Peter Garrison

Talks _12

Peter Garrison is a journalist and amateur aircraft designer and builder. In 1973 he built an airplane, which he called Melmoth, in the back yard of his house. It was named after the romantic novel Melmoth the Wanderer, whose main character sells his soul to the devil for the ability to travel at will through space and time. Garrison flew Melmoth for 2,000 hours, to destinations including South America, Europe and Asia. His trips across the Pacific were the first nonstop flights in a homemade plane between the United States and Japan. 

Interview: Thomas Roueché
Portrait: Nancy Salter

Thomas Roueché How did you get into building your own planes?
Peter Garrison I liked model planes when I was a kid, and at some point I was out of college for a year and I learned to fly. 

My father had learned to fly and he had an airplane, so I learned to fly just in order to do something interesting. And then he came up with this plan for us to fly around the world in two single-engine planes, one of us in each. This is an expensive project and so he went around trying to get sponsorship for it. He was never successful so the project never took place, but the idea stuck with me. I really don’t remember how I originally decided that I wanted to try building an airplane of my own, but it happened sometime in my twenties. It seems as though the idea of flying around the world had become part of the whole scheme, the whole wild, unreasonable scheme. The very first plane I designed was made to go long distances: 3,000 miles. If you have a 3,000-mile range you can cover any open stretch of water on the planet, so it will get you, without excessive detours, anywhere you want to go. I had several false starts, and then finally succeeded at actually finishing an airplane, Melmoth, in 1973, at which point I was 30. 

Anyway, the first year my partner Nancy and I flew down to Central America and the second year we flew to Europe, and the third year we flew to Japan. The fourth long trip was down to Chile, and of course, we flew all over the US and Mexico. And then after nine years of this, another airplane collided with me on the ground. I was waiting to take off and this guy was making an emergency landing and he went out of control and ploughed through my plane.

The plane was destroyed; I wasn’t, obviously. At that point we were about to have our son Nick, and it seemed like we were going to need a bigger plane. So before the first airplane was destroyed, I had started working on a four-seat fuselage that was going to go on the wings, and used the tail surfaces from the first airplane. When the first airplane was destroyed I designed the remaining stuff and ended up spending the next 20 years building the second airplane. In the meantime, Nancy completely lost her taste for even low-risk flying. In retrospect, it just seems amazing that she pretty calmly went along with these 15-hour trips, in darkness, in a single-engine plane over the North Pacific. She’s now far more hesitant to squander her remaining years, so I just fly around alone. I hardly go anywhere. Which is pretty ridiculous after spending 20 years on this airplane, which, like the old one, has a 3,000-mile range and so in principle can go anywhere. But mostly, once every week or so, I go up and fly around for an hour.  

TR How long did it take you to build the first plane?
PG About four and half years.  

TR Can you tell me a bit about how you went about building it?
PG Obviously, when I started I didn’t know how to do it, but by the time I was finished I did know how to do it, but it was too late already. I read some books, I looked at airplanes, I talked to people, asked questions, and gradually found out how it was done. You know, you can learn quite a lot just from looking at the insides of private planes at airports. You read a few books and then you link what you’ve seen with what you read and it all fits together. Contrary to that common phrase, “It’s not rocket science,” rocket science is probably not much more difficult to learn than anything else. Certainly aeronautical engineering isn’t. This is not to say that during the entire time I was building the plane I was not haunted by the concern that I was just one of those harmless cranks trying to develop anti-gravity or something.  

TR What was it like to fly? How long were the longest journeys you took?
PG If you ask Nancy these questions, she’d probably give a different answer than me. I found it very enjoyable to fly. I found it perfectly comfortable; it had good flying qualities, and other pilots who flew it felt the same way about it. The longest flight that Nancy and I made was 14 hours and 45 minutes, to Hokkaido from the tip of the Alaska Peninsula, which is that little piece of Alaska that sticks out towards Russia, just before you start that series of dots that constitute the Aleutian Islands. 

We took off from Cold Bay, the last mainland airport in Alaska, on July 3, 1976. The plan had been that Nancy and I were going to sleep in Cold Bay and take off in the morning, but we stopped by the weather forecasting shack, and they observed that a typhoon was moving north through the central Pacific, and it was going to bring bad weather for several days in the Aleutians. But at this point, because the circulation around a typhoon in the northern hemisphere is counterclockwise, and we were north of it, we realised that it would provide tailwinds all the way to Japan. Because it was the eve of July 4, Independence Day, we had quite a lot of trouble finding someone to fuel the plane because everyone had repaired to the local tavern. But we finally got the plane fuelled and took off at about 9.30 in the evening. 

