Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Pilot Traditions and an Old Shirt

Robin and her father, age 78, getting ready to go flying from NUQ on a sunny California day.

I brought down a box from the attic on Friday. It didn't have much in it, but it was all interesting stuff. My father's yearbooks from Auburn University; some letters my mother wrote to a friend while she was planning her wedding; Dad's sheepskin from Auburn; Mom's high school diploma.

And then there was this curiosity. It was a white shirt, with blue polka dots. It had a lot of the back cut out of it and had some writing on the still, very starched, collar.

The Shirt.

Nothing was terribly dusty in the box and it all had been carefully sorted. Some time in the last ten years, Mom and Dad had gone through the box and thrown out the things they didn't want. Everything that remained was tied up in neat little bundles.

Everything except the shirt. It was just sitting there in the box: not folded, not unfolded. Just there.

I looked more closely at the notation on the collar. It wasn't on the underside of the collar with the laundry marks. It was on the outside of the collar. I recognized my father's neat, engineer-style printing:

"1st Solo 3-2-41 Inst. Al Lumpkin time 10 min"

I never knew my Dad was superstitious--though many pilots are.

It had to be the shirt my father wore when he made his first solo flight in a J-3 Piper Cub at the Auburn Airport, March 2, 1941.

His Pilot Log Book was also in the box and it confirmed the date.

He had been a college student in 1940 and learned of a government-funded program for flight lessons: if you met the qualifications and passed the physical--he told us about this once at the dinner table--the federal government would subsidize your lessons.

He had wanted to learn to fly all of his life, but had not had the money to do it. Now, he had a chance. President Franklin Roosevelt knew America would soon need pilots; knew there was a war on the horizon; knew in the meantime, it would look like just another New Deal program if the government paid one group of young people to train another group of young people to fly.

Dad told us he was so nervous the day he took his flight physical, he was afraid his blood pressure would disqualify him. But, with the help of a kindly nurse who allowed him to take a few breaks between BP tests, he passed.

And so, while keeping up with his studies in engineering at Auburn, qualifying for two engineering honor societies--Tau Beta Pi and Pi Tau Sigma--and working part-time at a soda shop, he also zoomed over to the flying field at Auburn for lessons.

He always had lots of energy.

William Ashley Chapman at his first job, with Cessna Aircraft, in Wichita, Kansas. He got his pilot's license while studying engineering at Auburn University.

On the second day in March 1941, when he was twenty years old, William Ashley Chapman made his first solo flight. Al Lumpkin, his instructor, whose name we know only from the scrawling on the shirt, had to sit on the sidelines so Dad could earn his pilot's license.

He landed safely and marked his shirt in celebration. I asked a pilot friend about this and he said he had seen shirts, marked like my father's, pinned to the walls at rural airports.

Dad's appears to have been cut to pieces in the back. I suspect the tradition is that others, taking their first solos, would cut a piece out of the back of one of these lucky shirts, just for a little insurance. It is just a guess. Otherwise: my father was way too thrifty to let anybody cut up a perfectly good shirt!

When he left Auburn, in June 1941, he must have taken the shirt with him. He kept it the rest of his life.

And he was lucky. He spent five years in the Atlantic and Pacific in World War II and survived without a scratch. He married the girl of his dreams and loved her for sixty five years. He had a successful engineering career and another in the Army Reserves. He earned a Masters Degree in his spare time and invested his money wisely. When he retired he found he was earning more than when he was working.

One day, he looked around and realized it was now okay for him to have some fun. At the age of sixty-eight, he returned to flying and requalified for his license.

I always thought he made his own luck. He worked hard, never valued things much, and kept his life free of clutter.

But he saved that shirt. And since he lived to be ninety, he saved it a long, long time.

If you called it a lucky shirt: you couldn't be far wrong.

I might just cut off a piece of it, myself.

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peretz said...

That's a real nice looking plane, and it's a good picture of the both of you.

Robin Chapman said...

My father, always wise with a dollar, found a friend from Alabama who lived nearby and who had two planes of his own, which he parked (is that the right word?) at the Palo Alto Airport, for a fee. My father suggested they could store them at Moffett Field for a much smaller fee, thanks to my father's retired military status. In return, the two men shared use of and maintenance costs of the planes. They almost always flew together. The picture of us was taken one day when I wanted to go to Carmel to meet some friends and Dad and his friend flew me there.