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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Harney County rancher saves pioneer Oregon aviator's life

Barnstormer Ted Barber was down to his last half-cup of gasoline when Ralph Grove rescued him by lighting up a field with the headlights of his car; Ted's old Waco 9 biplane lived to fly the next day, and so did he.

Pioneer Central Oregon aviator Ted Barber in his Waco 9 biplane in the
1930s. (Photo: Ted Barber) [Larger image: 1300 x 837]

On a stormy, late-summer evening in 1930, a few feet above the ground near the Oregon-Nevada border, 22-year-old Ted Barber was preparing to die.

Barber was an aviation pioneer, Central Oregon's first — and, for a long time, only — barnstormer. His "ship" was a primitive old biplane called a Waco 9, powered by a slow and unreliable engine called a Curtiss OX-5 built before World War I.

He was flying the Waco now. It was a very dark night in a very remote place. He had no idea where he was or even what direction he was flying in — it was too dark to see the compass. When his fuel ran out, he would try to execute a dead-stick landing in the dark. The chances of success were in the thousands to one against him, and in this sparsely populated section of Oregon, chances were no one would even notice the wreckage for days. And he knew he had no one to blame but himself.

A rough day, getting rougher

Barber was on a barnstorming trip from his home in Bend. A few days before, he'd flown down to Frank Henry's ranch in the Catlow Valley, on the west side of the Steens Mountain. The Henrys were putting on a dance in the town of Andrews, just over the mountain from their spread. Ted was there to sell airplane rides.

This reproduction of a 1920s-vintage advertisement for Waco 9 aircraft
comes from an article in General Aviation News about the OX-5 era,
in which a plethora of inexpensive war-surplus OX-5 engines powered
a sort of golden age of barnstormers and daring aviators. Here's a link
to the article,
which I highly recommend. [No larger image available]

It hadn't gone so well. His engine had quit twice, and he'd had to make emergency landings in the Eastern Oregon sagebrush. No one was hurt, but the lashing sage had torn up the fabric of the lower wing of his biplane pretty badly.

By the end of the day, Barber was eager to get back to the Henrys' ranch. But the day was hot, the air was thin and gusty, and his shredded-up bottom wing wasn't giving as much lift as it usually did. Barber couldn't get the plane to climb high enough to clear the Steens. He tried and tried, with increasing desperation as the sun sank lower in the sky, until suddenly he realized he didn't have enough gasoline left to get back to the ranch even if he did get over the mountain. He'd have to find someplace to land.

Out of light, out of gas, out of luck ...

The Douglas Davis Flying Service fleet of OX-5 powered Waco 9s. This
photo comes from the Web site of the National Waco Club, which has a
huge assortment of historic photos of Waco aircraft available to view;
here's a link to the club's photo index.

If he'd realized this earlier, Ted could have flown leisurely along, with plenty of gas, looking for a ranch house to set the Waco down next to. He could have overflown a promising hayfield to make sure it was safe — no barbed-wire fences, no big rocks, no stone walls — and then made a hair-raising but basically safe landing in the gloaming twilight, just in time for supper at the ranch.

That's what could have happened. But it didn't. Instead, he was here — flying just a little above stall speed through the darkness, a dozen feet above a vague line of lighter darkness — the star-lit signature of a dusty country road, which he had through sheer dumb luck stumbled across a little earlier. He was sticking with the road because crashing there would be much better than crashing in a hay field someplace.

The biplane's engine droned on. Ted couldn't understand why it was still running. It should have sipped its last drop of gasoline some time earlier. But he wasn't complaining about it. The longer that engine ran, the longer his life would be. He was a dead man flying, and he'd take every extra second.

... almost.

Then he saw something, or rather the shadowy outline of something, that gave him a glimmer of hope. It was a little copse of trees — the kind that people plant and cultivate around ranch houses in eastern Oregon. Peering into the darkness, he thought he saw a house there as well — but it was hard to see. In these pre-Rural-Electrification days, nighttime in the country was lit only by the stars.

If it was a house, crashing in front of it would be far better than crashing anywhere else.

He circled the copse of trees, trying to get a better look. Then a light went on in a window.

Meanwhile, in the Grove residence ...

When Ralph Grove heard the engine droning outside, he knew exactly what that meant. It was the middle of the night, and some stormy weather was coming in. Nobody would be out flying on a night like this unless he was in serious trouble.

He lit a lantern and hurried out to the shed, in which he kept his automobile. He knew just the field that the pilot should land in.

Watching and praying for gasoline

Several dozen feet overhead, Barber was praying for gasoline, hardly daring to hope. He'd spotted a lighter patch of darkness that looked like a cultivated field, which would mean no big rocks to smash into. He was trying to keep in position so that if the engine quit, he could reach that field.

He watched Grove's lantern moving from the house and disappearing — apparently into a shed. Then lights came on and he saw an automobile come out of the shed and drive onto the road.

Impromptu airfield lights

Down below, Grove was hurrying down the road to the field in his car. He whipped it into position and let the light of its headlights spill out over the stubbly field, lighting up a row of willow trees at its extreme end. Overhead, Barber lined up on the field, grabbing for the lifeline, not sure even if he'd make it through the final turn without running out of gas. Then he was on the ground, bumping to a stop, shutting off his engine — safe.

Ted learns how close he came

The next morning, Ted learned two things. First, the field he'd been lining up on when he saw Grove's house was the Grove family's vegetable garden. It was just 150 by 300 feet, fenced and — for good measure — cross-fenced. He would not have survived an attempt to land there.

This relatively minor wreck is an example of probably the best-case
scenario faced by Ted Barber as he contemplated his situation on that dark
night over southern Oregon. Ted caught a tremendously lucky break; this
pilot, not so much. (This is another photo from the National Waco Club's
collection.)

And second, when he put his dipstick into the gas tank to see how much was left, the end that thumped the bottom of the tank, at the lowest corner, wasn't even moist when he brought it back up. All the fuel left in the plane was just what was in the fuel lines — and the OX-5 engine burns nine gallons an hour. He'd landed with about 30 seconds' worth of fuel left in the airplane.

Ted Barber went on to become a flight trainer during World War II, and later became a well-known "barnstorming mustanger" — using an airplane to round up feral horses on the range in Nevada. Despite dozens of close calls and crashes over the years — including, at one point, jumping out of his plane head-first while it was falling off a Nevada mountain — he was still around in 1987 to write his memoirs.

"It is hard to understand why some people are allowed only one mistake" (and are killed by it), he wrote then. "I don't have fingers and toes enough to count the really tough spots I have survived."

(Source: Barber, Ted. The Barnstorming Mustanger. Orovada, Nev.: Barber Industries, 1987)