Barnstormer lifts up, up and away
By MAX YORK Sunday – November 18, 1979
HIGH IN A CLOUDLESS sky, they fly circles, riding an unseen force as if in a dream.
It is perhaps man’s oldest dream to fly like a bird, far above earthbound cares. From the ground the half dozen gliders look like eagles, proud and graceful soaring in a thermal.
On the ground, Garland Pack stands in tall wheat-like grass. With both hands, he gives the propeller a spin and it catches instantly. The airplane is ancient, a World War II vintage Piper J3. Its engine is naked, its working parts there for any comer to see, but it purrs as if it had just arrived from the factory.
The runway at Puckett Field near Eagleville is part gravel, part mowed grass. It exists only for those who wish to soar like eagles, the glider people. Pack is the man who makes it happen. When the next glider and Pack’s plane are connected by rope, Pack guns the engine. Both vehicles quickly are airborne, on their way up to 1500 feet before the glider cuts loose and flies free.
On a Sunday afternoon, the 67 year-old Pack and his other pilots will make this trip dozens of times. Flying is nothing new to Pack. He’s been doing it for close to half a century. Even as a boy in high school in Dickson, Pack had his eyes on the sky. He worked at building an airplane. His parents were understanding. He can see that better now than he could then. He also worked on an idea that turned a Plymouth engine into a maker of steam, an idea that would propel an automobile more efficiently. He tried for a patent on the automobile idea, but someone had thought of it ahead of him. Looking back, he says it wasn’t very practical anyway. The airplane was never finished. His airplane building would have to wait until later. A barnstorming pilot from Indiana came to Dickson.
“I was building the airplane in my father’s garage,” Pack says.” He was a mechanic in Dickson. He had taught me a lot about mechanics. So this guy from Indiana came and looked at my plane. He said he could use a grease monkey. So I went with him to Muncie, Indiana.” The job had some shortcomings. The work week was seven days long. However it included 30 minutes of flying time every week. So he learned to fly. He became a licensed airplane mechanic and pilot.
The airplane in the garage was experimental and could never be used anyway. However, he did come across a Waco 9. It wasn’t in the best of condition “I put new wings on it and fixed the engine,” he says. “Back then, I would work on my planes at home in Dickson. Then early in the morning, I would push the plane out into the road. There would be nobody coming, so I would take off. “There would be a pasture nearby that would serve as a landing field. “You would tie down the plane in the pasture. It wouldn’t be too hard on the plane. You would have to replace the fabric every couple of years.”
There wasn’t a lot of money to be made in a pasture in Dickson, The money was in barnstorming. So he went roaming. “You would fly to some country town and find a nice pasture,” he says. “Then you would talk to the farmer. He got 10 per cent of the take for owning the field. “You would do this on the weekends. During the week you would just pick up what you could.
“THERE YOU WERE in the pasture. The minute you landed you collected a big crowd. At first, nobody would want to go up in that thing. Usually some drunk would come along and give it a try. “After that, you had it made. You would fly all day long. It cost you 50 cents a ride. That was a lot more than 50 cents would be today. I would make 45 or 50 flights a day. “Even the preacher would come out and let his kids ride. You would go to these towns in Tennessee and Kentucky with maybe two or three dollars in your pocket. At the end of the day, you would have your pocket stuffed with dollar bills. That was big money back then.”
The engine that made the old biplane fly was one left over from World War 1. “It wasn’t too dependable,” Pack says. “It might quit on takeoff and you would land in the bushes.”
“So you always carried with you an extra magneto, carburetor and cylinder and maybe a few other part’s’ It was the, only way could be sure you would get home.
“A barnstorming pilot had to be a good mechanic. There was no way you could call in an airplane mechanic. You had to be a welder too and you had to have a small machine shop.”
Then he bought a Piper J5. It would hold three people. “It had a dependable engine,” Pack says. “About all you had to do to it was grind the valves. It even had brakes and a tail wheel. I must have barnstormed until about the beginning of World War II.”
