We grew up in the farmlands of the midwest due south of Lake Erie’s western edge. Soy and corn fields as far as the eye or your imagination would take you. Your gaze might be interrupted occasionally by a drive-in-movie screen or maybe a dust devil. It was the land of farmers where small businesses and doctors would close every Wednesday at noon and the other-side-of the-tracks meant a definable direction.
As kids we were bored to death when summer rolled around. There were six of us that bonded together. We were inseparable and functioned as a single entity. The only things on our collective agenda were baseball and the Elk’s Lodge swimming pool. At that time of the year we couldn’t trap or hunt so we needed to manufacture adventure for ourselves. Girls were just on our mental horizon and were wily and diversionary. And you can’t hunt ‘em. No, we had to be creative or what folks now call “thinking outside the box”.
One day Donny came into our headquarters (The Basement) spastically waiving around a Popular Science containing a story about heroic guys taking flight with a hang glider assembled with electrical conduit. It was dubbed the Conduit Condor. An adventure was born. Now the closest thing we had to an altitude disparity were the 15 foot banks on the outside of the county reservoir or the cliffs lining an abandoned stone quarry. The reservoir was out because it was fenced at the base and none of us had the confidence our contraption would fly let alone clear the barb wire. We all agreed except Carl – Carl had a screw or two loose – that Dead Mans Quarry was out as well. The persistent rumors were it was guarded by a disturbed old man that didn’t ‘shoot first and ask questions later’, he just shot. If that wasn’t enough, the same people that passed on the old man tale, our parents, additionally informed us the water in the quarry was like a 1,000 feet deep and if we went in we might never be found. We debated the issue on an appropriate launch point for hours before Carl had one of his eureka moments.
The only logical thing to do was launch our Conduit Condor behind a speeding car.
And we needed a test pilot.
I was volunteered.
None of us were strangers to speed or fast cars. We lived it. The biggest stud in the county was always the athlete whose parents sprung big bucks for the latest and greatest sports car. But the ‘real’ bad-ass was the kid that re-worked his Chevelle SS or Olds 442 turning it into a road consuming beast. Steering was an after-thought, our roads were straight and long. We needed a fast launch vehicle and Carl’s tricked out Candy Apple Red Mustang 390 convertible was chosen.
My first award winning experience riding in Carl’s ‘Stang was one I’ll never forget. I had been up in Michigan visiting family and on my return my clan told me Carl had concocted the ultimate back roads cruising technique. It was an edge of your seat experience. The top edge. Where your shoulders go. I was game so once we were out of town I was told to assume the front passenger position in honor of my return. As I sat on the top of the seat, head above the windshield and gritting my teeth in anticipation of 50 mile-per-hour insects, I began to relax and consume the experience. It wasn’t until sometime later that I realized that Carl’s highly technical method of controlling accelerator and brakes by use of a stick was flawed. Pliant branches were favorable for their slight ‘give’ but on my ride Carl selected what must have been petrified oak. When he hit the brakes – I hit the hood. But not before somersaulting over the windshield and knocking myself out.
Carl was my buddy and I forgave him. We shared an unbreakable brotherhood and besides I still needed a ride to our weekend jobs at the local drag strip. Donny was our other “Finish Line Technician”, our jobs were to hand a crew member a scrap of paper that had his driver’s time and speed scrawled in pencil. It was the greatest job a kid could want at the time and we enjoyed some classic racing, epic battles between the Mongoose and the Snake or runs by Big Daddy Don Garlits. We were stationed behind a concrete wall at the end of the quarter mile strip and over several weekends it was the place we put together the final pieces to taking flight in our home brewed Conduit Condor.
We had the launch vehicle, test pilot and winged concept so all we needed to do was build one. Our non-existent cash reserves precluded sending money off for the bird’s plans. We reckoned we could fashion one by just re-reading the single paragraph Popular Science article a hundred times and taking a magnifying glass to the grainy picture. Our staging area was a forlorn barn outside of town that no one ever bothered with. We wrote down our shopping list; conduit, tarp, rope, tape and tools. I also insisted on some form of pilot protection.
It didn’t take us long to gather all our materials and begin our Wings Over Ohio project. The conduit was located at a junk yard and the proprietor told us we could have about 10 pieces for free. Gotta love the small town mentality. That and we told him we were building some tomato trellises down at the old folk’s home. We borrowed a dual handled ski rope from Mr. Miller’s garage to use as a tow rope. The tape, tools and Visqueen were found readily scattered amongst our various homes. I took this pilot safety issue very seriously and went all out. I stole my younger sister’s roller skates so I could taxi down the runway. For noggin protection we re-purposed a Cleveland Browns autographed helmet Donny’s dad kept in their basement. We figured if he knew why we borrowed it he’d be pleased we were concerned about safety.
