Saturday, May 21, 2011

WWII plane ID

One of the fun things about going to the Collings Foundation tour, aside from flying on vintage military aircraft, is talking with the enthusiastic volunteers, who are all well-versed in WWII aviation history, both Axis and Allied.

I thought there was a good chance they could identify aircraft in some of my grandfather's pictures, and brought some of the tiny photos with me last year. This year, I had found one more photo and brought it with me.

My grandfather is the shorter man on the right, standing in front of what's left of an airplane. This one was bombed on the ground obviously; it didn't fly home like this. Judging by how the wheels are dug in, it had been here for a while.

Though there's not much plane left to identify, these aficionados were able to say this plane was most likely German because of the double wheels and the square-shaped fuselage.

A few other photos with intact airplanes had just enough detail to I.D. them as most likely German. In some, the swastika was the big giveaway.

(My grandfather is on the far right.)

These pictures are really darned small, about 2" x 2.5".

So this leaves the next mystery: where and when was my grandfather when he was posing with captured and destroyed German aircraft?

5/21/2011 B-24 flight

I flew on another WWII bomber plane today! The Collings Foundation is here for a week on their annual Wings of Freedom tour. The past two years, I've flown on their restored B-17. This year, it was time to try the B-24 Liberator.

This plane is pretty funky-looking. It's larger than the B-17, has a broader wingspan, and a big fat tall belly. This particular B-24 Liberator, named Witchcraft, is painted a dark color, making it look like something of an ominous apparition in the air.

Plus the nifty tail fins.

I "volunteered" to be up front on the flight deck for takeoff, which means sitting right behind the pilots. My seat was a tiny swivel chair, as opposed to a piece of plywood on the ground. But that meant I got one of the headsets and could hear the pilots talking to each other and to the control tower during takeoff.

I was amused that the few questions or confusions the pilots had ("is that on button number one or two?") had to do with this modern navigation system installed on the plane.

I was less amused by their discussion of what to do in case they had to abort after takeoff, but I felt better hearing that this runway is so long that it wouldn't be a problem. Yikes!

We wouldn't be needing this today.

Takeoff was by far the smoothest takeoff I've ever experienced on a plane. In fact, I didn't even know we were airborne, so I stopped the video early thinking I'd re-start when we were closer to taking off. Then I looked out the window and realized we were flying!

Like with the B-17, this is a military aircraft and a vintage one at that. Everything is out to see, there are sharp edges and things to bang your head on all over the place, many places open to the outside, and lots of doors and hatches that are designed for quick-release.

And getting from point A to point B involves some hands-and-knees action. I wasted no time going to the nose of the plane, which involves climbing down and crawling through the belly of the plane.

The nose was incredible. It's really small, but your head is surrounded by plexiglass and you can see on all sides, below and above tou. The noise, the wind rushing around, and the panoramic view make it almost feel like you're not in a plane at all -- just out there.

There's also a plexiglass view at the bottom part of the nose.

This is what I mean by "nose" -- the top area that's surrounded by plexiglass, where a gunner would sit; but at the bottom of the nose there's more plexiglass to see down (in an upside-down teardrop shape) -- that's the view in the previous photo.

There's also a curious little portal looking straight down.

It's remarkable looking out the window and seeing these old props keeping us in the air.

Getting to the back of the plane meant walking a catwalk to cross the bomb bay. This catwalk is wider and quite roomy compared to the B-17, but it's much longer, about 20 feet. The bomb bay doors below are meant for wind protection and quick-release -- not to hold someone who stumbles. I tried to imagine walking across the catwalk with the bomb bay doors open -- that'd be a trip.

This is what this same catwalk looks like with the bomb bay doors open (on the ground) -- but they used to fly it this way too. What else are you going to do when it's time to blow away German munitions factories?

The side windows were completely open, making it easy to take shots at imaginary Japanese Zeros. I was surprised how hard it was to move the gun around in the wind.

This small side window had plexiglass, so was easier to look out without being blown around. You could see and track the shadow of the plane from there.

(Shadow at bottom center.)

