I sensed that the world was changing. Airplanes were rapidly developing as a means of rapid travel. Years before, (1923 in Puerto Rico), a barnstorming plane had taken me aloft as a reward for a favor I had done for the outfit. I saw then possibilities for the use of planes for inspection work. Officers of large corporations had taken to the air in private planes for rapid travel. “Why did not the lighthouse service wake up to their use for inspection purposes?” thought I.
The Stinson Company, learning of my curiosity in this field, offered a demonstration trip without obligation. They were anxious to find new uses for their planes. I suggested a sample inspection trip. The keepers in the Lake Huron area in the summertime were notified and put on schedule to cooperate.
By prearrangement, on a Monday at 1:00 PM, a speck appeared in the sky at the Detroit Yacht Club basin, Belle Isle, where I was waiting. The harbor was full of small sail and motor boats. The Stinson plane, equipped with pontoons, circled overhead and down neatly clear of all craft, much to my relief. The pilot showed great skill in avoiding the floating hazards all about.
I was seen aboard, outlining the trip even as the plane was achieving altitude on the course up Lake Huron. The pilot instructed me and urged me to take over the controls to see how easy it was to fly, which I did with little confidence, but I was thrilled with the feeling and quickly satisfied to turn the job back to the pilot.
By prearrangement, when the keeper saw the plane circle the lighthouse, he was to lower a skiff and prepare to meet the plane in open water. There was no hitch in the plans anywhere. I inspected the station while the pilot drifted or taxied around with the engine idling. Harbor Beach, Point Aux Barques, Tawas, Presque Isle (where the plane set down on a little lake nearby), and other stations were inspected the first day, putting in at Alpena Boat Basin for the night. The plane was snugly tied up fore and aft to the pier in the boat basin while the pilot and I made a comfortable night of it in the hotel, even going to a late movie.
Next morning, we proceeded in a similar manner inspecting Forty Mile Point, Spectacle Reef, Detour Reef and other stations enroute to Sault Ste. Marie where the plane was secured. After a restful sleep in the hotel, the itinerary called for a direct return to the Belle Isle Yacht Club.
I was disturbed when we went bee-line over land and water. Upper Michigan abounds in small lakes and streams. “What would you do, Chief,” I said, when we were over a large land section, “if the motor konked out in this location?” “Do you see that little lake right down there?” he replied, pointing. “Well that lake is bigger than it looks up here. We could glide to a landing there easily. In fact, from any spot on this course we could easily glide to water. And in an emergency, this craft would skid to a landing in any cleared spot like a farm. It might be a little hard on the pontoons but very little danger to us.” I felt better.
We soon glided safely in the Belle Isle Yacht Basin. I gazed to the sky in wonder as the little dot of a plane vanished from view. I reported the trip in detail to the Lighthouse Bureau recommending consideration of the purchase of but one plane as an experiment for general travel and inspection in the service at Large. The Bureau was very conservative about such matters and took no action which I always thought was a mistake. I thought they were insensible to world progress. It was quite possible that the Bureau of Lighthouses was facing political problems as rumbles of World War II threatened involvement of the United States.
This excerpt is taken from “Superintendent of Lighthouses – 11th District, Detroit: 1933 to 1939” in The Making of a Lighthouse Engineer, the unpublished memoirs of Commodore Frederick P. Dillon.
This story appeared in the
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