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Ships Caught in a Whirlpool
Oakland Tribune, April 15, 1923, page 15
Harry W. Huking    Burr H. Winslow   

By Jack Bell

Amazing Experience of Huking and Winslow,
Hurled Into Near-Collision by Hurricane
Without Either Knowing Other was Near;
Craft Tossed Up and DOwn Like Chaff

By Jack Bell

ANOTHER chapter has been added to the long list of thrilling human interest stories of the Red Line Air Mail flying men of the deadly Hump - an episode that will go down as the most spectacular scene that has ever been enacted in the sky.

Hundreds of people in Verdi and Reno watched with bated breath the battles that took place in plain view, in unobstructed sunlighted skies, over that hell-hole at Verdi, when two pilots fought a cyclone.

The assembled crowds in both Reno and Verdi stood motionless and with indrawn breath as the hurricanes - the typhoons - sky-rocketed and swept downward, in the winking of an eye, the two great Silver Kings of the air mail.

Then the tornado would hurl the great man-made birds thousands of feet groundward, and then shake them just for all the world like a terrier shakes a rat. Then the staunch ships would be hurled again, this way and that, and the hooded heads could be seen, glued to the left sides of the respective cockpits, as they used their every method to save their lives and their ships.

Out came the ships with a speed that made the watchers wonder if a pane had really been in the heavens above them and disappeared Reno-ward in a twinkling, like the shooting star, across the ether. It was awe-inspiring and a like circumstance never will again be seen.

Pilot Harry W. Huking left the ground at Reno field with 350 pounds of mail at 3:15 p. m. March 13, 1923. There was a stiff wind blowing from the northwest. However, he took easterly over the Reno basin and headed for the Sierra Hump, 40 miles away to the west. He skirted along Peavine mountain to the northwest. He ran into bad spots that shook his ship like a gale striking a bundle of tumble-weeds. He had gained 10,000 altitude, when his ship was swung over the hell-hole above Verdi.

With the suddenness of a plummet falling the ship shot down to an elevation of 8000 feet. In a wink the plane was tossed back into the blue with momentum incalculable. It was up and down, this side and then the other side, as the swirling whirlpool over the hell-hole tossed him about.

It looked as though the elements would take its toll of life and shatter the Silver King. However, Huking succeeded in turning the ship back to Reno. Circling again he attempted greater altitude to try again to make the crossing of the Hump.

He was again in the hell-hole. For forty-five minutes he fought and battled for his very life. At [xx] tail apparently and then in a flash she seemed to be taking a nose dive towards earth. It was a nerve-racking sight for the hundreds that saw the fight.

Then out from the high blue came another ship headed for Reno, coming on the wings of the typhoon, with a speed that could not be even guessed at - a silver, moth-looking speck far up in the sky.

This was Pilot Burr H. Winslow coming from San Francisco, with his load of valuable mail, apparently sitting on top of the world.

Then when the two ships were almost side by side - and at no greater distance than three hundred or four hundred yards apart - Winslow's ship took a sudden drop, on level keel - straight down with a frightfulness of speed that made the chills creep up and down the spine. Then up went Huking's ship, and the two spun by one another almost to the point of grazing.

All of this was happening at altitudes from 10,000 down to 8000. Now one of the ships would careen over on its side and at the same time the other would veer in half circles. This awful sight kept up for ten minutes, both ships battling to negotiate the swirls, eddies and blows of the Verdi hell-hole, fearing collision or a straight dash to earth.

Winslow was the first to break out from the terros of the maelstroms of winds. Huking followed a few minutes later, and both made the Reno field without accident.

"I knew that there was a heavy northwest wind upstairs," said Huking. "But I had an idea from the look of the thin lace-like mists high up that I could get above the gales. We had warning that there was a heavy wind coming out the southwest and also a blow from off the Pacific. But never in my wildest dreams did I expect that the Verdi hell-hole would be as bad as it was.

"I took off at 3:15 p. m., the ship from the East being late on account of the winds. I took out over Sparks to the east to get altitude, and was getting along all right - slow, of course - but the Liberty was functioning perfectly and I did not mind the gales that rocked me. When I reached that point over Verdi I woke up to the fact that I was up against a real situation and that it behooved me to watch my smoke. "Well, when I struck that first down blast it fairly took away my breath, and when I hit the bottom of the drop - believe me it was a whale of a one - I was thrown upwards with the speed of light to [xx] absolutely still. Then the ship began to try and slip over on its side - into a side slip that meant a tail spin. Lordy Christmas! how I did work to keep her level. One second she would be nosing towards the ground and the next instant she was going straight up into the air like a streak.

