Flying by the seat of your pants

One man’s history of flying involves many near-misses and examples of winging it

Photo: Wikimedia Commons This Benson, on display in the North Carolina Museum of History, is a B-8 with a motor added.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
This Benson, on display in the North Carolina Museum of History, is a B-8 with a motor added.

Larrie Wanberg
Features Editor

My hometown was an exciting place for a five-year-old with a bicycle to see aviation evolve at the grass roots in the 1930s. Those were the times when small planes didn’t have retractable land gear or electric engine starters, but did have a stick for controls, fabric-covered wings and frames, and a curved drag spring instead of a tail wheel.

Jake at the hardware store only had a thumb and forefinger on his left hand, after the prop of his open-seated bi-wing caught him when “prop-starting” the engine one day. My mother made me promise never to ride with him, but his stories were probably better than an actual flight, especially when he would wave his left arm to accent the stories as I sat on a nail barrel in his store.

It seemed like every pioneer pilot in town had a story of “close calls.”

A farmer relative of mine once prop-started his “Piper Cub,” but before he could get around the wing to jump in at the controls, the plane moved forward (throttle too far advanced) and took off gently, unattended to circle above the farm until it ran out of gas, finally landing softly in a corn field without any damage.

My cowboy neighbor across the street would hunt coyotes on winter weekends with the door removed from his ski-equipped “Cub” with a shotgun hanging out. Any snowy field without fences was a landing spot to retrieve his bounty.

My high school classmate who later owned an airplane for most of his semi-retired life always flew around the state and landed in small, unattended airports. Friends would shuttle him into the larger towns nearby. I asked him once why, and he answered, “I didn’t have a license to fly. Friends taught me.”

As a 2nd Lt. in the Army in 1955, I joined the Civil Air Patrol and flew regularly as an “observer” in less than ideal situations. Even with seasoned pilots at the controls, I had a time or two with white knuckles.

I ordered plans for building a “gyro­copter”—a rotary wing glider—and built it in a hospital craft shop during the course of a year. To fly it, I was required by the FAA to get a glider pilot license and complete ground school. Because it was a single-seater, I needed to learn to fly it by tethering it progressively to expanded ropes on a towed trailer, pulled by a pickup going like you know what down an abandoned runway until confident at the controls. Later, a licensed pilot mounted a VW engine with a pusher prop on a gyrocopter frame, but I never flew it motorized because the power scared me.

I learned more about the dynamics of life and space in a two-week ground school, which was required for a glider pilot’s license, than I did in a year of academic study. I learned a life principle: recognize what other people do not see—be watchful of the signs of potential turbulence, stay in the thermal updrafts, and navigate your way to your destination. The instructor advised the class to rely on the “seat of your pants” to know your relationship to the earth’s gravity and the inherent power that you have to experience flight without an engine.

Once in 1956, I flew on a military Lockheed Super Constellation from D.C. to Greece and we were diverted to Tripoli, where we stayed for five days in a British Officer Club with barricades and guards with machine guns. Even then, Libya was a nervy place to visit, especially unexpectedly.

My first transatlantic flight was on Løftleidir Icelandic Airlines in 1957 on a DC 4 Skymaster, a four-engine propeller aircraft without pressurization. My recollection is that we never flew above 10,000 feet, and hopscotched across the northern Atlantic with several refueling stops between New York and Iceland, and then on to Oslo.

I experienced a near-accident in the 1960s taking off from Gardermoen Airport in Oslo in a military C130 cargo plan with two huge, chained-down generators that filled the airplane. My family and myself were aboard as “space-available” riders. One of the chains broke loose halfway down the runway with the dangerously loose cargo presenting a serious threat, but the pilot was able to halt the plane at the end of the runway without damage or injury.

I flew into D.C. once on a military Lear Jet as a passenger with a General aboard. On approach, the landing gear didn’t turn down, so the crew cranked it down manually but they were not certain if it had locked in. As a precaution, the runway was foamed, but the gear held securely. Protocol is that the General deplanes first for a reception at the bottom of the stairs. The General, who was occupied on a phone, signaled me several times to deplane. Wow! It was such a triggered reception as I appeared on the top of the steps to a welcoming crowd of dignitaries and a limo waiting. It took me a few minutes to explain. I was never certain if the General intentionally gave me this rare experience of a reception, as many generals were down-to-earth personalities, often more like accommodating mayors than authoritarians.

Once I had a special opportunity to fly from D.C. to Paris on a White House 747 flying over empty to pick up the Secretary of Defense. The spacious cabin was more like a fancy living room with over-stuffed recliners—one with a red phone on a side table.

Upon landing, a mix-up occurred when a commercial plane appeared on the runway ahead of us. The pilot locked the brakes to avoid a collision, blowing out the tires on the 747. New tires were required to be flown in from D.C. for security reasons. It was a safe landing but I’m sure a mountain of paperwork was generated as the near miss was investigated.

I love flying, I consider it much safer than driving a car, and there is always an awaited destination.

My dream from youth is to earn a pilot’s license. It’s still on my “bucket list,” but if it doesn’t materialize, I have plenty of stories to tell my great-grandchildren about what it means to fly “by the seat of your pants.”

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 23, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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Larrie Wanberg

Larrie Wanberg, 1920–2021, contributed features to The Norwegian American for many years, drawing on eight decades of life experience highlighted by three career recognitions: as a researcher through a Fulbright Scholarship to Norway in 1957; as a health care provider in behavioral science through a 27-year military career and awarded upon retirement in 1981 the highest non-combat medal, the Legion of Merit medal; as an educator, through a 50-year career in college education, culminating in the 2010 Public Scholar award at the UND Center for Community Engagement. Wanberg passed away in May, 2021.