Mercy sakes, how time flies. It’s more than FORTY-ONE years since I sold my first magazine article. The April 1971 edition of Air Progress included “Omens, Augurs, and Jinxes” which I had written for a magazine writing class in college. Professor Roy Paul Nelson pledged that anybody who made a sale got an automatic A for the class, and I sorta recall that one other student aced the course.
Here’s some extracts from the manuscript, originally written as “Confessions of a Superstitious Aviator.”
I remember distinctly how it all started. I was watching the afternoon movie on TV—one of those aviation films of the late ‘30s, possibly Tail Spin with Alice Faye. There was a scene at the Cleveland Air Races where a girl pilot was smoking a cigarette near a plane being refueled. “Hey, you,” warned a mechanic, “don’t you know you ain’t supposed to smoke around airplanes?”
“Nah,” came the laconic reply. “I’m not superstitious.”
It’s been years since I saw that movie—well before I learned to fly—but the incident keeps coming back to haunt me. You would think that in the space age there would be no room for superstitions in as exact a science as aviation. But if you look for them, you’ll find more than a few of the old jinxes, hexes, and omens still persist. There are some new ones, too. Even sky-diving, the space-age sport, is affected. My pals who enjoy leaping out of airplanes say that it’s bad luck to wish a jumper well before he makes an exit.
Anybody with a passing interest in aviation knows that, of all the superstitions connected with the business, the oldest is that which predicts doom for the pilot who allows his photo to be taken before takeoff. The origins of the legend are somewhat nebulous, but the fact that it reportedly happened to a pretty fair pilot named von Richthofen seems to bear considerable weight.
“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “Look at all the guys who had dozens of pictures taken and nothing happened. Look at Lindbergh. Look at the astronauts. They’re on live TV, which must be worse than a plain old Brownie.”
By now I was fascinated. Not that I believed any of that stuff, but my curiosity was aroused. Since the photo jinx had originated in World War I, I decided to check for other superstitions of the era. I found plenty.
Good luck charms and talismans of incredible variety seem to have found their way into cockpits on both sides of the front. Some, however, were more exposed to the elements. Take the case of a pilot in the Lafayette Escadrille (note: Edwin C. Parsons, who penned a hugely enjoyable memoir, The Great Adventure.) He placed his fate in the care of a stuffed black cat. The creature was tied to one of the struts whenever the pilot went on patrol. One day the cat stopped or deflected a bullet that otherwise might have struck its owner. The 100-mph slipstream rapidly depleted the mascot’s stuffing, rendering it limp and torn upon landing. But replacement stuffing and some quick needlework had the black cat operational again.
Stuffed animals, however, were not adopted only by Allied pilots. At least one German ace with 30 victories (Ltn. Ulrich Neckl) posed on his Fokker D.VII with a teddy bear that reputedly he carried into combat. It would be difficult to imagine a less Teutonic and less warlike mascot, but the ace was still around on Armistice Day.
In the midst of war it seems that true love, and its reasonable facsimiles, accounted for many of the items aviators took aloft to protect themselves from occupational hazards. One French pilot refused to wear a regular flying helmet, preferring a girlfriend’s silk stocking for headwear (Jean Navarre, the enfant terrible of the Verdun Front.) Scarves, rings, hankies, and even baby shoes were at one time considered bulletproof. Even riding crops were carried by ex-cavalrymen, but apparently nothing was as widely sought after as a girlfriend’s garter. According to popular legend, mystical powers were attributed to garters removed from the leg of a virgin during the dark of the moon. In the best Joseph Heller style, however, there was a catch. If the girl didn’t remain true, the garter lost its protective powers and the pilot was in danger until he found a more trustworthy female.
It struck me as odd during all my research that rabbits’ feet were conspicuous by their absence. Apparently the mental processes of airmen do not place much faith in such conventional talismans. But the charms and gimmicks devised were more original than such ordinary means. The biplane pilot’s trademark, the white silk scarf, for instance. Somebody told me that never, under any condition, should you ever wash your scarf. I had been flying more than three years when I heard that one, and since my scarf had been washed a few times, I promptly dismissed the concept as invalid. But one of the pilots I knew, thinking of having some fun at his wife’s expense, turned pale when she pulled his formerly feelthy scarf out of the washer. He carried on for several minutes, bemoaning the curse by which he could never again wear his favorite scarf. The plot backfired though: his act was so good that his wife was completely convinced. She wouldn’t let him near an airplane for the rest of the week.
The last good-luck habit I discovered was sticking a wad of chewing gum on the fuselage before clinging in. As with the other superstitions, this one seems to have no basis in recorded history, but was widely adopted during World War II. The plot is not difficult to imagine: The pilot is in a hurry to take off, forgets to put the gum by the cabin door (“Use Your Checklist”), and fails to return. That one really grabbed me since I’m a big Spencer Tracy fan, and he forgot the duty chewing gum in A Guy Named Joe.
So my course is set: on that happy day when I might resume flying, I’ll have my teddy bear bedecked with scarf, garter, and chewing gum added to the check list. And don’t you even think about taking my picture before takeoff….