Opinion Columns & Blogs

The day Ed Cornwell’s Folly struggled for the sky

John, the old cowboy, stopped at the liquor store and picked up a case of beer. We drove eastward in the general direction of Nevada. After an hour or so, the target came into view. We drove up and parked.

Torn, weathered, Army-surplus canvas flapped from the starboard wing as the summer wind made certain the old airplane’s skin paid its rent. The landing gear – converted Model A spoke wheels – sat rusting in the Wyoming desert. Sun-baked tires, long flat, clung to the rims, half submerged in drifted sand. The cockpit windows were broken – probably shot out by some youthful rabbit hunter or shattered from hail balls. The fuselage and tail section were in unaccountably good condition, but the old bird was warped and twisted from the years of persistent prairie winds.

While under construction, this make-believe aircraft was the laughingstock of the county. Only its father, Ed Cornwell, thought it would fly.

John and I enjoyed a few quiet moments sipping our beer and appraising the derelict plane. It sat there suspended in tranquility, framed in the expanse of buffalo grass and Laramie Peak far in the distance. As I watched, the old relic seemed to come to life. John and I had been there together when Ed’s big day came around.

“Ready for another beer?” he asked.

“Sure,” I answered.

John reached in the back seat of his Chevy convertible. My memory reached for that day in 1948, when the plane was new, or at least newly assembled.

To Ed’s credit, he had picked the right spot for a takeoff. The public land was grassy, smooth and infinite. The pasture was jammed with all types from miles around – ranchers, townspeople, farmers. John Arness, who owned the newspaper, was there to record the big event. Cars ringed the area, honking incessantly. Some spectators set up tables with lemonade, others with booze. Tufted, puffy cumulus clouds looked down from a pristine sky. Enthusiasm was at a peak.

Finally, the moment had arrived.

Amid cheers and high drama, Ed strutted to the aircraft and directed his ground support group away. He didn’t acknowledge the spectators. If that was on purpose, no one could blame him. Not many believers in that crowd.

The plane, in its military olive drab, was ready. It did, in fact, look airworthy.

The pilot crawled into his contrivance, and closed the door. All horn honking and conversation gave way to silence.

Tension built. The wait seemed endless. It began to look like Ed might have caved in to his detractors. Then – the propeller began a slow turn. Instantly, car horns began to blast. The engine caught, and the propeller became a blur, spinning hard, noisy and certain. In an instant, the mood changed and the spectators began rooting for the World War II vet and all-American buffoon to pull it off.

The roar of the engine was ear-splitting. The large propeller strained at its axis. The plane shook, rocking and clawing at the air like an anxious monster begging for the command to attack. Ed had the power at maximum, but after a few long precious seconds, the propeller could no longer withstand the stress. It broke, half the prop flying from the airplane like a missile, lazily cart-wheeling toward the clouds. No one saw what happened to the other half. Years later, a wrangler found a broken section in a gully.

With the propulsion gone, Ed cut the power. The engine wound down in a slow, inglorious, humiliating whine. While a few had wanted to see the airplane take off, others expected it to fail. No one moved for an awkward time. Ed was not about to vacate his winged flop, no matter how long it was going to take. The crowd eventually left.

So many years later, the wreck was still there. We sat and contemplated it.

After finishing a more than an adequate quantum of beer, I thanked my friend, John.

“I needed that,” I said.

We drove away from Ed’s miscarriage. It had struggled so mightily in its attempt to indulge its maker. But it couldn’t get off the ground, and its remnants stubbornly persist in the dry desert to this day.

Al Bartlett of Gig Harbor, a retired teacher and farmer, is one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page. This is his final column. Email him at albert.bartlett@comcast.net.