The times we made the sky rain candy

It's nice to see community volunteers getting some good press lately. The people serving their neighbors in multitudes of ways aren't out for fame or fortune, of course, but an occasional acknowledgment of their contribution is still welcome. I know. I received one note of thanks that I'll never forget.

Some of my volunteerism did have ulterior motives. When I served with the Civil Air Patrol, it was largely for the free airplane rides and to hang out at the airport. The pilots were probably a little more altruistic. They did it to be helpful and because they loved to fly.

CAP's major function is to search for downed planes. Since I wasn't a pilot, my job was to sit in the back seat of the small plane and peer down at the ground looking for signs of a crash. I never spotted anyone who needed rescuing, but I learned to talk in radio code ("This is alpha, zulu, tango, two, zero, niner ..." ) and how to tell a Cessna 180 from a Piper Cherokee.

I also learned the most critical factors for flying a rescue mission: (1) High-wing planes are better for searching, because you don't have a wing blocking your view downward. (2) Look out one side of the plane only. If you peer from side to side, back and forth, out both windows, you're likely to need an airsick bag. (3) Always go to the bathroom before you fly a search. There are no restrooms in the back of a Cessna 150.

One of the real perks of the job came in the spring and summer. Each town in our area has its own local celebration - Peach Days, Strawberry Days, Art City Days. The town sets aside a weekend for a parade, a picnic in the park, a concert or two, and a small carnival.

Everyone from neighboring towns comes to the events, so basically the cities take turns throwing one another a party. The more generous cities often sponsor a candy drop, where the Civil Air Patrol showers candy over the community picnic or parade.

There are, I learned, tried and true methods of doing a candy drop. First consideration is the type of candy. Chocolate does not hold up well in the summer in warm airplanes. It doesn't cool much on its way to the ground, either, and hits the grass, or the people, with a pretty good splat.

Hard candies do well in the heat, but they gain a lot of velocity falling from an airplane, and can give picnickers a pretty good thump.

Taffy works best. It gets a little squishy in the heat, but that just softens the blow when it crashes down on everyone. And since it is taffy, shape isn't a critical factor for enjoyment.

THERE are no official directives for dropping candy from a Civil Air Patrol plane. Our wing had worked out its own distribution method. We used two pairs of blue jeans. We sewed up the top of the legs, then filled each leg with taffy and tied the bottom closed with string. We would climb to an altitude where the people below became little individual dots.

When we were over the target, two people would hold the jeans out the door of the plane. As the legs dangled and banged against the side of the plane, a third person would pull the string and let taffy fly from one leg. Then we'd circle around to drop the second leg.

For the first drop, the pilot would take a good guess at speed, wind conditions, etc. to determine when to let the candy fly. Then we'd watch as the people below swarmed to one spot, showing us where the candy had landed. The pilot would adjust the next drop accordingly. Although most of the pilots were not experienced bombers, they did remarkably well at hitting the picnic spot.

Only one load dropped in a lake, and that was largely the fault of an overeager string-puller.

We usually carried four legs full of taffy on a run, and it was so much fun that several pilots and crews had to take turns making the drops. It was popular with the picnickers as well.

We once got a letter of thanks from a lady who must have brought her binoculars to the picnic. She wrote how nice it was for us to spend our holiday dropping candy to other people. She didn't understand why one person had to hang out the side of the plane with his legs dangling in the air, but she thought it was very brave of that person nonetheless.

We didn't bother to correct her. It was so nice just to be appreciated.

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