Fly Boys

When Hal Wider came to Gambier in autumn 1937, he recalls his most earnest intention was to "major in girls," though another passion ultimately made him a prime candidate for membership in the Kenyon College Flying Club.

"I always knew I was going to fly someday," the ninety-one-year-old Wider said recently from the Camarillo, California, home from which he routinely ventures out to give sailing lessons. "My dad was one of the first military pilots during World War I. I grew up knowing Eddie Rickenbacker as Uncle Rick."

A Winnetka, Illinois, native, Wider spent his youth building balsa biplanes when he was not among the throngs in attendance at air shows and races. He was eight years old when Charles Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris. The same summer pioneer aviator Amelia Earhart went missing in her quest to fly around the world, Wider got his first good look at the twin 2,000-foot grass airstrips of Port Kenyon and the hangar that sheltered the Aeronca aircraft he would eventually pilot.

In 1934, Port Kenyon had notched the distinction of becoming the first officially recognized airport at a liberal arts college in the United States. The landing field, hangar, two training planes, and funds to establish a chair of aeronautics were a gift to Kenyon that year by Wilbur Cummings, a Class of 1902 graduate and a New York lawyer with the foresight to grasp the future certainty that flight would be a world-changing phenomenon.

Tragically, Cummings would die in 1941 after being thrown from a horse and trampled at the Montana ranch of his son. That son, Wilbur Cummings, Jr., would be killed in an air crash east of Columbus, Ohio, in 1943, while ferrying a military plane for the government.

Yet, the dream of the elder Cummings about flight at his alma mater was to blossom and grow in ways that its benefactor may never have imagined. In 1937 and 1939, Kenyon won the National Intercollegiate Air Meet competition. In 1938, vying for the championship at the University of Akron against a host of college pilots from across the country, Kenyon's aviators shared the first-place trophy with Stanford's. The schools had dueled one another in every challenge from bombing accuracy—dropping flour-filled paper bags—to pinpoint landing.

A few academic purists sniffed at the notion that Kenyon had been an eager partner in establishing the Wilbur L. Cummings School of Practical Aeronautics. But, Cummings vigorously defended what he had forged by pointing out the intellectual value of courses such as physics and meteorology that members of Kenyon's flying club were required to pass in the process of learning to fly. He said that his chief desire was that students "achieve an understanding through vicarious interest in what is going on in the world of aviation."

College officials issued a statement aimed at detractors, who believed that an august institution of learning such as Kenyon should not be dabbling in an activity so closely associated with county-fair barnstormers and seat-of-the-pants pilots. The statement pointed out that the aeronautics school "is of distinct advantage to a young man who is primarily interested in obtaining the benefits of a cultural education at an institution of higher learning."

The elevated language was lost on Kenyon student Wider, who happily concedes today, "I was a lousy student, a terrible student, but I was eager to get into the air."

During the first flourishing years of aviation training at the College, Donald McCabe Gretzer, a licensed commercial pilot and flight instructor, shepherded groups of enthusiastic students both at the grass airstrips on the far fringe of the campus as well as in a classroom and laboratory that featured airplane engines, portions of frames, and a number of other flight devices common to the era.

Gretzer taught Wider the scientific aspects of flight, though the latter intimates that what enchanted him about the proverbial "wild blue yonder" was the first word. Wild is a distinction that fit Wider quite comfortably at Kenyon. "We probably would have been arrested if we were doing it today," he said of some of the stunts pulled by the more devilish members of the flying club. They buzzed the campus buildings.

"We had to come in over Old Kenyon," Wider remembers, "with all of those spires coming up. [Gretzer] insisted that we stay at least fifty feet above it. But there was a power line along the downwind side of the field where the railroad ran, so we would turn upwind and dive into the field, keeping enough speed so we could climb over that power line." To residents of Old Kenyon, the roar of the incoming plane's pistons likely created the sensation that their dorm was about to be strafed.

Wider learned to be a pilot at Kenyon, though his major was not a closely related academic pursuit. "I was persuaded to major in psychology. I had every intention of going on with it, but they were having this war when I finished up in June of 1941." The summer and autumn that followed would be the last stretch of peacetime the nation would know for almost four years.

