Flights of Fancy

Today's Air Show recalls the Air Races of long ago: memories filled with the fury, flash and might of sleek fighters' snarling engines.

There is an antique finish to the light in September. The weather cools and gives definition and dimension to the sky, backlighting the clouds and creating a panorama of azure that no canvas could hold.

The fall backdrop above the city has staged glory, technology, danger and destiny in a way few other places in the world have experienced. The pity is, this ephemeral place holds no monuments, and like the sea, its shifting mood leaves no traces except in man’s memory.

Septembers of long ago come to mind with all the fury, might and spectacle of the moment: Sights and sounds so riveted in memory that a wistful thought is dominated by the snarl of powerful engines and the flash of sleek fighters splendid in racing livery.

As a child in 1949, I witnessed the last of the Cleveland National Air Races, a gathering that began in 1929 and ended with a crash and the tragic death of a Berea woman and her child. In their time, the races were an international happening that drew aviators and spectators from around the world.

For a time, the races, the industry that supported them and the airport that hosted them made Cleveland the aviation capital of the world, a place where the eagles gathered every September in an event more compelling than any Super Bowl.

I remember laying on the hood of a neighbor’s 1937 Plymouth in a parking lot across from what is now Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and seeing for the first time those surplus World War II fighters race in that special September sky.

It was such a powerful experience that you felt it forever. With it came the desire to fly like that, streaking around pylons with the throttle pushed to the wall as 100,000 spectators, necks craned to the sky, watched with mouths agape.

We saw our first jets there, and emulated the shhissh and vroom of their passage, not realizing that we were watching the technology that would make this kind of air racing a thing of the past.
Every kid I knew who saw these races spent the rest of the fall building model airplanes, many of which were made by the famous Cleveland Model and Supply Co. Its balsa wood kits were replicas of those racing machines. The races instilled a lifetime of interest in aviation in countless young fans. I always wondered how many went on to become pilots because of it.

Even now, when Labor Day arrives, eyes still turn skyward as the Cleveland National Air Show beckons from Burke Lakefront Airport.

But on this particular day, I drive to Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, once the largest airport in the world, the jewel of international aviation, the first equipped with radio and lighted for night flying.

There is nothing recognizable from those glory years. The vacant lot across the road from the airport where I watched the last of those spectacles is still there. Nearby, the newly relocated 100th Bomb Group Restaurant, filled with World War II nostalgia, offers a view of the airliners making their majestic flights.

The music in the restaurant is vintage — Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, the Andrews Sisters — capturing the moment and the mood in a time warp.

There is no monument within sight, no roaring echo from the thousands of spectators as the big piston engines revved for takeoff, no smell of Avgas fuel, no streaking silhouettes in the sky — all of this is in my mind.

I look out at the lazy climb of a Boeing airliner and think of the late Frederick C. Crawford, who once headed TRW and was a great benefactor of the races. He was also instrumental in getting the federal government to build an engine laboratory here that today is NASA Glenn, visible from the restaurant.

In 1990 I interviewed Crawford for a documentary just prior to his 100th birthday. He told me a remarkable story about Charles Lindbergh the night before his famous 1927 flight from New York to Paris.

Crawford told me he was worried about the valves in the engine of the Spirit of St. Louis, Lindbergh’s plane.

“I thought the valves were inferior and would melt in the middle of the flight over the Atlantic, and the damn fool would crash into the sea,” Crawford told me. “So while he was sleeping, I changed the valves myself.”

The old man then told me how he convinced the government to build the engine lab here.
“I told those people that the Germans were building planes that could bomb the East Coast, but they didn’t have anything that could fly to Cleveland.”

After the engine lab became a NASA center, it played a major role in putting the first man on the moon. That man, Neil Armstrong, once worked at the lab here. Even though the first head of NASA, T. Keith Glennan, was the president of the Case Institute of Technology and the leadership of the Apollo program was originally based here, politics forced the majority of the space program to move to Houston.

“The town just didn’t know what it had,” the old man said.

For me, there is always a solemn moment when the September sky casts its glow and the air show is upon us, and the approaching roar of jets breaks over the town. That moment is filled with my memories of Lt. Col. D. L. Smith, who commanded the U.S. Air Force Thunderbird team from 1979 to 1981.

Smith led the Thunderbird team I flew with as a writer in an air show in Michigan one summer long ago. We flew from Madison, Wis., high in a cobalt sky to Detroit, exchanging radio calls with passing airliners. Then, with smoke on, we roared and rolled and looped into the show, the g-forces unimagined from the hood of that old Plymouth so long ago.

Smith was killed at Burke Lakefront Airport the day after Labor Day in 1981. On takeoff, the engines of his jet ingested birds. He ejected, but the plane was at an angle when he did so and Smith was thrown into the breakwall. Ironically, he had survived some of the worst air battles of the Vietnam war.

Triumph, daring, sorrow and speed make up the song of the September sky here. Listen — you can still hear it.

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