Archive for Wednesday, January 12, 2000

High-flyin’ memories

Fred Northern’s father thought aviation was for the birds

January 12, 2000

Fred Northern, 86, one of the area's first airplane pilots, took his first flight at age 12.

"It was the greatest thing in the world," Northern said. "I fell in love with flying right off."

His love of flying took him into what some might call his barnstorming days. He was one of the early pilots in Leavenworth County and built one of the county's first airstrips one on U.S. Highway 24-20 west of Basehor that still operates today.

Northern, who grew up in Springdale, spent much of his life in Basehor and now lives in McLouth, recalls that his early determination to fly landed him, "the awfulest whippin' I ever got."

Northern chuckles as he follows with the story about going up in the air with Henry Mesinger.

"Henry and I took off to fly one night," Northern said. "When we went to land, he stalled it out a little too high. It had a wood undercarriage and we cracked it up."

His father didn't approve of the nighttime ill-fated flight or of his young son's fascination with airplanes.

"I was an only child, and he wasn't too happy about me flying," Northern said.

Flying wasn't the only thing the young Northern was determined to do in his own way, and in his own time.

He married when still a child, he says. He and his wife, Dorothy, were both 16, and they married against his father's wishes.

His wife, who died last year, loved flying and went up with him as often as she could. They eventually had five children, all of whom loved to fly.

"Like all kids, they got a big kick out of that," he said.

Northern bought his first plane when he was about 20. He described it as a Lincoln Page, an old army plane from World War I.

One part of flying that brings a smile to his lips is the talk of barnstorming.

Northern was never a barnstormer, he says, but he knew barnstormers, and he did do his fair share of taking people for rides at county fairs in Kansas and Nebraska.

His favorite plane was a Great Lakes trainer biplane with a 40-horsepower engine, built for learning aerobatics.

"It'd do anything you wanted it to do in the aerobatic line real slow," he said. "I sure had a lot of fun with it."

There was nothing to operating the little biplane, Northern said.

"There are only four directions," he said. "If you push forward you're going to go down, if you pull back you're going to go up, if you want to go sideways you lean over this way or that way. You just get the coordination of doing it and you don't go any way too much if you pull back real quick: Whoooooh! Next thing you know you've turned a loop."

All you've got to do to give riders a thrill is, "Go way up and stall it, then it's ready to go any way you want it to," Northern said.

"Some of the passengers would let out a real war whoop. You'd get 'em up there upside down and then stall it, and the down she goes."

He kept the biplane for quite a few years, he said, and then sold it to a man in Nebraska who worked air shows with it.

Life now provides more time for reflection. Northern hasn't piloted a plane for about 10 years, but he still owns a plane and went up in the air with his son, Fred Northern, just a few weeks ago.

Still today, as he learned on his first plane ride more than 70 years ago, Northern said he likes to see how things look from the air.

As to Leavenworth and Jefferson counties where he has lived his life, Northern has watched the area change from a higher perspective than most.

"The biggest difference now, from the air," he said, "is there are fewer farms and the houses are bigger."

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