It’s Never Too Late to Take That First Flight

My grandmother loved her first and only airplane ride.

Jeff Stone (beside the plane) prepares to take his grandmother, Molly MacNeil Stone, for her first airplane ride in a Piper J-3 'Cub' in Nash, Texas in 1946. Hilliard Stone

It was 1946 and World War II had ended on all fronts.  My brother, Jeff, and I had been discharged from the Navy Reserves.  I had been trained in the Navy to be an aviation metal smith, working on airplanes.  Jeff had flown Wildcat fighter planes for the Navy in the Pacific throughout the war.  Our country was very fortunate that I got into the Navy too late to do any actual work on our planes.  We probably won the war because of that.

Jeff, on the other had, was a hero and a hot pilot.  He was waiting to receive his regular commission in the Navy, a career that would have him flying jet fighter planes like the McDonnell “Banshee” and the North American “SabreJet” as well as being a squadron commander, executive officer at the naval base on Kodiak Island, and performing many specialized assignments.

Since I was waiting that summer to go back to college and Jeff was temporarily idle, we both took jobs at a little airport near our hometown of Texarkana, Texas.  The field was really just a cow pasture with a couple of buildings and a windsock.  Jeff, who had a commercial pilot’s license, could give flying lessons and we both worked on airplanes.  Some war surplus Vultee training planes had been purchased for two-hundred dollars each and needed the repairs and modifications that Jeff and I were able to do.  There was also a Stearman two-seated biplane and it was to be converted into a crop duster.

After removing the front cockpit from the plane, Jeff and I made a hopper for the poison to go into that space.  It was made of galvanized iron, so it was pretty heavy, but the war had consumed all the available sheet aluminum.  We riveted it together using cut nails for rivets.

The hopper weighed at least a couple of hundred pounds and was designed to hold six hundred pounds of dust.  That weight, in addition to the weight of the mechanism that was to distribute the dust under the bottom wing, added up to a pretty substantial payload for a plane whose front cockpit was designed for a crew weight of two hundred pounds.  Jeff remarked that the felt sorry for the pilot who would have to pull that overloaded plane up suddenly to miss a fence or tree stump.

When the plane was ready, the airport manager said to Jeff, “How would you like to try your hand at a little dusting?”  Yep, Jeff was that lucky pilot who got to try out our fatso airplane!  He dusted one day.  The feed mechanism didn’t work right and dumped most of the poison dust into his face.  That was the end of his crop dusting career.  He said, “I would rather face Japanese Zeros!”

The little airfield also had several Piper J-3 planes, better known as “Piper Cubs.”  They were used mostly for flying lessons.  Since I had Navy discharge money burning a hole in my pocket, I wanted to take flying lessons.  Jeff agreed to teach me if I would pay for the plane rental.  The cubs rented for two dollars per hour in those days.

The Piper Cub is really like a canoe with wings.  It is the size and shape of a canoe, made of metal tubing and wooden wing ribs, and covered with bright yellow canvas.  The seats are tandem, one behind the other with dual controls so that it can be flown from either seat (“cockpits”).  The control sticks jut up between the legs of the two people in the plane and there are duplicate rudder pedals and control throttles in each cockpit.

Jeff flew airplanes the way he rode horses – as though they were part of him.  During my flying lessons, he would monitor my movements on the controls by feeling the stick and rudder pedals in his cockpit.  “Don’t push that right rudder pedal with your left wing down!  You’ll spin the plane!”  After I had had seven hours of dual instruction, Jeff said I was ready to solo and climbed out of the front cockpit.  That empty seat looked awfully big and very empty all the way around the brief solo flight.  Seven hours aren’t’ many hours of instruction, but I guess that is about what pilots in World War I got before they went up to duel the Red Baron.

One day, our father, Ben Stone, came to the airfield.  The day of the jetliners was some years away.  When they came, they revolutionized travel just as the airplane revolutionized warfare.  But airplanes were not of Dad’s generation.  He had probably never touched an airplane.  Jeff insisted that he go up for a ride.  I could feel Dad’s mixed emotions: apprehension of that machine, fear of flying in the sky where one could fall, but curiosity about how it would feel to fly.  Finally Jeff got him into the Cub.  I buckled him in and then swung the propeller for Jeff to start the engine.

For an hour, they flew all over the countryside that Dad knew so well.  Jeff said that Dad was as excited as a kid, pointing out familiar landmarks.  The land that he loved so well now had a whole new perspective.

The flight thrilled Dad so much that, when his mother came for a visit a couple of weeks later, nothing would do but that she must go for a ride with Jeff, too.  Dad’s mother, born Mary Ann McNeil but called “Molly” all her life, was over eighty at the time and probably had never been close to a plane, never seen one on the ground.  “Grandma Stone”, as she was to us, was angelic.  She was kind and sweet to everyone she encountered in this world.  But she was also a very spunky person.  One would have to be spunky to have lived and survived in her generation.

At the turn of the century, she and the family moved from Georgia to Arkansas.  She had six small children.  This was before the day when you could hook up a U-Haul trailer and head for another state on a fast interstate highway.  Cars were still a novelty and roads were sometimes non-existent.

There were absolutely no labor-saving devices.  Water was drawn from a well or carried in buckets from a creek.  Cooking was done on a wood-burning stove.  The rural homes were heated by fireplaces and wood-burning stoves, and illuminated by kerosene lamps.  The airplane had not even been invented.

Dad had no trouble convincing his mother to take a plane ride.  We removed the control stick from the rear cockpit so that she would be more comfortable and Jeff Stone, grandson of Molly McNeil Stone, flew off with Molly aboard that Piper Cub.  It was an event that stood exactly between the age of the horse and wagon and the age of jetliners.

Ordinarily the pilot of an airplane “banks” while the machine turns, that is, tipping down the wing in the direction of the turn.  The result is a nice, smooth turn just as you would have in a car on a well-banked highway.  In a care or an airplane, lack of banking will result in the vehicle skidding sideways.  It won’t skid, though if a flat turn is made with a wide radius to the turn.  Jeff made turns of about five-mile radii and banked no wings with this grandmother aboard for fear of frightening her.  Some people, on their first flights, feel that the plane is about to fall when they see that wingtip point to the ground.

When he brought that Cub back to the field, I thought of some of the rough landings I had experienced on that lumpy cow pasture and worried about how Grandma’s delicate spine might take such abuse.  Jeff, the flying pro that he was, made the smoothest landing I ever saw.  That lumpy field became smooth as a billiard table.  Molly may not have known when the wheels touched the ground.

Molly McNeil Stone loved her first and only airplane ride.  Her adventure was so novel at the time that photographers took her picture as she sat in that Piper Cub and one picture was published in the local newspaper.  Her only comment about the picture was “Why didn’t you tell me my mouth was open?”

Excerpted from Four Brothers, an unpublished family memoir by Hilliard Stone.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.