Boy, oh boy, has this been fun! The excitement level at Liberty Landing International Airport had reached a fever pitch; the crowds of cheering spectators were on their feet!
The field was littered with the orange carcasses of shattered pumpkins scattered over a very impressive area. Some were pretty dang close to the hangars. That may have been the reason that all planes not flying in the competition had been put away. The remaining planes, not in the air but still flying in the competition, were parked on the opposite side of the big hangar, away from the target field.
We also noticed that none of the spectators were sitting in the many comfortable chairs scattered around the area. There was a reason for that. Too many times they had been forced to run for their lives as errant pumpkins came hurtling down past their ears. Standing was safer and gave you more time for a quick scurry out of the line of fire.
The second annual Liberty Landing International Pumpkin Toss was going on with a vengeance. The two dedicated bomber aircraft, Dick Lemon’s Quicksilver Sprint and Mark Pierce’s ’48 Aeronca Champ, had stopped making bomb runs several times to refuel. We’d found early on that Sharon’s Kolb Twinstar was not a good pumpkin bomber. You just couldn’t see that well out of the Kolb as you approached the target, which in many cases resulted in the scrambling panic among the yelling, screaming spectators. In fact, when it came down to the finals between our top two contestants, Dick’s Quicksilver Sprint was the bomber chosen by both finalists for The Pumpkin Drop Championship of the Entire Civilized World…and Texas. The Sprint had incredible visibility all the way through the bomb run, and not only that, possessed a special sophisticated secret weapon. More about that later…
Pat Young and Mark Pierce get ready to mount up in Mark’s Aeronca Champ and make her first bomb run of the day.
New Hand at the Helm
We’ve had pumpkin drops at Liberty Landing before, but this time we had a pro in charge. Dave Laur—call sign mon gnome peu sucré—is the newest member of The Dawn Patrol. Dave is a former USAF B-52 bombardier and “naviguesser.” Dick Lemons was finishing up his fantastic Airdrome Airplanes Fokker E-III replica and was becoming plane poor. In other words, he had more planes than he could fly. Dick offered Dave his Nieuport 16 replica at a ridiculous price, if Dave would keep it at the field, so the Dawn Patrol would still have all its original planes together. Dave jumped at the chance. He sold his beautiful RV-6, so he could buy the Nieuport.
Dave served as a captain in the USAF as a B-52 bombardier in Desert Storm. But he told us for sheer adrenalin rush, the annual USAF Red Flag exercises were a lot more stressful. I guess being in a B-52 screaming at 400 feet over the desert floor at zero-dark-thirty in the morning is pretty exciting. The BUFFs needed to stay as low as possible, so the fighters with their down-looking radar couldn’t find them. Dave and his crew were trying to get to the target before the defending fighters shot them down. Dave’s job was to paint the ground in front and tell the pilots when there was a ridge coming up on the screen. Since the pilots couldn’t see squat, they had to depend on Dave to keep them out of the dirt. This just had to be a high pucker-factor experience. Anyway, with Dave in charge of The Great Pumpkin Drop, we knew we had some good guidance on how to finally do it right. In retrospect, Dave should have realized the type of crowd he was working with and backed away from the job.
Pat Young and Dick Lemons in Dick’s Quicksilver Sprint, get ready to head out for her final two pumpkin drops for the Championship of the Entire Civilized World…and Texas. These two drops were much better than the ones from the Champ.
Lessons from the Pro
Dave had to explain some terms to us, so we would all do the same thing safely. The most important thing we had to learn was the IP location. The IP, or Initial Point, is the location on the ground where you start your bombing run to the target. When you pass over the IP, you are dedicated to the run. For our IP that day, Dave chose the big cottonwood tree at the northeast end of the field. Dave’s IP established a safe bomb-run heading. The target was a yellow trash can lid in the middle of a blue tarp, located in the corn field north of the hangars. Our bomb runs, using the line from the IP tree to the middle of the target, took you on a path parallel to, and far away from, the hangars, or so we thought; Sharon proved him wrong on that one.
