By Gilbert E. Davis
Avaiator Test Pilot
My Homebuilt Airplane
When I was 14, I decided to build an airplane and then teach myself to fly. I built a square center section about 20 in. wide and 6 ft. long with a streamlined nose and a Plexiglas windshield. The engine was a 12 hp water-cooled outboard motor power head with a car heater core and a propeller from a target drone. The wings were wood as well as the twin booms and the horizontal stabilizer and the vertical fin. I dug a big hole in the shop floor to hide my plane. I would dig only at night when everyone was in bed and carry all the dirt in the wheel borrow down in the pinewoods and dump it there. I covered the big hole in the shop floor with oak pallets so no one could see my airplane as I worked on it. I had the engine mounted; the fuselage covered with linen and doped, windshield attached as also the streamlined nose. And then disaster—my little brother Ross found my plane and I had to use a cover story that this was just a ground trainer. It was a good thing because some 35 yrs later, when I designed and built world famous airplanes, I then knew that my little airplane I was building at 14 would have killed me.
In the wildest wreck, I was going 55 mph on Highway 441 when a car turned into my lane with no warning. To keep from hitting the car I had to take to the ditch. I hit a raised driveway and went flying through the air. Then I hit a second driveway and landed in a patch of sand. My handlebars were very short road racing bars and I flipped going 55 mph end-over-end four or five times. I continued to flip from my feet to my feet over and over again until I came out in a dead run without falling. No sand was in my hair or on my hands. A nurse hanging up her cloths at her trailer saw me flipping down the side of the road and just knew I was dead. But I wasn’t dead; in fact I didn’t even have a scratch on me, just a rip in my pants. God looked after me again.
I had another bad motorcycle wreck on Highway 441 headed out of Apopka toward home. The intersection of the two roads was deceiving and I missed the road and hit the sand along the road at 55 mph on the east side of the road. The cycle flipped end-over-end with me on it. When it stopped I was still on the cycle and it was still running. I picked it up and tried to twist my forks straight. I should have been killed, but as it turned out all that happened was a cracked collarbone. God was with me again. All of this happened at a bad time, as it was track season. Now, I couldn’t pole vault. In my sophomore year I set the school record at 9 ft. 4 in.
About this time Douglas, Ross, and I tried out a little experiment with some old cannon powder that my great-grandfather took out of a caisson in Michigan. We took a penny matchbox apart and put a thin layer of the black cannon powder in the bottom of the matchbox and Douglas lit a match to it. Whoom! Douglas disappeared in a big cloud of smoke. When the smoke cleared, there was Douglas with part of his hair, the hair on his right arm and eyebrows all singed off.
This makes me think of a Boy Scout camping trip when I had taken a small bottle of black gunpowder with me. I flipped some of the gunpowder into the campfire. This was a big mistake. The fire jumped up the gunpowder and the glass bottle in my hand blew up. God was looking over me again this time also because I was looking at the bottle as it exploded yet I had no cuts on my face, body or arm. My arm and hand were covered with blood but when I wiped off the blood all I could find was a small cut about 1/8 of an inch long at the base of my finger. All the blood had come from that little cut. At this time I was making my own gunpowder. I would mix charcoal, saltpeter, and sulfur together and “Bang”. Gunpowder!
Father’s Mean Streak
My father had one bad fault. He had a mean streak a mile long. He would hit my mother and make her cry. He hit my sister Mary Kay with an iron rod on her butt. It didn’t cause permanent damage. He would chase the cow around the barnyard and hit her with a 2 x 4 and then expect me to milk her. One day after my father hit the cow just before I was to milk her. She kicked the milk bucket over and when I tried to get the bucket she kicked me in the face which caused major bruising to my cheek. I’d had about enough of my father’s mean treatment.
One night I ask Douglas to reach up and turn off the light. He didn’t do it, so I had to get out of bed, go across the bedroom and turn it off, so I flipped my fingers across his side. He started to cry like he was dying. My father came into our bedroom, took off his belt and hit me in the head with the buckle end. He lay open the backside of my ear and a little more and it would have put out my eye. My ear was bleeding and I was mad. I ran down in the woods and didn’t come back for a long time. I had about all I could take from my father. I would tell my father about my ideas and he would tell me I was a damn fool.
