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California and the West

50 Years of Very Special Deliveries

People: At 96, the Sierra Booster's editor and publisher still occasionally drops off his biweekly via aerial paper route.

May 14, 2000|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LOYALTON, Calif. — Up here in Sierra Valley, where wind curls in waves across the spring grass and cattle outnumber people, back country folks know this sight well: a tiny red and white plane, flying low, a gray-haired pilot at the controls. He flings a rolled newspaper with practiced finesse, hitting the stoop of a remote homestead.

Bingo. Another delivery of the Sierra Booster.

Hal Wright and his airplane are legendary in California's high country. For half a century he has been taking off on his aerial paper route, delivering his biweekly to 50 or so homes in isolated corners of this broad alpine valley.

But at 96, Wright is starting to slow down.

He still puts in a full day as editor and publisher of the 3,500-circulation Booster. But he's finding it harder to climb into the cockpit. His flights, once a fortnightly spectacle, have grown infrequent.

Family and neighbors in this valley 30 miles north of Lake Tahoe do what they can to keep Wright flying. Often, his friends in this small town carve out time to accompany him.

"I want to keep him going up," said Jan Buck, Wright's daughter. "He loves it. It's his focus."

Wright vows to keep flying. This is, after all, a man who battled the Federal Aviation Administration to keep his license in the mid-1990s, spending a chunk of his savings on a lawyer and a raft of medical examinations to prove his airworthiness.

His flights have always been a marriage of sorts, a melding of Good Samaritan gesture and airborne fun.

Nearly all Wright's newspapers are dispatched via U.S. mail--always have been. But after he launched the Sierra Booster in 1949, Wright figured he could use an airplane to ensure delivery to remote cabins and fire lookout stations. He has never charged a cent extra for the special service. The time in the air has been his reward.

Publicity has trailed him like the newspapers that sometimes snag and flutter on his airplane's tail.

Reporters and TV news crews started shadowing him decades ago. He has been featured on CBS News, in the London Daily Mail and on "Ripley's Believe It Or Not."

Since the January death of Alleen, his wife of six decades, Wright has slowed more than a little, say those who know him best. He has gone aloft in his trusty 1948 Aeronca just a few times this year to deliver his paper, a melange of landscape photos, irreverent opinions and local news from Sierra County, population 3,000.

Among his concessions to age: When he takes off for his one-hour flight, Wright now is accompanied by another pilot.

"He can still grease a landing like you can't believe," said Bill Blaty, an airplane mechanic. "Hal's such a character. We take good care of him."

To make a delivery, Wright sets his blue eyes like a bombardier on a target. Slowing the Aeronca, a forgiving plane that is a favorite of Alaskan bush pilots, he drops down low and takes aim out his window, the paper rolled into a tight missile.

"Sometimes he'd miss--they'd hit the roof--but mostly they land right out front," said Chuck Howes, a rancher who has gotten the air deliveries for decades. "Hal has amazingly good aim."

His newspaper office is attached to the home where Wright and his wife raised three children. His wife used to type up the copy. His daughter, Jan, who lives with husband and kids next door, now fills that role, and Wright does most everything else, writing a column, selling ads, keeping the books.

His joy has always been flying.

Through the years, he's had only a few close scrapes. The closest came in the 1950s. Wright was out with his then-10-year-old son Maynard, landing on a remote dirt strip, when the plane bucked and the nose dipped, gouging a 6-inch piece off the tip of one propeller blade.

Facing the prospect of being marooned, Wright dug out his pocket knife and whittled at the wooden propeller's undamaged end, attempting to even it up. He carved for two hours. After a short test flight, he packed up his boy and tapped the updrafts off Sierra ridges to make it back.

"It was a risky thing, but what else could we do?" Wright said, pulling the mangled old propeller out of a closet for inspection. "That sort of opportunity doesn't happen to anybody except a nut like me."

His original flight instructor pulls up to the hangar just in time to vouch for the nut part.

Frank Nervino remembers the time he was standing in the hangar when a newspaper came flipping through the open doors, handiwork of a guffawing Wright up above. Or the day the gas caps flew off Wright's plane, fuel drained, and the flying newspaperman had to perform a dead stick landing, missing a fence by five feet.

"Hal was a wild one--one of those guys that nothing scared him," said Nervino, 87. "He was easy to teach."

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