The Canyon

image0Coming into World War II with Great Britain, Canada was a hotbed of war fever in 1940 and 1941 when Bill Stacey was on his mission there. He found himself fascinated by the military parades, by Sopwith Camels and Hawker Hurricanes flying overhead, and by the threat of war in his own country. Then, a few months before he was to come home, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and he knew it was only a matter of time before he would be in the military himself.

So when he arrived home in February, 1942, he found his friend Ray Cox. and said “Let’s hire a plane at the to see if we like flying enough to join the Air Force before they draft us into the infantry.” Ray liked the idea, so they hired a pilot to give them a ride, and came home filled with excitement at the thought of flying a plane some day. A few months later Bill enlisted in the Air Force, but Ray decided not to do it. Perhaps the horror stories of washing out of flying school were too threatening. Ray didn’t want to be a washout. He waited, and was soon in Italy with the ground forces.

image1Bill married and was called up a few months later to attend flying school and basic training at Santa Ana, then Santa Maria, California. To a young man fresh off a Woodruff farm, California seemed like the biggest place in the world; but somehow he managed to do well. Flying became second nature to him, and his buddies became his best friends. As the time approached for graduation from primary flying school, he heard his instructor, Bill Gallagher, mention The Canyon. “If you do well enough,” he promised, “I’ll take you up the Canyon for your last flight.” No explanation of what that meant.

The day of his last flight came, but Bill assumed the Canyon had been forgotten. He and his instructor climbed into the cockpit of a Stearman biplane and took off for a routine flight with Bill at the controls. “Head straight for that mountain,” said Bill Gallagher. For a few minutes, Bill could steer for the mountain without wondering what was happening, but before long he could see it would be impossible to gain altitude fast enough to avoid crashing into it. He hesitated.

“Keep flying straight into that mountain,” said Gallagher. As they came closer, Bill noticed a little notch at the base of the mountain, almost too small to see. A sickening feeling came into his stomach. Surely that couldn’t be The Canyon.

image2But it was. As directed, Bill flew straight into the steep rock walls of the Canyon. It was so narrow he expected one of his wings to touch the sheer rock sides at any moment. When a solid rock wall appeared in front of them, without warning the canyon would open into a new direction and he would find himself steering almost blind around sheer corners. It was one of the most harrowing experiences of his life.

Finally the instructor took the controls and flew the plane, continuing into a maze of canyons and sheer cliffs calculated to bring terror to the most confident pilot. Bill expected at any moment to feel the scrape of a wing which would drag them to the bottom of the cliff. Sometimes they rounded corners at vertical angles, and he could almost feel the wheels touch the cliff walls. These were not maneuvers sanctioned by the Air Force. Gallagher was a civilian hired by the Air Force to teach their pilots, so he didn’t feel the same pressure to follow guidelines.

And then it was over. Well not quite over. Still in the mood of a daredevil pilot, the instructor brought the plane so low over a field, Bill could see a herd of cows grazing. Gallagher seemed to fly straight for the cows but, instead of just buzzing the cows, he headed for a highway underpass. He flew under the underpass, and then buzzed the poor frightened cows before regaining altitude. Surely, Bill thought, if he could live through that, he could live through anything.

A few years later Bill was flying over Arizona in a B-17 four engine bomber when he remembered a P-38 pilot telling him how easy it was to fly low above the Grand Canyon. So he decided to try it in the bomber. The P-38 is a lighter, faster plane, so it must have worked better, because Bill found the updrafts and downdrafts almost too much for the big bomber. The plane would be dropping with all four engines wide open and then climbing with all four engines cut back. He made it through the experience, but it wasn’t one he wished to repeat.

image3In 1945 when the war with and ended, Bill was told he would be involved in a coming war in . He sent Velma and Janet home to Woodruff and prepared for whatever was ahead. Bill was ready. His nerves had been steeled for any conflict. He had been down “the Canyon” and under the underpass. Nothing would frighten him now.

But the war ended when the atomic bomb was dropped. There was no war with Russia and Bill eventually went back to the farm. But if anyone wonders how he got his nerves of steel, well, ask him about “The Canyon.”