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Yesteryears: The daring Crozet teen and his flying machine created plenty of memories

Yesteryears: The daring Crozet teen and his flying machine created plenty of memories

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It's amazing what some people can do when they don't realize they shouldn't be able to do it.

Robert Tucker Belew serves as a classic example. A few weeks before Christmas 1955, he sat down with Boyce Loving, a reporter with The Daily Progress, and told him a remarkable story.

Belew was 14 years old in 1923, when he came down with a severe case of flying fever. Like many people at the time, the Crozet youngster had become fascinated by the notion of flight.

When he heard about a small used airplane for sale at a nearby airfield, he decided to take a look at it. He and a cousin his own age drove a T-model Ford truck to the strip near Charlottesville.

The airplane was a Curtiss JN-4, affectionately known as a Jenny. This model had been designed as a training aircraft for the U.S. Army during World War I.

After the war ended in 1918, thousands of these aircraft became surplus and were sold to civilians at bargain-basement prices. The Jenny became the ship of choice for the daring barnstorm pilots who thrilled onlookers throughout the Roaring '20s.

The owner of the airplane Robert went to look at was practically giving it away. There was a reason for the cheap-as-dirt price, but that wouldn't be discovered until after the money was exchanged.

The boys spent hours dismantling the wings and tail section and wrestling the fuselage onto the bed of the truck. After securing everything with ropes, the youngsters drove to a pasture near Crozet.

While reassembling the aircraft, they noticed small holes in the canvas that covered the wings and portions of the plane. Undeterred, the boys spent a little more money on new canvas.

After replacing the damaged canvas, the boys went to work on the engine. After "considerable tinkering," they had the engine running.

The only thing left to do was fly the darn thing. Problem was, neither of the boys ever had sat in a cockpit, much less flown an airplane.

Their solution was simply to ignore this minor detail. What transpired next would become a part of Crozet lore that would be talked about for decades to come.

Loving talked with one old-timer who remembered the fearless fliers well. The man lived near the field the boys used as a runway.

The man said he recalled watching the boys take off, skimming the tops of fences and trees. When the engine started missing, they simply wobbled it back around, and then bounced and rolled it to a stop in the field.

After some wrench work, they tried again. The eyewitness said once the kids got the Jenny running right, they'd fly to the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains, circle a few times, and fly back to the field.

The boys may not have been overly cautious with their lives, but they were protective of their Jenny. After completing a flight, they would tie the aircraft to a fence in case a stiff wind came up.

All went well until a barnstorming pilot showed up in Crozet to put on a flying exhibit for the local folks. Of course, the young Belew couldn't miss meeting a real pilot, and his father came along.

Apparently, Belew's dad was one of the few people in the area who didn't know his kid had taken up flying. He wasn't impressed.

The father ordered his son to haul, not fly, the airplane back to the previous owner. That was the end of the short-lived flying career of Robert Tucker Belew.

With such a passion for flying, one could suspect that young Belew would have sought out a career in aviation. Instead, he put his genius for fixing engines to good use as a mechanic for the Virginia Trailways bus line.

When Claude Jessup, Trailways’ general manager, presented Belew with his 30-year service pin on Dec. 5, 1955, he said the following.

"Belew's knowledge of gasoline and diesel engines is astounding," Jessup said. "I believe I could send him out with a screwdriver, a pair of pliers and some bailing wire, and, no matter what ailed a bus on the road, he'd bring it in."

When necessary, Belew also could drive the buses. For many years, he had served as a relief driver, and during World War II, when there was a shortage of drivers, he had regular runs.

As much as Belew obviously loved flying, as an adult he never bothered to take flying lessons and get a license. Perhaps he realized that the gods of flight had smiled kindly on him, and he wasn't about to push his luck.

 

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