My Family’s Exciting Flight with the Navy’s First Ace

Sometimes weather makes for an altogether bad flying day.

The luxurious turboprop was speeding through turbulent skies, using its radar to pick its way around southern thunderstorms, en route to a quail hunting plantation just across the Georgia-Florida border. The craft had left Cleveland with my wife and one-year old son on board. Occasionally the plane was jolted so hard my wife feared her head would strike the ceiling of the spacious cabin. I, remaining in Cleveland, was praying for their safe arrival in Florida. 

I had met the King Air pilot, David Ingalls, at the airport in Thomasville, Georgia a couple of months previously when he landed to refuel before flying back to Cleveland. He was returning from one of his frequent bird hunting trips to his antebellum plantations (yes, plural is correct. He owned two.) My wife and I frequented the Thomasville airport because we had our two-seater Cessna 150 hangared there while I was in graduate school at Florida State University. In 1976 I was finishing my Ph.D. and was about to move to Cleveland, Ohio to work as a research Associate in Biophysics at the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine.

The airport manager, knowing we were about to move up north, suggested I talk to the King Air owner because Ingalls lived in Cleveland. Apparently he was supposed to have owned part of Pan American Airlines, and had served as an aviator in World War I. That explained why he looked to be in his mid-seventies at the time, albeit a virile, well-preserved seventies.

I approached the pilot as he was inspecting his aircraft, and mentioned that we were moving to Cleveland, and before I knew it he had invited my wife to fly back to Florida with him anytime she wanted. He explained that he made frequent hunting trips with his business associates, and he usually had a couple of empty seats on board the aircraft. My wife had been thrilled at the offer.

At the moment however, my wife was having second thoughts about the trip as the turbulence seemed to be shaking the plane apart. But eventually the storms gave way to smoother air as the aircraft sped towards the Florida border. Unfortunately, the foul weather was soon replaced by low-lying fog which covered their intended landing site, the grass strip at one of his plantations.

As the aircraft descended into the murk, searching for the runway, my wife started praying. She had seen no sign of land through the thick clouds, and she knew they were far from any regular airport. As the time on the approach counted down she finally caught sight of the pine tree tops just beneath the plane’s wheels. Other than someone calling “pull up, pull up” just at the end, the landing was smooth; but baby boy wasn’t the only one with a wet diaper that day, figuratively speaking.

LTjg Ingalls in WWI

Ten years later when I was working for the Navy diving community in the Washington D.C. area (Bethesda, MD actually), I came across his obituary in the Washington Post. I never read obituaries, but by some great coincidence, I saw his. As I read, I saw he was the REAL DEAL.

Not until many years later did I find out more about David Ingalls. We were in Panama City where I was still working for Navy diving, eating lunch with my family at an aviation-themed restaurant, and on the wall next to our booth was a print of a British plane shooting down a German fighter. It was a lucky shot we were told, but it placed a very young Ingalls in the history books as the U.S. Navy’s only WWI fighter ace. He was nineteen years old.

While later visiting the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, FL we saw a plaque commemorating LTjg Ingalls. Well, we began to realize that the King Air pilot had not only been the real deal, he had been a very BIG deal; and yet he had remained entirely humble and personable.

March 2, 1931

David Ingalls, born in 1899, was a grandnephew of President Taft, and by 1929 had become the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Aeronautics, a personal friend of President Hoover. He served throughout the Second World War, and retired with the rank of Rear Admiral. And he was indeed a Director for Pan Am World Airways.

As they say, weather is no respecter of persons. But that day, the airplane and its passengers arrived safely, due no doubt to the sophisticated electronics in that aircraft and the consumate skill of  the pilot. Admiral Ingalls lived another 10 years, and that baby boy is now a Navy Flight Surgeon.

Life magazine, August 1945, Eliot Elison photographer

Polar Bear in Town

In some places, the food chain gets down-right personal. In the high Arctic, a careless human is not a top predator; he is a meal. Polar Bears are methodical hunters, showing no fear of humans. When hungry, they are white death on paws.

In 2007 the U.S. Navy and I were helping the Smithsonian Institution Scientific Diving Program teach a course on under-ice diving in Ny-Alesund, Svalbard, an international research town a relatively short distance from the North Pole. Ny-Alesund is the most-northern continuously occupied settlement, and is occupied year-round by scientists and support personnel.

The fjord adjacent to Ny-Alesund is normally covered in 4-5 feet of sea ice in the springtime, making it an ideal location for training in under-ice diving. To gain access to the water, ringed seals travel some distance from land to find holes penetrating the ice, through which they enter and exit the water beneath the ice. And polar bears walk out on the ice to patiently wait for the seals to reappear, and be gobbled up. 

