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Forty-Seven Years in Aviation: A Memoir; Chapter 13: Tankers Revisited, Ohio State University, and 'The Barge'

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[AVweb's reprint of Dick's memoir began with the Introduction.]


Following our second near-transcontinental journey in two years, the Taylor family bought a new home in Columbus, Ohio, and I began traveling the state representing the same company I had worked for in Oregon. My largest customer -- who provided about half my income at the time -- was headquartered in Columbus, which meant less traveling and more time to engage in other pursuits, such as continuing to fly as a reservist on a part-time basis. Late in the summer of 1965 I paid a visit to the Ohio Air National Guard unit where I had flown C-119s before we moved to Oregon; the squadron had transferred to Clinton County AFB in southwestern Ohio, was re-designated the 160th Air Refueling Group, and was now equipped with KC-97L tankers. There was a pilot position available and my work schedule permitted a reasonable amount of time for flying, so I signed up once again as a "weekend warrior" and began the transition to an airplane I knew well.

Boeing KC-97L

The "L" model appeared in 1964, having traded the KC-97G's two 600-gallon external fuel tanks for a pair of General Electric J-47 jet engines that provided a total 11,940 pounds of thrust. The additional power helped resolve the airspeed and controllability problems that had plagued bomber crews during in-flight refueling with non-jet KC-97s; the "L" was like a "G" on steroids and it bridged the gap between prop-driven tankers and the all-jet KC-135 that entered the inventory in 1957. In the next seven months I logged 106 hours in the KC-97, including a trip to Copenhagen, Denmark, (with refueling stops both ways at Lajes in the Azores ... much improved quarters this time) and numerous training flights. (See Operation Creek Party, below right.) June 1966 was a landmark month, with adjustments in just about every aspect of my life. The two-hour weekly commute from Columbus to Clinton County AFB, the relatively long missions in the KC-97 and my business travel combined to require more time away from home than I had anticipated. But good luck struck again: I secured a position as an operations officer in the Ohio Air National Guard's 121st Tactical Fighter Group at Lockbourne Air Force Base in Columbus. That cut the commuting time in half, and the average mission time in the soon-to-be-acquired C-54 (more on that shortly) was less than two hours. The next big change involved my civilian job. My best customer decided to stop using paper packaging in favor of lower-cost plastic containers, resulting in "adios" to about half my income and "hello" to the realization that I needed to find another job, and find it soon. A wife, three young children and a mortgage could not be ignored. A lot of pillow talk and "what if?" discussions later, the obvious solution emerged: I needed to make the most of my experience and training by continuing my aviation involvement on a full-time basis. I was acquainted with Jack Eggspuehler, chairman of the Department of Aviation at the Ohio State University, and figured if anyone in Columbus knew of an aviation job that would fit my needs, it would be him. I arranged a meeting with Jack and explained my situation, whereupon he said, "Strange you should show up here at this time. One of my professors left recently and there is now an opening on the OSU aviation faculty ... would you be interested?" Three cheers for serendipity! I had expected nothing more than a vague reference or two and here was a concrete offer to join the aviation faculty of my alma mater and one of the largest universities in the country. Would I be interested? Does it get dark at night? This was almost too good to be true. The faculty position involved teaching OSU aviation students in the classroom and, to a limited extent, in the university's fleet of training aircraft. I would also serve as a pilot in the Air Transportation Service, OSU's in-house airline. What more could I ask for? It seemed like manna from heaven and I accepted the offer in a heartbeat. Then we talked about money and my association with the National Guard; the starting salary was nothing to write home about, but it was adequate for the time being and there was no problem with my military activities. As it turned out, entering on a new career path with Ohio State was one of the best decisions I ever made. There is much more to come in this memoir with regard to the next 22 years I spent teaching and flying at OSU, but first, some information about C-54s in general and AF 72762 -- also known as "The Barge" -- in particular. In 1935 United Airlines, thinking way ahead, asked Donald Douglas and Company to develop an airliner that would be much larger and more sophisticated than the super-successful DC-3 -- a request that was made even before the first DC-3 had flown. The new airplane would be designated the DC-4, would carry 42 passengers by day and 30 when configured as a sleeper transport. It would be the first large airplane with tricycle landing gear, boosted flight controls, air conditioning and a pressurized cabin.

The Original, One and Only Douglas DC-4E (for "Experimental")

Look closely and you can see two of the three vertical stabilizers that lowered the overall height of the airplane and permitted the use of existing hangars; this design feature also allowed takeoff with two engines on the same side inoperative. Unfortunately (or not) the airplane's weight reduced flight performance to an unacceptable level and the onboard systems proved too complex and expensive. The airlines settled for a smaller, simpler, four-engine design that went into production as the DC-4.

