This Was Then: Barnstorming

How to fly under the Sagamore bridge.


Ever since the first hydroplanes landed in Oak Bluffs in 1919, Martha’s Vineyard has had a reputation for bold and sometimes renegade aviators. Teenage delinquent-turned-World War I ace Walter D. Rheno of Vineyard Haven shot down three German planes in less than a month while fighting for the French Foreign Legion. An aerial race from the Katama airfield to Oak Bluffs and back, circling around the tower of the Wesley House, was a featured part of the Martha’s Vineyard Air Meet of 1928. In 1947, two men charged with hunting Canadian geese from a seaplane over Edgartown, shooting birds from the air, became the quarry of an air chase of their own by the state conservation officer in a rented amphibious plane. And then there was Walter Renear.

In the late 1990s, I was introduced to Walter (Peter) Renear (1925-2002) of Skiff Avenue in Vineyard Haven. He had a computer problem, and my boss and I volunteered to help him with it. We became friendly. He had a deep interest in Vineyard history, and we spent a lot of time over the next few years discussing old photos and old stories. Quite hard of hearing, we did most of our correspondence by email. He eventually sent me some brief, bulleted memoirs he had been writing. Many of the stories he told are well worth sharing today.

Walter grew up in Vineyard Haven, grandson of Sheriff Walter Renear who founded Renear’s Garage. He attended Tisbury High School, and then joined the army. It was World War II, and Renear served two and a half years as a sergeant in the Armored Force, serving in the European theater. “I lost a major part of my hearing to an incoming mortar shell on the Rhine River,” he wrote. 

Renear worked with tanks, not airplanes, but he had taken a few flying lessons on the Vineyard before joining the military. His first solo flying experience — and only flying during his service — was in a badly damaged Messerschmitt BF-109-E (“We called them ME-109s”), a Nazi fighter plane that he and his crew found in an abandoned German fighter field and fixed up. 

“The radiator was patched and the landing gear welded in the down position,” wrote Renear. “There wasn’t any cockpit canopy, the plane had lots of holes and there was a little piece missing from one wing tip. When all was ready I took it off and flew it at no more than 500 feet altitude in a nose-high mushing attitude in a straight line for nearly two miles. Then easing the throttle back, let it settle back to the ground, where I turned it around before taking off again.” After nearly a dozen flights, Renear’s battalion commander found out. “He quickly grounded me ‘before I ran that thing into a bunch of tents and killed half his battalion.’ In hindsight, he was of course right,” wrote Renear.  

It wasn’t until after the war that I seriously began to get into flying.” He joined a local aviators’ club — presumably the Martha’s Vineyard Flying Club, which operated out of the airport in Katama — and learned to fly a number of different aircraft, including one plane owned jointly by the club members.

“We used to fly into some farm fields up-Island, land, and cut tree limbs to stick into various parts of the plane’s exterior, to look reckless. Then we would fly in low over the Sunday spectator cars at the airport, sometimes under the telephone wires, so they could see that we must have been flying very low indeed. This stunt used to drive the airport manager crazy.

“On several occasions, I flew to the Marstons Mills (I hope the airport operator doesn’t come across this story) and rented a Stearman PT-19 biplane just for the fun of flying an open cockpit biplane — and of course a chance to wear my leather helmet, goggles, and white scarf. Once, I flew this plane west-to-east down the Cape Cod Canal, under the Sagamore Bridge, and out to sea. A bit of barnstorming. The direction and the bridge were chosen because there would be less chance for anyone to see the plane’s registration number.”

Renear eventually left the Island for a few decades, working first as an engineer for the Westinghouse Electric Corporation in its aviation gas turbine division, and later in the solid rocket division of the AeroJet General Corporation in Sacramento. “Many years later, when I was working in aerospace in California, we had a dinner party for some of our military counterparts. Most of these people, as was the case on our side of the table, had been flyers in WWII. At these affairs the conversation always gets around to flying. A colonel next to me turned and asked what I flew during the war — I felt like starting a bit of mischief and so replied ‘ME-109s.’ It so happened that a lull in the conversation had occurred along the entire length of the table and everyone heard my response — I received many strange looks. [Days later] when I did tell those flyers the whole story, I got back ‘Well, that wasn’t really flying, no turns, no maneuvering’ and so forth. True, but I did a damn sight better than the Wright brothers; not to mention that I was able to walk away from a hair-brained stunt.”

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released in 2018.