It was the summer of 1919. Troopships in the Atlantic wallowed homeward, crowded with soldiers weary from the Great War. Aboard were Army Air Service pilots craving to get back in the air, their wallets bulging with mustering-out pay. And at supply depots across the U.S., thousands of war-surplus biplanes were suddenly for sale-cheap! Six hundred dollars could buy one still packed in its crate.
Aviation was poised to take America by storm.
In rural Lompoc, a farming community on California's Central Coast, citizens were still arguing about graveling the dirt roads and painting numbers on houses. Airplanes seemed a world away. Then, on September 14, startled townsfolk abandoned Sunday dinner and peered out their windows.
Circling low, popping and sputtering, a flimsy flying machine buzzed the dusty streets. When it bumped to a landing in a nearby field, the whole town rushed to meet it.
Out of the front cockpit stepped Celite Company's manager, A. H. Krieger, who had hired the plane for an aerial tour of his firm's mountain quarries near Lompoc. And from the rear cockpit climbed Lieutenant Frank Croxford, the dashing pilot who would shepherd little Lompoc into the age of aviation.
Croxford was one of the thousands of World War I fliers who swamped the civilian market in 1919. Unlike most of them, he was on the payroll of a commercial outfit, Zenith Aviation of Santa Barbara. Apart from the regular paycheck, there was one great advantage to being an employed pilot rather than a freelance flyer-someone else worried about fixing the airplane when it broke down!
That was not a small consideration. In those days, the Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" was the model most commonly flown. This war-surplus Army trainer had a miserable reputation for reliability. Jenny's engine was an underpowered, flying night-mare leaking oil and coolant. Scorching exhaust fumes sometimes ignited the canvas-covered wings. A primitive electric ignition system kept the fliers praying.
Lompoc soon learned how temperamental a Jenny could be. Croxford intended to fly back to Santa Barbara that Sunday afternoon. But when he grabbed his Jenny's propeller and spun it, the cantankerous engine backfired, bending several vital parts. Grounded, Croxford fired off a telegram to Zenith Aviation. The next day a company mechanic arrived by road from Santa Barbara.
Despite its faults, the JN-4 was a snap to repair. Spare parts were plentiful and cheap: a rebuilt wing cost $25, factory-fresh engines sold for $75. Cracked cooling manifolds could be patched with wads of tar. Wing repairs were fashioned from canvas scraps stiffened with dope.
Zenith's mechanic was good. In only an hour or two, Croxford's Jenny was ready for flight again. Perhaps fearful of risking a newly repaired engine over the rugged mountains, the flyer lingered in town for a few days, giving free rides to eager townsfolk.
Gentlemanly Croxford's first passengers were the ladies. All went well until Mrs. Robert Sudden took her turn. Away they flew. One hour passed, then another. Dusk fell. Worried Lompoc citizens lit a huge bonfire on the beanfield landing strip. At last, to the cheers of the waiting crowd, Croxford and Mrs. Sudden returned-by automobile! Lost in dense fog, the pilot had felt his way down, spotted a flat patch of ground near a mountain quarry and landed in a space too small for taking off.
The following day, Croxford drove into the hills, unbolted the stranded Jenny's wings and trucked the airplane back to town. He reassembled his machine, and the joyrides resumed.
By the time he finally departed for his Santa Barbara home field, Croxford had won Lompoc's heart. He returned many times in the next few months, landing for gas and oil as he trundled up and down the coast with paying passengers. Often he stopped in town long enough to give more rides to his newfound friends.
Croxford was a better pilot than many others. Newspapers of the day were filled with lurid tales of disaster and spectacular incompetence-hapless passengers falling out of looping planes, aircraft exploding into flaming wreckage or spinning into the ground. In contrast, Lompoc's citizens painlessly survived their first brush with aviation.
The town began to feel comfortable about flying. One local merchant stated that he felt safer 2,000 feet up in Croxford's plane than when he greased his own wind-mill's bearings. Joyriding ranchers practiced a crude form of air mail, dropping note-wrapped rocks onto each other's homes while buzzing by overhead.
Lompoc's townsfolk reveled in the adventures of "their" colorful aviator. They rejoiced at newspaper reports that the flyer had wed his Santa Barbara sweetheart-in a stunt wedding ceremony, with the preacher strapped into the passenger cockpit! Days later, readers thrilled at the news that Croxford and his new bride survived a nighttime emergency landing when the Jenny's engine coughed to a stop over desolate Gaviota Pass.
Around the end of 1919, Frank Croxford and Lompoc parted company. No clue to Croxford's fate can be found in Lompoc. Did he turn out to be one of the veteran World War I fliers who guided American aviation from infancy to industry? Perhaps a reader of Grand Times knows what became of him.
Lompoc progressed from sputtering biplanes to giant, thundering rockets in one quick blink of history's eye. Neighboring Vandenberg Air Force Base tests intercontinental ballistic missiles and launches polar-orbiting satellites.
Somewhere up there, Lieutenant Croxford-who brought the gift of flight to Lompoc-must be laughing!
About the author: Jon Picciuolo grew up as an army brat and worked as a naval intelligence officer. Retired now, he lives in Lompoc, California, with his wife, Pam, and their cat, Dinah. His science fiction stories and nonfiction articles have appeared in numerous magazines nationwide. Jon serves as an elected public official and enjoys hobbies of hiking and writing.