By: John Carlson—
Without stretching one’s imagination, it was possible to believe the yellow and blue biplane crossing the runway threshold at Reese Airport was a Sopwith Camel or Bristol Fighter, with British roundels marking its olive drab fuselage.
That’s why, on this blustery autumn day, Caroline and Charles Todd were flying in it.
The mother and son are mystery writers, and very successful ones. Their 31 novels include many set against the backdrop of post-World War One England and featuring inspector Ian Rutledge, a veteran of the “War to End All Wars.” Another series features Bess Crawford, a nurse serving in France during the war.
Penned under the nom de plume of Charles Todd, the books’ two writers had been lauded the weekend before at the Magna cum Murder mystery festival in Indianapolis.
“They’re a huge draw,” said Kathryn Kennison.
Co-founder of the festival, which is held under the auspices of Ball State University, Kennison is its longtime director. She is also head of the E.B. and Bertha C. Ball Center, where the Todds were to be feted and deliver a presentation later in the day. So what were they doing at 1,900 feet in a drafty open cockpit biplane, maneuvering over the Hoosier countryside just a few hours before?
“We’ve always been history buffs,” Caroline explained, noting it was 1992 when she suggested to her son that they write a mystery novel set in wartime. Neither had any idea how to go about writing a novel, so that first one took two years to complete. Now they write two a year, one from each of their two series characters, novels published by prestigious Harper Collins.
The backdrop of World War One or the time immediately following it was a natural selection, said Caroline. Her fascination with that horrendous conflict, in part, is based on the three technological advances that so influenced the course of the fighting: machine guns, tanks and airplanes. And make no mistake, she and her son are ardent researchers.
“If you’re going to write about World War One,” she said, “you have to know about all these things.”
As she spoke, she was in the pilot’s lounge and office of Reese Flying Service at Muncie’s Reese Airport, a place that epitomizes what grassroots flying is all about. There were stacks of flying magazines about, pictures of airplanes, model airplanes, a Coke machine and even Twinkie, the airport dog, a border collie-shepherd mix.
And, of course, there was Steve Reese, the son and nephew of Tom and Lou Reese, who founded this airport shortly after World War Two. To say that Steve, a former corporate pilot, had literally grown up in the cockpit would not be an exaggeration. Now, with more than 27,000 hours of flight time logged, he mostly instructs.
That, in fact, was what he was doing for the Todds, taking them each aloft for an introductory flight lesson. He would explain the basic use of the stick and the rudder pedals, and how, smoothly combined, they activate the rudder, elevator and ailerons to produce coordinated flight. However, at the same time, flying in his Great Lakes Sport Trainer would be giving the writers some firsthand knowledge of what World War One flyers encountered. The wind. The sound. The view of the ground and the sky around them from an open cockpit.
The only way to convey that adequately, Steve knew, was in the air with airplane like his Great Lakes.
“It’s tradition, looking back over what it was like in the early days,” he said, commenting on his beautiful yellow bird. Then he laughed. “And they’re more fun. We do a loop and a roll every once in a while.”
There would be no loops or rolls for the Todds. But this day, wearing leather helmets and goggles, Charles and Caroline would each gamely go through the contortions and exertion required to climb into the front cockpit, which is no mean feat. Their flights, to be sure, would be chilly ones, maybe even numbing ones. But as his mother and Steve took to the sky on the second flight, Charles was back on the ground in the pilot’s lounge, trying to convey his satisfaction with what it was like.
Had it been a valuable experience?
“Oh, definitely,” he said, calling himself a pilot “wannabe” whose own dream of taking to the air was thwarted by a vision problem. “A worthwhile experience. A life experience.”
“You know how on commercial planes you don’t see much detail?” he continued. “You could really see a lot of detail, and how open it is.”
Being “tossed” around by thermals was another new experience, he said, as well as comprehending how small and fragile you are up there when you aren’t cocooned in a huge airliner.
“It’s a fair ways down,” Charles explained, “and there’s not much between you and the ground.”
Still, he obviously loved it.
But then Kennison’s husband, Dick, a retired Air Force bombardier/navigator who flew B-47s, B-52s, B-58s and more, reminded him of one important thing lacking that World War One pilots regularly had to contend with.
“You missed the part where they shoot at you,” he said.
“No,” Charles answered, “I didn’t miss that at all.”
A former longtime feature writer and columnist for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana, John Carlson is a storyteller with an unflagging appreciation for the wonderful people of East Central Indiana and the tales of their lives, be they funny, poignant, inspirational or all three.