I was getting older and cut wood and played football. I was strong for my size. I had a dream that I got in a fight with my father and damn near killed him. “Honor thy father and mother.” How could I honor a father like mine? Things got even worse with my father, so I finally ran away from home. I walked all night to get from my home to the bus station in Orlando. About 15 minutes before my bus came, my mother and Clayton Blackwelder came and took me home. I decided to try to work things out at home and change schools from Apopka Memorial to Boone High in Orlando. My life with my father didn’t improve, so I decided to run away again. And this time, go so far and fast that my parents couldn’t find me. I was depressed and felt that I needed to go someplace, where I could be free to develop my talents and away from my mean father.
I had seen a big four-engine Flying Fortress bomber at the airport in Orlando. I felt desperate and here was a way to escape to the Bahamas Islands.
Nobody could stop me now if I flew in the B-17 bomber. I climbed the chain link fence on the night of December 14, 1959 with a gas can for the electric power plant and my aviation maps. I climbed on top of the wings and checked the fuel level in the big tanks. There was some 1,000 gallons, enough to fly for over 800 miles at 120 kts air speed. I entered the bomber by taking out the screws in the tail gunner’s Plexiglas window. Having removed the chocks from the big main wheels, I gassed up the Onan power plant and then went and rotated all four engines twice to make sure the lower cylinders were not blocked with oil. Back inside the bomber I went through the bomb bay and then into the cockpit. There I found on the co-pilot side panel switches that allowed the power plant in the rear of the airplane to be used in parallel with the engine generators. Sitting in the co-pilot seat, I could reach the start and mesh switches to start the engines. I started all four engines and then got into the pilot’s seat and put on the brakes. Next, I ran up the engines to 42 in. of manifold pressure, checked oil pressure, and rpm. I checked the controls and turned on the navigation lights and landing lights. I released the brakes and headed for the runway with 4,800 hp and 25 tons. At 40 miles an hour the plane needed to be turned to the right but full right rudder did nothing. It still kept going left. The problem was a dragging left brake. The big bomber was now headed toward a $50,000 row of small planes and $100,000 hanger. I slammed on both brakes putting the 3rd engines propeller into the ground.. I now pulled the power off and shut all the engines down. The fire trucks were around the airplane and I was in big trouble. I jumped out of the bomber and was met under the wing by a man that asks me,” What are your intentions and who else is in there with you?" He said later that he couldn’t believe it to see only one person in the B-17.
When Jack Kalumbo, the bomber’s owner, and the police arrived I, at their request, told them every thing I did, every switch I flipped and flight readings, etc. The police said to Jack Kalumbo “Hey! Jack you should give this boy a job flying your B-17.”
The action taken by the Federal Aviation Agency was light considering the maximum penalty of $4,000 as well as being grounded for life. Because I was only 17 years old and because of the circumstances, no fine was imposed and the only penalty was that I was grounded until I was 21 years old.
As long as the $4,000 worth of damages was paid, to overhaul the 3rd propeller, and magna flux the left landing gear, there were no criminal charges. Father had to sell some of his valuable land to pay for the damages on the bomber.
I was so depressed when I was taken home that I stopped eating and wouldn’t talk to anyone. They all thought I was in a coma, but I was in perfect control at all times. They took me to the hospital in Winter Park, where they did two spinal taps, both of which were rather painful. I still pretended to be in a coma. I was then taken to a private room upstairs. When everyone was out of the room I opened my eyes and to my surprise, the window was covered with a heavy wire mesh. You guessed it! I was in a mental ward.
Leonard Duggar (1959-1960)
After a couple of depressing days, I had a visitor, President Leonard Duggar, the Orlando Stake President. He visited with me for a while and gave me a book, “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill. I read the book in the next few days and it started to change my outlook on life. I spent my 18th birthday in the mental ward of the hospital. Right after my birthday President Duggar took me home to live with his family. Living with the Duggars was like Heaven as compared to life with my father. Brother Duggar was so kind to his family and me. As the first Stake President in Florida he was very busy with church work. He took time for me though and it was at President Duggars place that I first got to drive a car, his new Pontiac. President Duggar finally worked things out so I could enroll at B.Y. High School in Provo, Utah, the laboratory school for BYU.
My Hot Rod Ford (1960)
I went to work at Terry’s lawn mower shop in the spring and I was very busy working there until I was ready to go to Utah. I bought a 1950 Ford two-door sedan for $200 and fixed it up for the trip. It had a Cadillac engine and a Lincoln transmission with overdrive. Boy would it go! I had a wonderful trip to Utah, all before there was an interstate highway system.
BY High (1960)
My parents had bought a house at 427 N. 600 E. in Provo where my mother lived with the children. My father, at this time, lived in Florida with my grandmother who was in her late nineties, feeble and almost blind.