The tail was also remarkable. These spots are intended for a person of apparently about my size to slide their legs down into a pretty small space and sit on a small piece of wood (perhaps added by the Collings Foundation restorers, as were the "seatbelts") and shoot at the enemy. Another panoramic view, with the interesting sensation of following the plane.

When it came time to land, everyone took the nearest spot, but there was one person left over (musical chairs!). Being among the more agile (and younger and smaller) of passengers, I volunteered to scoot quickly to the front of the plane, and zoomed around the ball turret and across the bomb bay catwalk and up to the flight deck -- only to find that it already had 3 people.

The flight engineer motioned for me to sit below the flight deck, in the belly part of the plane that you have to crawl through to get to the nose.

Uh, really? Is this allowed? With the landing gear down, the space around the nose wheel was completely open, and the wind was REALLY strong. I could barely breathe in the wind. The flight engineer offered to move me up to the flight deck where it was more protected, even if there were 3 guys there already. No way, I wasn't missing this, breathing or not!

This was a really amazing, terrifying and thrilling experience all at the same time. It was SO loud and windy. Worse, or better, I could see all around the wheel, so I could see the ground getting closer and closer. I couldn't take my eyes off the runway as we approached it, and had the closest sensation possible to what it must be like just before a crash. The wind got much stronger just before touching down, and seeing the runway rush up at us from my spot about 3 feet off the ground was pretty shocking. Despite the intensity of hearing, feeling and seeing the landing so up close, the landing was really really smooth.

The landing from my stowaway vantage point behind the nose wheel was really exciting and amazing and I'm so happy I got to experience that!

Where I sat for the landing (though facing away). The red flag on my left points down to the nose wheel, and it's all open around it.

The landing. The video doesn't show much, but the white spots are where everything is open. I'm still not sure what was freakier: the wind or being able to see the ground rushing up (which unfortunately the video doesn't show). Touchdown is right at the end of this, but you really can't tell.

Taxiing after landing, a not-great panorama, but here's the view of where I was.

I took the kids to walk the planes the next day. Gabriel demonstrates about where I sat for the landing, just behind him.

In front of the Liberator. I actually think this one was more fun to fly in than the B-17, though I wouldn't trade my B-17 experiences for anything. I have great respect for the B-17's hardy reputation, and I'm always about function over form.

From everything I've read about the B-24, including the best-seller "Unbroken" which I'm halfway through, it wasn't the airmens' favorite because it wasn't as robust as the B-17. The B-24 flew faster and smoother and carried a heavier payload, but the B-17s were known for getting guys home on just one engine or practically blown apart and for doing better in water landings. The B-24 had a very different feel to it than the rougher, smaller B-17, but I take the reports to heart that if you really were under fire from anti-aircraft flak or enemy fighters, or were about to make a crash water landing, you really were better off in the B-17.

Regardless of which WWII-era vintage aircraft you're riding in, it's unimaginable that guys would be up in these planes for hours at a time, with oxygen masks, being shot at. My comfy half-hour on the plane gives barely a teensy inkling of what that must have been like, and makes what I read all just a little bit imaginable.

A joy ride in history!


Thursday, May 19, 2011

5/19/2011 Sleepy Boy

Once again, Dave and I were both called at work because one of our children was sent to the principal's office. This time, it was because Gabriel fell asleep in class after a field trip. He slept soundly in the office until Dave was able to pick him up, just after school was dismissed, well over an hour after we were called.

Can I just say: ARRRRGGGHGHGHHHH!!!!

Can we possibly make it through a single week without getting called by the school? What will it take to get off their speed-dial?! This is out of control!!!!

Gabriel wasn't sick, he was acting fine this morning, and acted fine when Dave picked him up. For the record, they had no screen time last night, and while lights were off later than usual (as is usual on soccer nights), lights were still off by 8:45. I had to drag Gabriel out of bed this morning at 7:15am, which if my math is correct, adds up to over 10 hours of sleep. The boys went to sleep unusually calmly last night and didn't wake each other up this morning.

