The Complete Guide to Computer Aviation
by Steve Smith
FIRST IN FRIGHT
The Day They (Almost) Strafed Callaghan's Beach
As a kid during World War II, I spent my summers near the Grumann aircraft plant on Long Island. Every day at Callaghan's Beach on the North Shore, Wildcats and Hellcats would scream past at wavetop level, grim-faced test pilots briefly visible as they put the newly minted planes through their paces. We kids would wave furiously, and once in a while we would be rewarded with a waggle of the wings, and right then and there I knew I wanted to be an airman more than a train engineer or a fireman or a cowboy.
On Independence Day, 1944, my friend Ricky Smith and I had somehow secured a spindly little Fourth of July rocket and we were determined to do something naughty with it. We smuggled it to the beach in the family Ford (a prewar Model A), and after our mothers had left us for the day, we propped it up in the dunes behind the beach and aimed it out over the water.
After several dry runs, we let it loose in the general direction of a passing Grumann fighter plane—a Hellcat, I think—and as we had no way to judge its trajectory, it was only sheer luck that it passed directly in front of the plane's windscreen, startling the pilot.
We knew he was surprised, because he pulled back on the stick and shot straight up in the air, disappearing into one of those fluffy, white, Magritte clouds the sky seemed to be full of on summer days in the 1940s. The sound disappeared, too.
Amazed that our prank had been so successful, Ricky and I grinned wickedly at each other, but wondered where the devil that Hellcat could have gotten to.
Suddenly it reappeared, coming out of the sun in a screaming power dive, plunging straight down, aimed squarely at us. We could see as if through powerful binoculars the ominous black holes where we knew its .50-caliber machine guns were mounted. Shrieking with panic and delight, we ran in circles on the dune as the angry plane loomed closer and closer. We'd seen all the war movies; we knew what happened next: little gouts of sand would spring up around our feet…just before the slugs ripped us apart. Ricky fainted. I threw up.
At the last possible moment, the pilot hauled back the stick once more, and with its giant Pratt and Whitney engine straining, the Hellcat pulled out of its dive and resumed its normal test flight path over the calm waters of Long Island Sound. Ricky and I could still feel its hot breath on our cheeks.
On that day, the desire to become a pilot was fanned into a white-hot flame. Oh, to be the airman in his busy cockpit, instead of a silly little boy in the dunes.
Well, I finally made it…thanks to a little help from my silicon friends.