Thirty Seconds Over Elma

Posted Fall, 1996

It's funny how things come when you least expect it. Last month, I mentioned just missing out on a local picnic where they'd had flour bombing. I was sorely's something I always wanted to try.

A week ago Sunday, I got my wish.

I've been assiduously following the local fly-in schedule for the Seattle area, managing to find an event to take Moonraker to just about every weekend since buying it. Mind you, I wasn't picky. When GENERAL AVIATION NEWS listed the "Wild Blackberry Festival and Fly-In" at Elma, Washington, I was all rarin' to go. And I don't even *like* blackberries. But Elma is just a hundred or so miles away.

Anyway, I mounted up that Sunday. The weather was fall-gorgeous...mostly clear skies, some puffy cumulous down around 2500 feet, about 65 degrees on the ground in Seattle. 65 degrees on the ground meant sixty degrees or less at Fly Baby altitudes, which made me rub my hands. Not with cold, though. Temperatures below 65 mean it's time to wear the leather flying jacket instead of the summerweight one. And with the leather jacket, I feel justified in wearing my old, tattered silk scarf, too.

Vain? *Me*? :-)

We launched about 12:30 and took a generally westbound course. I pity those who can't fly an open cockpit plane on a sunny fall day, especially in the region of Puget Sound. The route to Elma led over a bunch of the finger-like inlets of the south Sound area...the Vashon Straits, Carr Inlet, Case Inlet. Dark green fingers of the ocean interleaving with the green-backed islands. Powerboats leaving herringbone wakes. White sails rounding the points.

One thing I'm *not* vain about is my singing voice. It's bloody awful, but I *like* to sing. That's one nice thing about airplanes. No yelling neighbors, no giggling teenagers in the next car. All it takes is a precautionary shutting down of the radio before the first verse. And if anyone on the ground hears me, they probably think it's just a seagull with a bowel obstruction.

"So Paddy lay back ... take in the slack
Take a turn around the capstan, heave a pawwwllll
'Bout ship stations, boys, be handy (be handy)
We're bound for Valaparaiso 'round the Horn!"

With all the boats on the sound, sea chanties seemed about right. Chanties make excellent songs to sing while flying...being designed to be roared at the top of the lungs with only a casual nod to the proper notes.

So I bellowed my way to Elma. There's an arm of the Sound that points like a finger towards a saddle in the hills beyond which the town lies. It's actually easy to spot from a long way off...two nuclear cooling towers lie a few miles southwest of the field.

I turned on the radio and crossed midfield at 1500 feet. I could see a small plane taking off to the west. I crossed past the downwind leg, teardropped back, and entered the pattern behind an Ercoupe.

As usual with an unfamiliar field, I landed a bit long and hot. There was a pretty good crowd of airplanes there, so I was trying to paint Moonraker on. I missed the center-field turnoff and had to back-taxi from the end.

It was a typical small-airport fly-in, except for one thing: The plane was packed with Ercoupes! The owner is a member of the Ercoupe club, and the club apparently makes the Elma Fly-In a yearly activity. In addition to the Ercoupes, six RV-4s of Arlington's BlackJack squadron were in attendance, plus a Kitfox and a number of Cessnas.

I wriggled out of the 'Baby, answered the usual questions, and headed toward the registration table. They had a chalk board with upcoming activities. Some I had missed...the precision landing contest, etc. But the board said "2:00 Flour Bombing".

I was surprised. I had been there last year, but they'd had skydiving teddy bears instead of flour bombs. Small stuffed bears with hankerchief parachutes, dropped from a hundred or so feet up. The bloodthirsty side of me had enjoyed it...watching those 'chutes streamer and the bears pancaking onto the tarmac and the surrounding bushes.

"You've got flour bombing this year, not the bears?" I asked.

"We spent too much time digging the bears out of the trees. It's $2.50 per bomb, and your bombardier is one of the kids who have signed up."

"Ohhh... well, guess I can't do it. Single-seat airplane."

No, they assured me...they'd love for me to participate. So $5 later, I was the possessor of two flour bombs.

I'd always wondered how to figure out what kind of trajectory to assume. I lofted the bombs, lightly. Just a kid's-fist-sized dollop of flour in a baggie. Not much mass, lots of drag. The Ghost of Tiger Cole leans over my shoulder: "We'll just drop 'em like retarded snake-eyes...."

