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The wingless plane

An engineer/principal, 10 boys and an aeronautics course

The senior class at Chandlers Chapel High School in northern Logan County had only 10 students in the year 1950. All boys. 

One of them was Jim Lockhart, now 86, who lives a few miles west of Russellville and who told me this story about his school days:

“The main roads were gravel with potholes, and the secondary roads were mud with mud holes. The closest blacktopped road was 5 miles away. Outdoor toilets, and we had a well.”

But Chandlers High had something that even most big-city schools did not have: An airplane.

The school principal and geometry teacher, Mitchell Watkins, had been an engineer at Republic Aviation in Evansville, Indiana, which built thousands of P-47 Thunderbolt fighter planes during World War II.

One day on a field trip to the airport in Bowling Green, Watkins and the boys saw an old single engine airplane for sale for $125. It may have been an early Piper, but Lockhart’s not sure. Anyway, Watkins bought the plane, hauled it back to the school on a farm trailer and began teaching an aeronautics course to the boys.

“We didn’t take it up in the air, but we’d take the wings off and drive it up and down those gravel roads. We all took turns, you know,” recalls Lockhart, a longtime member of Pennyrile Electric. 

The plane, a “tail dragger,” had to be started by cranking the propeller. It had two seats, one behind the other. The boys had goggles that they sometimes wore during outings with the plane along the dusty roads—where they sometimes got up to 35 miles an hour. None had a pilot’s license, but of course they never got off the ground except in their minds.

The sight of a plane fuselage roaring past on a country road often caused a bit of a stir. The story goes that a woman’s hens were so traumatized that they stopped laying, and that a farmer’s bull was so rattled that he left home for two weeks.

“One Sunday afternoon, me and two other boys spray-painted that thing with a fly-spray gun,” Lockhart said. “We painted it black. That was the only color paint we had.”

Oddly enough, none of the 10 boys chose to go into aviation after graduation.

Lockhart, whose family owned a farm and a service station in Russellville, eventually took over the family business and later owned a chain of service stations in central Florida. He now is retired to his farms in Logan County.

One morning on Russellville radio station WRUS-AM, a two-star general was a guest on morning talk show host Don Neagle’s popular Feedback program, and Lockhart called in to share with him the amusing story of the aeronautics course and the wingless airplane from his high school days.

The general—somewhat surprised that none of the boys had joined the Air Corps after high school—asked Lockhart why.

Jim’s memorable answer: “I guess we were over-qualified.”

Byron Crawford  is Kentucky’s storyteller—a veteran television and newspaper journalist known for his colorful essays about life in Kentucky.

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