conspired to reunite Elaine MacColl of Roseville with the same
1932 Fleet biplane in which she learned to fly decades earlier. The
took place in October in Poplar Grove, Ill. —Courtesy photo
Flight Leads to Reunion of Pilot, Plane
20-year-old Elaine MacColl climbed into the small open-cockpit
airplane at Compton Airport for her very first plane ride, she
had no idea what she was in for.
Even though it was unusual for a young woman to be seen in a personal aircraft
in 1949, she says she should have been suspicious when a group of young pilots
gathered around to witness her ride – and even more suspicious of the professional
stunt pilot at the controls.
Now 85 and living in Roseville, MacColl still vividly remembers the event. Somebody
fastened a seat belt loosely across her lap, and as they readied for take-off,
she noticed there were no other protective devices or parachutes.
“I tried to explain that the seat belt was loose but by that time the engine
noise precluded any further conversation,” she says. “Before I knew
it I was up in the air on my first airplane ride looking down from the open cockpit
with the wind blowing over my head. Quite a thrill.” She was even treated
to some mild stunts, with a couple of fun lazy eights and spins.
Then she realized why the crowd had gathered. The next thing she knew they were “plunging
downward only to pull up into an inside loop, then an outside loop, dives, stalls,
you name it. I could feel myself slipping and slipping out of my loose seat belt
with absolutely nothing to hold onto and, of course, no ability to tell the pilot
I'm falling out,” she recalls. “Just when I thought it could get
no scarier, (the pilot) performed the crown jewel of his stunts – prolonged
inverted flight. Here we were flying upside down for what seemed an eternity.”
When they finally landed, she says the crowd awaiting a terrified girl was not
disappointed. “I was scared out of my wits!” she says.
The ride had been arranged by the pilot’s wife, Lorraine, who was MacColl’s
co-worker at a small General Electric outpost that supported engineers who installed
and serviced jet engines in military aircraft at Edwards Air Force Base.
Lorraine had always caught MacColl’s attention on Monday morning. “She’d
be either totally disgruntled and angry at her husband or very upbeat and talking
about the wonderful time she had over the weekend.”
Finally McColl asked Lorraine about her Monday mood swings.
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“It turns out her husband was a stunt pilot. When he’d go off to
the airshows and she went along, it was a great time. But when he wasn’t
at the airshows, he’d be out at the airport, working on is true love – his
airplane, and she was totally neglected.”
When McColl told Lorraine that she had never been in an airplane, she arranged
the ride, swearing to the end that she had no idea her husband and his buddies
plotted to scare her to death.
But what the mischievous young men were not expecting is their prank didn’t
just frighten MacColl – it intrigued her. Terrifying as it had been,
she discovered that flying was a thrill.
“I knew that I had to learn how to fly myself,” she says.
There were no women among the pilots at the Compton Airport, but it didn’t
take long for MacColl to earn the respect of the WWII veterans and other
young men who hung around the airfield.
“They’d spend every nickle they had on their airplanes,” she
says. So several agreed to give her flying lessons in exchange for gas
money. Most of her hours were logged in a 1932 Fleet biplane.
“I had only 45 minutes with a licensed instructor before my first solo
flight, thanks to their friendship and help,” she says.
After getting her license, Elaine thoroughly enjoyed the pilot’s life and
airfield friendships. She went to air shows, took short inexpensive plane trips,
and frequented favorite pilot hangouts like Pancho Barnes’ Happy
Bottom Riding Club, near Edwards Air Force Base. There she rubbed shoulders
icons such as Chuck Yeager, Buzz Aldrin and Pancho Barnes herself.
“Our little group hung out there at the same time that all these others
were there … We were kind of on the edge of history.”
During those days, she hoped to make piloting her career – but life
circumstances turned her in a different direction.
She moved back to her childhood hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania, and got married.
There, she arranged with the owner of a local flight school to work in the
office after her regular job in exchange for air time, but the harsh winters
her from getting a plane off the ground much.
Then her marriage ended in divorce. “I decided I needed to advance my education
and started college classes while working a full-time job,” she says.
She moved back to California, and was soon too busy to think about flying.
Life went on, and over the years she basically put away any thoughts of
flying again – except she always had an ongoing wish to once again
go up in a bi-plane.
“I had promised myself when I was 75 years old that I was going to go up
in an open-cockpit airplane again – it was on my bucket list – but
I didn’t. Every year I would say I’m going to do it and then didn’t.
Then when I broke my hip two years ago March, I thought, ‘You know, I could
break all kinds of things and I’ll never get this airplane ride done.’”
So she did some online research to find someone who could take her up for her
84th birthday, but every single phone number she pulled up had been disconnected
or were wrong numbers.
“So I decided. ‘Aw forget it. The message is clear. I’m not
supposed to do this.’ I just put it aside.”
But one day she was watching the news and heard the term Mach 1. She was
frustrated because she couldn’t remember what the term meant, so she went online to
explore. While surfing the web, she stumbled upon Mach 5 Aviation – a small
flight school at Auburn Municipal Airport she somehow hadn’t found in her
previous research. Company representatives told her they wouldn’t be able
to give her a ride, but they knew somebody who might. So they contacted Mike
Duncan, owner of Sunshine Flyers Flight Instruction & Aircraft Rental,
also at the Auburn airfield.
Duncan was delighted to oblige and lined up a friend to take her up in a Stearman
on her birthday in August of 2012. Her son and two daughters from out of town
came to witness the ride.
Just about 60 years since she’d last piloted a plane, she was in flight
again. “I was just so into enjoying it. I don’t know how to describe
it,” she says. The experience brought back all of her fond memories. It
would have been enough – but a big surprise was yet to come.
Duncan was fascinated by MacColl’s stories and became determined
to find the 1932 Fleet biplane she had learned to fly in. MacColl remembered
number, and Duncan was able to track it down online and find the current
owner, a man from Illinois named Mark Harris.
MacColl got a hold of Harris in December 2012 and discovered the plane
was hangared at the Poplar Grove Vintage Wings & Wheels Museum in Poplar
Grove, Ill., a private airport and museum.
“He answered the phone and was just delighted to hear from me because he
was trying to get a history of the plane.” She learned from him that
the plane had several different owners over the years, allegedly including
stage and movie star Tyrone Power.
She and Harris kept up an email conversation over several months. She thought
it would be great fun to be reunited with the plane, but knew it wasn’t
very practical to fly across the country just for that.
“But in our favor, we had a family event in October that was only about
60 miles from where the airplane was hangared. This was something I was going
to be at anyhow. So I couldn’t let the chance go … All these
circumstances made it come together.”
Her son, Bob MacColl, and nephews accompanied her to the air museum on Oct.
“When the Fleet came taxiing up the runway and I saw it, it was instant
recognition of a long lost friend, and I swear the Fleet recognized me as well
and gave an extra pop pop of the engine to let me know,” she says.
With Harris at the helm, her relatives helped her into the passenger seat and
she enjoyed a farewell ride in her old and dear friend.
MacColl stresses her gratitude to everyone who helped make the reunion
possible, especially Duncan at Auburn’s Sunshine Flyers who tracked down the plane. “If
it hadn’t been for me getting a hold of him, I never would have thought
it was possible that this Fleet bi-plane was all in one piece let alone air-worthy,” she
MacColl says that since her longtime wish has been fulfilled, she doubts
ever ride in a small airplane again. “I feel that the mission is complete,” she
is a freelance writer in West Sacramento.
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