Edgework

It was the mid ‘50s when I joined BBDO/​SF as a copy­writer, junior grade. Juniors were rele­gated to industrial/​Ag accounts, in my case Northrup-​King Feed & Seed and U.S. Steel. Both accounts featured Case History ads and I was sent hither and thither around the 11 Western States seeking unusual appli­ca­tions of the clients’ prod­ucts. Hither, if not thither, often involved out of the way loca­tions inac­ces­sible to commer­cial aircraft and compe­tent photog­ra­phers. So I enlisted San Francisco’s Bob Skelton/​Skelton Studios (still Geezering amongst us) who had recently (very recently) obtained his pilot’s license. And away we went into the wild blue yonder, to logging camps, mine shafts, irri­ga­tion districts, Indian Reser­va­tions, wild horse round-​ups and the edge of the Grand Canyon, where USS Wire Rope was employed for a tramway hauling bat guano from distant caves to the terminus offi­cially desig­nated, complete with a small U.S. Post Office, Batcit, Arizona.

Our aircraft was a Cessna 172, a 4-​seater all of which were occu­pied on this trip. Besides myself and Skelton, there was my client, Fran Allen (later of Allen-​Dorward Agency fame) and a U.S. Steel sales rep who was our entrée to the site. The landing strip was a rutted dirt construc­tion road that lead to the canyon’s brink. And a brink it was, with a direct fall off to the canyon floor several thou­sand feet below. Inci­den­tally this permitted a 4 hole outhouse to be cantilevered out beyond the canyon edge thus avoiding disposal exigen­cies ! (Consti­pa­tion was never a problem here ; all one needed do to loosen the bowels was look down an adja­cent hole.)

After gath­ering my case history facts and photographs it was well into the after­noon with the mercury hovering around 100-​degrees. Well, if you know anything about flying, you know the hotter it is, the less lift there is. Adding to the lack of lift was an over­loaded, unsu­per­charged aircraft. Besides 4 people, there were 4 people’s luggage. O’, did I mention that due to wind direc­tion, we had to take off towards the canyon ! And, as noted, our runway was a rutted dirt road.

Our intrepid pilot acknowl­edged there was no way we could reach take-​off speed given the described condi­tions. But not to worry, he said. We’d have a safety margin of some 2000 feet ; that being the airspace in the canyon below. He figured once over the edge we’d have time to gather enough airspeed to gain control. It didn’t do a lot for our peace of mind that several construc­tion workers lined the ‘runway’ with kodaks poised.

I was in the front seat oppo­site Skelton with several suit­cases stacked on my lap to give the tricycle landing gear addi­tional trac­tion on the dirt road. It was just as well, as I had no interest in being able observe our sudden descent. And descend we did and continued to do and continued to do until leveling off a few hundred feet (I was told) above the Colorado River. It took us some 15 minutes of climbing/​turning, climbing/​turning to regain the top of the canyon, our take-​off point, and head for the nearest paved landing strip to change our pants.

Samm Coombs

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