West Palm Beach, 1934

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Howard Hughes

“Night is a great time to fly—very peaceful. And things here are pretty quiet. Yeah, you got yourself a pilot.”
Refueling in Raleigh and again in Savannah, the young man managed to land the new model at the West Palm airstrip on time, taxiing to the numbered hangar about 7:30 AM the next morning.
“Who are you?” asked the tall, thin, dark-haired client. “Where’d that plane come from? You couldn’t be here all the way from New York?!”
Too groggy to argue Chum replied, “Howard Ailor sent me down with your plane. Flew here overnight.”
“Not possible” the client insisted. “That’s not the plane I ordered. This one has to be used.”
“Sir, I was asked to fly this Waco down from Roosevelt Field. It’s new, not used, and it’s yours.”
“I’m calling my head mechanic over—he’ll know if it’s new or not,” the tall man challenged. “What’s your name young man?”
“Chumbley, sir. Mont Chumbley.”
“You must be one hell of a pilot, Chumbley, if you’re not trying to put one over on me. I’ve never known any flyer that could have made that trip from New York. My name’s Hughes. Howard Hughes, but I guess you knew that. I just don’t believe you got here overnight. What time did you leave last night?”
“About ten, sir. Only stopped to refuel and eat. Can I get a lift to the train station? I need to get back to New York,” the sleepy pilot requested.
As though he wasn’t listening Hughes replied, “I don’t believe this. Ailor is pulling something here. It’s impossible that you flew here that fast.”
“Sir—Mr. Hughes, I don’t mean to be rude, but I have a business to run at Roosevelt Field. I need to get home. I’m not making any money here. Your issue is with Mr. Ailor. I delivered the plane, and now I need a lift to the train station.”
Hughes began walking toward his hangar as if Chum hadn’t spoken. He heard Hughes shout, “Get Rusty out here to look this Waco over, and get Ailor on the phone in New York.”
For the next two days Hughes and Ailor wrangled back and forth, via telephone, between Florida and New York. Chum impatiently hung around the hangar waiting for some kind of resolution.
“This engine’s used. I won’t buy the plane,” Hughes finally informed the young pilot. “But Chumbley, you sure know your way around a propeller. I’m going to keep you instead.”

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January

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