“You ought to shoot the EAA airshow, you like planes so much!”
“Heh – did the Yakima airshow once. Flew over there in Fifi.”
And so of course, I had to explain.
I’m an airplane nut, and years ago was a photojournalist, and any time I could put the two together, I would.
There was a time when a B-17 and an LB-30 (non – combat version of the plane most people would recognize as a B-24) would show up at Seattle’s Boeing field, not much of an announcement, they’d just show up. I went down there with a friend and used up a good bit of the week’s grocery money buying a walk-through tour of the planes. It was a lot of fun… I got some nice pictures – and it was fun to watch and hear the Pratt & Whitneys on the one, and the Wright Cyclones on the other rumble to life.
My wife has said I could start a conversation with anyone, and in this case, I did just that, and ended up chatting with the pilot of the LB-30, who happened to be a United Airlines Pilot living just 30 miles south of Seattle. He gave me his business card.
The LB-30 came back two years later – but with a much bigger friend from Boeing, this being what was then the Confederate Air Force’s (now known as the Commemorative Air Force) mighty B-29, with the decidedly un-mighty name of “Fifi”
Since I’d already seen the LB-30, I figured I’d see what the inside of a B-29 looked like, and used up a bigger chunk of my weekly grocery budget than last time to pay for a walk-through tour of it.
The plane, while huge on the outside, wasn’t made for comfort inside, but utility. As I moved through it, I’d find hand-holds exactly where I reached for and needed them. Definite utility – but there wasn’t a lot cushioning of anything, after all, it was a military plane.
…and as I went forward I saw a leather bomber’s jacket on the map table on the left.
Not just any leather bomber’s jacket – but the one that had the name of the pilot I’d chatted with two years earlier.
And thus began one of my “Only you, Tom… Only you…” stories..
See, this plane had come up to Seattle from Salem, Oregon.
The local CBS affiliate, KIRO, had driven from Seattle to Salem.
They’d gotten on the plane in Salem and flown back to Seattle, videotaping the whole flight.
From inside the airplane.
It was considered a major coup at the time. They landed, they drove to the station, edited their stuff, and were on the air.
Needless to say, I was down there at the airport shortly after that.
And with that, a most evil and sneaky plan started festering – no – germinating (that sounds healthier) in my mind.
I found myself wondering what their plans were after Seattle -and it turned out they were going to be part of the airshow over in Yakima.
So the day they were heading over there I went down again, and found the pilot I’d talked to two years earlier…
“Hey, Dick, you got anyone from the Yakima paper covering this?”
(Note: Evil, festering germinating plan being: “I’m planning on doing what KIRO did.” – not because I was brilliant, not because I had permission, but because nobody had told me I couldn’t, and I didn’t know any better than to think I couldn’t just wander down to Boeing field and talk my way onto the only flying B-29 just because I had a camera…)
So I went to the pay phone inside the Museum of Flight, plunked in a few quarters, and called the Yakima Herald Republic, where my friend Jimi Lott had been the photo editor, and asked them if they were covering this. They said yes, they were. So I figured my chances were slim, to none. But about 15 minutes before scheduled takeoff, the photographer still hadn’t shown up, so I called them back and was a little more specific in my question.
“Do you have anyone in Seattle covering this? Someone who’s going to get on the plane and fly with it, shooting all the way?
Then I got all young and stupid and just about yelled at the photo editor there for not having a photographer ready to fly back there on the plane…
They didn’t have anyone in Seattle covering this?
They didn’t have anyone in Seattle covering this…
Gad… Didn’t they know what a piece of history this was?
Didn’t they realize they were missing a once in a lifetime event?
Didn’t they –
–the photo editor finally had enough of my attitude and said, “Now what did you say your name was again?”
“Tom Roush…. Jimi Lott’s a friend of mine.”
Jimi used to be his boss.
“Right, so what do you want me to do?”
The light went on…
THEY DIDN’T HAVE ANYONE IN SEATTLE COVERING THIS!
“Well, you don’t have anyone here, right? So here’s what I’m planning on doing… I’m gonna walk out there and see if I can talk my way onto the plane. If I can, I’ll be over there in about 45 minutes or so…. You want color or black and white?”
“Uh… Color, I guess…”
“Right. I’ll call you when I’m at the airport.”
I got off the phone with the photo editor, left the Museum of Flight, and walked out toward the plane, which was surrounded by this teeming throng of people, just in time to hear someone yell, “Okay, where’s the photographer?”
And I, Tom Roush…
…who’d driven down there on a whim, and had just convinced the photo editor of a newspaper I’d never seen to buy a picture I’d only be able to take if I could get onto a plane I’d promised the pilot I’d get onto the front page of a newspaper that…
(yeah, I still have to read that sentence a couple of times myself – still working out the catch:22ness of it all)
…called out, “HERE!”
