a mere
The next day, the goal of our flight was a small gathering in
conjunction with old cars and a steam train in Baraboo. The colors and
smells were of varying years from 1901 to 1930, with chugs and whistles
and ladies in long dresses, cotton candy and the shouts of organizers.
“Let’s have a fly-by over the town,” they said, “and here’s your three
bags of flour for the bomb drop contest.” I would have said good grief
if I hadn’t been speechless. I stood there with the bags, not quite sure
who I was supposed to be now. Whoever I was, wasn’t here. This new
person climbed into her airplane, set the bags under the seat and
someone turned the prop over. The Champ was second on the wing of the
biplane, a natural lead ship for the fourteen-airplane gaggle about to
invade the sky with their bright colors and shapes.
The clever folks lined us up and suddenly it was a short-field takeoff
contest. Dick had once said, “Keep your tail one inch off the ground..”
I don’t know whether I did or not, but the Champ didn’t have a very long
takeoff run with all the camping gear now out on the ground.
Then all were off and loosely strung all over the sky. For a while it
was easy, only one plane to watch, but soon the faster airplanes began
to get out of line and it was crowded-sky time. With one turn over town
and the biplane headed for the flour-drop circle. Three passes. Dick’s
bombs were hitting strangely way off target for a trained Air Force
gunnery graduate. My window opened and an arm hung out, the first pass
at a normal rate of speed until the idea came, why not try slow flight.
That was something the instructor DID make me practice often enough! The
other two passes seemed right, although I never could see the flour bomb
The lead ship started down for the spot landing. When he was out of the
way, the Champ was set up for the try, and I still wondered who the
person was in control. I had watched so many of those contests and today
I still felt detached, like a spectator. The spot line came up to greet
me and the Champ touched down just in front of it and bounced over. If I
had only had the stick full back, but ah well, my growing stomach was
detrimental in getting the stick where I needed it for a three-point
landing. I was down again safely...down where I belonged? Later that
day, the awards were presented and the person who had flown my Champ
placed third in short-field takeoff, and second in the bomb drop. I was
presented a trophy for being the only pregnant woman in the spot landing
contest...the hard luck trophy.
On the way home the next day, the same question still tried for an
answer. I thought, it’s not me up here at all, but another person I
hardly know, one who had discovered a few things about flying, and
wasn’t afraid to learn more. A person who entered contests and won
trophies and landed in hayfields under power lines.
So I discovered what I was doing up there. I was finding how many people
live in the same body besides my latest child. Thinking and doing, I was
testing myself to see how a learned skill is applied, how problems are
faced and tests passed... tests far removed from the familiar kitchen
sink, the hospital delivery room, the pile of diapers, the budget that
gave me a headache, the grocery store.
What I was doing was living my own life for once. I didn’t know then
what a great gift I had been given
Copyright 2007 Bette Bach Fineman
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