In 2007, the sea ice was gone. The polar bears’ food was not concentrated around breathing holes, and thus the bears were not catching many seals. They were hungry.

By law, the resident and visiting scientists had to carry rifles with them when they ventured away from the icy town to do research in the surrounding hills. But in town, no weapons were required. Polar Bears simply didn’t come into town.

Until one night.

There is only one bar in Ny-Alesund, and it specialized in serving Jesus Drinks during parties. A Jesus Drink is any alcoholic mixture served with glacial ice that is roughly two thousand years old. Get it?

On the night of the bear sighting, a petite Australian doctor friend of mine was walking back from the bar alone, and as she approached the dormitories, she saw a polar bear passing along the side of the dorm I was in. As it disappeared around a corner of the building she was left wondering if she was hallucinating. To make sure of what she saw, she ran across the end of the building just in time to see the white bear reemerge, calmly walking down a snowy road. Since she was close by, I clearly heard her yell the alarm, “Polar Bear in Town!”

The bear was headed towards the area where about a dozen Greenland Huskies, used for pulling sleds, were tied down for the night. So the deathly calm of the Arctic night was shattered by a female doctor yelling at the top of her lungs, while the vulnerable dogs were barking to save their lives — literally.

Of course I hopped out of bed, threw on my multiple layers of Long Johns, slipped into my Arctic parka and gloves and headed out the door to see the bear.

As luck would have it, our experienced dive team leader from the Smithsonian was walking in as I was headed out.

“John, you’re heading outside, in the dark, with a bear close by, and you have no gun.”

“Hmm… I see what you mean.”  I hadn’t looked at it from the perspective of a hungry bear. I turned around and went back to bed.

The next morning we found bear tracks a plenty. The dogs had scared off the bear apparently, since he didn’t claim any animals. Lucky dogs.

Well, the next evening we happened to have a party, with plenty of glowing blue Jesus ice. Although the walk to the bar, down a snowy road with no protection from the elements had not seemed daunting in the fading polar daylight, things were different when I returned to the dorm about midnight, by myself.

There was no moon so the sky was pitch black, but everything else was white, except for me. My parka was brown, and in retrospect made me look a bit like a muffin. And of course I knew that out there in the whiteness, somewhere, was a brazen, hungry bear looking for a snack.

I had never thought of myself as a potential meal, until then.

My head was on a swivel, and my not-yet dark adapted eyes were peering towards the most distant snow and ice, in all directions, looking for a movement that might warn me of a bear. And then the huskies started yelping again, in obvious alarm. That was when I realized that by the time I saw the white on white predator, he would have me. They’re fast, and I had nowhere to run for safety. I was in the open.

That is a curious feeling, knowing that you could be taken like a hunter takes a deer.

I wondered how badly it would hurt.

Well, with that Jesus ice coursing through my veins, I felt safe. That is, I felt safe once I was back in the dorm, snug in my bed.

As I lay there trying to fall asleep, I couldn’t help but reflect on how primal a fear it is, that fear of being eaten.

Diving Under Antarctic Ice

You are 100 feet down using scuba, with your dive light spotlighting the most exotic looking Sea Hare you’ve ever seen.

It’s noon at McMurdo Station, Antarctica but it’s dark at your depth because between you and the surface of the Ross Sea lies19 feet of snow-covered ice.  Your dive buddy has drifted about 100 feet away, but you can see him without hindrance in the gin clear water of the early Antarctic springtime.

The 800 foot water visibility also means you can easily see the strobe light hanging on the down line 200 feet away, the line leading to the three and a half foot diameter hole bored through the ice.

Under these conditions, you should not have to worry about your regulator, but you do, because you know that any scuba regulator can fail in 28° F water, given enough opportunity. You also know that some regulators tolerate these polar conditions better than others, and you are using untested regulators, so yours might free-flow massively at any moment.

Should that happen, you have a back-up plan; you will shut off the free flow of air from your failed regulator with an isolation valve, remove the failed second stage from your numb and stiff lips and switch to a separate first and second stage regulator on your bottle’s Y-shaped slingshot manifold, after first reaching back and opening the manifold valve. Of course, that backup regulator could also free-flow as soon as you start breathing on it – as has already happened to one of your fellow test divers.

