Meeting a Legend

Dick Merrill: aviation pioneer.

When I first started flying, I bought half interest in a Cherokee 180, N7728N. My partner was a veterinarian who had owned his half for several years already. He only flew on Thursdays, and then only if the weather was beautiful. What a great deal for me — I had the plane available to me six days a week, and we split all the fixed costs (e.g. tie-down fee, insurance, routine maintenance and annual inspection). I put a few hundred hours on that plane in the two years I owned it. Doc flew it less than twenty hours during that time.

When you own a plane or a boat, you feel kind of obligated to use it when you have free time, otherwise you're just paying for it to sit. I was up in that plane almost every weekend, often just making the hop to the little airport in Front Royal, Virginia, where Jim Coiner, the local mechanic, let me use his washstand to keep my plane shiny.

One of my favorite local airports in those days was Shannon Airport in Fredericksburg, Virginia, named for Sidney Shannon, who was one of the original financial investors in Eastern Airlines. The reason I loved flying into this airport was that it had a great museum. Now I'm going from memory here, but I recall they had about 27 vintage aircraft, going as far back as World War I. What was really remarkable was that all but one of them were actually taken out of the museum and flown from time to time, and it was great to see. Since the days I used to visit the museum, the entire collection has moved and they've added an A-7 Corsair and an SR-71. (Check out their web site.)

The planes at Shannon were great, but the best thing about this museum was the curator, Dick Merrill. He flew the mail in the 1920s in open cockpit Pitcairn Mailwings, and was the #2 pilot with Eastern Airlines until his retirement in 1961.

I got a personal tour of the museum with him one day, and I had no idea at the time that I was in the presence of an aviation pioneer. He showed me through the displays of memorabilia in the museum, much of it from his personal exploits. He told me the story of flying a Vultee V1A across the Atlantic in 1936. The plane had the empty spaces in the fuselage and wings filled with over 40,000 ping pong balls to serve as buoyancy aids in case of a water landing.

It was like being in the presence of Lindbergh, and I wish I could go back and tell the 22-year-old me to make the most of this one-on-one time with a living legend. That same day, I also met Jack King, an author who was in the process of writing a biography of Merrill. As Mr. Merrill told me that day, "We need to get this book written. I see the end of the runway coming up." He passed away a few years later, in 1982. The book, "The Wings of Man: The Legend of Dick Merrill," came out in 1981, and sits on my bookshelf today. Come to think of it, it's about time I give it another read.