Sid Learns to Fly

When the Wright Brothers first flew, Blaine and Marguerite Wise were already adults.  To them, flying was not normal or safe.  Unfortunately for them, both of their sons desperately wanted to be pilots.

Joe, the older son, wanted to join the Air Corps during World War II.  As Joe told me in the late ’90s, “Mother made me swear on a stack of Bibles, literally swear on a Bible, that I would not volunteer for the Air Corps. All in the world I wanted to do was to fly.  I’d been messin’ around with airplanes since I was 16 years old, and when she found out about it, she went ballistic.  She said, ‘You’re not going to get shot down and burned up in an airplane.’”

Marguerite’s ploy backfired when Joe volunteered for submarine duty, which was even more dangerous than being a pilot.

Sid was still in high school during the war.  His band instructor, Mister Sickafoose, happened to be a flight instructor, but of course Sid wasn’t allowed to take flying lessons.  “They were two generations removed,” said Sid, whose parents were old enough to be his grandparents.  “They didn’t understand my generation.”

When Sid entered Denison University, he was one of very few students who failed to get into a fraternity.  “If you were an independent,” says Sid, “you were really an oddball.”  Joe had attended the same university before he went into the Navy, and Sid wanted to be in Joe’s old fraternity.  According to Sid, one of the Phi Gamma Deltas had a grudge against Joe, and he blackballed Sid because of it.

Due to his lack of a social life, Sid had plenty of time to work on the school newspaper.  He became the editor while he was still a 17-year-old freshman.  In May of 1947, Orville Wright visited Denison University, and Sid got to interview him for the paper.  If Sid’s big brother hadn’t pissed off a fraternity brother a few years earlier, Sid wouldn’t have met Orville Wright.

After college, Sid taught high school and lived with his parents.  He told his parents he had a new assignment at work, and he started leaving the house absurdly early.  The truth was that he was sneaking off to take flight lessons with Mister Sickafoose, also known as Sicky.

Sid’s new hangout was a tiny airfield in Magnolia, Ohio.  He learned to fly in Cessna 120s and 140s, all taildraggers.

The former airport in Magnolia, which evidently got paved at some point, is now a dragstrip. This map is interactive.

“It was an 80 acre clover field that we flew out of,” says Sid.  “And at the end was a huge big willow tree or something down there that really was a threat [another website mentions a huge elm at the airport], and you had to take off that way ninety percent of the time.”

After his dual instruction with Sicky, it was time to solo.  In a two-seat airplane, removing one person makes a big difference in how the plane handles.  When Sid soloed, the first challenge was learning to fly a lighter plane.  The second challenge, waiting at the end of the runway, was the big tree.  “I can’t tell you how many times I brought in a little piece of that tree in the tailwheel.”

At the other end of the field, a new neighbor decided to create some more obstacles.  “Some idiot came in and bought this flat piece of land at the end of the 80 acres this way, and that was where you came in to land 90% of the time, ’cause you took off that way.  He decides that he doesn’t like those damned airplanes coming in all the time, and he goes out and he plants poplar trees, ’cause they grow like topsy and get tall and thin, and he picked out poplars, and he put one about every five feet across the end of the runway, obviously hoping they’ll grow like crazy and stop those damned airplanes.  On one occasion at least, he went out on a six foot stepladder and sat there, I think he had his shotgun, and sat out there on top of it.  And of course, the poor bastard, it’s a wonder he didn’t lose his head, ’cause you know, we had to come in.”

Sid had an idea.  He got some well points, which are pointed pipes you can drive into the ground to create wells.  From the airport side of the property line, he drove the well points at a forty-five degree angle toward the trees’ roots.  Then he used a big funnel to pour saltwater down the well points.  “Every weekend, we’d go out and pour more saltwater down ‘em.”