Illusions of Magic Blog




January 2019


What I Learned Writing Low on Gas – High on Sky

At the time Bob Fisher suggested I should write the book on Nick Mamer, I had spent close to fifty years on the highways and the low-ways of writing. I’d retired from twenty-five years of issuing monographs on nuclear reactor topics at a National Lab. I’d worked as a civic affairs reporter for a newspaper and reported details of offshore oil exploration for WorkBoat magazine. I’d written a couple of published novels and maintained an Internet blog for more than two years.

This experience, I thought, equipped me to write the story of the record 1929 flight of the Spokane Sun God, during which a couple of daring aviators crossed the U.S. from coast to coast and returned without landing. What I learned was that writing this book was extraordinarily difficult. It was also extraordinarily satisfying.

I understood the context for aviation adventure. I had, when not yet out of my teens, taken my first ever ride in an airplane. It occurred when I folded myself into the rear seat while a buddy—younger than me, I believe—from the front seat advanced the throttle of the Piper Cub and we took to the skies over South Bend, Indiana. The high wing, narrow body and minimal structure of this yellow-skinned craft afforded me all the rudiments of flying that its sixty-five horsepower and bare-bones equipment could deliver. Half a decade later, I ended four years in the U.S. Navy at Corry Field, Pensacola, Florida, where I taught basic instruments and radio navigation to cadets who hoped to later safely catch the wire on the deck of an aircraft carrier.

But understanding and then writing about Nick Mamer’s flight required much more than an understanding of the rudiments of flight.

The idea for the flight of the Spokane Sun God arose in mid-1929 when Major Clarence M. Young, aeronautical director of the Department of Commerce, proposed a non-stop flight around the United States to test the practicability of refueling planes carrying full cargoes on long trips. Businessmen in Spokane, Washington formed a committee to explore its feasibility. Their unanimous choice to lead the planned venture was 31-year old Nick Mamer, a World War I flier, barnstormer, highly-skilled pilot and entrepreneur.

The plan included Mamer’s choice of assistant and copilot on the flight, Art Walker. Other daring airmen would fly and man supply planes along the flight path. The supply planes would be equipped with an extra tank of gasoline and an attached, weighted, hose. A valve on the tank could control the flow of gasoline into the hose. When the long range plane needed gasoline, it would fly close beneath the supply plane. The ‘hoseman’ on the supply plane would pay out the weighted gasoline hose.

Art Walker, standing with his head, shoulders and arms outside a framed opening in the top of the Sun God’s fuselage would catch the dangling nozzle of the hose and insert it into the Sun God’s gas tank. The hoseman in the supply plane would open the valve and gasoline would flow down and fill the Sun God’s tank.    

Mamer and others had practiced this refueling and knew it worked. All that was required, it was supposed, was to station supply planes at strategically located airfields along the flight path, and launch the Spokane Sun God. But as often happens, the actual flight required Mamer and his copilot to confront problems and risks the plan had failed to anticipate.

With no alternative, the Sun God was forced to navigate hazardous mountain passes while blinded by smoke from forest fires. During one particularly terrifying night over Pennsylvania, the crew encountered huge electrical storms that nearly tore the airplane apart.

The pre-flight plan never anticipated refueling at night. Yet on the second day of the flight the Sun God’s gasoline supply ran so low refueling became essential. In the middle of the night, over Rock Springs, Wyoming, the attempt was made. In a clever improvisation, flashlights taped to the hose made the nozzle visible, allowing successful refuelings. Nevertheless, the airplane and Art Walker were abruptly doused with gasoline during one contact when the Sun God’s propeller accidentally sliced through the refueling hose.  

In a different incident, refueling was attempted with no hose on board the supply plane. Although initially thought to be impossible, creamery cans of gas were successfully lowered by improvised rope slings to the Sun God over Miles City, Montana, allowing the flight to continue to a successful conclusion.

Thus went some of the unexpected risks and adventures that punctuated the Sun God’s flight. But there were expected risks as well. The Sun God crew would suffer fatigue and other symptoms on a flight of days duration. Mamer and Walker endured thirst, hunger, sleep-deprivation and especially fatigue during the flight, which took five full days rather than the initially-planned three.

Describing these expected and unexpected events and travails was only a beginning. I needed to supply context: how to place the reader inside a fabric-sheathed airplane with a loud piston motor driving a propeller; how to explain navigation when following landmarks and railroad tracks by sight was the prevalent, and often the only method for finding one’s way. How should I convey to the reader the absence of accurate, satellite- and radar-based weather forecasts; the absence of transmit-and-receive radio, today’s common aircraft-to-ground and ground-to-aircraft method of communicating?

I had to immerse myself deeply in the era, to absorb its living conditions, culture, environment and beliefs, its lack of computer and digital technology so taken for granted today. I had to understand Gertrude Stein, bathtub gin, jazz on phonograph records, Hearst’s flamboyant newspapers, the cartoon strip of Mutt and Jeff. In short, I had to transport myself mentally into the 20s and 30s, to recall the ideas, the mistakes, the fashions and fads of the time.

Much of this was already part of my knowledge base, acquired over the years I’d worked on what became Illusions of Magic, set in the early 1930s. Moreover, I could still recall how my parents talked and acted, what they liked and hated, because they grew to adulthood during those early years.

After a while, it became easier to accept the language of the time, when “ships” referred not just to watercraft, but easily and simply to flimsy spruce and wire airplanes, and when ‘aviator’, rather than defining a vocation, meant magical men embarking on daring adventures in a  boundless cerulean sky.