Richmond author’s final book chronicles World War I fighter pilots

May 30, 2015

RICHMOND — The new book First to Flychronicles the Lafayette Escadrille, a group of young Americans who flew primitive fighter planes for France before America entered the First World War.

They were a fearless and colorful bunch who lived as if there were no tomorrow. For many of them, there wouldn’t be. Their dogfights with German aviators were often suicide missions.

Charles Bracelen Flood, the best-selling author and historian who moved to his wife’s Madison County farm in 1975, chose these men as the subject of his 15th book. (Atlantic Monthly Press, $25.)

Cover of the book "First to Fly" by Charles Bracelen Flood.  Photo provided

But as Flood was completing the manuscript last year, he discovered he shared their brief life expectancy. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer June 15 and died two months later at age 84.

“He went out like he would have wanted to,” said his widow, Katherine. “Writing right to the end.”

Flood’s final book is a page-turner, written in a spare, vivid style like that of his literary hero, Ernest Hemingway. He told friends about meeting Hemingway in a Paris bar in the 1950s and being surprised to hear the famous author had read his first novel, Love is a Bridge, a best-seller published to critical acclaim when Flood was a 23-year-old Harvard graduate.

After six novels, Flood wrote a controversial book about his year as an embedded reporter with American troops in Vietnam and covered several Olympics for The Associated Press. He then began a series of non-fiction history books about Abraham Lincoln, Adolph Hitler, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, William Tecumseh Sherman and the American Revolution.

The New York native’s last book grew out of reading a few memoirs by Escadrille veterans. Flood began the project in 2011, searching out other pilots’ diaries and letters. He and his daughter, Lucy, went to France in 2013 for more research.

“He would tell us about them, and you could just see his eyes light up,” said Lucy Flood, a freelance writer and editor in California. “They had such amazing stories.”

First to Fly weaves together short biographies of these men and their experiences flying flimsy, open-cockpit airplanes made of wood and canvas, with engines and machine guns that were anything but reliable.

The 38 members of the Lafayette Escadrille came from a dozen states. Their average age was 24. They were race car drivers, athletes, gamblers, soldiers of fortune and idealistic Ivy League university graduates from wealthy families. Several transferred to the unit after fighting in the trenches with the French Foreign Legion. They were looking for adventure, and they found it.

An undated photo of Charles Bracelen Flood (1929-2014), author of "First to Fly: The Story of the Lafayette Escadrille, the American Heroes Who Flew for France in World War I." Photo provided

Charles Bracelen Flood

Aviation was such a novelty that fighter pilots were celebrities. When they weren’t flying, they were drinking or enjoying the company of legions of female admirers, whose silk stockings they wore under their leather helmets for good luck. They acquired two lion cubs, named Whiskey and Soda, as mascots and wrestled with them as if they were big dogs.

Eleven Escadrille pilots would not survive the war. Others suffered numerous wounds and injuries. Post-traumatic stress led some to later die of suicide, alcohol and drugs. But others went on to become successful businessmen and military officers in the next war. Four wounded fliers married their French nurses. Three others married movie stars.

An additional 231 American pilots served in French aviation units between 1914 and 1917, when the United States entered the war. Many of them sought transfers to the Escadrille, including the first black American fighter pilot.

Eugene Bullard was born in Georgia, left home with $1.50 in his pocket and joined the Foreign Legion on his 19th birthday. He was a machine gunner in the trenches until he was wounded. After recovery, he applied for pilot training and flew 20 combat missions.

Bullard stayed in Paris after the war, managed a nightclub and fought with the French underground during World War II. In 1954, the winner of 15 medals was asked to help two French veterans rekindle the eternal flame at the tomb of France’s Unknown Soldier beneath the Arc de Triomphe. Bullard died in 1961 in New York.

Flood had planned to write his memoirs after finishing First to Fly. So, on the day of his fatal diagnosis, he began working with his daughter to make audio recordings about his adventurous life as a writer, teacher and mentor.

Lucy Flood has almost finished transcribing those five hours of interviews, which she and her mother plan to turn into the memoir Flood ran out of time to write.

