Above and Beyond: Cornwell’s Folly
- By Lewis A. Bartlett
- Air & Space magazine, June 2010
The wind kicked gravel against the pitted windows in the town post office, where I had gone to find out if I’d gotten in to graduate school at the University of Colorado. I didn’t think the letter had arrived, but with time on my hands I was looking for something—anything—to do, so I drove into town to check.
When I first went away to college, I used to come back home to Deer Trail, Colorado, frequently, plus I worked summers on the farm, so I kept up with who was there and what everyone was doing. But I had been away too long. I didn’t have much to talk about with the people who remained. After a couple of weeks sitting around, with nobody to see and nothing to do, I was bored stupid.
“Whatcha doin’ here, Squee?” It was John, a local cowboy.
“Oh, nothing, John,” I said, “just looking for some mail.”
“So whatcha been up to?”
“Not a hell of a lot of anything,” I replied. “I’m a fish out of water, John.”
“Let’s go for a ride.”
We stopped at a liquor store, where John picked up a case of beer, and drove eastward, in the general direction of Kansas. After nearly an hour, I was beginning to get an inkling of what the plan was. When we passed through the boundary of federal land referred to as The Breaks, I knew the destination. In another 15 minutes, sure enough, I saw that the wreck was still there.
Torn, weathered, Army-surplus canvas flapped from the starboard wing. The landing gear—converted Model A spoke wheels—sat rusting in the Colorado desert. Sun-baked tires, long flat, clung to the rims, submerged in drifted sand. The cockpit windows were broken, probably shot out by some youthful hunter, or shattered by hail. The fuselage and tail section were in good condition, but years of prairie winds had left both warped and twisted.
While under construction, this aircraft was the laughingstock of the county. Only Ed Cornwell thought it would fly.
John and I had enjoyed a few quiet moments sipping our beer and appraising the discarded vehicle, framed in buffalo grass, with the Rocky Mountains as backdrop. As I watched, the old relic seemed to come alive. In fact, John and I were there together when Ed’s big day had come around.
“Ready for another beer?” John asked.
John reached in the back seat of his Chevy convertible, and my thoughts drifted back to a September morning in 1948. This might take more than one more beer, I figured.
I happened into Ralph Lessy’s welding shop one afternoon. Ralph was designing something for a huge engine that sat on the concrete floor. Ralph, a laconic grouch to those who didn’t know him, was actually funny, clever, and somewhat acerbic. He was an expert and creative welder, and if he liked you, he would make anything for you, even if he considered it a waste of his time. He tolerated Ed Cornwell and knew that what he was putting together for Ed didn’t make much sense.
“What are you building?” I asked.