Hampton Roads, 1928

This excerpt comes from River of January, the first volume of the two-volume memoir available on Kindle, and at http://www.river-of-january.com

Two weeks later, a nervous and sleep-deprived Mont Chumbley reported for flight elimination exercises. He joined 125 other candidates; smartly lined up on a long dock, facing the gray, choppy seas of Hampton Roads. From this windy spot would-be pilots underwent demanding instruction in ten-hour heats on various flight maneuvers. Day one: morning-takeoff, afternoon-landings. Day Two: mornings- turns, including the figure-eight, afternoon-climbing and descending turns—all in Curtiss NC4 seaplanes. Their instructors rated them at each step, either passing or failing, with no second chances. The pool of candidates became smaller with each roll call.

Feeling the pressure, the young sailor took special pains to follow protocol. Climbing around on wet pontoons fixed to the underside, Chum examined the biplane as it bobbed on the rolling water. He talked himself through each required procedure, so he wouldn’t overlook any step.

“Oil leaks? Negative,” Chum recited as he performed his pre-flight inspection. “Rudder locks off? Affirmative.”

He continued crawling around the aircraft until he was sure his check was thorough. After the meticulous exterior inspection, he settled into the cockpit.

“Controls? Check. Stick?” He jockeyed the stick left to right then up to down, “Check.” “Ailerons? He wagged the panels, “Check. Gauges?” He examined the calibrations closely. “Check.”

Concluding the pre-flight list, the student-pilot ignited the motor as another crewman propped the biplane’s propulsion blades, quickly, hopping back to the dock.

Chum, still repeating all he was taught, lifted the plane from the rollicking waves and then leveled the wings using the needle ball as he reached altitude. Momentarily surprised with the ease of his lift, Chum relaxed, in control of the little trainer.

“This isn’t that complicated!” the astonished young man marveled. The thrum of the engine seemed calming, and he could practically feel the buoyant pontoons below the fuselage.

“Flying makes sense,” he reflected. “Pull the stick this way, up, reverse the stick that way, down.”

A sense of wonder filled the young man. As if born to fly he intuitively grasped the mechanics. “Flight requires gravity, logic, instinct, and sound equipment.”

The Curtiss biplane read Chum’s mind, rising on a line, descending on an angle, turning on an invisible anchor point. The little aircraft did what he desired.

Of the 126 flight hopefuls, only nineteen succeeded— including Mont Chumbley. The washouts returned to Norfolk to ship out to sea, to labor on the hellacious coal burning tugboats or other maritime duties. Chum gratefully headed for warmer climates—flight training with his class, 37C, in Pensacola, Florida.

Thinking of Commander Seymour Chum had to smile, “Radio school would probably have been too difficult.”

Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Hard copies are available at http://www.river-of-january.com, and on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com