In the decade or so after the end of World War II, whole fleets of perfectly good but obsolete aircraft were surplussed by the U.S. military and fell into the hands of a generation of ex-military pilots. Some vets wanted to start airlines or cropdusting services. Some just wanted to fly for the pleasure of it. Bill Price wanted to take an aerial portrait of the United States. He proposed buying a surplus airplane and buzzing America’s Main Street, U.S. Highway 40, capturing its likeness with a camera.
Price believed that a low-altitude aerial survey would reveal patterns in geology, agriculture, housing, industry, and American culture that were invisible on the ground. “I was trying to figure how it would be possible to take a sample of the whole country all the way across, but it needed something to hold it together and Highway 40 seemed the way to do it,” he says. Price planned to make a book of it, a collection of handsome plates with a detailed analysis of what he saw along U.S. 40, which stretched from sea to shining sea.
The plan began in 1945 when Price was declared war surplus himself. He was discharged from the U.S. Navy at 30 as a full lieutenant (senior grade). He had racked up over 2,300 hours tooling around the northern and central Pacific in PBY Catalinas and PBM Mariners, twin-engine amphibious patrol bombers, and all that flying time left him quite at ease in a cockpit.
Upon discharge, he went to work at his last place of civilian employment, the newsroom of the New York Daily News, where he had to work as a copy boy before returning to the rank of reporter. Soon he was able to convince the paper that it needed its own air force, a Waco biplane that he ferried in from Troy, Ohio, and operated from a grass strip in Queens, just across the East River from Manhattan. Price was soon flying News photographers over horse races, outdoor ceremonies, fleet reviews, oceanliner arrivals, and plane crashes. Price thought the camera work didn’t look that difficult, so he bought himself an Argus C-3, which he used in freelance work for aviation magazines.
He’d already bought his own airplane, a U.S. Army Air Forces Stinson L-5 with a Lycoming engine. Price had picked it up in December 1945 for a song in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and for the next few years he flew it hard and everywhere in the eastern United States. He then took a leave of absence from the Daily News and set out in January 1948 on an odyssey south to Texas (“Feb. 4, 1948, Stimson Field, San Antonio—STINKO WEATHER”) and on through Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama, where he had a buyer waiting. The last leg was the hairiest; in Colobre, Panama, he joined an air search over the jungle for a missing pilot (who turned up safe elsewhere), and his log then tracks him from Paitilla Airport to remote “Pinogana Village to pick up boy with tetanus infection and returned to Paitilla and hospital—strip 650´ long, 12´ wide—mountain one end, trees other—no wind—boy’s mother had to come—big gal & pregnant to boot—barely cleared trees, landed Paitilla with 3 gals. gas left—boy died in hospital 1 1/2 hours later.” When he sold his L-5 in Panama City, Price had accumulated nearly 300 hours of civilian flying. And soon after, he had a pair of war-surplus K-20 Fairchilds, aerial cameras that produced four-by-five-inch negatives in rolls of 50.
After he sold the L-5, Price flew rented and borrowed aircraft: a Ryan trainer, a Piper J-3, and an amphibious Republic Seabee. In February 1951, he rented a Cessna 120 at the Linden, New Jersey airport and hopped west, visiting old friends and throwing the side window open in the frigid air to take aerials. He figured out how to handle the stick with his knees while photographing steam locomotives or his airplane’s shadow flitting across cornfields. He turned for home from St. Louis on March 1, and en route to Gary, Indiana, flew over the county seat town of Carlinville, Illinois. And there, a few hundred feet above the domed courthouse, Bill Price discovered what he called “the synoptic eye.”
Three years later, while he was on his flight along Route 40 with his friend Bob Bedell, Price was still thinking about the synoptic eye. He explained it to Bedell and two nurses in a Cincinnati night spot one evening. Price spread the aerial photo of Carlinville that he’d taken in 1951 out on a table. In the center was the courthouse and around the grassy square were the pillars of a mid-century, Midwestern town—a block of stores, a block of churches, a block of rooming houses and apartments, and on the far side of the square, a row of substantial private homes, dominated by a large Cape Cod with a screened breezeway and a fenced yard.
Bedell, who is today a globe-trotting engineering consultant, was in 1954 an engineering professor on summer vacation from New York’s Cooper Union when he signed on as Price’s assistant for the flyover. In Cincinnati, Price and Bedell were a good 70 miles south of U.S. 40, but they were there because Price wanted to look up the two nurses, whom he’d met on an earlier trip.
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.