Sunday, May 14, 2017

Harold “Kit” Carson: Longtime aviator meets next generation of glider-makers

In 1932, when Harold “Kit” Carson was 10 years old, he and his 12-year-old brother Arnold built a 1929 Northrop Glider.

The feat took the boys two years, after which they and their friends successfully flew the aircraft 2,600 times. Carson later piloted B-17s and B-29s in World War II and worked as a test pilot for Boeing for 35 years.

Fast forward to 2016, when 24 middle and high school students, under the tutelage of Will James Middle School teacher Pat Kenney, built their own 1929 Northrop Glider. They worked in the EEA hangar Kenny owns near Billings Logan International Airport.

On Saturday, 95-year-old Carson, who lives in Bothell, Washington, met with the student builders inside the hangar. He sat in a wheelchair inside the hangar, recounting his lifelong love of aviation to an attentive audience of about 50 students, their parents and friends.

"I want to congratulate you kids on the glider you're working on," he said. "I know it's been fun for you and probably a lot of hard work, too."

Carson was surrounded by large mainly black-and-white photographs and other mementos that captured his life. He was accompanied by two of his sons, Jon and Tom Carson, and their wives.

Carson first learned about the students when he saw an article about the project in Sport Aviation magazine, Jon Carson said before his father’s talk.

“There’s a bunch of kids in Montana building an airplane and I’d like to know more about that,” Jon Carson said his father told him. “Dad’s so excited because you guys are basically real similar to the age that he was when he and his brother built it.”

Getting off the ground

Growing up, Kit Carson lived in Cleveland, Ohio. Charles Lindbergh helped spark his and his brother's imagination for flying.

As the aviator flew solo across the Atlantic in 1927, Carson and his family listened to reports of the journey on their radio.

Carson’s father attached a map onto the wall near the radio and placed tacks on the map as the radio broadcast Lindbergh’s progress. The brothers knew they wanted to follow in the aviator’s footsteps.

“My brother and I decided if we could find some plans, we’d build a glider,” Carson said.

It wasn’t easy, but they managed to locate plans for the Northrop Glider from a man who owned Logan Aviation in downtown Cleveland.

They earned enough money to buy the plans by peddling papers.

“We walked into Mr. Logan’s office and plunked it on his desk, and now we were glider pilots,” Carson said. “We didn’t know which end was the front at the time.”

They brought home the plans, which were rolled up in a 4-foot tube, and discovered they had a problem. The plans were written in German.

Fortunately, Carson said, the pastor of the German Lutheran church in town arranged for a member to translate the plans, and they were ready to go in three weeks.

Kit Carson's son, Jon, laughs as he introduces his father at the EAA Hangar near the Billings Logan International Airport on Saturday, May 13th.

The boys got permission to work on the glider on weekends in their father's garage-door factory. They rode their bikes 10 miles to the plant.

When the plane was completed, the boys talked their mother into towing the glider with her brand new car. Each boy took turns, probably getting the glider little more than 6 inches off the ground.

By the end of the day, the glider rose 300 feet in the air, making a 90-degree turn and landing — a wonderful feeling, Carson told his audience.

After that first day, his mother told him and Arnold to find another vehicle to tow the glider. But both of their parents encouraged their burgeoning interest.

“By the end of the first month, we were pretty good at what we were doing,” Carson said. “And we enjoyed the fact that my mom and dad said it was OK what we were doing; they trusted us.”

A life in the sky

By age 14, the brothers and two other boys started a glider club. It was during the Depression and the boys managed to rent an abandoned airport, where they practiced flying.

“We had minor injuries but nobody was killed or anything like that,” he said, sparking laughter from his audience. “We learned how to do spot landings and all these kind of things we were reading in a book I got out of the library on how to fly.”

Around the same time, the two brothers traveled to the National Air Races at the Cleveland Airport, where they hired out as mechanic’s helpers. Their pay was trolley fair and a hamburger.

“It was a golden opportunity because we’d see how all the stuff was built,” Carson said.

The first year, he was assigned to help Roscoe Turner, a record-breaking aviator. Turner landed and hopped out of his plane, and instructed Carson to “get the cat.”

Carson opened the cabin door, saw the cat was actually a lion, slammed the door and walked away. One of the mechanics told him there was a leash behind the door.

The big cat came out, ambled next to Carson and hopped into the back seat of Turner’s new Cadillac. Carson and his brother went back every year after that.

When World War II broke out, Carson enlisted in the Air Force. He flew more than 4,000 hours in B-17s and then flew B-29s toward the end of the war.

His squadron had a couple of pilots nicknamed Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, and when they met Carson, they immediately dubbed him “Kit.” Once, when he were flying into a base, he had to announce the pilot’s and co-pilot’s name and rank.

“I said Kit Carson and Davy Crockett, and there was dead silence at the other end,” Carson said. “The voice said ‘can you repeat that?’ And there was another long pause and the voice said we were cleared to land.”

After his talk, Carson signed the seat of the newly built glider. They he posed for a photo with all the student builders.

Kenney was tickled by the gathering.

“The nice thing is these guys are right on the cusp of deciding what they’re going to be doing, and to have Mr. Carson here with this amount of experience is priceless.”

Chenoa Rawls, an eighth-grader at Will James, appreciated the chance both to work on the glider and to hear Carson speak.

“It’s inspiring to think he was able to build his own glider when he was 10 years old,” she said. “It’s mind-blowing.”

Weston Sharpe, a sophomore at West High, enjoyed the history he heard.

“You get to think back 80 years or so on how he went through that,” he said, pointing to a photo with the glider’s wing on it. “The wings we’re making now are fairly similar, so it’s cool to see that.”

Story and photo gallery:

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