Monday, June 09, 2014

Cow pasture pilot: Kenny York, a magnificent man and his flying machine

Flying is in his blood. His eyes sparkle when he begins to talk about the small planes that used to land and take off in his daddy’s airfield near Ramseur.

Kenny York has been a flying man since he was a youngster in rural Randolph County.

Growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, he remembers his dad, Lonnie York, buying an airplane, an airplane he did not know how to fly. The elder York built an airstrip in a tobacco field, (now Kenny York’s front yard) and learned to fly that plane. The flying fever must have been contagious since Kenny and four of his brothers all took up flying as well.

“Daddy worked at a hosiery mill in Greensboro back then – they paid pretty good,” York says. “He built the airfield in 1950 after he decided to purchase an airplane.”

The 3,000-foot grass airstrip is called York’s Field and in its heyday, planes flew in and out of it on a regular basis. York lives on the north end of the runway and five hangars still dot the pasture. As the cost of aviation fuel began to rise, the flights in and out of York’s began to decline.

“In the beginning, I wasn’t very interested in flying,” York says. “I had horses, cars and motorcycles. But before you knew it, I was flying. I flew solo in 1957 and flew for a year – I had never been instructed. We had an instructor here every other Sunday. My daddy told me that I had to get a medical form and get an instructor to sign off on it for me. Eugene Moffitt from Asheboro was an instructor so he came out to sign off for me. On the final approach, I came in at 600 feet, slipped it and landed it. You see, you have to take off and land in the wind because it gives you lift.”

York says that he let Moffitt out of the plane and soloed while the instructor watched.

“I remember this today – he told me, ‘You are the best student I ever had.’ He didn’t know I had already been flying.”

York has owned 22 different aircraft of some type or another over the years. Ask him which was his favorite and he can’t decide. He enjoyed performing stunts to be sure but nothing along the lines of the acrobatics performed by barnstormers in the 1920s and 1930s. Those brave men (and a few women, too) would perform tricks with airplanes, either individually or in groups called a flying circus. Wing walking (without a harness) was a popular, but very dangerous, trick they performed for crowds in open cow pastures. Government regulations on air safety practically grounded the aerial daredevils.

“I enjoyed flying them all,” he says. “There is no favorite. They all handled differently, but I liked all of them.”

York’s eyes do light up when he talks about one plane in particular. It is a 1943 open-cockpit Boeing Stearman airplane, the type used as a training plane for the Air Force during World War II.

York performed many maneuvers using the Stearman, including the “hammerhead” where you “go straight up until you almost stall,” according to York, make a fourth of a loop (pull or push) to vertical, and, as momentum decreases, the rudder is applied and the aircraft rotates around its yaw axis, the nose falls through the horizon and points towards the ground and completes a loop to level flight. Another favorite trick is the snap roll, where the pilot makes a series of horizontal spins, then rotation is induced by a rapid pitch input followed by rapid yaw input, thus stalling one wing further than the other. This imbalance in lift causes the high speed roll.

“I like all the stunts, but you have got to get some altitude – you can’t do them without the altitude,” York adds. “I kind of miss that style of flying, miss the rolling. I just can’t do it anymore.”

In 2004, he challenged himself to fly everyday to see how many days in a row he could do it consecutively. He made it to 703 days of flight in all types of weather before a stroke left him grounded in 2006.

“It was kind of rough, but the weather didn’t matter,” he says. “Some days I would go out and the wind would be real bad, but I would still try to fly. Once the wind and turbulence was so bad I thought it would pull the wings right off. I glided it and set it down in a cow pasture. After the storm passed, I cranked it back up and took off. The next day I was back at it again.”

Today, York still flies occasionally, but those days of stunt flying and aerobatics are long gone.

“Back then (1940s-1950s) it was a treat to watch an airplane fly over or to take a ride in one. It was a sight,” York admits. “You would learn to fly on a cow pasture runway and now even that is obsolete. I don’t know if it will ever come back like it was in the 1950s.

“I’ll tell you, I’m a cow pasture pilot. It’s a shame, but there haven’t been five planes on that cow pasture strip in the last year.”

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