When I wrote my essay on meeting Dorian Walker, who had more hours flying the Jenny JN4 biplane than anyone else alive, I noted how much danger there was in the stories he told. I also noted his concern and affection for his wife and creative partner of many years, Elaine. I asked her what she thought about his flying vintage aircraft.
“Flying an antique aircraft naturally involves some risk and a great deal of skill,” she told me by email. “I must admit that I was initially a bit concerned when Dorian began flying the Jenny. However, over these past several years, I have been impressed with not just his skill, but his obsession with learning all he can from those who have flown these planes in the past, reading WWI aviator journals and talking with others who fly them. So he goes into each flight with a great deal of collective knowledge. He is an exceptional pilot and has proven he can handle whatever challenges have been presented to him.”
The Jenny went down on Monday, May 15, 2023.
Looking back, it seems fateful that I tried but failed to see Dorian and the Jenny during the recent airshow at Scott Air Force Base near St. Louis. He and copilot Craig O’Mara, who flew for NASA, the Air Force, and a major airline, had flown the Jenny up early to Scott—where they were “treated like kings,” Dorian told me—on Thursday, May 11, due to forecasts of bad weather.
Sure enough, on Saturday, May 13, an enormous thunderstorm system moved through the area, and I got soaked to the skin on my way to the show and went home instead. Winds were so high the Jenny crew were told to put the plane in its display hangar—prominent Hangar One, right by the gates—where there was an unfortunate wind tunnel effect. The crew had to hold the airplane down and asked civilians and Air Force pilots to help. The wind let up, and they all let go, but another strong gust made the plane start to lift off, and everyone grabbed her again.
Looking back, it seems fateful that I tried but failed to see Dorian and the Jenny during the recent airshow at Scott Air Force Base near St. Louis.
“It was almost a new record,” Dorian said—very nearly a Jenny flying through a hangar, like the old barnstormer days, but without any power.
Still, Dorian said, “She was a proud mama…back on sacred turf.” Scott Air Base was “one of the big important Jenny stories,” a field where that aircraft began to be used in 1917, and where they pioneered the concept of the air ambulance by converting Jennys to carry patients.
Dorian could not say enough good things about the crowd. The airshow had 200,000 visitors, and everyone—“kids, moms, generals”—who stopped to look at the Jenny was interested in her story. Dorian said Sunday was even better and very gratifying. He and three crew members usually manned the display, alternating two on, two off, in order to see the airshow. On Sunday they all talked and answered questions, nonstop, from the time the gates opened until weather closed the airshow earlier than planned. That afternoon I was turned away at the shuttle stop by Air Force Security Forces and never made it in.
Dorian and Craig had to stay another night in the base’s Bachelor Officer Quarters before attempting to fly home to Bowling Green. Early Monday morning there was still a 15 mph, 90-degree crosswind, which posed a risk to the aircraft on takeoff, but by 11 am the winds had started to die down. When they took off, a gust that “makes you realize you’re a mere mortal, sitting in the cockpit of the old girl” caught them, but Dorian corrected. The runway was 10,000 feet long, so they were almost at altitude by the end of it.
Dorian and Craig veered a little north to stay out of the remnants of the weather and refueled at Mt Vernon, Illinois. (The Jenny, built as trainer, does not carry enough fuel to fly much more than 70 miles at a time.) The engine roared like a lion, without a hiccup, nothing whatsoever to make the aviators think, “I’d better look into that,” or “wonder what that is.” They landed again in Harrisburg, Illinois.
Dorian could not say enough good things about the crowd. The airshow had 200,000 visitors, and everyone—“kids, moms, generals”—who stopped to look at the Jenny was interested in her story.
As they crossed the Ohio River, they looked out on hundreds of miles of absolutely flat terrain. Craig was flying, and Dorian sent the last picture he took in the Jenny to his son, from the front cockpit, with a text that expressed the sentiment, Just take a look, this is what America looked like a hundred years ago from the air—farm fields, a small town there, the river curving around—no sign of anything from the twentieth or twenty-first centuries that would make you feel like we’re in today’s world.
Madisonville, Kentucky, “John Prine country,” was their last fuel stop. They changed places for the hour’s flight to Bowling Green. Dorian called his wife, Elaine, about 5:15, before they left, and said, Boy, it’s been a long day. How about martinis tonight? She said, I’ll have ’em ready for you, I’ll get ’em nice and cold.
It had been a successful trip that started at four in the morning on Thursday. Now the winds had settled, the sun was low on the horizon, and they were on their last leg. Craig would be leaving for his home in California, and he and Dorian did not know when they would see each other again. They had been in the air about ten minutes, and the hills and woods of Kentucky were coming up. Dorian considered doing some “lazy S’s” over the Green River, somewhere near Paradise, Kentucky, as a nod to the days of early Jenny aviation.
“For some reason,” he told Craig they should just get on home. “I guess the martini won out,” he said. It had been a long flying day due to vibration, noise, and wind through the open cockpits. It was a fateful decision, this pull for home and its comforts. They could have been at 200 feet, following a river bend, with only time to land in the water. Instead they were still at 1500 feet when the engine “just turned off, absolute dead air.”
She was “just purring like a kitten. Until she wasn’t. [The engine] stopped—not a warning whatsoever.”
Dorian “tried to start it twice; nothing; third time it caught, boom, right back into full power. I was thinking, Whoa, that was interesting, I wonder what in the world, because we hadn’t had anything like that. Ten seconds later, boom, dead. I tried restarting then. Nothing. Zero. Dead.”
