In the years after WW1, pilots who came home from the war were trying to find a way to make a living. They would take an old Jenny (Curtis Jn-4s, which after the war were sold for as little as $200) and fly around the country taking people up for flights to make money. At the Walden Farm we had a field 1800 feet long that was perfect for barnstormers to land in.
Whenever we Walden kids heard an airplane in the distance, my sister Lambie would holler, ‘Airplane!’ and we would run and put white sheets out on the lawn so the barnstormer would know we had a place to land and down he would come in his Jenny. Ma would bring out doughnuts and milk for the pilot and we kids would stand around excitedly. My sister knew how to make friends quickly and sometimes the pilot would even take us up for a ride.
I was living at the Greenville airport in a small house I had built for my little family. (The government had taken our Walden Farm property by eminent domain – but that is a story for another time.) After coming home from serving overseas during WW2, I had used the GI bill to get my commercial pilot’s license. I had a Piper Cub on loan from Augusta Flying Service for a year or so. Every now and then I would fly people where they wanted to go and they would pay me a little sum of money. It wasn’t enough to make a living but it was enough to put gas in the Piper and I loved to fly.
One afternoon, this guy called from Rockwood asking me to fly him to New Hampshire. So I got ready to go, made all the checks on the airplane, went and picked him up, and headed to New Hampshire. I was planning on landing at the Portsmouth army base which had a 2 mile runway.
As we approached New Hampshire my passenger said, ’Could you land me at my farm?’
‘Can you tell me where to find it?’
‘Yes, see that road? Follow it. Now take a right. Now a left.’
‘I don’t need to follow the roads’, I said, ‘Just point me to the farm.’
So he did. Finally I saw the field he wanted me to land on.
The field was about 600 feet in length but straight across it was a big ditch cutting it in two. So I saw I had a very small area to land in. There were two woodchuck holes in one half and a grove of one-hundred foot tall pine trees at the end of the other. Below the field was a river. I realized I would have to land downwind, and the proper way was to approach into the wind. So I decided I would fly over the river with the wind. I planned a power- on stall. I flew over the river and as soon as I passed over the ditch I killed the throttle and landed fifty feet in front of the pine trees at the end of the field. It was a little like landing on a tennis court but I had figured out how to do it and there we were on the ground safe and sound.
Out of the house came a lady with a glass of milk and some cookies. Her bird dog was going crazy. He never had a bird that big in his field. The missus gave me the cookies and I ate them like a true barnstormer would. We chatted a while and it was a delightful time. But soon I said goodbye because I knew I had to get all the way back to Greenville before dark.
Now to get out of that field was nothing because now I was going downwind. I backed the plane up to the pine trees, pointed it to the river and made a short field takeoff. I put on full power and let the brakes off. As soon as I got clear of the ditch I pulled the stick back and took off.
Now there are no lights in a Cub. There is no battery or anything. There are no lights on the dashboard or wing. I did not even have a flashlight. What I did have was a small book of matches. I soon realized I would not get home in daylight. When I was fifty miles from home the sun went down. But I had already set my course, and I flew according to my compass. I had to correct for wind direction every little while. The last thing I saw was Wyman Dam. Then it was dusk and then dark. The last fifty miles I had to use my training and wits.
By striking a match about every three minutes I could check my compass and make sure I was still on course. (A book of matches contains twenty – to go along with the 20 pack cigarettes, but I was not a smoker and had used none.) Strike a match, check the compass reading, match goes out. Wait a few minutes and repeat. On the last match, the lights of Shirley were right ahead of me and I made my way to Greenville just a few minutes beyond.
When I got to Greenville I flew at low level over my house. I had told my wife previously, Honey, if I am ever late, go down to the runway that you want me to come in on and shine the car lights across the runway. But when I got there, she was so terrified and worried that all she could do was turn on the porch light. It was like a candle in the darkness.
I could vaguely see the horizon with Squaw Mountain in the distance. It was a good point of reference. The airstrip was 100 feet or so from the house I had grown up in so I was familiar with the landscape. The moon was not full and bright but instead a dim sliver. I managed to land the plane on the last 500 feet of the 3000 foot strip without incident.
I got out of the airplane, walked over to our little home and hugged my wife. And thus ended the day I put my Cub down in a farmer’s field, flew by the light of a book of matches and landed in the dark. I was a true barnstormer.
By Gramps Walden and Viv Walden