Wider would go on to pilot B-24 bombers, logging seventeen combat missions over Germany, Austria, and occupied Poland. On one of those missions, he said, a burst of anti-aircraft flak peppered his plane with 300 holes, wounded his tail gunner, and compelled him to nurse the bomber back to its base on a wing and a prayer. After his war years in the European theater, he never flew again.

Even today, though, Wider fondly remembers the man who taught him to fly at Kenyon.

"He was a helluva nice guy," he said of Gretzer, "and he was relaxed with us. He was 'Don' instead of 'Doctor' or 'Mister.' He taught me the physics of flight, weather, and navigation. He was a damned good teacher." Wider never told Gretzer about the times that he pulled his 1937 Ford up to the gasoline pump that was used to fuel the planes and pilfered a tankful at Kenyon's expense.

Kenyon students continued to fly for many years, but Wider's era and the flying club held a kind of glamour for later Kenyon generations. "I guess there was a kind of lore about it," Andy Bourland '73 said. But the thirty-plus years that separated Wider's and Bourland's days at the College had been rough on Port Kenyon and what had once been a celebrated school of aeronautics.

"There were no aviation classes," Bourland said he discovered when he first came to Gambier in 1969. "The flying club was the sum total of the involvement the school had with it. They did mow the runway a couple times a year. We hired a farmer to make the field a little bit better and he made it a little bit worse. There were probably a few resident groundhogs."

Mike Damchak '74, today a Columbus lawyer, said, "With groundhogs and things like that, you really don't want to land a plane on a grass strip unless it is being used all the time."

Damchak, who earned his pilot's license while at Kenyon, said of what had once been Wilbur Cumming's dream, "The hangars had been used for storing athletic equipment for years." They were filled with the blocking sleds used by the football team. "The flying club basically existed only as an arrangement with the Mount Vernon airport to rent airplanes cheaply. I think it was $10 an hour including gasoline, which would be ludicrous at today's prices." Damchak learned of Bourland, he said, because of the latter's nickname at Kenyon: "Airplane Andy."

"Airplane Andy" now works as a commercial pilot for a Cleveland corporation and is also a flight instructor. He said of his days in the flying club, "For me, personally, it forged some lifelong friendships and provided me with the basic skills to have what was has been an exceptionally rewarding career. That little airstrip at Kenyon has enabled me to cover all fifty states, almost all of the Canadian provinces, much of South America, and another ten to fifteen foreign countries." He and three other former members of the flying club still get together every two years to recall their days at Kenyon.

Truth be told, the beginning of the end for flying at Kenyon began with a tragic accident that occurred decades before Bourland and Damchak graduated.

In May 1956, a Knox County farmer looked up from his work to see a small plane struggling to maintain altitude. He would later tell authorities that he distinctly heard the engine sputter to a stop before the craft dropped from the sky. Two Kenyon students, Charles Frederick Walch, Class of 1957, and Arnold Perry Gilpatrick, Class of 1958, perished. The tragedy cast a lingering shadow over the activities at Port Kenyon. In 1972, citing the expense of upkeep, the school asked the Federal Aviation Commission to decommission the airport, removing it from its air maps.

The Kenyon College Flying Club now resides in the archives of the school. Its story is told in old photographs of devotees of flight posing with their instructor or gossiping in the knotty-pine lounge that was once part of the hangar.

An old logbook from 1941 records that a pair of students had dutifully earned seventy-five cents toward their flying fees by washing the planes in the hangar. Another entry cites a student's payment of $2.50 to use the Kenyon plane for takeoff and landing practice. The log entries end abruptly at the end of the first week of December with the notation that a student had taken up a plane to hone his skills in the clouds. The time was 12:47 p.m. Fifteen minutes later, Hawaii time, Japanese pilot Mitsuo Fuchida looked down from the sky at the dreadnaughts lined up on Battleship Row and signaled his fellow pilots to begin the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Wilbur Cummings had been right about flight changing the nature of history.

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