Toby is a crop duster. Skimming over fields applying chemicals that farmers require is an everyday event for him. Fact is, many farmers object to paying his asking price if they don’t see signs of their crop lodged in his landing gear.
His reputation precedes him. He has no problem qualifying for the annual air race scheduled to occur on the second day of the week-long Ashley County Fair. Because the country has no airport, fair commissioners have chosen the city water tower as one turning point and Alex Jacobs’s silo as the other.
The morning of the race Toby gives his World War Two trainer, a Stearman bi-plane a thorough inspection. Then he tops off the fuel in his yellow beast and heads for the fairgrounds, arriving an hour early to allow time for check-in and final instructions.
And then they are off. Toby, a World War One fighter pilot has logged many combat hours in fragile Jenny aircraft, chalking fifteen kills. Competing with these farm boy wannabes is no contest, so after he is certain of his win he decides to flaunt his flying skills
Having the sky to himself, he begins a series of loops. Near the top of his second loop the engine stalls. Forward motion slows and then stops. Toby’s in trouble as his Stearman falls over backwards and begins an uncontrolled downward spiral. Most pilots try everything they know to regain control. Often, these efforts are fatal mistakes that take them into the ground. Given enough altitude, these old bi-planes will usually recover on its own – if he has enough altitude at the outset and the pilot can keep his cool.
Toby, having survived several close calls during combat situations has learned, in spite of his gut feeling, to set the stick free and keep his feet off the pedals. Prepared or not, he’s facing another challenge today.
There is no engine noise to drown out the wind screaming through the wires and he’s growing more tense by the second as he recognizes some of the upturned faces. Still, he grips the seat cushion rather than the stick, and waits while the grassy meadow rushes at him. Was I high enough? He isn’t sure and he’s uttering a silent prayer when the wires change their tone. A dozen laws of physics come into play the old Stearman morphes itself into a manageable aircraft. Grabbing the stick, he eases it toward the cushion. He’s very close to the ground – too close – but a miss is as good as a mile. Lining up with the water tower, Toby brings his yellow beast in on a final approach and then makes a perfect dead-stick landing. Climbing out on the wing, he swings down to the ground and waves to the spectators. These cheering fools think this is all part of a hair-raising stunt. Only Toby is aware of the pounding in his chest.