Fictional BNnies aside, I figured my ordnance wouldn't have much penetration. Not much lead, then.

The next problem was carrying them. No bomb racks on the 'Baby (yet :-). I could carry them in my lap...but they're likely to slide onto the floor where I can't reach them. Tendrils of white flour puffed from the bags as I looked them over. Of course I was wearing black pants. I could just see stuffing them in my crotch and having one "go off". It would leave a REAL interesting white splotch, it would.

I fiddled around my leather jacket and found the bombs fit well in the front pockets. Leave the shoulder harness a bit loose, and they'd be fine. Lock the throttle on final, reach into the pocket, drop the bomb, and firewall the engine.

Time for the briefing. "Come over at 50 or 100 feet," the organizer said, "Though we ain't gonna check. Your target is the word "ELMA" painted lengthwise on the runway."

I mounted up. Plane upon plane passed by...all Ercoupes flown by older men, all with excited kids in the right seat. Then I started getting nervous. I didn't really mind it if I missed the target. I just didn't want to get shown up too much by some kid in a 'coupe. I set my altimeter to zero and joined the parade.

I launched last and stayed with the pattern circus. I was just entering downwind as the first Ercoupe made its run. He almost merged with his 100-foot-high run, this. I couldn't really make out where the bomb went. I continued around the pattern. Turning a wide base behind another 'Coupe, I set the throttle to about 2000 RPM, twisted the lock, and gingerly pulled a flour bomb out of my jacket pocket.

Turning final...well, most of you have realized by now that I have a Walter Mitty complex a mile wide. I should have been lining my Swordfish up on the Bismarck. I should have been hurling my Thunderbolt at a Jagdpanther tucked in a hedgerow in the Falaise gap. I should have been thumbing the mike switch on my F-84F, calling "Baker Blue Three is green and hot."

Instead, I was saying to myself, "Pleeeassee don't let me look stupid compared to a bunch of kids and rudder-pedal-less geezers."

A quarter mile out, two hundred feet up. Speed 100. I see the letters, with a line of irregular white specks clustered to the left. Crosswind? I rudder a bit to the right. Over the threshold, 100 feet and dropping, speed 90 and dropping. I start pulling out. I've got my left hand hanging over the edge of the cockpit, as low as it'll go. I met a guy who spread a friend's ashes from a Fly Baby, he let them go close to the top of the wing. I'll do the same thing.

We're flat, about 75 feet up. Speed dropping, I can tell by the singing wires. ELMA slides toward the nose. The "E" touches the leading edge of the wing.

I drop.

Power on full. Glance at the airspeed...75 and climbing. Pull up. Shoot a glance over my shoulder, just a quick one.

Was that a hit, right near the center of the letters, slightly to the right of centerline? Did I just imagine it? Was it someone else's?

How the heck to I correct for *next* time?

All the way around, I wondered how I'd done. Should I drop the same way? Later? Earlier? Without anything to judge by, all I can do is try the same thing again.

I duplicate the run, but with a little more power. I don't look back this time.

Around I go, one more time, for a full-stop. There are still lots of planes in the pattern, so I work on short landing, not a smooth one. I succeed totally, with a short but bouncy landing.

They direct me to the first available parking spot, which is right across from the letters. I shut down the engine and start to unbuckle.

Feet pound up. "Great job, buddy! Great job!"

I rise to the occasion with my usual wit. "Huh?"

The man waved toward the runway. There were but two white smears close to the letters "ELMA". One on the left leg of the "M" and the other on the right leg.

"You hit it *both times*!"

Yowza. So I did. I felt ten feet tall and covered with hair. I felt deep pity for any pirate vessel that happened to be on Puget Sound on my way back home.

As luck would have it, I didn't win first place. I was standing by a man as his son came by in one of the Ercoupes, and Sean nailed the center "V" of the "M".

Sean went home in the money, but I didn't care. I'll probably never hit the broad side of a hangar again with anything but a wingtip...but I had my moment of glory in Elma, Washington. And another glorious trip back home....

"A rovin', a rovin', though rovin's been my ruuu-eye-ennn,
I'll go no more a rovin' with you, fair maid...."

Ron Wanttaja

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