“He just had an unbelievable enthusiasm for life,” Katherine Flood said. “He loved people, could talk to anyone and was interested in everything.”


Astronaut returns for Blue Grass Airport book launch

April 8, 2014

Long before he became a star astronaut, an 18-year-old Story Musgrave passed through Lexington on a cross-country trip and fell in love with the lush horse farms, ancient trees and stone fences.

“I said the first opportunity in my career path that I can return to the Bluegrass, I will,” he said in a recent interview. “And I did. I adopted Lexington as my hometown.”

The farm boy from Stockbridge, Mass., lived here for only three years, but it was a pivotal time. His career literally got off the ground as a pilot at Blue Grass Airport.

BGAcover copyMusgrave, 78, will be back in Lexington on April 15 to sign copies of a new book, Blue Grass Airport: An American Aviation Story, for which he wrote the introduction. He will be at Joseph-Beth Booksellers from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and The Morris Book Shop from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m.

Fran Taylor produced the authorized history of the airport, which has more than 400 photographs and chapters by local writers. (For more information, go to Bluegrassairport.com/book.)

Musgrave moved to Lexington in 1964 for a surgical internship at the University of Kentucky. When he read that NASA was thinking about adding scientists to the astronaut corps, he knew then he had found a calling.

Musgrave had always been interested in flight, soloing a plane at age 16. But he dropped out of high school, joined the Marines and become an aircraft mechanic before finally going college and medical school. After his internship, he stayed at UK to study aerospace medicine and physiology.

He also spent a lot of time at Blue Grass and Cynthiana airports, earning pilot’s ratings and becoming a ground and flight instructor. He also took up parachuting.

Musgrave and his family rented a since-demolished historical house on Georgetown Road. “For $100 a month,” he said, “I had 40 acres and a 10-room house with fireplaces in all the rooms and a porch big enough for the kids to ride their bicycles on it.”

It was a popular place for friends and UK colleagues to picnic. “If there was a big enough crowd, I’d go out to Blue Grass Field, get in an airplane and parachute into my back yard,” he said. “That’s the way I would enter the party.”

Former astronaut Story Musgrave in a space suit in 1993. Photo providedMusgrave left Lexington in 1967 for Houston and an illustrious 30-year, six-mission career with NASA. He is the only astronaut to have flown on all five space shuttle aircraft. He did the first space walk from a shuttle and was the lead spacewalker in the 1993 Hubble telescope repair mission. He has logged 18,000 hours in 160 aircraft and has made 800 parachute jumps.

Musgrave retired from NASA in 1997 after it became clear he wouldn’t fly again. He still misses piloting big aircraft.

“I was on an MD-88 on my way out here,” he said when I interviewed him by phone from California. “I always go back to the restroom in the back of that airplane because that’s the best place to really listen to and feel that motor humming.

“There was no line for the restroom, so I just took my time,” he said. “I was there too long and the flight attendant knocked on the door and said, ‘Sir, are you OK?’ I said, ‘Yes, ma’am, I’m just listening to the motors back here. She looked at me with this disdainful look and said, ‘You’re a pilot.’ I said, ‘Yes, ma’am, and, by the way, your engines are out of sync.'”

Musgrave said he hopes to return to space someday with Story, his 7-year-old daughter by his third wife. That is if Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic ever succeeds in offering space flights to tourists.

But there has been much more to Musgrave’s life than flight. The high school dropout went on to earn seven graduate degrees — in math, chemistry, medicine, computers, physiology, literature and psychology. He now raises palm trees at his home in Florida, teaches design at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., and dabbles in writing, art and scientific research.

Musgrave speaks frequently to young people. His message: Follow your passion, take life one step at a time, learn everything you can about everything, and be open to new opportunities.

“The important thing is to continue to go forward,” he said. “Think every day, what’s the next mountain I’m going to climb?”


Telling Blue Grass Airport’s story: Lucky Lindy, QEII and you

August 5, 2012

Piedmont Airlines’ first passenger flight from Lexington, on a DC-3 bound for Cincinnati, was Feb. 20, 1948. In 1965, Piedmont flew the first passenger jet flight into Blue Grass Field. File photo

If anyone doubted that Lexington needed a better airport in 1928, they were set straight by America’s most famous aviator, Charles Lindbergh.

