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Have you ever seen the animated show “Rick and Morty?” If my Uncle Ed had a functioning time and multidimensional machine he would have been Rick. Even without the luxury of space, time and dimensional travel, I made a great Morty.
When I was growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s, we had a bunch of magazines delivered every month. We must have had a couple of dozen subscriptions to everything from Popular Mechanics to National Geographic, (the latter of which became my first serious sexual relationship).
Aside from my teenage addiction to masturbation (which does recur from time to time), I credit my love of reading to the fact that we always had some pretty cool stuff to read. We had all those subscriptions because even in the days before Ed McMahon and Dick Clark promised us all riches, the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes was in full swing. My mother thought she increased her chances of winning exponentially with each subscription she bought.
Aside from the casual sexual encounters with photos of various aboriginal women, my favorite magazines were Popular Science, Popular Mechanics and Mechanics Illustrated. I devoured them each month. I really enjoyed the ads in the back of each one. Many of the questionable mail order purchases I made as a child came from them. None had quite the impact on my life that buying the plans for a Bensen Gyrocopter did. Best and worst $2.00 I even spent. It was 1963 and I was 12.
What’s a gyrocopter? Remember the one man aircraft dubbed “Little Nellie” in the James Bond film “You Only Live Twice?” That was a fancy gyrocopter. Basically, it’s half helicopter and half airplane.
It took abut 2 months after I ordered them until the “plans” arrived. I put “plans” in quotes because my $2.00 bought a set of very rough diagrams and a half assed small blueprint. But they included a coupon that I could send back, along with $25.00, for a full set of plans. They stated that the gyrocopter could be built with scrap parts for under $100.
Uncle Ed, who was in his 70’s at the time, was essentially the man who raised me on the farm. He was a former bootlegger and successful (kind of) inventor. He had also been an aviator in World War 1 and kept his pilot’s license current until he was almost 80. When he saw the rough plans, he was intrigued.
“We could build this,” he announced. “I can weld and you’re pretty good with tools. Let’s make it our summer project.” I was excited. I asked him when he was going to send for the full plans and he said he didn’t need them. That should have been my cue to get out of Dodge. Trying to build a machine that would safely fly human beings through the air from the rough sketches they sent me would be like trying to do brain surgery after playing the game “Operation.”
Uncle Ed was nothing if not frugal. He started to assemble the parts we needed to make the gyrocopter. They said we needed a Volkswagen or similar engine so we went off to the local junkyard. Instead of buying one that worked, he bought the oldest and, of course, cheapest one he could find. It wasn’t working but he was sure he could get it to run. Keep in mind that he built his own airplane after the war and was quite a craftsman. A mechanic, not so much.
We started the project right after school let out in June. We didn’t get the rusty old German engine to work, sporadically at best, until mid-July. Then we had to get the pusher propeller and main rotor blade. The pusher prop came from a wrecked Piper Cub at the Cross Keys airport a couple of miles from our house. It was too large but it became my task to trim and sand it down. This was a nearly endless task but I was able to do it in a few weeks.
The main rotor was another story. They suggested that we try to buy one from someone who was a gyrocopter builder. Know how many of those there were in Southern New Jersey in the early 1960’s? About as many as there are now; zero! So Uncle Ed was forced to buy a new rotor from the Benson folks. I remember it was over $100 back then and had to be shipped by truck.
The body of the gyrocopter was cobbled together from scrap metal we had on the farm. Not a great mechanic, Uncle Ed was a world class metal worker and welder. We had the main body of the airship ready to go by early August.
The plans called for a single seat but Uncle Ed went back to the junkyard and bought a bench seat from a rusted out old go cart. It was big enough for 2. (Keep thinking Rick and Morty.)
Mounting the engine was its own individual hell. Since we didn’t have real plans, Uncle Ed improvised. We finally got it in place by the end of August. The pusher propeller was attached and by early September it looked like the gyrocopter from the pictures on the ads. And although they promised it could be built from scraps everyone had lying around, it had cost over $300 in parts at this point. I lost track of our hours, but most days in the summer we put in at least 8 hours on the project, 7 days a week.
When Uncle Ed took it out for the first test, the engine wouldn’t start. He finally called in a local mechanic who, for the enormous house call fee of $20.00, got it running pretty smoothly.
Uncle Ed still had his leather flying helmet from the war along with several others that must have been worn by other WW1 aviators. He donned his helmet one Saturday in September for the inaugural test flight. The gyro was louder than a cement mixer backing up, but after gaining speed for a couple hundred feet he was airborne. Always the showoff, he circled around and buzzed me in the field. I had to duck. Just call me Morty.
He stayed up for about 15 minutes, sailing over the trees and scaring the hell out of the horses in the pasture. His landing left a little to be desired, especially after one of the wheels we had cannibalized from my wagon fell off. But he was fine and the craft was none the worse for wear, except for the broken wheel.
We made a trip back to the junkyard. The junkyard had the coolest dog, not like Croce’s “junkyard dog.” An enormous German Shepherd, he greeted everyone with a wagging tale and jumped up so you would pet him. While I played with the dog, Uncle Ed scoured the junkyard for better wheels. He finally found them. They were the front wheels from two old tractors. We needed 3.
He called me over and together we looked for a windshield, something not in the plans but after his test flight he thought it would make flying more enjoyable. I found an old motor cycle with a fairly pristine windshield. I think the junkman charged him $3.00 for it.
It took a few days to build a better axle and wheel assembly for the gyrocopter. Uncle Ed cleaned up the windshield and showed me how to weld it and the new axle assembly in place. I had never welded before. This should have been another clue. But it worked and everything looked rock solid.
