Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Walking on Air (copy)

Willie Morris once said, “He must always be a stranger to the place he loves, and its people.” I met one such stranger last night in my reading who shaped civil aviation in our country and lived just west of Como back in the 1950s. Yet, today, her name is virtually unknown and her love, lost. 

Phoebe Fairgrave began her aviation career after watching – in awe – President Woodrow Wilson’s plane fly over Cleveland during a campaign stop. Rushing back to Mechanical Arts High School, she could not wait to tell classmates she was going to be a pilot. 

After school and on weekends, Phoebe could be seen staring at the Orioles and Jennies through the chain linked fence at Curtiss Northwest Flying Field. Although, she felt sure someone would offer her a ride it never happened.

Finally, she slipped through the fence and told one of the men near a Jenny that she was interested in buying it. Again Phoebe was thwart. The man let her look around even allowing her to sit in the Jenny’s seat, but said she would have to purchase the plane if she wanted a ride. 

She needed $3,500 to buy the WWI refurbished airplane. Unfortunately, her odd jobs after graduation in 1920 were not enough. Being a fan of The Perils of Pauline series, she visited the Fox Film Corporation that had a branch in Cleveland. Pauline did lots of outrageous stunts and Phoebe convinced them into allowing her to parachute from an airplane dressed as the character. 

With money saved and a loan based on the parachute contract, Phoebe finally had enough to purchase her “big beautiful Jenny!” The salesman not only gave her the first ride, but threw her around in the cockpit with a “quick, violet shake” that resulted in a stall and spin. What was meant to scare her away only thrilled her more. 

Ironically, Phoebe now owned a plane that no one would teach her to fly. Her first and seemed like last flight was that cold day in January. It was late spring before she finally found a “25-year-old veteran of the Great War,” Capt. Vernon Omlie. He stood tall and handsome next to the Jenny as she told him all about the “contract.” That day, she listened as he explained the art of wing walking. 

Walking on Air: The Aerial Adventures of Phoebe Omlie by University of Memphis professor, Janann Sherman is a thrilling then sad ride. Although, the new Memphis Air Traffic Control Tower at Memphis International Airport bears her name, she still remains a stranger.

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