Really, this isn't our fault. It can't be. Otherwise, we're screwed, and so is the school. We do all the right things. We follow the modern magazine advice. We're positive yet firm. We balance time together with fostering independence. But whoever's writing the magazine articles isn't having their kids sent to the office pretty much every week for one reason or another. I'm increasingly convinced it's just biology, it's just the kids themselves.

Tonight when Julian was at Kung Fu, I was trying to wrap up a comment on my work laptop before making dinner, and Dave was trying to catch up work after missing the afternoon to pick up Gabriel and the kids, and we were distracted by the most delightful sound. Katrina in the dining room was singing and chatting happily to herself about the "magic castle" she was coloring (some Barbie coloring book and colored pens with glitter), and alternating between random singing and talking in a sing-song voice about the little magical world she'd created.

I once thought this little-girl stuff would be barfsville for me, but it was so powerfully, totally adorable, cute and unequivocably compelling. Who can work when our little girl is being SO sweet as just...a little girl? Dave also can't resist her. What a stunning contrast to her rude, defiant, smart-mouthed obnoxious brothers -- who I adore totally but who really need a mouth-washing-out with soap.

After they wake up from class that is.


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

5/18/2011 Pre-K Girl

Off to Coffee tonight!

But first -- Katrina's "official" pre-K graduation photo. The photographers take them unless you request they don't, then they do everything they can to get you to buy them on a designated show-and-pay day: robo-calls, sending home flyers, putting a reminder sticker on the child's clothes the day before.

It works of course. What mom could resist this beautiful little face? I parted with $61 in a flash.


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

5/17/2011 Home again

Surreal. Walking into my house, back into my life, this afternoon, it was like it all never happened, or happened in a dream. In dreams, it all seems so real at the time, then the life you were just living in vanishes in the moment you woke up. That's sort of how it felt walking back into my house today.

Did I really fly back East, into a green rainy world, and go to the house of my childhood, and then be surrounded by family and friends to say goodbye to my father? Did we really visit his gravesite, and really feel ashes and rocks slip between our fingers as we scattered his remains -- him -- in the fields he loved so much? As I stepped into my own bedroom and started thinking about all the laundry I had to do, it seemed so far away, even though this very morning I was there.

The service we had for my Dad was really wonderful. My sister, brother and myself each spoke, then we opened it up for other friends and family to speak as well. My 6yo niece read an Irish blessing, and my 9yo nephew sang a song accompanied by his father on the guitar. This for me was really the highlight, if there can be such a thing at a memorial service. My Dad himself would have been moved to tears seeing his grandson sing like that, so confident, so heartfelt.

"All the diamonds in this world," by Bruce Cocburn.

After the memorial at the funeral home, we had a reception the house in Stephentown that was my father's beloved home for over 40 years. Somehow as kids we named it La Maison Verte -- the green house -- even though whatever's not white has pretty much always been red. In all its rusticness, it was a perfect place to hold his reception.

I spent most of the reception getting to know Lea, a cousin I knew of but had never met. My father had two older half-sisters, and Lea is one of those sister's daughters. We have one grandmother in common, and our grandmother's second husband was my grandfather and Lea's step-grandfather, so she remembers him well . I was thrilled to find a living memory of my grandfather (she was born in 1943 and is more my mother's generation than mine). Lea has done some research on our family history on, and she was fascinated to hear what little bits of family history I've figured from old photos, so we will most certainly be following up together.

(left to right: my brother Ronan, me, our cousin Veralea, my sister Stephanie)

My sister and brother and I shared an incredible odyssey together the past 5 years or so, supporting each other in different roles of managing our father's life. It is a real testament to my father -- and mother -- how we embraced our responsibility together and cooperatively in the formidable job that is caring for someone with dementia. It was so important and comforting to me to be with these two wonderful people during this time.

The one thing that's missing in all this grieving is the shock factor -- that doesn't happen after years of Alzheimer's. To my surprise, the sense of loss and sadness is no less. Though it might sound corny, it really is true that now I really can enjoy my father's memory now that I'm not burdened with guilt at "remembering" someone who's still alive. He's more real and present to me now than he has been in years.

And, as my laundry and my father's grandchildren remind me, life goes on.