"I got her turned and was down over Sparks in less time than it takes to relate it. That's something like 14 miles, too.

"I took another long circle back towards the Hump again, hugging Peavine mountain on the north to try for altitude again. I got 11,000 feet this time, but when I was beginning to think that I was on my way I ran into the channel that took me right back over the hell-hole at Verdi.

"I hung suspended there for some time - I never worked so hard in all my life. The attacks were so hard and sudden and the impacts were of greater violence than I ever imagined a ship could withstand.

"It was mighty bad up there. Another condition that I never before encountered was the sand and dust that blew up under my goggles into my eyes, making vision very difficult. The sand cut and ground in my eyes until I was almost blinded. I think that most of the sand came off the tail skid and the rail of the ship and then the vacuum created drew it up sharply from within the cockpit."

Pilot Winslow had the most sensational experience that has ever been made of record on the log books of the flying fields of the U. S. Air Mail. He left San Francisco on time with his usual 300 pounds of valuable mail. He came on the wings of the west gale and was coming at a rate of speed that augured well for a new record from San Francisco to Reno. As a matter of fact he had gained over the record of one hour and two minutes recognized among the fliers from San Francisco to the pinnacle of the Hump. Then he headed on down through the Truckee snow fields and kept his ship well up to 12,000. When he began to tip her over a bit coming into Verdi he ran smack into the typhoon.

In an instant the ship fell 900 feet. Winslow's neck was almost dislocated as his head snapped back over the cowling of the ship.

Again the elements with their craziness snatched the ship and whirled it up to 9,000 feet. For ten minutes Winslow battled to keep his ship on a level keel and to prevent it from taking off into either a nose dive or into a tail spin.

It was for this ten minutes that the watchers were held spellbound at the unusual sight of two of the great Silver Kings making the fight against the storm.

"I had one other bad time in that hellhole above Verdi, not so long ago - and I thought that it was the worst experience I ever had in the air," said Winslow as he rubbed his sore neck with his hand.

"I was coming on down from the Hump and believe me I was making time - think perhaps that I would have clipped off a couple of minutes from the San Francisco-Reno record if I had not run into the hell-hole. A mighty funny thing. Heaps of folks saw the two ships in the air in the hell-hole, but Huking did not see me and I did not see Huking.

"There is a reason and a good one. I was watching out on the left side of the ship, using every effort at my command to keep her nose down so she would not lose speed and go off into a tail spin. After I had that terrible fall of 900 feet and struck with the same force that I would have if I had hit the ground, the sand and dust swirled up from within the cockpit and for at least 15 minutes I could scarcely see a thing. This was the time when we were so close together, of course.

"Thank the air gods that we did not have a collision. It could easily have occurred, at that. The fall was so sudden that my head was jerked back over the cowling of the cockpit and my head actually hung there until after I had started to ascend up-stairs again. It was some minutes before I could rightly use my head and neck.

"Never did I have such an awful fifteen minutes and when Huking and I compared notes we both came to the same conclusion and kinda wished we had been on that junket trip with the Army, making the flight to Porto Rico. That would have been duck's soup! Such screeching of wires, such poundings, such terrible smashes I have never heard of before in the air game anywhere - it was as if a thousand H E shells had been turned loose right beside the ship.

"No, there is no possible way to get around the Verdi hell-hole. One can see for distances of hundreds of miles the reason why the winds from every direction center [xx]. The great valleys that stretch farther than we can see at 16,000 feet go on and on into the vastness of distance. The radiations all go out from Verdi, the hub, and that's the answer to the experiences we have all had over Verdi."

And so on the log of the Air Mail goes another chapter. The fliers' faces showed the straings of their fight. Their cheeks were chapped and raw from the sand blasts that pounded against them. Their eyes were bloodshot and swollen. But their manner was still alert. Yet they had nothing very much to say - what they did say was prompted by detailed queries, and the answering monosyllables were about all the conversation vouchsafed by them when they came into town for their dinner.

(Copyright 1923 by Jack Bell)

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