March 25, 1998
My brother, Alfred Courtney Snider, is a retired naval aviator, and also is retired from Texas Instruments, the semi-conductor giant. I call him A.C., a compromise between Al, as he was known in the Navy and in the corporate world, and Courtney, as the family calls him. He calls me Wretched Ass, close to Richard S.
He has lived in Dallas 24 years, and when I visit my daughter Amy in nearby Southlake we usually get together for a private lunch, no matter what else is going on. The most recent one was last Friday, which happened to be my birthday, and that may be the reason he paid.
Naturally, we toasted this latest milestone in my life’s journey, and other Sniders of note. We were down to third cousins before the gears in his brain loosened up, and, as I had hoped, he told me a war story.
He said he and his wife often take a Sunday afternoon drive, and earlier this month were on a rural highway north of Dallas when he saw a sign saying, “Regional Airport.” Flying has been in his blood since he was old enough to walk to the little airport two miles east of our old hometown of Britton, Okla., just to watch the men and machines, so he turned into the airport drive.
He looked around and was about to leave when he saw a sight that took him back 60 years. It was a Stearman biplane, the trainer the Navy called the N2S, hundreds of which poured out of the Wichita factory before and during World War II. And, it was perfectly restored, a yellow relic that no old Navy pilot ever could overlook.
A.C. flew one in primary training in Florida in 1940, and after he earned his wings he was sent to the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, Texas, as a primary instructor, where he logged another 500 hours in them.
When he arrived in Corpus Christi, the base was short of airplanes, so nine young ensigns were sent to Wichita to ferry nine trainers back. The planes were ready, except they had no instruments. They had to wait four days, and the Stearman people put the pilots up in a hotel, where a four-day, non-stop party ensued. There are old women in Wichita still talking about it today.
Finally, the planes were ready, in far better shape to fly than the pilots, but the ferrying operation got off the ground and on the first day made it all the way to Dallas. There, the pilots took to another hotel and resumed the party, and late next day, to everyone’s surprise, landed safely at Corpus Christi.
When A.C. saw the restored Stearman, he introduced himself to the owner, who turned out to be a young Federal Express pilot who had bought the plane and had it done over. Obviously seeing the yearning in A.C.’s eyes, he offered to take him up for an hour someday for $138 and, since it has dual controls, let him fly it.
I interrupted to ask if he was going to do it.
“Oh hell yes,” he said. “I’d give 10 times that for another ride in one of those old planes.” He’ll be 80 his next birthday.
When World War II came, A.C. went on to flying boats, including the Martin Mars, which at the time was far bigger than anything else in the air. In the early 1950s he earned his pay, and his pension, and his 15 minutes of fame, when he landed a crippled Mars in San Francisco bay after a harrowing flight from Honolulu.
Just past the point of no return, the giant plane lost both engines on one side, making it an asymmetrical nightmare to fly. Even the admirals came down to the dock to tell him, “Well done.”