While I was going to B.Y. High, I decided to read the Book of Mormon. By the time I was about half way through I knew it was true. The spirit was strong. I finished reading the Book of Mormon and it left no doubt in my mind, it was all true.
I went out for football, but after a week my knee gave me so much trouble that I had to have it operated on. The doctor did a good job and I was back playing football in two weeks. I started playing halfback, but because I had a four and a half yard per carry average I was moved to fullback to replace a 170 lbs. fullback and I only weighted 142 lbs. We won our homecoming game and I got a date with Carolyn Terry, one of the varsity cheerleaders, for the homecoming dance.
I was still having problems at home and couldn’t find a job. So after eight wonderful weeks at B.Y. High, I decided to go in the Army. I had high enough scores on my Army tests that I could be guaranteed any school the Army had.
U.S. Army (1960)
I flew to Texas on a DC-7 four-engine propeller Delta airliner. The final leg of the flight to Temple, Texas was in a DC-3 twin-engine prop airliner. I took my basic training at Fort Hood, Texas and was in the second Armored Division (Hell on Wheels). In basic training, I won a marksmanship metal with my M-1 rifle and I had top scores in physical training. I took the Greyhound bus from Texas to Provo, Utah in time for Christmas 1960.
Juli kissed me (1961)
I visited the girls from B.Y. High and got a date with Juli Jensen, a walking vogue and a beautiful Mademoiselle. Juli was a nice girl but I made one mistake. I told her that I had a bet for $100, with my Stake President that I wouldn’t kiss a girl until I got married. I took Juli to a movie and then we drove around in my hot rod Ford and ended up at Utah Lake. Then it happened, Juli kissed me, so much for my $100 bet. I also took Juli to the New Year’s Eve dance at the Sharon Stake Center. When I got my yearbook, Juli had written:
Of all the people at BYH, you’re the kindest that ever came here…. You know how mutual feelings are between us. Remember New Years Eve. I can’t forget.
After my dates with Juli it was time to head for my electronics school at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
Fort Sill Oklahoma (1961)
I spent eight months in electronics school and finally graduated with 94%. In my class were three Greeks; Panayotus Susaras, Thaafonis Kesos, and George Kastoolus. I would teach the Greeks electronics and they would teach me Greek. Like—E mehane enna epa steme. I was assigned to a chronograph section and was sick and tired of the drunks, profanity and wasted time. I talked around and found that the Inspector General could get someone out of the Army early. I went to the first sergeant, Post Chaplain, and back to the Inspector General. The worst that could happen was that I couldn’t get out early.
While I was waiting for my hearing, I was exercising by walking my 100 ft cable between two trees in the back of the barracks and walking down the stairs in the building on my hands. As it came time to have my hearing I had worked up to walking down 72 flights of stairs in 2-½ hrs. I also could stand on a coffee table on my hands and jump to the floor and walk away on my hands. I could walk up a flight of stairs on my hands and stand on my hands in the middle of the floor and do seven pushups or stand against a wall and do 25 pushups.
Finally I had my hearing and after one year, one month and twenty-four days I was out of the Army with an Honorable Discharge.
While my paperwork was processing for my early out, I had an interesting visit with a soldier in our building. He asks me if I knew where he could get some information about the Mormon Church. I got my scriptures and we went through questions and answers for a couple of hours. Then since I was leaving I gave him over to the missionaries.
Finally it was about two weeks before Christmas 1961 and Scott Anderson and his wife were riding to Cranford, New Jersey with me in my hot rod Ford. Things were going fine until we got to St. Louis, Mo. when with a bang and a big cloud of smoke my hot rod Ford was in trouble. I stopped at a wrecking yard and he offered me $50 dollars for my car. I took Scott and his wife to the Greyhound bus station so they could still make it home for Christmas. I then got out my little brown book that had the telephone number of the Stake President in St. Louis. Well, he suggested I contact a Brother that was a mechanic and had a shop, as there was four inches of snow on the ground. The car limped to the Brother’s shop and he said he’d get me the parts I needed at cost and let me use his shop and tools for $1 an hour. The problem with my engine was not hard to find. There was a hole in a piston the size of a bar of hotel soap and the head of an exhaust valve was in the oil pan. We put the engine back together with a new exhaust valve and a new piston. I thanked the Brother, paid him and left with New Jersey in my sights. From Ohio all the way to Cranford there was six inches to a foot of new snow left by an eastern storm. On Christmas Eve I rolled into Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and then I ran out of gas. It was about 6 o’clock in the morning, when a car stopped to see if I needed anything. He took me to a gas station where the owner opened early so I could get some gas.
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