THE WHITE CORSAIR and My First Flight

In early grade school we lived in the Berea projects right off Riverside Drive. They had been built for workers at the “Bomber Plant”, which now is I-X Center. I took an interest in aviation during Cleveland’s Air Races. I saw many planes engaged in the Races and also saw many olive drab-colored planes passing overhead to and from the Cleveland Hopkins Airport.

When we took the green Berea Bus Line to Kamm’s Corner on our way to downtown Cleveland we passed the airport. Now Route 237, Riverside Drive wasn’t the busy roadway it is today. Back then,  right off it was a field that was enclosed by an 8 foot chain-link fence. Behind the fence were parked many WWII warbirds. The one that caught my attention was a white Corsair that I thought stood out from the rest of the planes there.

Not long afterwards we moved to a home off W. 127th St. and Lorain Avenue. The memory of those planes stuck with me however and one Saturday I convinced my older brother Rodger (Red) and two of our friends who lived on W. 127th, Vinnie (Paul) Ruggerio and Sicilian-born John Amato, to hitchhike to the airport, out Lorain Avenue and from Kamm’s Corner south to the Airport. I had in mind to scale the fence and play in the cockpits of the planes. If you can believe, four kids hitchhiking together got us where we wanted to go.  We were dropped off right by the field that held the planes, and the white Corsair was still there.

Being young jocks, we easily scaled the fence (no barbed wire back in those days) and each found our own airplane to get into. Mine, of course, was the white Corsair that I considered to be one of the coolest of WWII fighter aircraft. Once inside its cockpit, with the smell of leather filling my nostrils, I fought in dogfights with enemy airplanes, shooting down each one I encountered. Once we all filled  our imaginations we decided to explore nearby hangars. Security back then was nothing like it would be today.

Inside the hangars we found WWI style double-wingers that took us back to the skies of France and Belgium in 1917-18.  We blasted Fokker D-7s out of the sky like Ohioan Eddie Rickenbacker had done. A  P-51 Mustang with ferocious-looking teeth painted on the engine cowling looked like those of the famed Flying Tigers. That one took me over the Chinese mainland to fight enemy aircraft. I became an American Volunteer Flier with General Chennault’s volunteer Chinese Air Force.

As we headed into another hangar we spotted a figure inside it. We froze but the man made no moves towards us. Red decided to go and talk with him. Soon he motioned us to join him. We were happy to learn were not getting kicked out of the hangar. Our Penance, however, was to help him vacuum out his twin-engine Beechcraft and wash and wax the outside of it. When our tasks were finished our new-found pilot friend said, “Would you fellas like to go for a ride??

Four sets of eyeballs clicked like the shutter in a Leica camera. Red had the presence of mind to accept his offer. The rest of us silently piled into the plane. At first we didn’t speak a word to each other as we buckled ourselves into our seats, disbelieving that this was really happening. Our attention then focused on the pilot as he radioed the Control Tower for instructions. I felt a rush of excitement as the Beechcraft rolled down the runway and, with a rising fury from her cranking engines, lifted us up and into to the wild blue yonder.

The flight took us over downtown Cleveland where we saw automobiles the size of small toys and people that were pinpoint size. He then winged us West over Lake Erie. The four of us from working-class families saw Cedar Point for the first time. The entire flight took about 30 minutes. Back in the hangar we hurriedly wished our unnamed pilot friend goodbye before climbing the fence and thumbing rides home.

Red and I were still excited when we burst into the house and announced that we were veteran fliers. Our mother reacted as if it was April Fools Day until she realized that we HAD flown. “OMIGOD, what if it had crashed into Lake Erie? We would’ve never known what happened to you.” If those words weren’t enough to frighten us to death, she then added the coup de grace, “Wait till your father comes home.” When Dad later arrived home he remarked  with one of his favorite words, “What kind of nitwits are you two? Don’t you two know how dangerous flying can be?” Looking back on the situation I think we got off rather easy with just a yelling. If our parents didn’t appreciate our adventure our schoolmates did. We were the talk of St. Vincent de Paul Grade School that week.

Although years have passed since that flight, the passion and excitement for aircraft, meeting new people and visiting far-off places remain inside me. Today, when those feelings re-surface I become, in a sense, that young boy again.

Sullivan later served in the U.S. Army’s 2nd Armored Division in the U.S. and Europe. He’s visited the U.S., East, West, North and South in military and civilian life. In later years he learned  the owner of the white Corsair was a native Clevelander and WWII Pacific Theater Combat flier.

Photo credit Aircraft Visuals and Picture provided by JC Sullivan

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