Anyway, if you passed over the IP on your run to the target, and if you didn’t deviate from that path, you might not hit any planes on the ground or drop the pumpkin on a hangar. The panicked spectators, scattering in all directions, were a different matter. Besides, moving targets are more fun anyway. We did have the occasional hung bomb, aka orange messenger of death from on high, get stuck in the bomb bay when the bombardier held onto that puppy too long. In that case, the spectators at the far end of the bomb run had to run for their lives. During a bomb run, no one on the ground was bored; they were watching developments very carefully.
With the IP in the background, Dave gives Dick and Max some directional advice as they start their second—and winning—bomb run to the target. Once they got lined up, Dick would concentrate on Norbert. A few seconds later, Dave and I were heading for the hills as Max made the drop that won the title.
Early in the competition, Dave and I discovered that standing on the middle of the target was the safest place on the field. Dave, being the HMIC (Head Man In Charge), was the official judge of the competition and stood on the target. I was the official measurer and data recorder. This means I stood about ten feet from Dave, so I could take photos of the action. I also measured the distance in paces from the target to the impact crater. A 20 to 30 pound pumpkin does make a statement when it hits the ground!
The only near disastrophe during the event was when my sweetie, Sharon, made her one and only bomb run in her Airdrome Airplanes Morane-Saulnier L Parasol. What happened wasn’t really her fault. She hadn’t attended the briefing by Dave about the IP and other pertinent things. She had been busy dishing up fried green tomatoes, onion rings, dill pickles and other delicacies that had been thrown into the FryDaddy. When she taxied out to take her Morane around the patch, someone had handed her a pumpkin as she passed by them. She was told to give it a heave-ho at the target.
Sharon later told us that trying to keep the pumpkin in her lap and fly the plane took more hands than she possessed. She had to keep taking her hand off the throttle knob to keep the pumpkin from rolling off her lap and falling down by her feet on the rudder pedals. So, she decided to dump that sucker as quick as she could. She made her bomb run perpendicular to the line from the IP to the target. The course she was following in her bomb run was such that if she bombed long, her pumpkin would go right in the door of Dick’s hangar. Dick was inside, refueling his Quicksilver Sprint, and didn’t have a clue about what was getting ready to happen.
Dick came outside the hangar to see Sharon’s bomb run. He got very interested in the proceedings when he realized that he was right in the line with her flight path and the target. He got really interested when she didn’t let the pumpkin loose as she passed over the target. When the pumpkin finally rolled over the side of the cockpit, Dick became very concerned. It looked like it was coming right at him. He gave a yelp and scuttled back to the shelter of his hangar. The pumpkin exploded on the ground, at least forty feet from his hangar. Some pumpkin guts almost made it to the hangar. She’d only missed the actual target by about 200 feet. The watching crowd, cheering Sharon on, realized that this time they weren’t in danger, and enjoyed the spectacle immensely.
But now it was time for the final bomb off. The top two guns of the orange flag exercise were Pat Young, a WASP from WW-II, and Dave’s son Max. Both had made the two pumpkin drops closest to the target. Pat and Max were both given two pumpkins and made their choice of a bomber: the Champ or the Sprint. They both chose Dick’s Sprint.
The Sprint, like I said, has great visibility. But the deciding factor making it the top choice as a bomber aircraft was the secret weapon carried on the plane.
Max, the shackmaster, gets ready to head out for his winning pumpkin run. Dick Lemons and Norbert are ready for action.
Interlude – an Historical Note
During WW-II, the allies possessed the famous Norden bomb sight. The Norden bombsight was a tachometric bombsight used by the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) and the United States Navy during World War II (and later conflicts), to aid the crew of bomber aircraft in dropping bombs accurately. Two features were the key to operating the Norden bombsight: a mechanical computer that calculated the bomb’s trajectory based on current flight conditions, and a linkage to the bomber’s autopilot that actually let the Norden take over flying the plane for the final moments of the bomb run. This allowed the bomber to react quickly to any changes the bombardier cranked into the Norden to account for changes in the wind or other factors that could affect the bombing accuracy. The use of the Norden resulted in unprecedented accuracy in day bombing from high altitudes. When tested from high altitudes, the Norden demonstrated a circular error probable (CEP) of 75 feet. This was astonishing performance for that era. The Norden bombsight was so effective, it was used by the Air Force through 1967. The Norden bombsights cost tens of thousands of dollars each. In contrast, the bombsight used on the B-25s in the famous Doolittle Tokyo raid was a makeshift bomb aiming sight, costing twenty cents. It was devised by pilot Capt. C. Ross Greening and was called the Mark Twain. Authorities were afraid that if any of Doolittle’s bombers were shot down, the top-secret Norden bombsight might fall into the hands of the Japanese. The Mark Twain actually worked better than the Norden would have because of the very low altitude of the Doolittle Raiders.
