Soon, they come, the pilots, needing to get off the ground, gravity oppressive, no longer acceptable. They gather early on this flat field, edged with deep sands they know mark the limits of the time they will have to stop within or rise above. Light has overpowered darkness, lifting it off and away for the day. Three, maybe four, congregate, a circle of comrades, to poke the earth with small talk, to share glances at the sky, to feel the wind replace thoughts until one says slowly, "Looks pretty good, I guess." Then, maybe a scratch behind an ear, a grin, a nod, a turn towards the hangar, where a biplane waits and listens. The pilot rolls open the large doors, walks to his flying ship, its smell filling his soul like an elixir. He stands for a moment, between the wings and the fuselage, rests his hand on its painted fabric, its feel no longer needing to be remembered.
On the 75th anniversary of Beachey's triumphal 1914 exhibition season, Vern Dallman flew his Walter Bullock-built "Little Looper" at a number of airshows around the country. Vern was an experienced aviator, with twelve years of aerobatic flying under his belt, having been the leader of the renowned "Tahoe High Rollers" aerobatic team. Vern flew his "Little Looper" dressed in a blue pinstriped suit, starched collar and colorful necktie, secured by a stand-in for Beachey's two-carat diamond stickpin, and exhibited dives, steep turns and chandelles. Vern wisely chose to be conservative in his "Little Looper" routines, reserving Beachey's loops, tail slide, wing-overs and inverted flying to historical memory. Even so, as a result of his experiences flying his "Little Looper," Vern remarked that Beachey must have had an excess of courage (he used more explicit language) to have attempted and accomplished the aerobatics he did. Certainly Vern lacked neither courage nor caution, and the beautiful routines he performed in his "Little Looper" were remarkable for their poise and sheer beauty. The sunlight shining through the small biplane's wings and tail as it turned and wheeled in the air is a sight few who saw it will ever forget. Vern's homage to Beachey and skill as an aviator were wonderful to behold.
Vern was a friend of mine, with a friendship born of a common, and deep, interest in the life and career of Beachey and a love for early aviation. Sitting in the living room of Vern and Ruth Dallman's beautiful house on their Ala Doble Aerobatic Ranch in Esparto, California, watching videos of past Quiet Birdmen events and fly-ins, and Vern's 1989 "Little Looper" exhibitions, listening to the witty self-deprecating humor strung throughout his running narrative, was a delight. Trying to hold a conversation with him over lunch in Esparto, with his volunteer fire department beeper going off as he ran out the front door saying to stay put, that he'd be back, was an interesting experience. Vern's absolute dedication to aviation, Beachey and his E.M.T. volunteer job were as remarkable as he was. The annual event on aerobatic safety, the Ala Doble Air Safety Seminar and Air Show, which he and Ruth held at their ranch was a well-attended and well-respected experience for aerobatic aviators of all skill levels... it was also a fundraiser for his beloved Esparto Fire Department. Seeing the hangars and workshop along his private airstrip was likewise quite an experience. Vern was especially proud of his newly-acquired metal rolling machine, which permitted computer-controlled compound curves, for cowlings and such, to be formed in sheet metal. He was also quite proud of the superb woodworking which came out of that hangar. His Curtiss-Wright B-14-B Speedwing, an absolutely beautiful biplane, was only one of his pride and joys. His Pitts S-2S, his swell 1928 Monocoupe powered by a 70 h.p. Velie (N6740), and his gorgeous Richard Young Harmon Rocket II with the sliding canopy and the mink covered seats (which he was eager to point to) were likewise sources of great pride and joy to him. After a day spent at the Hiller Aviation Museum and a long lunch one June day in 1999, we walked a few feet to the San Carlos Airport, where his Rocket II sat, attracting attention, like a Ferrari in a parking lot. Watching him streak down the runway at a few feet altitude and then pulling up into a 2,000 foot vertical climb just beyond the end of the field was a thrill. The sky that day was one of those great cloud-filled sunlit vistas which often cause people to stop and look aloft... on that day, however, many people stood, looked up and watched Vern and his Rocket II, as they headed back to Ala Doble.
Later Vern spoke about a possible trip to Japan with his "Little Looper" (already on display at the Hiller Aviation Museum, at which he volunteered) and asked if I'd care to go along, as crew. We also talked, again, about building a reproduction of the Beachey-Eaton Monoplane, the aeroplane in which Beachey had perished. He challenged me to obtain the same Gnôme Monosoupape rotary engine which had powered both the original Little Looper and the Beachey-Eaton Monoplane (I had located that historic engine sometime before, in usable condition, in a private collection) for if I could, he and his crew would build the Monoplane in his workshop. I built a fullscale wing section (with its unique airfoil), eager to move the project along, to demonstrate to Vern just how I believed the Monoplane's wing had been constructed. Then silence... our regular phone conversations, at least every month or so, ceased. I asked my sweetheart to call the Hiller Museum to inquire about Vern, unable to shake a deep and peculiar sense of dread that something terrible had happened. Indeed, it had.
Vern "went West" in mid-January 1999, as a result of burns suffered during a flaming landing in his magnificent Rocket II on December 31, 1998. Somehow, Vern had maintained his focus as flames came into the cramped cockpit and managed to land his beautiful aeroplane. His passenger, sitting behind him, was trapped in the burning Rocket. Those who were present said Vern didn't hesitate for a moment. Summoning his skill and focus as an aviator and an E.M.T., he pulled his passenger, Frank Schilling of the Hiller Aviation Museum, free and then collapsed.
I miss Vern. I miss his infectious enthusiasm and his company. He was a superb aviator, but even more importantly, he was a superb fellow. And he never tired of talking about Beachey... or aeroplanes.