Flying in the 30’s and 40’s readily brings to mind the barn storming, hedge hopping, and daredevils strapped to the wings of airplanes at state fairs. For the public at large, flying was more of a sideshow than a means of transportation. The pilots of the day were our heroes like Eddie Rickenbacher, Charles Lindberg, Wiley Post, Emilia Earhardt, and Howard Hughes. Their stories of daring and death defying feats were the dreams of every young boy of the time. Few among the public at large would endure the stresses or underwrite the risks of flying in those days.
Wakefield had its own variety of barn stormer. Bud Elkins Sr., who lived just south of town, was a Kansas Flying Farmer. He had his own plane, and maintained a strip of river bottom for his field. Bud added an aura of respectability to flying that was badly needed. Wakefield also had its wonder pilot, Wylie Walno. Wylie was flying airplanes as soon as he was big enough to reach the pedals. Whenever he could find a plane to fly and a little bit of gas, he was up, and away.
Shortly after graduating from Wakefield High School, Wylie bought his own airplane. He might have purchased a Cessna, or an Aeronca, Piper Cub, or Air Coupe. Of the many planes you could buy at the time, Wylie bought a Funk. It was a four letter word, and raised numerous snickers among the adolescent crowd. His Funk was a typical single engine, high wing, two seat, tail dragger manufactured in South Coffeeville. Like most pilots, Wylie thought any airplane that could fly was a bargain. He bought it used for $600, about the cost of a good used car. One might worry about the safety and reliability of such a plane. I did, but being indestructible like all teenagers, I believed my actual death would not come for many years.
One bright Sunday morning, following several days of steady rain, Wylie’s addiction overcame him, and he was itching to gain some altitude. Our paths crossed downtown, and he asked if I would like to go for a spin. Had I taken him literally, I would have preferred church. Going for a spin in a Funk, or in any airplane, is not my idea of Sunday morning entertainment. But I accepted and the deal was set. I crawled in with Wylie, and we headed for Clay Center. We arrived at the city’s airport ready to go.
Wylie’s first observation, which he shared with me, was that he was a bit short on gasoline. We poked around the facilities trying to find anyone who might have the key to the gas pump. The site was locked up tighter than a drum, and we were the only people in sight. Wylie’s second observation was that we had enough gas to get to Abilene, about 40 miles to the south. As the Abilene airport was open every day we would be able to fill up there before coming back to Clay Center.
Up to this time, the only flying I had done was sitting on a long, flat board at my grandpa’s home in Ottawa. One recurring dream was flying such a board around town. I would take off from their yard heading down hill, and then soar effortlessly wherever I wanted to go. It had no wings, no controls, no flaps, no elevator, no rudder, no seat, and no engine. Once I got the board going down hill fast enough, it just took off. By contrast with my flying board, Wylie’s Funk was beautiful. It was white with red trim and matching wheel skirts that provided a finishing touch. If you can fly on a board, a beautiful airplane like Wylie’s Funk should be a breeze. But then, what did I know?
We climbed aboard, strapped in, took off, and headed south for Abilene. Wylie observed that we should be there in about 30 minutes. Kansas state highway 15 was almost a straight shot south from Clay Center except for one surveyor’s jog on the ten mile section line. It was the only road in the vicinity with actual grader ditches, and made a graphic road map to Abilene. From 3000 feet, this part of Kansas is almost all tillable farmland among low hills. In spite of the hills, the country roads along the section lines divide the landscape into a huge checkerboard. From the tops of selected hills it is often possible to see five or ten miles straight up the road. On rare occasions the roads depart from their straight lines to wind up a steep hill. Hedge rows often line one side of the road or the other, making them favorite sitting spots for rabbits. From 3000 feet, rabbits are hard to spot in a hedge row.
The airport in Abilene was located west of town along the Saline River. Heading in that direction we became increasingly concerned that the river was quite wide. Indeed the river had become so wide at the airport, it covered all but one small corner of the single east to west runway, and appeared to be several feet deep at the west end. Wylie had several observations at this point. With several inches of rain during the previous days, it seemed unlikely that the remaining grass covered field of the airport would be firm enough for a landing. My long flat board would have negotiated the airport quite nicely, but Wylie knew the capabilities of a $600 Funk. He also observed that the gasoline pumps would probably be locked, given the general status of the airport.
Finally he observed that the spare tank was full, and should provide more than enough fuel for returning to Clay Center if the main tank should run dry. On this cheery note, he asked if I would like to buzz Wakefield before returning to Clay Center. It was only a few miles out of the way, and on such a beautiful day it made some sense. I did not fully appreciate exactly what was meant by buzzing, but neither did Wylie at this point. We headed off onto a diagonal toward Wakefield’s water tower. In 15 minutes we had seen most of Wakefield and struck off southwest toward Bud Elkins Jr.’s farm at an altitude quite low for the best possible buzzing.
At the precise instant of arriving at Bud’s farm, the engine began its sputtering. “sput……sput………sput..sput………….sput..sput…sput.” We were about 500 feet above the ground, heading northwest when the main tank was sucked dry. Wylie observed that the spare tank would help us recover, and regain appropriate altitude. He flipped the manual valve on the control panel from the main tank to the spare tank. We waited.
“Sput …..sput…….sput..sput..sput……….sput…..sput….sput.” We waited some more. “Sput …..sput…….sput..sput..sput……….sput…..sput….sput.” For what seemed like four or five miles we were skimming 50 to 100 feet above the ground, and every mile or so we would jump a hedge row, power lines, or telephone lines into the next section, each time without stalling. Within just a few moments, I had come to hate hedge rows, rabbits and all. We were so close to the ground that I asked Wylie if it would be better to jump. Wylie was conferring with his maker.
Finally, he observed that with all the rain, it would be great to find a nice flat and firm pasture for landing. In this part of Kansas, if it is flat, it is plowed, not pasture. He also observed it would be nice if the wheel skirts would not plug up with mud on landing, which would otherwise flip us onto our nose and back.
Then there appeared a particularly high hedge row straight ahead. We sput… sput…….sputted over that hedge row. Wylie banked about 20 degrees left and flared straight into an alfalfa field touching down in about the middle. Then we left the alfalfa field, jumped a terrace wheel skirts and all, and finally stopped in a stubble field 100 feet beyond the terrace. Any landing at all, following such a hair-raising experience, must be considered a great landing.
For several moments there was only deep breathing, as the adrenalin slowly subsided. Then Wylie concluded that his spare tank must contain some debris, or possibly a leaf which prevented an adequate flow of fuel to the engine. I climbed down and kissed the soggy ground. A farm house was 100 yards away where we called for a ride into town.
Confident in his conclusion, Wylie returned to the stubble field with a few tools and a can of gas the next day. He removed the wheel skirts. Then he poured gas into the main tank, started the engine, taxied back into the alfalfa field, and flew back to Clay Center as if nothing unusual had happened. Later word on Wylie was that he subsequently encountered a Colorado air pocket in Loveland and landed his Funk upside down as a result. Wylie was uninjured, but whether his Funk survived is not known.
As his passenger, I suffered a thousand deaths during this short, but memorable flight. It was only the first of a series of flying incidents, each of which produced a longing for my flying board when I was four years old at grandpa’s house.