Boyoboyoboy – I thought I’d seen Dad mad when Hank Philcox and I floated the Orr Ditch under Ralston Street in our inner tubes, but that’s nothin’ like he was when he found out about my little ride to the airport west of town – wowee! He grounded me the day after Christmas and I haven’t been able to leave my room since ‘cept for meals. (At left, a Beechcraft D-18. All the planes and trucks in this letter I’m writing were tied down at the airport we rode our bikes to)
It all started when I heard that there was an airport west of town, off Seventh Street that was paved out to Peavine Row, which I guess would later be called Keystone Street. Then it was just a dirt road from there all the way to a little town called Verdi. I can see right now that I’m going to have to use that crystal ball and ouija board I wrote about in September that looks into the future to write about this screw-up that got my little six-year-old ass in a sling (my Uncle John said that once and Mom got real mad.)
Anyway, we rode our bikes out Seventh Street to Peavine Row where there would be a Raley’s Market one day, then kept riding and riding and riding, on the dirt road. And riding. We finally came over a little hill, the other side of the old graveyard by the Highland Ditch, and could see a windsock sticking up above an old hangar.
There was a whole little airport there, probably really just an airstrip. A tired hangar with some oil company’s name on it (Hancock Oil?) Dad said later when he was talking to me again that before WWII oil companies would build a hangar at an airport to get them to sell their aviation gasoline. And this is not the old hangar that’s on the street above the old highway 40; that one came from Reno airport when they widened Terminal Way. There was an air strip, paved but pretty rough-looking with a lot of cracks in it and a faded white line down the middle. Landing toward the west it would probably be designated as runway two-six or –seven. All the buildings and stuff were at the east end which heading would be runway eight, or nine.
A building sat at the east end of the runway, looked like a GI building and I learned later that it was brought in from Reno Army Airbase north of Reno. And from my crystal ball, I can tell that it’s still there (at right), now turned into a house along with a whole bunch of other houses, doesn’t look like the Sproul houses around it. It’s at the northwest corner of two streets, Apollo and Attridge. It’s just west of a school that would be called Clayton Middle School, but this is before 1950 so I don’t know about that yet.
This was really cool! There were a whole bunch of airplanes on the tarmac next to the runway, many with engines or parts missing. As we rode our bikes up and put the kickstands down to get off, a plane was landing toward the east. It stopped by where we were and a guy got out. He was wearing a set of green coveralls, which I learned later was a flight suit. He waved at us.
We went over and he started talking to us. He was a pilot from back east somewhere that had been sent to Reno Airbase to practice flying. (At the left is the picture of a BT-1 “Boston,” similar to the T-6s and SNJ trainers.) He said that a lot of guys would take a plane like this and practice landings at this airport, at one up by Pyramid Lake called Sky Ranch, and one further away up at Beckworth towards Portola. It was called Nirvino Field or something like that. He said there was a field in Sparks called GreenBrae, and another south of the SP railyard called Vista, but the Army pilots couldn’t practice on those because they were pretty busy. (The Nugget’s Dick Graves in later years kept his Navion at Vista Airport.)
Our new pilot-friend’s airplane was also a “Navion.” It was built by North American as an Army trainer. It had one engine and a “clamshell” canopy over the four seats (pictured right). He pointed at another older plane across the field that was built by Ryan as a trainer, a PT-19. Pretty-well shot; it didn’t look like it could fly.(pictured left).
He asked us if we wanted to sit in the plane, and showed us how to climb up onto the wing and into the cockpit. I sat in the front, right seat and my friend sat behind the pilot’s seat on the left side. Our pilot friend climbed into the front seat next to me.
“Wanna see how it starts?” he asked, and turned some switches. The prop at the front of the plane started turning, and after a couple turns the plane shook, smoke blew over the windshield and the engine was running. He closed the bubble over us and it got a little quieter. “Wanna take a ride?” We thought about it for about a tenth of a second and answered, “Yeah!” He showed us how to buckle up, then firewalled the throttle on the dashboard in front of me, and we taxied onto the runway. There was no wind raising the windsock, so we headed west on the runway and pretty quick we were airborne and he tucked the gear in.
“Where do you live?” he asked. I told him the street, Ralston. “How can I find it?” I told him at the top of my lungs that it was almost at the west edge of Reno, across from a square-block park. He cranked the plane around and we headed for Reno. “There’s the park!” I told him, that I lived one house down from the street at the north side of the park (University Terrace). He went down to treetop level, over the tennis courts at Whitaker Park so low I could see cars and people looking up half-terrified. We went over 740 Ralston Street and I could see my dad’s Chevy in the driveway, must have been lunchtime. We turned left over the University and headed back toward the airport. The pilot pointed at the gas gauge, said he was low.
Just what I needed to hear. I can read it now: “Six years old, found in the wreckage of the plane not far from where Bill Blanchfield crashed his U. S. Air Mail deHavilland biplane in 1924 into 901 Ralston Street. Both of them cut down in the prime of life.” I could see the airstrip coming up in front of us. He lowered the landing gear, flew beyond the field, 180’ed and landed to the east. He braked to a stop and raised the canopy. I was still grinning.
We climbed out of the plane, down the steps and onto the ground. He waved a “thumbs-up,” gunned the engine and turned a 180 to head down the runway. In a few hundred feet, he lifted it off the ground, turned back and made a low pass over us, wagging his wings.
We waved back. We had taken our first plane ride! Problem was, we couldn’t ever tell anyone, especially Dad.
Fathers are scary people. We pedaled home; I was relieved to see the Chevy gone from our driveway. But, when Dad (“Senior,” as many called him, as I was “Junior”) came home that night he asked me if I did anything interesting today. “Oh, we rode out to that airport west of town; did you know there was a airport west of town?” I asked. He knew.
Senior went to his grave in 1971. I will never know how he knew about that purloined plane ride, nor what he knew; all I know is that my ass has been grass for the past two weeks.
(Yet, I’d do it all over again!!!)
With thanks to Matt Bromley, we’re able to add an old (1950) Reno map showing the location of “Skyline Airfield,” not “Hillside” as I wrote – more will follow about this as time permits. Thanks, Matt…