Ah, autumn -- birds on the wing, a crisp snap to the air, and pumpkins falling from Cubs. For those seeking the true meaning of flight you need only look to southern Iowa, where at an undisclosed location, close to the Maharishi TM University, unfettered by TFRs, the Annual Great Pumpkin Bombing and Chili Shootout went off without so much as a major reportable catastrophe.
First the boilerplate disclaimer: Under FAR 91.15, titled, "Dropping objects," pilots in civil aircraft may not allow objects to be dropped in-flight if the droppings create a hazard to persons or property. It's worth noting that 91.15 precedes 91.17, which prohibits doing this while drunk. Sharp legal minds have long noted that despite its negative tone, 91.15 specifically encourages (in this legal mind's opinion) dropping of objects. It states, "However!" (exclamation point added for emphasis), "This section does not prohibit the dropping of any object ..." And then there's some fine print about taking "reasonable precautions" to avoid injury.
So, armed with reason and FARs, a dozen mostly civil antique airplanes rendezvoused at a secret airfield in the hills along the Missouri border where federal statutes have always been seen more as obstacles than mandates. Pilot names and aircraft registration numbers have been sanitized in the interest of taking "reasonable precautions." Suffice it to say that the average airplane was 50 years old, and the pilots about the same age. Most were armed with shotguns for the morning's skeet contest in which free-range skeeters were released before a line of near-sighted shooters who mostly tossed a lot of lead shot into nearby trees. After that, a light lunch of chili, Doritos, and crème soda was served, followed by a military-style pre-mission briefing.
Nervous anticipation hung over the assembled crews like an unclaimed bean fart as Commander Sparky (not his real name) sketched the bombing mission. "Gentlemen," he called. "Try not to hit my car again this year." Then with a steely glance at the flight crews, knowing that some would not be coming back because the chili was gone, he said, "I gotta take a leak." Most of us took that as the code for, "Pick yer pumpkins and Godspeed."
The object of the bombing was to recycle 332 pumpkins gleaned from area grocery stores and front porches after Halloween. As youngsters, we would've simply smashed them on street corners by tossing them out the back of a '57 Dodge; but as aviators, someone discovered that surplus pumpkins could best be disposed of from 500 feet AGL. But, as Curtis LeMay -- godfather of the Strategic Air Command -- knew, that's not as simple as it first appears. To bomb anything back into the Stone Age takes advanced math.
My bombardier must've paid more attention in high school than I did, because he calculated that at 500 feet AGL, a 30-pound pumpkin dropped at a sighting point 45-degrees from the bulls eye while traveling at a 60-knot groundspeed might hit the target, which in this case was a large sailboat parked in a pasture earlier used as the skeet range. The bombing run final-approach course was over a wooded area, making the target difficult to spot until almost upon it. In keeping with the "reasonable precautions" spirit of the FARs, the skeet range was closed during bombing runs, so ground fire was expected to be minimal -- and given the skeet shooters' marksmanship, would've been ineffective anyhow.
The weight of the dropped object, as 16th-century physicist Sir Walter Raleigh discovered by dropping pumpkins from the then-vertical Pisa tower, is irrelevant. An object falls at nine-point-eight meters-per-second (squared ... mas o menos), but since none of us were adept at the metric system, and muscling a 20-inch diameter, semi-rotted pumpkin out of an Aeronca Champ's side window is difficult to time, accuracy became an unintended byproduct of our efforts.
Each bomber departed at max gross weight, loaded with fuel, two crewmembers, and usually two bombs per aircraft. One Aeronca Chief staggered off the 2500-foot grass runway with four bombs. When dropped simultaneously over the target, you could see the Chief lurch higher at the sudden release of weight as the bomb load cascaded downward to stitch a row of orange pulp several hundred feet from the boat.
Our bomb runs were flown with the accuracy of Doolittle over Tokyo -- meaning I believe I could've hit a target the size of that city. Instead, the tiny boat from 500 feet looked like a beer can. In fact, as we released our first bomb, we discovered that we indeed had aimed for a beer can and the boat was at least 50 feet west of that. Missed both.
Throughout the afternoon, wave after wave of Champs, Cubs, Taylorcrafts, and Cessna 140s droned overhead unleashing orange hell on the target with a few projectiles even getting close. And then, as I climbed from the cockpit to re-arm after a run, I heard radial engines in the distance. Several other bomber pilots picking through the diminishing ordnance pile also looked skyward, where we saw a World War II B-25 bomber enter the pattern, make a pass as though sizing up the target, and then return for a long final approach with its landing gear tucked in the wells.
Quickly the Cubs and Champs scattered from the bomb pattern as the B-25 banked over the distant hills and lined up on final, its Wright R-2600 engines growling through the leafless hickory trees.
"Who is it?" someone asked.
"Don't know," we all answered, knowing that what we were about to see could prove interesting in a FSDO meeting.
The B-25 descended slightly and, just before the target zone, opened its bomb bay doors and from its belly countless orbs dropped, arcing toward the target, and quickly decelerating behind the bomber.
A single pumpkin impact sounds like a distant mortar round. First, there's the sight of the explosion and then the sound hits you with a "Fwump!" I'm told that a watermelon comes close, and a bushelful of zucchini can make you take notice. But the pumpkin is surprisingly concussive when it smacks dirt. Now, imagine a whole bellyload of pumpkins tumbling from a bomber and raining upon the target, striking within microseconds of each other: "Fwump, fwump... Fwump! Fwump-whump...!"
Pulp flew in the swirling blast, mingling, twisting, and colliding like chunky napalm. The target disappeared in a maelstrom of goo, seeds, and contorted rind. The horror ... the horror ... and oh, the humanity of 50 middle-aged pilots cheering from the sidelines as the mysterious B-25 pulled up and banked away, never to be seen again.
We didn't learn who it was. Perhaps, it was just a ghost ship from our collective imaginations, the winged embodiment of what the rest of us ersatz bomber pilots really wanted to be. We'll never know. Or at least, we'll never tell. But as we stood on the grassy ramp watching the bomber disappear over the horizon, each of us wondered, "How the hell are we gonna top that next year?" But this is Iowa, where idle minds are never truly at rest.
[Editor's note: No actual skeets were harmed making this story. Don't try these stunts at your home airport; consult your local FSDO, and if irrational exuberance breaks out, discontinue use. All pumpkins used in the making of this story now provide winter fodder for endangered field mice.]
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