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The Songsters of the Altitudes
Oakland Tribune, April 29, 1923, page 2
Harry W. Huking

Airplane Wires Give Off Melodies Ranging
from Humoresque Fantasies to Shrieking Protests Against Storm King - Harp Accompanies Drum of the Liberty

By Jack Bell

FOR the first time in aviation the "Song of the Ship" comes to the fore. There is music created by speed, there is a weird measure sung when the ship reduces to minimum slowness, and there is a grand terrible chorus when the great silver birds of the Air Mail whirl their puny strength against the master hurricanes.

There is a combined chorus in tunes, in vibratory sweetness, as the staccato accompaniment of the 400 horse power Liberty joins with the changing scales of the wires. The notes made by the speeds, and by the atmospheric changes are as distinct as the written notes played upon the great electric organs of the world.

As the crass currents and quartering winds strike against the wire rigging of the outspread wings of the great birds, new and wonderful symphonies come back to the pilot.

Each machine joyous [xx] salve the tortured nerves, perhaps just after a danger plunge. The Song of the Ship irons out the taut muscles and clarifies the brain, and a feeling of safety comes over the airmen when the song comes back to him with its message of cheer and its story of safety.

Then again the pilot is suddenly stirred when the minor keys of the music wires sing their message of danger, and the screeching screams of dissatisfaction make hideous as a terrible nightmare their call to action for safety. The great Liberty changes voice and drums out a warning, changing loud to lower register its story of destroyed song.

Pilot Harry W. Huking corroborated in detail the story of the Song of the Ship.

"There are tones, vibrant musical tones, made by the wires on the wings of our ships. It is not imagination. There are times when delicate sweet music varies in range above the steady drum of the big Liberty.

"The Songs of the Ships are many and vary from the jazz to classical. Yes, there is jazz, broken, syncopating, [xx], snappy, [xx] penetrating sounds that come from off the wing rigging. This variation generally comes when there is a choppy criss-cross wind, that will change direction as suddenly as a girl changes her mind. This in-and-out, clacking, weird ensemble of tones makes one creepy all over.

"Then when there is a surging, swinging atmospher to level the ship through, when all the earth [xx] green, and the sun shines back up into the heavens from the mountain lakes, it takes no imagination to hear the soul-satisfying ballads from those many wires in beautiful cadence. The olden story songs come to us and the Liberty appears to have received its baptism of the long, long ago and gently voices these old songs that are a delight to one's soul.

"Now a criss-cross wind strikes the ship. Another comes with steady pressure. Then out from the hundreds of miles of valley and canyon a gentle, steady breeze will come head-on. Now the motor seems far away: the song of ship weaves forth a wave of loveliness, appealingly beautiful, melody sublime - a Humoresque indeed, so sweet are the harp and violin cello tones that come back from the taut wires. There are no discordant notes, no harsh sounds. And up there in the worlds above the earth Cause must be near us, for that is the feeling many of us have.

"Again when listening to the heavens' own music way up there in the sky there may suddenly come a discordant, awful banging. Each separate wire vies for harsh tone. Then the creak of the control wires, which slap and snarl as a strong gust of wind heralds the approach of cyclonic gales. The hurricane besets the tunless wires: there is the twang of minors in discord. The Liberty adds its growling and roaring and sets up its most inhormonious greetings, as it begins its battle with the strong. This tells the pilot to prepare for action, to array before him every known agency to meet the fight that he is about to encounter.

"Shrill and sharp comes the wave of smashing, tearing gales. The Song of the Ship has become a hellish screaming, a manical conglomeration of tones from the shrill shriek of a lost soul to the terrible bass of the laboring motor. From this there is no appeal and this song of dread follows one down to landing, when the low tones come back on the wires as the ship loses speed and lands upon the field.

"On a calm, perfect day, the wires sing the song of the day, in their brightest, sweetest tenderness. The Song of the Ship tells of the birds and the streams, the animals upon the earth, and the birds of the air. All is happiness. The Liberty joins with the peaceful song, and we can glide along like a canoe upon a placid lake, enjoying to the full the wonders of being alive and experiencing the rich music of the Songs of the Ships."

Then into the canyons where the pilots sometimes are forced by fog and clouds to skim along, and with artful clever dodging to scrape the jagged walls, the wires begin another song. The winds coming down the box canyons, through the innumerable draws, meet the same conditions generated upon the opposite side. As they meet mid-canyon the crackling, hissing, moans of the music board vies with the heavy and low bangs that the [xx] harp helplessly gives way to the drums. Up and down, up and down, the scales are fun, now loud, now so low that they sound like a tinkling mandolin. Then the notes mount, into the tremendous inspiring drum beats of the great Liberty motor.

