Yesteryears: Aviation's early days, Part 2 - The Daily Progress: Lifestyles

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Yesteryears: Aviation's early days, Part 2

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Posted: Sunday, July 22, 2012 7:00 am | Updated: 3:20 pm, Tue Jan 22, 2013.

Richard Whitmore’s dream of flying didn’t die just because he couldn’t get his first airplane off the ground.

In 1929, he used the money from the sale of the Curtis Jenny aircraft he and his buddies had repaired to purchase an airplane in flying condition. He forked over $550 for a used Alexander Eaglerock biplane — a favorite with barnstormers.

Now, the would-be aviator had to learn to fly. Finding a flight instructor proved more difficult than finding an airplane.

“In those days, you had to own a plane if you wanted to fly,” Whitmore told The Daily Progress during a 1970 interview. “No one was going to trust you to bust up their plane while you learned.”

Whitmore got his flying license and started his aviation career as a barnstormer. Entertaining spectators with barrel rolls and other feats of aerial derring-do was seat-of-the-pants flying at its best.

Great advances in aeronautics had been made by the time Whitmore did the 1970 interview. Nonetheless, his heart still belonged to the aircraft of old.

“If you can get your hands on one of those good old machines, keep it,” Whitmore advised. “You could take the oldest plane and fix it up better than new.

“The new ones can’t get up short on a flying strip. Those older planes had something. They had the strength to withstand stress and aerobatics, which most planes built since 1930 can’t withstand.

“[Newer planes would] fall apart under some flight conditions that those older ones wouldn’t. Of course, those old ones were noisy and drafty, and the wind could really bounce them about.”

In addition to being a great pilot, Whitmore was a crackerjack mechanic. During World War II he worked as a civilian mechanic at a naval flying school in Montvale.

In January 1945, Whitmore packed up and moved north to begin managing the Gordonsville Municipal Airport. The former farm field had been transformed into an airfield in 1933.

Aside from the runway and a windsock, about the only thing that identified it as an airport was a large hangar. The World War I hangar originally had been at Langley Field before being disassembled and reconstructed at its new home.

Whitmore admitted the airport wasn’t much when he arrived, but added that “it was the best one around.” He made it much better.

In 1950, University of Virginia student Richard Davis was out for a drive when he noticed the airport sign. Curious, he drove in to take a look.

“I just wandered in there to see what was going on, and ended up taking my first flight lesson,” said Davis, who now lives in Albemarle County. “Through that process I met Dick and spent many, many hours hanging out there and listening to all his wonderful tales about trips here and there.

“For maybe five years, I was his partner in Aero Mart, which operated at the airport. He was a valued friend and an asset to the town of Gordonsville.

“He was the last of the old-time mechanics. I’m reminded of an airplane I was selling, and when the new buyer came to get it, we discovered the muffler had a hole in it.

“Most people would have put a new muffler on, but that would have cost something like $5,000. Dick built a whole new muffler. It was just amazing what he could do.”

Whitmore managed the airport until 1971. He didn’t mention any plans for retirement during the 1970 interview.

All the old barnstormer would say in that regard was that he intended to keep flying at least until he was 90. Or as long as he could keep passing his Federal Aviation Administration physical.

The aviation authorities have gotten a lot stricter in the years since Whitmore first experienced the joyous thrill of flight.

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