A Flight Along America's Highway
One man’s mid-century portrait of the United States—from 1,500 feet.
- By John Fleischman
- Air & Space magazine, January 2000
(Page 2 of 4)
Looking back over 45 summers, Bedell remembers the evening clearly. “Bill had this picture with him and he was saying the airplane gives you the ‘synoptic eye,’ the ability to sum things up from the air,” he remembers. “And he says, ‘My guess is that the woman who lives in [the Cape Cod] house reads the New York Times. And [the nurses] say, ‘Ah, you’re crazy, Bill.’ So we made a bet. It was for two cartons of cigarettes or they would have to take us both out to dinner, but the deal was that we couldn’t ask a direct question. We had to knock on this woman’s door and find out without asking her directly. So we detoured at Alton and went up to Carlinville. We knock on the door and this woman says, ‘Sorry, you can’t come in.’ She thought we were trying to sell her an aerial photo of her house. But we talk and talk and talk and finally she lets us in. We start asking her questions like ‘What do you do?’ She says, ‘I’m a nurse. My training was in St. Louis but I lived in New York for a while.’ So we go on asking questions and finally we say, ‘What do you read?’ And she says she reads this or that magazine, ‘but every time I get to St. Louis, I buy a copy of the New York Times.’ ”
So how did Price do it? Sitting in his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Price, now 84, laughs at his own cockiness. It is a hot spring day, and through the open windows come ambulance sirens and car horns. Price’s living room is jammed with second-hand furniture, photo albums, books, filing cabinets, artwork, pictures of himself as a handsome young Navy flier, left-wing political posters, a stereo, and, over in the corner, a wooden airplane propeller. Also present is Bedell and an old friend of Price and Bedell, Jane Hogg, who comes into the synoptic eye story a little later.
The three friends are gathered at Price’s apartment to make sense of the yellowing notes and curling contact prints from all those years ago and to hear Price explain his Carlinville caper of spotting the Times reader from 1,500 feet. “I was always trying to find the clues you could see from the air,” he says. “Here this is the county courthouse so this is obviously the town center. Now on this side are the well-to-do. These are pretty big houses, substantial homes, but this one is different. It’s in a New England style and it’s the only one with a fence around it. It has the only fence in the whole picture so I thought this would indicate someone who read the New York Times in the middle of nowhere.”
That was the theory—that an aerial viewpoint inspires speculations about life on the ground. The means for testing it was Price’s second war-surplus airplane, a Consolidated Vultee L-13. He bid on it through the mail, and the government said it was his for $2,000. In June 1954, he dragged Bedell, who was not a pilot, down to Panama City, Florida, where they took delivery. The L-13 came in bare metal, a tail-dragger with a Franklin 245-horsepower engine and a two-seat, side-by-side, glass-covered cockpit. Its big fold-down side windows made it perfect for flying a camera. The L-13 also had radios, though it wasn’t supposed to. “Whoop-dee-doo,” said Price when he spotted them.
Price and Bedell took off on August 18, 1954, from Pennsville, a tiny airfield in southern New Jersey, crossed the Delaware River, and turned west to follow U.S. 40 as far as daylight and weather allowed each day. The synoptic eye was airborne.
Looking back at those pictures now, one sees the country alternate between an old-fashioned appearance and an extremely modern one within the space of a few frames. Price photographed a new housing tract just west of Elkton, Maryland, part of the post-war era of sprawling suburbs that still swallow up farmland at an alarming rate. An hour’s flight west and he was over untrammeled farm country, photographing a landscape of fields to the horizon, all contour plowed and planted.
The highways and streets in 1954 still belonged to big American cars, with not an SUV, mini-van, or VW bug in sight. Though U.S. 40 was two lanes of serviceable concrete, the interstate highway system was already under construction. Within a decade, interstates would consume long segments of U.S. 40, and the route would be incorporated into I-70 or I-80. Elsewhere, the interstates would simply bypass U.S. 40, leaving the towns that lived off its passing traffic to wither.
On their journey, the fliers found a more trusting hospitality than they probably would encounter today. From Indianapolis they flew west to Alton, Illinois, then north to Carlinville to interview the woman who lived in the Cape Cod house. There was no airport so they had to set down on a farmer’s private strip. Bedell remembers: “This guy comes out in his truck and says, ‘What’s up, boys?’ So we explain about what we were up to and he says—and this was a Saturday night—he says, ‘Just make sure you have the truck back on Monday morning because I’ll need it.’ It was incredible.”