With the beginning of the war, an airplane was needed for something far more serious than a joy ride. It was time for barnstorming to take its place in the past. “When the war began, they hired every pilot they could find,” Pack I says. “At first, we were civilians, I but they pretty quickly took us into the military service. ” They made us second lieutenants. I began ferrying planes all over the United States. Then I went to Reno, Nevada, as a flying instructor for a year. “Later I began flying planes all over the world. I saw a good portion of the world. I flew over the Amazon River on the way to Africa and hit a bird right over the river. It put a dent in my wing, but there was no real damage.
“I flew B-24s to England. I remember once taking a train to London. I had to wait 21 days for transportation back to the United States. I finally came home on the Queen Elizabeth.”
HE WAS TO FLY over the Nile and Mount Everest. He looked below and saw the Great Wall of China more than once. He ended up flying The Hump, the highly dangerous air route of the China-Burma-India theater of operations. The problem was in crossing the Himalayas. “It was dangerous,” Pack says. “On a clear day if you couldn’t see the wreckage of several other planes, you knew you were on the wrong route.” There was turbulent air over the mountains. I can remember flying on takeoff power and losing altitude at 3,000 feet per minute. Another time, the air currents at the mountains would take you above your limit.” On one such trip, the currents took the plane so high the Chinese troops he was carrying were half dead by the time the plane reached its destination. It was on that trip that enemy radio signals confused the crew. “They deliberately sent us signals to confuse us” Pat says. “Fortunately, I had a good radio operator. He led us back’
By the time Germany surrendered he had enough points to come home. He had flown over the hump 56 times. During the military years he had been lucky. During these years, which included 11 trips across the Atlantic, he never had an engine misfire. Every plane worked perfectly. “I had seen a lot of the world,” he says. “Before the war, I had been only 10 or 12 miles west of the Mississippi.”
Back home in Nashville, he got into midget airplane racing with planes he designed and built himself. He flew some races, but mostly he built the planes and got them running at their peak. New planes had to be tested. They had to be able to stand the G forces of the quick turns around the pylons of the 2.5 mile race courses. The planes weighed about 500 pounds and could reach speeds close to 200 miles per hour.
PACK ISN’T LIKELY to forget one test he flew out of Cornelia Fort Airport one day. “I ran into some wing flutter,” he says. -” I had no aileron control. I tried landing three times. Each time, one of the wings would dip towards the ground. “Fortunately, one of the other pilots on the team insisted wear a parachute. I got her up ‘to 1000 feet. I was in no hurry to use the parachute, but I finally ran out of gas. “I jumped. The chute was open before 1 passed the tail of the plane. Then 1 was wondering if was going to hit a power line or land in the Cumberland River.” Fortunately, he missed both. “I made a nice landing,” he says. “I wasn’t hurt a bit.” The ending to the adventure wasn’t terribly dramatic. He folded his chute, walked until he found a telephone, and called for someone to come pick him up.
His race planes went through five models, each one better than the last. They always managed to be among the best but never winners.
It was after a career as a pilot for companies in Nashville and Chattanooga that he became involved in gliders. “A friend of mine, Dr. Franklin Farrar at Vanderbilt, got a national science grant to study soaring birds,” Pack says. “He bought a damaged glider and wanted me to repair and license it. We had no tow plane and no airport.”
Next, there was a club glider that needed to be licensed. “I could tell we needed a tow plane,” Pack says. “So I bought a plane and put a 90-horsepower engine on it. I went to Odessa, Texas, and got a glider rating and approval to become an instructor. “Pretty soon there was more business every time you turned around.” It also became evident that a’ busy airport like Murfreesboro wasn’t the place for gliders. So eventually he ended up at Eagleville, where the skies are not so crowded. “This is more of a sport than anybody realizes,” Pack says. “Once people try it, they get hooked. There is no end to the amount of skill and knowledge to be acquired.”
THE SAIL PLANE people are the nicest in all aviation, Pack says. “They are in it just for the fun of it,” he says. “Everybody helps everybody.” We have 15 or 16 gliders going now. About half of them are privately owned. There is an aerodynamic symphony up there if you are doing everything right.” There have been no accidents among the people whose first flying experience came in gliders. It’s the power pilots who try to treat a glider like a powered craft who have the few accidents recorded in the sport.
“Have you read Lindbergh’s autobiography?” he asks. “You have to read it several times to get all of it.” He has read it time and time again. “In his later years, he turned to flying sail planes,” Pack says. “He and his wife both flew them’”