Ed took more test flights over the next few weeks and everything went very well. He figured the gyro had a maximum speed of 40-50 miles per hour and could stay aloft for almost 90 minutes on a single tank of gas.
It was now November and pretty chilly in New Jersey. But Uncle Ed said our first flight together should be on Thanksgiving Day. He said we’d fly down to Atlantic City, about 40 miles from our house, land on the beach, get gas in a 5 gallon can at a local station, fill up the gyrocopter and fly home (even then there were no gas stations in Atlantic City that I knew of, but there was no correcting Uncle Ed). I ignored the logistical problems. I just wanted to fly in the thing. We worked for almost 5 straight months to build it, now I just wanted wings.
Thanksgiving morning it was freezing. We both put on our barn coats which were very thick but pretty beat up. My mother told us that dinner would be at 4 and Ed assured her that we’d be back long before that. Keep in mind if Uncle Ed had told my mother that we were going back to 1939 to kill Hitler, she would have replied, “That’s nice, have fun!”
We wheeled the gyrocopter out to the field. Uncle Ed did a very fastidious pre-flight check. We started the engine, strapped ourselves in and both put on the ridiculous leather helmets. I tried not to think of who owned the helmet I was wearing since I was sure it came from the First World War. Ed’s stories of filth and body lice back then were still fresh in my mind.
Even with the leather helmet, the noise was deafening. After a few hundred bumpy feet we sprung into the air. In a minute we were soaring over the trees headed straight for Atlantic City. A minute later, we both felt a snap. It was the left wheel. It had fallen off, luckily, except for a random squirrel or two, it dropped harmlessly into the woods.
Before wither of us could say “Shit!” the windshield fell off. Keep in mind that Uncle Ed checked my work very carefully after I did the welding. So much for quality control.
Although it was hard to hear him, I made out that he said we should still head to Atlantic City since it would be easier to land on the beach with just two wheels. I was hoping they would stay in place until we got there.
Fear removed any of the joy I should have been feeling as we soared toward A.C. After the longest 45 minutes of my life, we had the city in sight. Uncle Ed told me to check my seatbelt, which was already tighter than a bull’s ass in fly time (one of his favorite phrases.)
We flew out over the beach and, although Ed was having some problems with the controls, he got it down to a few feet above the beach. He cut the motor and we touched down pretty lightly considering we didn’t have a left wheel. When the naked axle hit the sand, we did what I can only describe as a modified ground loop. We spun around, dipped to the left and slammed to a stop. The main rotor struck the sand and half of it snapped off.
As Uncle Ed always told me, “Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing.” Okay, we didn’t die. Yea! I threw up, but just once.
We made pushed the gyro back from the water’s edge. Uncle Ed was sure it was far enough from the ocean to save it from the tide. We walked to the deserted boardwalk. Keep in mind that today, if the Air Force hadn’t shot us down, The Atlantic City Police would have been waiting to lock us up. On Thanksgiving Day in 1963, there was no one there.
Once on the boardwalk, we walked over to the only building that seemed open. It was a mission and was serving Thanksgiving dinner to the poor men who didn’t have a place to stay. Keep in mind, they were called hobos or bums back then. The word “homeless” had yet to be applied.
Remember we were both in our old ratty barn coats and looked pretty beat up from the flight and landing. We didn’t have any money with us, not even loose change and Uncle Ed never carried a wallet so we had no ID. A nice woman in a Salvation Army uniform welcomed us and said we could clean up and join them for dinner. Uncle Ed regaled her with the tale of the gyrocopter. She just smiled and said it was an interesting story but we’d have to clean up if we wanted to join them for food. Ed’s requests for a telephone also fell on deaf ears.
Always one to go with the flow, Ed finally smiled and nodded and we both went to the restroom to wash up. He told me to stay quiet. Again, just call me Morty. We had a lovely turkey dinner and some really wacko conversations with the men at our table. Obviously we were at the VIP table. One man was a king and another was the head of the FBI. Uncle Ed’s story about the gyrocopter seemed to fit right in.
After dinner, Uncle Ed again made a plea for a phone. Since long distance in those days was very expensive, they refused. Ed kept insisting and a couple of the uniformed men went with us to see the crashed gyrocopter. When we got there, apparently Uncle Ed was as bad a judge of tidal flow as he was of my welding skills. The gyro was gone and the ocean was nearly up to the boardwalk.
Until the day they died, I’m sure these men thought we were just a couple of bums. One of them asked us if we had a place to sleep. When Ed kept insisting that we had to get back to Williamstown, one of the uniformed men who was going to see his family in Glassboro (about 5 miles from our house) said he would drive us there.
It was a very quiet drive. Every time Ed tried to say something, the man would just nod his head like he was talking to a drunk, lunatic or both. When we got to our house, he waited until we went inside before he drove off. It was now about 7 PM and my mother went through the whole nonsense about being worried sick. However, in keeping with her modus operandi, she had not called the police. She just sat and worried. That’s what she always did. One of the many reasons Ed was really the one who raised me
She did ask Ed what happened to the gyrocopter and he said it sank in the marsh where we landed it. I was used to backing his sort-of-true stories so I agreed that was what happened.
We never tried to build another gyrocopter and Uncle Ed never spoke of the incident again. And I never let him see the $2.00 plans for jet powered bicycle I bought. However, a friend and his father built the jet engine and attached it to the rear fender of a bicycle. Luckily no one was burned with the jet tore the bumper off the bike and shot into a nearby field, starting a small fire.
I still read Popular Science, Popular Mechanics and Mechanics Illustrated. They have these cool plans for a laser death ray. They’re $19.99 but everything is more expensive these days. Laser death ray? “King of the world, Ma!”
Copyright 2015. No portion may be copied and posted or broadcast elsewhere without permission of the author.