The view from above: Fascination of air travel draws pilots, daredevils of all stripes



March 9, 2018 - 12:00 AM

You’re in the cockpit of a B-1 bomber. It’s the middle of the night. You’re somewhere over northern New Mexico, slicing through the black sky at about 600 knots. There are four of you in the plane. The copilot to your right, his face made ghoulish by the green glow of the instrument panel. Seated behind you — you can see them if you strain — are your two weapons systems officers. Outside the aircraft is all engine noise and rushing air.

And then it happens: the plane begins to fall from the sky.

You check your altimeter: 15,000 feet. You’re losing altitude. 10,000 now. 9,000. 8,000. The plane is no longer under your control. 3,000 feet, now 2,000. The ground closing in. You’re at 1,000 feet. And then, at precisely 500 feet above the desert floor, the 400,000 pound metal casket that is towing you earthward ceases its descent, landing like a feather on an invisible cushion of air.

But the ride isn’t over. At this point, the bomber — the “Bone,” as its nickname runs — races forward, hugging the ground at a determined 500 feet. Now, here you are, traveling again at 600 mph, still enclosed by darkness. The plane seems to be flying itself. You can’t see five feet in front of the windshield. You peer down at your display radar; there’s elevation ahead, a mountain range, and you’re heading straight for the rock face. Just before impact, however, the machine, on its own, lifts swiftly up and over the cliffs and then resumes its parallel journey along the earth’s surface — back at 500 feet — maintaining its same poised distance from the ground, as steady as a sea bird over open water.

But none of this is a surprise to you. It’s all been according to plan. Just before your hasty descent from 15,000 feet you had enabled the B-1’s terrain following system, an aerospace technology that sends radar waves down into the ground in front of the plane; a system which, when combined with the plane’s autopilot function, allows the bomber to sustain a fixed altitude above ground level. The technology was originally created as a way to breach enemy territory beneath the level of radar detection.

“With this system, you’re turning the aircraft but you’re not controlling the up-and-down. The plane itself is controlling that,” explained Tyler Ringwald, a graduate of Iola High School, a former flight instructor, and, at 29 years old, an active B-1 bomber pilot in the United States Air Force. “If anything goes wrong, the plane is auto-cued to go up and away from the ground. The computer does that for you. If it senses any weird glitch or any other danger, it instantly climbs you away from the ground. Obviously the biggest threat in this business is the ground. It wouldn’t take you a second to just….” Tyler makes a downward gliding motion with his hand. “It definitely requires a lot of trust in the technology.”


WHILE THE aeronautical technology in a plane like the Rockwell B-1 Lancer is of brain-bending sophistication, its very existence depends on the humble but no less ingenious tinkering of two bachelor brothers a century prior. To celebrate this history of air travel, the Iola Reads committee — in conjunction with their winter book selection, David McCullough’s “The Wright Brothers” — have funneled months of planning into Iola’s first-ever aeronautics fair. The fair, held at Riverside Park on Tuesday, runs from 1 to 7 p.m., and is open to plane spotters of all ages.


WITH ITS WIDE skies and crop-tiled terrain, the vast prairie sea of Kansas has long been a favorite setting for avid aeronauts — flyover country in the very best sense — and this has included southeast Kansas, too.  

For instance, in October of 1911, the Viz Fin Flyer, the first aircraft to fly coast-to-coast across the United States, made an unexpected pit stop in Moran. Rural telephones notified farmers from miles around that the flying machine was circling overhead. A large crowd gathered to see the fabled pilot, Calbraith Perry Rodgers, put his biplane down in Alfred Johnson’s cow pasture. A train following the Vin Fiz Flyer pulled into the station just after Rodgers landed, at which point the aviator’s wife, Mabel, rushed toward the plane with two sandwiches and a quart of milk, which the large aviator swallowed in a hurry. Rodgers stretched his limbs one last time and was gone. But for as long as the first-ever transcontinental flight is remembered, Moran will be a significant bullet point in its story.

The Iola Register recorded, too, the early doings of Colony-native Merle “Mudhole” Smith, who, in the middle part of last century, ascended the ranks from bush pilot to president of an Alaska airline, with stints as a wartime rescue pilot and circus barnstormer in between.

In 1976, in fact, Mudhole Smith was named to the Aviation Pioneers Hall of Fame, where his plaque hangs alongside those bestowed upon the brightest lights in aviation history — the Wright brothers, Lindberg, Rodgers, Clyde Cessna, William Piper, Amelia Earhart.

But Mudhole’s ascent wasn’t without the usual turbulence that accompanies the overeager strivings of ambitious young people. The Register, at the time, recorded a conversation with one Iolan, Mrs. Flora Farris, who recalled meeting Mudhole in 1935.

As a Colony High School teacher and junior-class sponsor, Farris had taken her class to the Colony fair where Mudhole was selling rides on his Stearman biplane. One of the junior girls begged to go, but couldn’t without Mrs. Farris as escort. After much pleading the teacher reluctantly agreed to go. As she tells the story:

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