Joseph Q. Miller and his father Winston Miller came to Asheville in the summer of 1920 for one thing: Joey wanted to fly. It was his 14th birthday, and he knew what he wanted. He knew where to go and who to ask.
There was an airplane, a landing strip, and a pilot who gave rides for $15 in Asheville. Joey and his father rode a smoky train from Waynesville, chugging into Asheville in the early afternoon. After checking in at 100 Main Street, they asked directions to the airstrip on the north side of town to book a flight the next day. Everybody knew where it was.
In the morning, they had breakfast in town and caught the trolley to Beaverdam where the airplane would take off and land. Joey had heard amazing stories about pilots and their airplanes during the war. A pilot had the freedom of the air. Joey worked for a neighbor for the last year earning money for this trip. His kites and model airplanes decorated his dreams.
When he heard there was an airplane flying out of Asheville, he asked his father, “Can I go?” His dad said yes and gave him the trip as a birthday present. Joey used his own money to buy a brown leather flying jacket from a returned war vet who needed the money.
Henry Westall was the pilot offering rides. He was a veteran from World War I, mostly in aerial reconnaissance with the US Army Signal Corps. He was exactly twice Joey’s age. He stood by his biplane with his goggles on his forehead and a scar on his cheek, wearing his own worn leather jacket. He held a dirty rag, wiping his hands on it and before stuffing it in his back pants pocket.
“You’ll want to watch the compass and the airspeed,” Henry advised. Most of the paying passengers were there for the novelty. He handed Joey goggles and an earflap flying cap. Joey already had on his flying jacket to cut the wind. It was a little big on him. He pulled the cap over his head, covering his neatly combed, sandy blonde hair, but left the earflaps up so he could hear.
“It’s a Jenny, isn’t it?” Joey asked. Henry nodded. Joey ran his hand over the propeller, a polished curved design made of wood. He looked over at his father, who was standing by Henry. “It has a 90 horsepower V-8 motor. It can go 75 miles an hour.”
Joey’s father glanced at Henry. Henry nodded again. Joey walked around the wings, feeling the tension on the wires. “Asheville” was written on the side and “462” on the tail. It had two seats, front and back, both open to the air.
“It’ll go up to 11,000 feet,”Joey said. “How high can we go today?”
Henry touched his hat. “Not that high. It’s cold up there, even in the summer.” The kid wasn’t just there for the ride, Henry realized. He was after the pilot’s viewpoint. Henry blinked when he understood this and looked over at Winston. How much did this kid know already? Winston nodded acknowledgement.
Henry described the engine for Joey in a little more detail, careful not to talk down to him. He explained the flight controls and wind conditions. Joey stood still and attentive, listening but also eying the wing shapes and supports. Henry felt his kindred interest. Joey asked about navigation, a topic that usually left customers behind.
Henry handed Joey a scarf for warmth. “Wrap this around your neck and tuck the ends into your jacket. You’ll want these gloves, too. Let’s get in the plane and fly.” That was the job, the task of the day. Henry’s bread and butter was novelty flying with an occasional delivery.
One day, flying would be commonplace, Henry knew. Kids like Joseph Q. Miller would grow up and make it something more. The world would be different; Henry could see from his own experience in the great war. Landmarks and mountains were becoming familiar from the sky, just like roads and rivers were from the ground. People would travel farther and more often. Packages and mail would move faster and people would forget how long it used to take. They would remember the days of trains and ships with nostalgia, like the days of horses and buggies that were already gone. Perspectives shift when you’re in the air. Henry wondered if Joey could see that too. He would ask later.
“How fast can this plane climb?” Joey looked over the landing gear, the wooden propeller, the linkage that made the tail fins move. He knew this airplane was a trainer. There were bigger, faster airplanes being made, but those planes weren’t in Asheville. At home, he’d seen an airplane fly over just once. It had to have been this one. He had been so excited when he heard it, a great elegant machine cutting the calm, placid blue and white sky. Joey had looked up, and there it was, with people flying in it.
Henry’s company, Asheville Aerial Corp. sounded like the greatest breaking enterprise in the world. But it was a very small, very private company with one pilot. The airstrip was a stretch of flat grassy bottom land in the Beaverdam neighborhood with a stream flowing on one side. Cows looked over the fence at the grass they had been chewing down the day before. Joey climbed onto the wing, looking at the controls in the cockpit. “You’ll be in the front,” Henry said. “I’ll fly the plane from behind so you can see better. You’ll need to pull those earflaps down ‘cause it’s going to be loud.”
The weather was good, the skies were mostly clear with some high clouds. A light breeze came from the west. They took off into the wind with a roaring engine that battered the morning silence to bits. A cloud of greasy black smoke was blown away by the propeller’s wash. The birds bolted aside, dismayed by the din and the stench of oil and aviation fuel. The airfield seemed too short until they rose suddenly and cleared the fence at the end by 12 feet at least. Joey watched as everything on the ground shrank and the horizon grew immensely larger. The profile of the mountains started to emerge from Beaucatcher over to the Blacks Range. Henry nudged the controls and the craft banked smoothly.
Joey waved at his father on the ground, thinking, “One day you’ll be my passenger.” Winston waved back.
This is a work of fiction based on information from Hidden History of Asheville, compiled by Zoe Rhine, and a chapter titled Asheville’s First Landing Strips by Lynne Poirier-Wilson
Photo credit: Buncombe County Special Collections, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, North Carolina A009-8
The JN-4 airplane is described in wired.com/2014/08/the-humble-wwi-biplane-that-helped-launch-commercial-flight/