National Geographic : 1926 Jan
ON TH'il TRAIL, OF THE' AIR MAll, hauntingly intermingled, that may well color one's whole "sentiment of exist ence" forever. MAIL. PILOTS TAKE, WEATHER AS IT COMES The Mail pilots, of course, must take the weather as it comes, and be prepared for the worst. They must know at an instant's glance every hill and house. every road and river, every "one-limbed cottonwood and obscure woodpile" along a track from o1 to 20 miles wide and nearly 500 miles long. And they must know them under all the confusing conditions of which one can possibly conceive-forward or back ward, wrapped in haze or fog, swept bare or buried in snow, under the trembling light of the stars or transformed by the occult power of the moon. Like that vanished race of Mississippi River pilots, they must learn their long course as "you follow a hall at home in the dark"; and like them, too, they are as picturesque a type as in those old steamboat days when "every man was half a horse and half an alligator." Pilot "Dog" Collins once remarked that he had so much to remember it made him stoop-shouldered. Nor are all their troubles confined to the air. On stormy, threatening nights, when the clouds hang low over the hills, it is the custom to telephone to the emer gency fields for last-minute advice on the weather. But the local, nonaeronautical caretaker often fails ludicrously to supply what is wanted. "Some of them were so green at first," exclaimed Pete, "that they didn't know a propeller from wild honey! We called up a chap one night and inquired, 'How high is your ceiling?' He must have taken a quick glance around his office, for after a pause he said, 'About Io feet, I think; but if you'll wait a minute I'll measure it'! "Last winter I put through a call to a caretaker at one of the Nebraska fields. '1 low's the weather?' I asked. 'Not so bad for this time o' year,' was his answer. "But the worst problem is on the East ern Division. The only caretakers that could be found for three of the Allegheny fields speak nothing but Pennsylvania Dutch-and this within Ioo miles of Philadelphia !' It is one of Pete's delightful weak nesses to succumb under the naive prompt ings of confiding strangers, and to enter tain them with the most picturesque and admiralble yarns. For his sophisticated air-mates he usually reserves only dull and ineffectual facts. "SAN FRANCISCO OR Il'ST" On this night, however, I had broken through his restraint. 1 e warmed to his subject and wandered off into impossible tales of his feats as an aerial dare-devil. Nly quiet warning to consider \lark Twain's injunction about dressing his facts in tights and not in ulsters fell on deaf ears. lair-raising climax was piled on climax. "Enough!" I cried out at last. "Tell that to the grease-monkeys! We both need sleep for our flight to-morrow. Re member-it's 'San Francisco or bust!' " That last was an ill-chosen slogan, for at high noon the next day we very nearly "busted" landing at Elko, Nevada, 200 miles west of Salt Lake. A shallow, un marked ditch lay hidden under the June grass at one end of the field, and into it we rolled, breaking the undercarriage. As an "office flyer" I may have some points, but as a ditch jumper I am a dis tinguished failure! (see page 45). Nor was it any consolation to find the "bones" of three or four other planes whitening near by, under the scraggy sagebrush. Still, the damage was far from irreparable. A radio to the Army Reserve station at Salt Lake quickly brought a new undercarriage by airplane, and late the next afternoon we were in the air again, headed joyfully toward Reno. By train the distance is more than 300 miles; but beyond Beowawe we deserted the tracks to follow the shorter air trail over Carson Sink, thereby saving 70 miles. This land is all part of that vast inland plateau between the Wasatch and Sierra Nevada ranges. Cut by a hundred minor mountain groups that rise several thou sand feet above the general 5,ooo-foot level, and draining to neither sea, it lies silently aloof, in ashen baldness, wrapped in an ominous neutrality, in a solemn sus pense of waiting.