In that situation you would have no choice except to continue breathing from what feels like a torrent of liquid nitrogen, teeth aching from the frigid air chilled to almost intolerable temperatures by unbridled adiabatic expansion, until you reach your dive buddy and convince him that you need to borrow his backup regulator. Once he understands the gravity of the situation, that two of your regulators have failed, then the two of you would buddy-breathe from his single 95 cu ft bottle as you head slowly towards the strobe marking the ascent line. And of course he will be praying that his own primary regulator doesn’t fail during that transit.

Once you reach the ascent line you are still not out of difficulty. The two of you cannot surface together through the narrow 19-foot long borehole. So you would remove your regulator once again and start breathing off a pony bottle secured to the down line. Once it is released from the line, you can then make your ascent to the surface; but only if a 1300-pound Weddell seal has not appropriated the hole. In a contest for air, the seal is far more desperate following an 80 minute breath-hold dive, and certainly much more massive than you. Weddells are like icebergs – their cute small face sits atop a massive body that is a daunting obstacle for any diver. 

But you even have a plan for that — you’ve heard that Weddell seals don’t like bubbles, and they get skittish about having their fins tugged on, and will thus relinquish the hole to you. … At least, that’s what you’ve been told. You certainly hope he would leave before you consume the meager amount of air in your pony bottle.

The text above was taken from a U.S. Navy Faceplate article I wrote concerning  a 2009 Smithsonian Institution sponsored diving expedition to Antarctica in which I participated. On and under-the-ice photos were taken by expedition members Drs. Martin Sayer and Sergio Angelini.

Only Classical on Sunday

Music Appreciation classes notwithstanding, I sense that the best way to become absorbed in music is to sit in the middle of it, in an orchestra or choir, and to be part of the organic music-making machine. Although I am not from a strongly musical family, my mother was a dancer and dance instructor, and we owned one of those cool Hammond Drawbar organs, on which I learned basic chord structure. Mom and Dad bought me a clarinet in 4th grade, letting me graduate to a beautiful LeBlanc clarinet by the time I was in high school. It is still, many years later, one of my greatest treasures.

In college I usually traded the clarinet for a guitar, which was a more sociable instrument for the college crowd.

Sadly, I let my musical skills atrophy somewhat with age, but that instrumental passion has been replaced by a broader love of good music, and an imperative to pass that love on to my children and grandchildren.

My wife is a keyboardist, and we have owned two pianos and two organs, with our living room currently filled by a Yamaha Grand piano. Our family room is, I shouldn’t say filled, exactly, but accented by a “Baby” Grand, to wit a pink Barbie Grand just the right size for a 2-3 year old toddler/preschooler.

Although I am not a music professional, I started training my children with a simple rule. You guessed it, “Only classical music on Sunday.” We could rock our hearts out six days of the week, but Sunday was for God, and classical music.

I guess that simple rule paid off: my son sings and plays the guitar, and was the leader of a darned good band in high school and college. He married a violinist and pianist, and they own a piano that his 10-year-old daughter plays superbly. She is far more accomplished than I was at her age.

Our daughter recently retired her electronic key board “with piano-like action”, and bought a real piano, with far-better feel to it. She plays our  Grand with a skill and beauty that is mesmerizing.

Now, this is where the fun begins: the musical education of a 3-year old, my daughter’s daughter.

So, where to start?

I began with an animated version of Peter and the Wolf, starring Kirstie Allie and my Sea Hunt diving hero, Lloyd Bridges. While the animation captures the attention of our preschooler, she cannot help but be affected by the Sergei Prokofiev score. Of course, I point out to her which instruments are portraying which characters, with my favorite being, no surprise, the clarinet – aka the cat!

It helps that the little one sits in my lap so I’m free to cuddle her, and ooh and awe over the beauty of the music, and when suitably inspired, conduct the orchestra, as if it needed my conducting. At any rate, she gets reinforcement that the music is special – not just the animation.

Now for diversity. The next music I started playing was found in Fantasia, both the original version that I loved as a child, and the 2000 version which I’ve only recently seen. They are both spectacular on a hi-res computer monitor – and I don’t even have Blu Ray.

What prompted me to write this blog is the stunning compatibility between the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, one of my favorite composers, and the Disney animators who put Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the “Steadfast Tin Soldier” to music. This combination must send this 3-year old into sensory overload. At least it has that effect on me.

Just as I was immersed in music during my formative years, Little Preschooler is close to the screen, surrounded by the music, and getting positive reinforcement from Granddaddy. Isn’t that how you teach music to children?

Let me share with you Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and The Steadfast Tin Soldier. Remember, the actual DVD is far better quality.

– John