The Secret Weapon
Well, at Liberty Landing International Airport, we don’t need no stinking Norden Bombsight. We don’t even need to spend 20 cents for a Mark Twain bombsight. Nosirreebob…We’ve got The Norbert Delbert Farnsworth Hillbilly Bombsight. Yep “Norbert,” as we affectionately call it, is Dick Lemons’ right little toe. After countless practice bomb drops, Dick had developed a method that guaranteed a shack (Air Force term for a bull’s-eye) almost every time. He’d discovered that if he was anywhere close to 200 feet off the ground, and was sitting straight up in his left hand seat, all he had to do was sight over Norbert. This was like he (meaning Norbert) was the iron sight at the end of the barrel on a hunting rifle. (Except in this case, it was a toenail sight.) When the target disappeared under Norbert, Dick would count, “one Mississippi, two,” and then release the pumpkin. It was astonishingly accurate!
Dick had told Max and Pat his secret, but they had to tell him, “go right or go left” during the bomb run to line up their track with the target. When Dick was on the right track, they’d point straight ahead. Then when Dick yelled, they’d drop the pumpkin.
It was time for the final bomb drop. Pat Young went up first with Dick. Pat had already made her first drops out of Mark’s Champ. But the results, while good, were not what she wanted. She chose the Sprint for the final drop.
She and Dick took off and made their two runs. Using 12 o’clock as the line from the center of the target to the IP (center of the tree), her results were: 21 paces at ten o’clock and 9 paces at four o’clock.
Then it was Max’s turn. He and Dick loaded up with pumpkins and took off. As they started their first run, I noticed Dave muttering to himself as they passed over the IP.
“OK…they’re off track to the left…still off track…better…better…hack!” (Air Force phraseology for the bomb has left the aircraft.)
Pat Young reacts with dismay as Dave Laur shows her the scores on her last two pumpkin drops. Dick Lemons didn’t care. He was having a ball as the dedicated bomber pilot.
The pumpkin hit at 17 paces at 2 o’clock. That was pretty dang good, but not good enough to beat Pat’s best score.
When Max and Dick came back around for their second drop, Dave suddenly broke precedent and decided Max and Dick needed a little help. He was standing on the target with his arms up, indicating the direction they needed as they passed over the IP on their bomb run to the target.
He started muttering to himself again… “OK…more right…come on…more right…on track…on track…on track (Dave was getting excited)…hack!”
There was a short pause and then Dave abandoned USAF phraseology and descended seamlessly into the earthier vernacular of the airport: “Oh, crap!” This was followed by the scream, “Run!”
Yep, Max’s drop was going to be a shack. Did you know that when the pumpkin keeps getting bigger and bigger in your eyes, you are the target? Dave and I took off like two gerbils getting off a hot griddle. The pumpkin splattered so close to the target that pumpkin guts were flung all over it. A little bit was even sprinkled on our pants as we thundered out of the line of fire.
Max’s final toss was five paces from the center of the target at one o’clock. That was the best of the day. Max was declared The Second Annual Liberty Landing International Airport Pumpkin Toss Champion of the Entire Civilized World…and Texas.
After they landed, the celebration started. More fried green t’maters were put in the hot oil and the pull-tabs on cans of hearty caffeine-free Diet Dr. Thunder were popped. As darkness slowly fell, the planes were all put to bed, and hangar talk commenced with a dull roar.
Another great day at Liberty Landing International Airport was history and the adventure was definitely continuing.
Dick Starks has written two books about the joy of flying; “You Want To Build And Fly A What?” and “Fokkers At Six O’clock!!” He was the recipient of Flying’s 2001 Bax Seat Award “for perpetuating the Gordon Baxter tradition of communicating the excitement and romance of flight.” Dick and his wife, Sharon, both fly WW-I replica aircraft.