First Delivery

by Charles Lester Morris


Once, as a towering radio mast loomed out of the murk, I was vividly impressed with the value of an aircraft that could come to a complete stop in mid-air if necessary. How comforting it was to know that I didn't have to barge through this stuff at 80 to 100 miles an hour!

The lake shore finally came in view, and I followed it without incident to the government intermediate field at Dunkirk. The field was still wet from the storms of the night before, and the attendant was dumfounded when I hovered about until I found a high spot near the building where there were no puddles to step into.

The transmission was no better and no worse. I decided I could take one of the ground party on the next flight, and a flip of the coin chose Ralph Alex.

The weather was closing down so that, in any other aircraft, I would have been uneasy. Above us were low, nasty-looking clouds. Below were two parallel lines of puffy white ground fog that hung over the highways where the warm moist air from the pavements met the cooler air that was drifting in off the lake.

A few minutes after the take-off, we came on a bird about the size of a robin straying at our level. When he suddenly realized that an aerial meat grinder was fast bearing down on him, he fluttered a couple of times trying to decide which way to go-apparently couldn't make up his mind-and finally in desperation folded his wings and plummeted for the ground.

It was on this flight, in the middle of a driving rainstorm, that a helicopter passenger was carried for the first time across a state line (New York-Pennsylvania).

At Erie, weather forecasts were bad: high winds, lake storms (I knew from past experience what they could be), very low clouds, intermittent fog. The low clouds and intermittent fog bothered us only because we would be breaking Federal regulations if we flew through them without complying with instrument flight procedures (which we could not do for want of a radio). But the high winds, upwards of thirty to thirty-five miles per hour, we were not yet prepared to face-particularly if they were bead winds as promised. So we stowed away at Erie for the night.

The next day we took off at noon in the face of a twenty to twenty-five-mile wind, because the forecast showed the probability of worse weather to come, which we might avoid if we got on to Cleveland.

A few minutes out of Erie, I realized that the transmission didn't sound the way it should, and I could occasionally feel through the rudder pedals a kind of catching, as though small particles of solid matter were getting crushed in the gear teeth. After a few minutes, it seemed the best policy to land and confer with the ground party.

When they arrived, it was decided that Labensky would fly with me for a while to analyze the difficulty. If it were serious, we would land again-if not, we would proceed to our next scheduled stop: Perry, Ohio. It is significant that there never once entered into our deliberations the thought that we might not be able to find a suitable landing spot in case of trouble-with the helicopter, any tiny field was quite satisfactory.

For this whole flight, four ears were alert for untoward noises-and none appeared. Analysis some time later led us to believe that the extra passenger weight was sufficient to change the loading on the transmission so that it performed satisfactorily. Actually, however, it was slowly chewing itself to pieces and had to be replaced shortly after arrival at Dayton.

This was the roughest leg of the entire trip. The wind was gusty, varying from twelve to twenty-nine miles an hour. It was dead ahead, so I chose to fly low in order not to get into the stronger winds at higher altitudes which would slow us down even more. But close to the ground we got the full value of all ground "bumps." Whenever I saw a ravine ahead, I would brace myself for the turbulence that was sure to be over it. Every patch of woods had its own air currents; and to the leeward of a town or village the air was very choppy indeed. Many times we lost 75 to loo feet of altitude in a down-gust-and we were only 300 feet above the ground most of the time. Once I watched the altimeter drop 180 of those precious 300 feet-and toward the end of the drop I began veering toward an open field, just in case it didn't stop.

But the ship behaved beautifully. It didn't pound and pitch like a conventional aircraft under similar conditions. All it did was float up and down and get kicked around sideways. There were no sudden shocks, and even when it yawed to one side or the other, it was not necessary to use the rudder to straighten it out-given a few seconds, it would come back by itself.

Labensky hadn't bothered to get a seat cushion when he climbed aboard at my roadside landing place. For 1 hour, 25 minutes he had been cramped up on a hard metal seat with the circulation cut off from both legs. After we landed at Perry Airport, he crumpled out of the ship, for all the world like a newborn calf trying to walk for the first time!