Moses himself couldn’t have parted the crowd any better.
I waved my hand, and “Fwwwwooomp” – Instant walkway. I walked through, feeling simultaneously embarrassed at the attention, and elated beyond words that it was happening.
I tossed my itty bitty duffel bag onto the plane, swung the camera bag up, climbed up, and in 5 minutes we were gone.
They’d started up this noisy little air cooled V-4 Wisconsin motor like my Grampa had on his hay baler – but this was attached to a honking generator. (If you ever saw the NOVA: B-29 Frozen in Time special, it is this generator that broke free and started the fire.) They used the V-4’s generator to run the starter for the number 3 engine. Once that was running, they used the generator on that engine to start up the rest. I could see the tops of the cylinders vibrating a bit through the open cowl flaps as the propellers blew the smoke from starting those big radial engines away.
We taxied out to the runway, and I was treated to one of the smoothest flights I’ve ever been on.
But we didn’t just fly up to altitude, fly over, land… No, we played tag with the LB-30, buzzed a few airfields, and flew past – not over – Mt. Rainier. I hung out the side bubbles and shot up, down, left, right, directions you simply can’t see in a normal airplane.
There was a little stool that you could sit on that got your head up into another little bubble so you could see out the top of the plane. I sat on that and looked out there for a bit – until one of the crew members asked me to let another fellow up – who’d paid $300.00 for the privilege of this flight.
I’d completely forgotten that this might be something people would pay to do, much less be ABLE to pay to do. I got down and was just amazed at where I was and what all was happening. (remember, I’d gone on that $10.00 tour – which had used up a good chunk of my weekly grocery budget.)
As we came close to Mt. Rainier, I asked the crew back where I was if they could get the LB-30 between us and the mountain. They called up to the pilot, he called over to the other plane, and as he flew underneath us, I got some shots of the LB-30 beneath us with apple orchards beneath it
But then, then I got the shot of the only flying LB-30 in the world, taken from the only flying B-29 in the world in front of Washington’s tallest hunk of rock.
And… and it was kind of special…
The next thing I knew we were on approach to Yakima, and we buzzed the Yakima field once and then came in to land. I hurriedly said my goodbyes and explained I had to make a deadline. I found a huge bank of temporary pay phones (this was BC, before cellphones) and called the paper, got the photo department, and got the photo editor I’d gotten all stupid over less than an hour before.
“Hey, this is Tom, I’m here.”
“Here… Here? Where’s here?”
Billy Crystal couldn’t have said it better.
Which airport – what kind of a question was that? I mean, I’d just talked to him, I’d told him where I was going to be – where did he expect me to be?
“Well Yakima, of course.”
<more stunned silence… >
…and in a voice tinged with resignation, I heard, “I’ll have someone there to pick you up.”
Ten minutes later, a white Toyota, driven by the same photo editor I’d been talking to on the phone, arrived to take me to the paper, where while we chatted, the film was processed, edited, and then, with a press pass to the airshow, returned to me.
I didn’t really know what to do after the paper went to the printers – so I found a hotel, a Super 8, I think, for $35.00, had some dinner at a nearby restaurant, and went to bed.
The next morning I walked to a nearby Denny’s where I found a whole bunch of Air National Guard photojournalists who were covering the airshow sitting at a table looking at the front page of the local paper.
A picture of an LB-30 in front of Mt. Rainier.
The picture had made page 1.
We talked and laughed and told war stories to each other over coffee, and they, realizing that my car was about 150 miles away, kindly invited me to ride out to the airshow with them. They gave me a press pass, too. I was like the proverbial kid in a candy store. I could go anywhere I wanted. I could get photos of planes I’d never seen before, or since. I could watch the aerial demonstrations of the A-10 Warthog, I could watch things blow up, and I could do it all from in front of the front row.
There was NOTHING between me and the airplanes – in fact, anyone taking pictures of the planes got the back of my head in the bottom of their pictures.
How unutterably cool.
I shot and wandered, and wandered and shot, got sunburned, had a cheap hot dog and chatted with pilots and crew and just had the time of my life, and when they started firing up some of those big engines to leave, I knew it was time for me to head out, too, so I walked into the terminal, found the Horizon Airlines desk, called Jimi to see if he could pick me up at SeaTac, and then bought a ticket back to Seattle for $45.00.
As we flew back, I saw the same scenery as I’d seen coming over, but it was different, and I was different.
Jimi came to pick me up when I got to SeaTac, and we talked and laughed as he took me back to Boeing field and the Museum of Flight where I’d left the Saab the day before. In a few days the paper sent me a check for $35.00 (the same that the Super 8 motel charged me.)
For the price of a flight back and a couple of phone calls, I’d had a weekend to remember, and the experience of a lifetime.