When the `outside seat' was outside the plane

IN June 1921, Mr. Chandler, travel agent for the American Express in Minneapolis, folded the flaps on long business-sized envelopes addressed to Miss Isabel Shoemaker and Miss Rebecca Burt, saying, ``Here are all of your reservations. I was delighted to get excellent seats, outside seats, on the Handley Page plane, for your flight from Paris to London.'' ``Thank you,'' we replied, and left the office, ecstatic over the prospect of a three months' summer vacation abroad. The flight, at that moment, was somewhat incidental. However, Isabel said, as we walked up Nicollet Avenue, ``What do you suppose he meant by outside seats?''

``I've no idea,'' I answered, ``but perhaps they are window seats; I don't know anything really about planes, outside seats, or whatever.''

We dropped the subject and in our enthusiasm over being in Venice, Rome, and Paris, we gave little thought to our transportation to London until the day of our flight.

That day dawned, rainy and tumultuous. We went by car to LeBourget Field, hoping the flight would not be canceled. For some time we sat in the small shed-like terminal waiting eagerly for decisions about weather and the flight. Finally a favorable report came - the takeoff would really happen.

Presently two young men, Americans, approached Isabel and me, saying, ``Are you the two girls who have the outside seats? Because of the inclement weather, would you like to trade with us?''

A uniformed official was standing near and we asked him, ``What are outside seats?''

``Seats in the nose of the plane, in front of the pilot and mechanics.''

``Would we have any protection from the weather?''

He said simply, ``I'll be with you in a minute.'' Returning, he had in his arms two sheepskin-lined coverall suits, two helmets, earmuffs, goggles. We gave one look at the equipment and told the inquiring Americans that we would keep our reservations. Then Mr. Chandler's words rang in our ears - ``excellent seats, outside seats on the plane from Paris to London.''

I began unbuttoning my full-length leather coat, which I was wearing over a blue tweed suit. The official said, ``Keep your coat on. These coveralls go over your garments.'' He literally stuffed us into those airplane coveralls. All was well until we tried to walk. We simply could not lift our legs. We shuffled, two lumbering bears, dragging our feet through the mud, often slipping back two steps for every forward move. By the time we reached the metal ladder into the plane, locomotion was almost nil. Hanging onto the railing on each side of the ladder, we lifted ourselves, step by step, into the plane.

We steadied our shuffling gait up the inclined narrow aisle by holding onto the backs of the inside seats provided for the eight or 10 less fortunate passengers. Finally we reached the door to the open cockpit, and there saw the greatest problem of all. We would have to roll over the backs of the seats belonging to the pilot and the mechanic, then over the backs of the seats in the nose of the plane. Neither Isabel nor I had ever been cited for athletic prowess, but enthusiasm and desire accomplished for us this almost insurmountable hazard. When after an awkward struggle we gained upright positions in our seats, we looked at each other triumphantly. I don't recall being strapped in. I do remember that we fitted into the nose of that plane without an inch to spare.

The pilot and mechanic took their seats and as soon as they saw that we had regained equanimity, the pilot instructed us to give him our handbags, which we wouldn't see again until we landed at Croydon Field, London. He explained the necessity for this regulation since each of us had, for a close neighbor, an engine and a propeller. If anything got loose, it could easily fly into the propeller and cause an accident. One thing we were sure about was that we wouldn't get loose. Our heads and shoulders swiveled, but there was no room for body motion.

Then we were off. There was no discomfort in the ascent or at any time in the flight, but there was adventure. At first the nose of the plane worked its way along a ravine-like opening between two gray-black cloud cliffs, precipitous walls that hugged both sides of our little plane. Companioning with these shadowy clouds, as we did for a long time, was not terrifying but fascinating. Eventually we came into the open, leaving the long ravine behind. The sky was blue, the air cool and fresh against our faces, invigorating like a midwinter sleigh ride in Vermont.

A nudge on our backs (strong enough to get through coverall, leather coat, tweed jacket, and sweater) called our attention to the framed map the mechanic was holding. His finger located Beauvais, and we knew that the fancy little hatbox we were seeing below us was in reality Beauvais Cathedral. Not long after this, we were enveloped in opalescence, making our way into and through an enormous cloud, flying totally blind. This experience over, we saw again clear blue sky above and dainty bits of cumulus cloud drifting around us, little white powder puffs that floated teasingly near. The French countryside with its clearly defined walls, highways, rivers, was as neat and trim as patterned linoleum. We were probably flying 2,000 feet above it.

Our highest altitude of the whole trip was 3,000 feet, which we attained over the English Channel. This height, we were later informed, was a safety precaution, for, from that altitude, the pilot was convinced he could guide the plane to land on either French or English soil should an emergency occur. The Channel itself, with its different hues of green, blue, violet, indicating shallows and depths, made a lovely surface for the craft moving slowly in both directions. Over the Downs of southeast England, great herds of sheep feeding and moving in unison almost convinced us that a large woolly blanket was drifting gently over ``meadows trim with daisies pied.''

The engines roared on, the propellers whirred, and soon we sighted Croydon Field. We settled down there as smoothly as we had risen above Le Bourget. We had been aloft four hours, never exceeding a 90-mile-per-hour speed, and usually traveling more conservatively.

Doubtless our inside companions had busied themselves profitably with maps and attempts to identify landmarks. There had been little of that for us. We had identified with the elements: wind, sky, clouds, and with a plane that was proving man's dominion in the air.

We shed our paraphernalia at Croydon. After recovering our handbags and later our hearing, we spent the evening at a London theater. Our bodies were there; our thoughts were still drifting with the clouds. We had had an unforgettable experience, a four-hour flight from Paris to London in the nose seat of a Handley Page plane, in the year 1921.

Rebecca Burt was a high school teacher from Oak Park, Ill. Her essay, originally written for her niece's children one Christmas, was sent to The Home Forum by Barbara Ingels, a close friend.

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