There was no gas at Perry, but we still had enough in the tank to reach Willoughby, where we refueled for the flight into Cleveland.

Although the weather was a little better, this was a troublesome section, because I didn't want to fly over congested areas quite yet. A long, sweeping circuit to the south carried me around the outskirts, and at last the Cleveland Airport loomed ahead. Somewhere down there, Mr. Sikorsky would be waiting. I learned later that he had picked me up with powerful binoculars eight miles away.

An air liner preceded me into the field, and I realized when I saw the green light from the control tower that they expected me to follow him in and land on the runway. But that was not the way of this craft; if I had landed out there, I would have had to take off again to get in to the hangars. My procedure was to fly down the hangar line until I. discovered the one where storage had been arranged and then land on the ramp in front of it.

As I meandered fifty feet above the hangars, the green light followed me. I could almost hear the fellow in the tower saying: "Get that - thing down!" He held the light until I drew close to the tower and then finally gave up. I hovered momentarily in front of him to see what he would do. He scratched his head-reached for the light again-thought better of it-and finally with both hands signaled me vigorously down!

I laughed and continued my perambulations. In front of one hangar there appeared to be more commotion than usual, so I headed that way. There was our crowd, Plenefisch and Walsh, and the hangar crew; and there, to one side, stood Mr. Sikorsky. He waved happily, and beamed with a broad, almost childish smile. A space had been cleared between the ships parked on the ramp, and I settled easily into it.

It was a thrill to shake hands again with Mr. Sikorsky. I wondered if the tears that flecked his cheeks were caused wholly by the wind.

The weatherman hadn't been very hopeful about the conditions from Cleveland to Dayton, but it turned out to be an ideal Sunday morning, with a gentle breeze and high puffy clouds.

Mr. Sikorsky joined me on this part of the trip, and after hovering for a minute or two in front of the hangar at Cleveland, we turned and started south while the ground party in the car was still getting under way. When we were on course, I turned the controls over to Mr. Sikorsky. It seemed strange for me to be telling him anything about flying a helicopter, but his duties had kept him so occupied that he had handled the controls of this Army machine only once, for two or three minutes at the plant. He quickly caught the feel of it and from there to Mansfield I was simply navigator.


Les Morris landing the XR-4 on the ramp at Wright Field. XR-4 Landing at Wright Field

There was just one bit of advice that I repeatedly wanted to give him. He had learned to fly during the very early years of aviation, when everybody was reconciled to the fact that engine failure was synonymous with a crash-there was nothing you could do about it except rely on the resilience of the human body. On the other hand, I had been trained almost two decades later, when engine failures were still common enough to be a part of our daily diet, but something that we didn't need to take so stoically if we would simply keep one eye constantly focused on a suitable emergency field. Therefore, on this flight from Cleveland, when a large patch of woods loomed up in front of us, and we were only a couple of hundred feet above the topmost branches, his instincts and mine were sharply at variance. He would fly happily over the middle of the patch without batting an eyelash, while I would be gazing longingly at the open fields a half mile to one side or the other where we could just as well have been, at the expense of an extra ten seconds. For the first time in my flying career, I began to realize that woods are not a solid mat of tangled branches, as they had always appeared from my respectful distance, but simply a group of individual trees with a surprisingly large number of relatively clear spaces between.

Nevertheless, the clear spaces still looked terribly small as I peered down and mentally tried to fit our aircraft into them. So after two or three particularly large wooded areas had somehow nuzzled their way below our wheels, I basely abused my role as navigator. Whenever I spotted a forest looming ahead, I would point toward the fields to the right or left and say, "We're a little off course; we should be over there!" From the jagged route I made him follow, he must have thought me a highly incapable guide-but the remainder of the flight became very pleasant indeed!

Since he had never landed this ship, he handed the controls back to me as we approached Mansfield Airport. We landed close to the other ships, and he stepped out.


last update SEPTEMBER 22, 2012