As any pilot does, Dorian started looking where he could get them down safely. His main concern was not to injure anyone on the ground, or themselves, or to damage property. He hoped to protect the plane. But there was nothing around, he said, “Not a soul, not a structure, not a house.”
“For some reason,” he told Craig they should just get on home. “I guess the martini won out,” he said. It had been a long flying day due to vibration, noise, and wind through the open cockpits.
He kept up their airspeed as he aimed for a small road. As they got closer he saw it was lined with stumps that could tear off the huge wings of the Jenny. Next to it was a large field, with lots of greenery he mistook for wheat, and a big pile of giant trees evidently waiting to be burned.
He banked, committed to the approach, then saw the field was a reclaimed strip mine, which he knew could contain hidden rocks and gullies. But there were also berms at the far end, so if they had too much speed he could roll up them and stop, instead of running into the woods.
“I put it down, three-pointed it [on all three wheels, as necessary], and I was thinking, This is okay, I can fly it out of here…. I’ve had four versions of these [unpowered emergency landings] before, and I’ve always flown it out a day or two later. The plane skipped a little, set back down again, and it stopped.”
Jennys were made for rough-field landings, but something unseen in the not-wheat had grabbed it. The two front wheels ripped off cleanly with their carriage, and the plane slid forward on its belly. The fuselage was damaged at the nose, and broke behind the rear joint (Jennys were designed to be broken down for shipping); a couple of cables tore loose; some right lower-wing spars broke; the propeller was dinged; and the top wings were twisted.
They came to rest “like going into a brick wall,” Dorian said, but they were wearing shoulder harnesses and had only one small scratch each. Dorian turned off the fuel and climbed out. Craig was pinned by the front joystick, and Dorian pushed on it so he could also hop out.
“First thing, of course, I called Elaine,” Dorian said, “let her know, Hey, change of schedule, I won’t be having martinis tonight, put the martini in the fridge.”
Then he called the sheriff’s department, which began the recovery and investigation efforts by the FAA and NTSB. They have begun looking into the possibility of contaminated fuel.
The National Guard was first on scene, because the uninhabited land turned out to be a military reservation. This provided some irony, Dorian said, because Jennys were built for the military 100 years ago, and this one was on its way home from a military airshow and put down on a military reservation.
He also noted that the tenth anniversary of his Jenny’s first flight would have been this year, and that the Jenny as an aircraft model was operational for the same amount of time.
Jennys were made for rough-field landings, but something unseen in the not-wheat had grabbed it. The two front wheels ripped off cleanly with their carriage, and the plane slid forward on its belly.
“[It] went from being the best thing in the air and train[ing] 95 percent of all the pilots in WWI, to being a dinosaur and considered…unreliable and giving aviation a bad reputation, because it looked like it was held together with baling wire and chewing gum,” he said.
Aviation was readying for the next generation, and Dorian and Elaine own one of those next-generation planes, a 1929 Curtiss Robin, which he will finish assembling and testing, and be flying, in another month.
The Jenny I was fortunate to have ridden in was disassembled on-site the next day. The top wings, made of highly flexible Sitka Spruce and cross-braced with wire cables, sprang back into shape. Dorian believes the plane is in better shape than the time she went down in 2017 on a golf course (during a tournament) and was rebuilt.
The team at his nonprofit, Friends of Jenny, were mostly retired when they built the plane, and more than half of them, including their chief wing builder, have “in the aviation vernacular, gone west,” he said. His team is changing the name of the organization to Friends of Vintage Flight, “because telling the story of vintage aviation is important.”
But finding a new home for the Jenny is important to him too, “Because it’s too important a story for it to end here,” he said. “All you need is money and people to restore her. It’s a wooden airplane, and I have the [original] plans….”
He never wanted her on static display, despite previous offers from museums. People at airshows always asked how she got there, because they didn’t believe she could fly. They were made happy to learn otherwise, because she was so unique. He has spent his time, labor, attention, and money on her, and despite his love and work for museums, he would like to see her fly.
“She had no problems since 2018 [when she was rebuilt],” he said. Since then she has been “roaring along, as happy-go-lucky as a Jenny could get going cross-country.”
In layman’s terms, there were only six airworthy Jennys in the United States; now there are five. Dorian said only four are flown with regularity, and only one cross-country. Most, unlike his plane, use the original OX-5 engine, which Dorian called “highly unreliable.” Because the planes are “worth a lot of money, [owners] don’t want to risk cracking them up.”
I told Dorian two things that seemed obvious: First, that people loved the Jenny, its history, its physical beauty, due to his efforts at outreach and education.
“It’s a hard pill to swallow not to have [her] anymore,” he said. “I know how much people enjoyed [her]. Jenny was a magic word. You took the time to track us down and make your story [about her]. It’s magic to a lot of people. I’ve gotten a lot of texts and calls from people—from the [Scott] airshow, even—We heard the Jenny went down; [We’ll treasure] our picture in front of her; She was so amazing….
Second, I said, he got his copilot and himself home again with his experience and grit, and that I always told people first that he was a tough dude. He laughed.
“I’ve gotten a lot of texts and calls from people—from the [Scott] airshow, even—We heard the Jenny went down; [We’ll treasure] our picture in front of her; She was so amazing….”
“Lucky dude, you should say.”
I said Elaine must be very relieved, and he said, “Oh, she is.”
I asked if he ever got his martini.
“I did! I did!” he said. “It wasn’t the same day, but the next day—oh my, yes, it was as delicious as I anticipated when I was 1500 feet in the air and 50 miles away from it.”