When “Lucky Lindy” made a surprise overnight visit to Lexington at the height of his fame, he had trouble even finding the municipal airport, Halley Field, a converted pasture off Leestown Road where Meadowthorpe subdivision now stands.

More than 2,000 people watched Lindbergh leave the next morning. His five-passenger Ryan monoplane — similar to the famous “Spirit of St. Louis” he flew on the first solo non-stop Atlantic crossing — almost crashed on takeoff.

“Lindy Plane Barely Misses Trees at Hop Off,” The Lexington Leader reported with a front-page banner headline. “Lindy Says Lexington’s Airport Too Small for Present Aviation Needs.” How embarrassing.

That is one of many colorful stories Fran Taylor has discovered while doing research for a book Blue Grass Airport has commissioned to chronicle the history of the airport and aviation in Central Kentucky. Taylor wants help finding more great stories.

Everyone is invited to bring pre-1980 photos and mementos to the airport terminal’s lobby from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. A videographer will record oral histories, and a photographer will take pictures of special items. Prizes will be given for the best story, memento and photo.

“It’s a really rich history,” Taylor said, adding that the Aviation Museum of Kentucky at the airport has been a great resource. “Blue Grass Field was like the Forrest Gump of airports. If it happened nationally, it happened here in a big way.”

Although airplanes might have used a grassy meadow off Richmond Road as early as 1917, the first real local airstrip was Dr. S.H. Halley’s field, which opened in 1921 and became the municipal airport in 1927. After Lindbergh’s close call, Cool Meadow Field was built in 1930 on Newtown Pike, where Fasig-Tipton’s Thoroughbred auction facility is now.

It was at Cool Meadow that Lexington Airways offered flying lessons and Irvin Air Chute Co. tested parachutes it manufactured here, according to research by Frank Peters, an aviation museum volunteer. Airmail service began in 1939. Blue Grass Airlines offered regional passenger service a couple of years later.

When World War II began, the Army built a flight training facility that became Blue Grass Field across from Keeneland Race Course. The Army turned it over to the city and county in 1946, and the first terminal was dedicated that fall by Eddie Rickenbacker, the World War I flying ace and president of Eastern Airlines. Eastern and Delta Air Lines began passenger service with Douglas DC-3s.

Renamed Blue Grass Airport in 1984, the 1,000-acre facility now serves more than 1 million people — and several hundred horses — each year.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II has made several trips through Blue Grass Airport, which also has been host to Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, and hundreds of movie stars and other celebrities. You know Keeneland sales are in session when Arab royalty’s Boeing 747s are parked nose-to-nose on the tarmac.

But did you know that the first air freight shipment from Lexington was a package of butter sent to President Harry Truman in 1945? Or that the supersonic Concorde made a stop in 1989? Or that the airport played a role in the nation’s most notorious hijacking?

Three hijackers with pistols and hand grenades took over a Southern Airways DC-9 with 31 people aboard in November 1972, demanding $10 million. They made stops in several cities, including Lexington, where the hijackers ordered a ground crewman to strip to his underwear while refueling the plane. After 30 hours and 4,000 miles, the plane landed in Cuba, where the hijackers were captured.

Everyone remembers Blue Grass Airport’s saddest day: Aug. 27, 2006, when Comair Flight 5191 crashed on takeoff, killing 49 of the 50 people aboard.

But aviation has shaped Lexington’s collective memory in more subtle ways, too.

I remember, as a child, getting dressed up to see my father off on an annual business trip. We would stand in the old terminal hall, surrounded by photographic murals of the bluegrass landscape, and wave as Dad boarded the plane and it disappeared into the clouds. It always left me wondering how such a big machine filled with people could possibly fly.

If you go

Blue Grass Airport history project

What: Public is asked to share stories, mementoes of airport

Where: Blue Grass Airport terminal lobby, 4000 Terminal Dr., Lexington

When: 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Aug. 11

Information: (859) 425-3105, Bluegrassairport.com.