Then, of course, night fell fairly quickly. I figured that it was going to be a fairly long flight and there was some danger of fatigue, but on the other hand the night was going to be very short. Well, I completely failed to take into account that we were crossing from one time zone into another, and because we were very far north, the time zones are quite narrow! So we were pretty much almost keeping up with the sun, and once the sun went down, it didn’t come up again for 13 hours. So we flew nearly the whole flight in total darkness, and this was at a time without GPS, so to navigate you had a compass and a clock, and you pointed the airplane in a certain direction. In the Pacific, the magnetic variation changes mean you just take one heading and hold that the whole way. So we just turned to a heading at 250 degrees and sat there. Nancy slept for about eight hours, while I just tried to stay awake. 

When dawn came we had no idea where we were; there was no way to measure what your location was. I knew we had passed by the Kamchatka Peninsula, because we had picked up a broadcast station that was playing Chopin, and that was the only place it could be coming from. Gradually we started seeing ships heading the same direction as us, so they were heading, presumably, for Japan. Then we started to see smog down below us on the water, so we knew we were headed toward an industrial nation. Obviously in those days you didn’t want to wander into the Soviet Union. So we flew out over the water, several hundred miles from the Russian coast, and then when I thought we were more or less even with Japan I hung a right. Well, lo and behold, my navigation, such as it was, was correct and we did cross the Japanese coast right where we thought we should, and then the Japanese traffic controller said, “It’s too early in the morning, you can’t land where you said you wanted to land, instead you have to continue another hour down to this other place.” So we continued down to this other place and landed at Chitose, which is Sapporo’s airport. Then they said, “The customs people aren’t here yet, so you’ll have to remain in the plane until they come.” You can imagine after 15 hours in the plane how eager we were to remain in it. So we just ignored them and got out, and got out our sleeping bags. We figured we would just unfurl them under the wing, lie down and catch a few winks before the officials arrived. 

The Japanese authorities considered this completely unsuitable and rushed out in pure panic and took us inside. Then a whole new drama unfolded, because there was a sort of manifest you have to fill out when you arrive in a foreign country. One of the questions was, Do you have any firearms? I actually had a pistol, which somebody had given me for the week I was flying around in Alaska, in case I went down in the wilderness. So I said, “Yeah, I’ve got this pistol,” and this produced another complete bureaucratic panic because it was illegal to import firearms. We ended up spending another 11 hours while they tried to figure out what to do. Finally the police chief came, took the pistol, kept it for us for three weeks while we drove around in Japan, and when we left, the police chief came out to the airport and ceremonially handed us the pistol, while a whole bunch of Air Nippon stewardesses came out and lined up. We had a ceremonial photograph, then we climbed into the plane and flew back to America.

In retrospect, it seems extremely rash. But it’s interesting, I don’t remember feeling much anxiety about it. I’m sure that today I would feel considerable anxiety. I don’t know what happens to one. Of course, at that time, and Nancy would say this too, nothing had ever gone wrong with the airplane, other than the initial teething problems. There hadn’t been any failures. But after we returned from Japan, I started having various kinds of mechanical problems related to the engine which might have caused us to end up in the ocean. That wouldn’t have been so good, particularly because, as it turned out, our self-inflating life raft, which I later tested in a swimming pool, didn’t inflate. Not only would we have been on the edge of a typhoon in the North Pacific, but we would’ve been treading water rather than cuddling up in a life raft.  

TR It’s amazing to think about just pointing it in the right direction and flying through the darkness.
PG That’s how everything was done. When we crossed the Atlantic we did hear the broadcast signal from something called CONSOL, which was a very primitive, very weird World War II-era navigation system. You sort of listened to a series of dots or audio pulses and you counted them. Then you tuned in to a different CONSOL station – one of them was in Rota, Spain, and the other in Bushmills, in Northern Ireland – and you would count the dots from that station. That gave you two current lines of position, and where they intersected was where you were. Anyway, it was a far cry from the little moving arrow on the GPS map that we’re so accustomed to today. Going to Europe was pretty straightforward anyway. I talked to a ferry pilot before we left and he said, “Just put the pointer of the compass on E for Europe and you’ll get there.” That did turn out to be the case. 

TR Would you say it’s easier these days to do similar sorts of journeys?
PG No, from a navigational standpoint it’s certainly easier, or at least it’s a lot easier to feel confident about where you are. Flying with a compass alone, which is called dead reckoning, is not exactly difficult, but it has a high level of uncertainty and therefore a certain amount of anxiety. Whereas GPS takes away the anxiety – and any need for navigational skill. I think probably it’s become more difficult bureaucratically, but I haven’t done long-distance flights for while. For people who want to travel a long way in private planes, there are an awful lot of permissions to be gotten and fees to be paid. They hire people to make these arrangements for them. I just sort of wrote letters and figured, “Oh well, never mind, when we show up we’ll deal with it then.” 

It is true that there are probably some places that they just clap you in jail, but I was even optimistic about the possibility of deviating into Russia. I had a few words of Russian because my grandfather was Armenian; I thought everything would be all right. Fortunately, I didn’t have to test my hypothesis. The wonderful confidence of youth! §