Bridge Flight, or a Dreadful Example
By Brian Thomas
In devising the Kent Quiz, we strive to find little known facts to stump our readers, but in our February 2017 issue, we failed completely. We asked who flew a plane under the bridge in Kent in 1945, and everyone knew the answer. It was Andy Stirnweiss, the father of the Kent Historical Society’s own Lyn Stirnweiss.
After joining the Navy in 1942, Stirnweiss flew more than 50 different kinds of military aircraft and served as a test pilot during the 1950s. But his riskiest, most high-stakes flight took place in Kent in 1945, when he was 21 and already an expert pilot.
He wanted to wow a young lady who worked at N.M. Watson on Main Street. What would make a snappier impression than flying under the Route 341 bridge across the Housatonic River, next to Kent School? Answer — nothing!
Before the flight he measured the understructure: he had 14 feet of clearance with his Grumman F6F Hellcat fighter/bomber, which was just over 13 feet tall. Safety check out of the way, it was time to impress the ladies. First, he buzzed the town center then swooped over to the river, taking aim at the narrow gap under the bridge. Once through, he veered right to skirt the rocks in the shallow water underneath.
He then flew back to his base in Rhode Island undetected, although some party pooper filed a complaint with the State Police. Can you imagine the uproar if someone did that today? Stirnweiss rarely mentioned his “dumb stunt,” but it may have been the smartest dumb thing he ever did. Later that year the young lady from Watson’s Store became Mrs. Andrew Stirnweiss and the two were happily married for more than 55 years be-fore she passed away in 2000, raising five children, all with warm memories and rich tales. After he retired, the Navy captain volunteered for FISH in Kent and was a member of Sacred Heart Church. He often attended Navy reunions, about which he commented, “The older we get, the braver we were.” He died in 2005 at the age of 82.
In the Historical Society office, Lyn often remembers her father and talks about his jokes and wry observations. Stirnweiss was also the subject of a fond, perceptive portrait by Bob Deakin in the Kent Good Times Dispatch in 2005, from which this article is drawn — along with some kibitzing from Lyn Stirnweiss, who supervised my writing. You can find Deakin’s full article, which is very much worth reading at: http://www.bullsbridge.com/Andy_Stirnweiss.htm