Mavericks of the Sky

As the years have trickled by, I’ve found that early mornings should not be wasted. Some of the absolute best flying (fishing too) is to be found at the break of dawn. The air is smooth and orange and yellow hues paint the sky as the sun splits the horizon. Our flight was to down to the Illinois River. Flying to explore, not to get anywhere, although we’d try a new airport.

 After leaving controlled airspace we headed southwest, following the very SP32-20090908-212633same railroad tracks that Charles Lindberg used for navigation during his air mail route to St. Louis. Contract Route No 2 to be exact. Lindbergh flew a de Havilland DH-4 over the route, with stops at Springfield and Peoria. During this period he twice had to bail out from the mail aircraft. No doubt Lindberg would have loved a moving map GPS such as we had on board.  It was hazardous duty during the early air mail operations which have been captured in the book “Mavericks of the Sky-The First Daring Pilots of the U.S. Air Mail” by Rosenberg.    These were pilots who possessed more courage than common sense, launching off into the clouds with no clue as to when, if ever, they would break into the open. They flew in rain and snow, at night, and in the fog without navigation aid or airway to guide them. There were no beacons, runway lights, weather stations, radios, or even aeronautical charts. No sane pilot today would even consider flying in the conditions the early airmail pilots encountered daily. Typically, they understated some of their adversity. After one crash landing, a pilot named Dean Smith,  wired headquarters: “Flying low. Engine quit. Only place to land on cow. Killed cow. Wrecked plane. Scared me.

Travelling further south we intersected the Illinois River and  Starved Rock, site of the first European settlement in Illinois, established 1675. The Illinois Riverwater was smooth as glass (as in the photo).  Barge traffic, not dugout canoes, ply these waters now and it remains the principal water route connecting the great lakes with the Mississippi.  A barge cruised under one of the larger bridges. I’m reminded how swiftly I make the journey without the tribulations of pioneer life. Barge under bridgeSeeing it with a God’s eye view,  I wonder if  Father Jacques Marquette would have dreamed of men in flying machines passing overhead. The river snaked west and then south until the airport came into view, Runway 31 was just beyond higher terrain. Airnav said so, and cautioned that hills were 90 feet left of the centerline and above the glide slope. Easy to do flying in blue skies but far more exciting if you wander far off the prescribed approach in  IMC.  A nice airport with two runways in the middle of nowhere. A short stop and it was time for the return. Some Illinois pilots claim that flying in the Midwest all looks the same, flat with lots of farmland. They’re not looking in the right places.

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