On the chosen day we gathered at the old barn where we’d hidden our aeronautical components. Nice sunny day with a slight breeze and no hint of inclement weather. Gorgeous conditions perfect for flight. I dreamed of slowly rising above the ears of corn and majestically guiding my wings of destiny. I’d be front page news; Local Boy Makes Aviation History. The Van Wert Chamber of Commerce would erect a statue in my honor down in front of the Brumback Library. Neil Armstrong grew up just a few towns over and he was a living legend. He had teams of NASA rocket scientists and the world cheering him on.
I had Carl.
Carl was a prodigious thinker but he wasn’t much in the way of a doer. He was our de facto leader simply because he was infamously outspoken. When it came time to build the condor he was scattered like marbles in a warehouse forcing us to think on the fly. We put the bird together in less than an hour or roughly a hundred times less than we spent designing it. We probably underestimated our need for duct tape but she appeared air worthy.
I ceremoniously donned the helmet and began the process of cramming my feet into my sister’s pink roller skates. Once secured, I wobbled into the middle of the county road and waited for Carl to stage his car. As he was backing up one of our other buddies hustled over and tied the ski rope to the Mustang’s bumper. The rest grabbed the four corners of the delta wing and gingerly walked it towards me. Anticipation was killing me but I was going to be the pride of the people and I reveled in the moment. After taping me to the condor they all climbed into the car to act as spotters and witness history from 50 feet away.
The first attempt was aborted the moment Carl stood on the gas and ripped the ski rope handles from my death grip. It was good to get the shakedown cruise over with, time to recalibrate and concentrate on the maiden flight. On the second try Carl was more judicious on the gleaming foot-shaped gas pedal and I began to slowly roll forward. As we picked up speed the contraption began to become……..‘unstable’. There was a whole bunch more resistance than I anticipated. It got really noisy and the wind was whistling a fire drill in my ears. Glasses would have been nice. Loose gravel was shooting from beneath my skate wheels like random skeet. The endless rows of mature corn became a corridor of concentration.
In our haste to build the condor we overlooked the steering/altitude bar, which turned out to be pretty important. We had wrongly assumed that with a two handled rope it’d navigate just like water skiing – only 30 feet in the air. As we approached the 20 miles an hour mark I started to question my venture into defying the laws of nature. I had absolutely no control and was being dragged like a pink footed, orange headed, black butterfly on a leash. I was yelling “Whoa, whoa, whoa!” and they told me later they heard “Go, go go!” An instant before I was going to release the rope and scuttle my mission with history I felt an upward tug and the world became eerily silent. I was airborne. Call it design luck, or in hindsight more likely a ground thermal, but I was a pilot. You can’t describe to someone that whole body and mind sensation you experience when the laws of gravity are broken and you become one with Icarus. I can however describe what’s it’s like to crash and burn like Icarus.
There was no time to think when the Norse winds grabbed my wing and flung me from one foot off the ground violently sideways, cart-wheeling like a detached Tilt-a-Whirl into the first dozen rows of corn. The produce aisles shredded my clothes like dragon claws. The cacophony of metal, Visqueen, cracking corn stalks and my own screams melded together in a rock orchestra playing a lively version of I Wanna be Sedated. I remember hearing the moving peanut gallery with a tone that resembled Bob Uecker’s “Just a little outside” pitch call. Have you ever been clobbered with masses of 20 MPH ears of corn? They hurt but not nearly as painful as good old Mother Earth. On the spot I became a lifelong fan of the Cleveland Browns that lasted until they morphed into the Ravens. The helmet saved my egg and I’m forever grateful to Donny’s dad for having the foresight to invest in sports memorabilia.
There is no proverbial happy ending to the flight of the Conduit Condor unless the fact I walked away from a crash with only deep cuts and bruises counts. We tried ‘repairing” the helmet by screwing the face guard back on and scrubbing the outside. We were a little over zealous with the Brillo pad and managed to destroy most of the signature. I can further assure you that Donny’s dad didn’t share our enthusiasm on the successful deployment of safety devices. Mom and dad asked me what happened, or more specifically “what the hell happened to you?” I really wasn’t sure how to respond even though I’d been mentally rehearsing my ‘a deer jumped in front of my bike and I had a horrific crash’ story.
Instead I told them the truth. I was summarily dismissed with a casual waive of the hand and a “you sure have an active imagination” remark.
Post flight pilot/maintenance crew log book:
Pilot to maintenance crew: Number 3 engine missing.
Maintenance crew response: Engine found on right wing after brief search.
Pilot: Aircraft handles funny.
Crew: Aircraft warned to straighten up, fly right, and be serious.