The music is always there from heavenly strains down into the depths of despairing, thunderous concussion as of a giant's drum corps!

It is not only because of the "Song of the Ship" that the pilot comes to love his plane. To get a real "rise" out of a Hump flier, all one has to do is speak slightingly of his "crate" - try saying to one of them that his ship "squeaks and rattles and looks like some old wagon tied up with baling wire - that it has no speed, and that it lumbers off the field like an old truck." It is best to be ready to move. The lurid replies are the lease of the attack, and the responses to these epithets would shame an old-time army mule packer.

There are times when these Hump flies are forced to spin over and across San Francisco bay less than ten feet above the water: there are times without number that they have barely missed the masts of vessels. They have skimmed close to the buildings on the islands, and they have been forced to fly almost out to sea beyond the Golden Gate, to maneuver, and to scout and to fight the deadly ground fogs that sometimes come so suddenly that all sense of direction is lost.

The life preserver is slung, and the driver of Uncle Sam's Air Mail fights and finishes the good fight when he at last emerges from the dense mist and side-slips into his field at the Marina. He is tired, strained of face, when the Motor Macks steady the wings and lead the great gull into the hangar.

The imagination can picture the scene in which the silver-winger bird suddenly drops its nose and dives into the tides. What of the pilot? Already he is alert, and has figured his chances with the fey, lapping tide. His thoughts are more on the cargo of mail than upon his own safety - and that's a fact. When one of these flying men is lulled into a frame of mind, and will say a few words about his experiences, the one outstanding illuminating fact brought out shows plainly that every thought is far from personal safety. He thinks and plans first to spare his ship and the cargo of valuable mail.

The terrors of the Hump flying men run through the mountain storm period until some time in [xx].

As has been repeatedly told, this hundred miles of country between Reno and California, crossing the Sierra Nevada across the Hump, has not a single plat of ground where a ship can land, not a single field where safety lies. These flyers of the Hump, Winslow, Huking, Vance and Blanchfield, must either safely fly over this one hundred miles or receive the final "washout" to ship and self. There is no argument at all. This hundred miles they must fly, or take the final crash and go "west."

During the long beautiful summer days and evenings the air lines are clear and beautiful. Pilots will leave the fields at either terminal of the Hump run, take altitude, and many times eschew their hoods and goggles. With relaxed mind and body they make their journeys in lulling comfort and swinging, gliding, sleepy motion to their landings. Many times they become drowsy and it is all they can do to keep awake.

There are other periods of sameness "without a kick" in the sky riding - when the monotony becomes almost unendurable. The pilot tires of the barren gray, black peaks, the timber growths along the miles of gashes below, that indicate the slashed terrain. Tumbling rushing waters can be seen, like silver ribbons, as they show from the sky, and the regular streaks of miles upon miles of mesas that break the spaces between the deep-down rivers. It is beautiful, but monotonous, although changing like a chameleon in coloring during the rising sun, the mid-day sun and the great golden ball as it sinks into the deep West.

On other days for a change of scene and for information these same boys will come down dangerously close to earth and hunt and prospect for some one locality where there might be a chance for a safe landing, in event of sudden stress. They have never been able to locate such fields except the little lakes frozen over in winter. Many times they have taken automobiles and gone through the highways and byways of the Hump country, on their week of rest, and made every effort to find such a location. They have always failed. There is no such place. One chance in a million would be to head the ship down into the great tree tops and gamble with death. That's their one "out."

Every once in a while a flyer will see a speeding limited train far below. The day is beautiful, bright and idea. Like a swooping eagle he noses his ship down in a long, beautiful angle. He has cut the motor, and there is no thunder roar from the big Liberty. He will level off and then "give her the gun" and, like an unseen force like a stream of light, parallel the passing coaches and glimpse the passengers as they bump their noses against the windows to get a look at the wonder ship of the United States Air Mail. Then the driver, after he grins in delight at the consternation he has caused, will nose her up and up into his level of security, and get back on the air road.

These boys of the Air Mail do not trifle with their lives. They do [xx] system of venture that they do when testing out a new ship and a new motor. And always they have with them the song of the ship.

This practice is seldom indulged and only when every condition of ship and weather is perfect. The fliers take no chances at all, employing about the same procedure as when they make their field landings, and then only out on the desert where the railroad tangents run for forty or fifty miles. This pastime speeds up the flying time from terminal to terminal and takes away the monotony of a level keel and the uninteresting sights on the earth below.

(Copyright, 1923, by Jack Bell.)

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