Nakajima G5N

A footnote to history: Imperial Japanese Airways bought the original DC-4E in 1939 for the alleged purpose of "evaluation and technology transfer." Shortly after the purchase, the Japanese press reported that the airplane crashed in Tokyo Bay but, truth be told, there was no crash; the airplane was reverse-engineered (in secret, of course) and became the basis for the Nakajima G5N bomber which, by the way, never made the team in WWII ... it was too heavy and too complex, way under-powered, etc. etc. etc. The U.S. involvement in World War II created an immediate need for a fleet of long-range military transports and the DC-4 was the airplane of choice. Several changes were made to meet the Army's specs -- a stronger floor, a cargo door, a boom hoist and larger wing tanks among them -- and the result was the C-54 Skymaster. Nearly all of the 1300+ C-54s that left the Douglas factory during the war years served with the Army Air Forces and other branches of the military in a wide variety of configurations.

The Douglas C-54 Skymaster in uniform

Take note of the large amount of airplane behind the main landing gear, the pivot point on the ground. With a full load and an aft CG location, the airplane tended to settle on its hindquarters, a problem solved by installing a temporary brace 'tween tail and tarmac during the loading process. When all the people and cargo were on board, we would start the engines, hold the brakes and increase power a couple-hundred RPM; this would depress the nose and raise the tail enough so the flight engineer could remove the brace and climb aboard. It was also not a bad idea to have the passengers congregate in the forward part of the cabin until we got the engines running.

Douglas C-54

Considered in light of its contemporaries, the C-54 was a large airplane: 117-foot wingspan, almost 100-feet long, maximum takeoff weight 72,000 pounds with a 30,000-pound useful load, and four Pratt & Whitney R-2000 engines that developed 1450 horsepower each. It was capable of flying at 230 knots but the normal cruise speed was more like 160 knots and the no-wind range was about 2500 miles.

"Sacred Cow" on display at the Air Force Museum (the shiniest C-54 in the world)

C-54 history is replete with significant aviation accomplishments. The airplane flew a million miles a month over the Atlantic during the war years, averaging 20 round trips each day. It was instrumental in breaking the post-war Russian blockade by hauling coal, food, etc., to the beleaguered people of Berlin. A one-off C-54 was designed and built from the ground up to transport President Roosevelt, including an elevator to accommodate FDR in his wheelchair. Designated VC-54 ("VC" for Very Comfortable), this airplane was named the "Sacred Cow" and was the first airplane used by a sitting president. In 1947 president Harry Truman was aboard the Sacred Cow when he signed the bill that established the U.S. Air Force as an independent service. The Ohio Air Guard C-54D (Tail number 72762) came to us from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, home of the bone yard where old military airplanes go to die. The airplane had gone through a reconditioning program in Victoria, Texas, and was in rather good shape for a 30-year old transport that had been used hard and put away wet. After a few hours of training in AF 72762, I began to think of it as a "double DC-3." The C-54, like the Gooney Bird, was a hydraulic airplane: The systems that moved the landing gear, wing flaps, and cowl flaps were operated by fluid pressure -- even the autopilot was hydraulic. The engines were quite similar to those on other round-engine aircraft in terms of power settings, temperatures, pressures, starting procedures, etc., which made things considerably easier for pilots transitioning to the C-54.

Douglas C-54 cockpit

The front office was roomy and comfortable for the normal crew of three -- two pilots and a flight engineer. The FE's seat was behind and between the pilots, with full access to all the engine and fuel-systems controls. We were fortunate to have Master Sergeant Carl Westminster as our full-time FE; Wes knew the airplane from stem to stern and his knowledge and mechanical ability kept us out of trouble on several occasions. A case in point: He made his usual visual check of the engines one day immediately after takeoff, came back to the cockpit and said, "Captain, I think you'd better shut down Number Two." "What's the problem?" said I, to which Wes replied, "There's a loose exhaust fitting, probably about ready to fall off." We caged Number Two, landed, pulled the cowling and sure enough the suspect component was dangling by one bolt and would probably have caused an engine fire if it had departed the engine. "How did you know that, Wes?" "I could hear it," he replied. Despite the roar of four big radials at full power, he could hear the rattling of a loose exhaust fitting? That was Wes, a good man to have on board. Wes wasn't superstitious, but he had a ritual that was part of every flight: As we added power for takeoff, Wes would gently pat the underside of the console and say quietly, "OK, Barge, let's go" -- an admonition to which the airplane responded with an outstanding record of mission completions, due mostly to Wes's TLC. The nickname "Barge" stuck with AF 72762 until it finished its tour with the Ohio Air Guard and was dispatched elsewhere -- probably back to the Air Force bone yard. My life as a "double interest" aviator -- i.e. military and civilian -- began in the summer of 1966 when I first flew for Ohio State. The training fleet at that time consisted of several Piper Cherokees, a couple of Cessnas and a Piper Aztec used for multi-engine instruction. The Aztec (a six-seat light twin) was shared with the university's Air Transportation Service (ATS) and that was my primary assignment for the rest of the summer. The Aztec was near-ideal for the frequent short flights and low passenger loads that made up the bulk of ATS trips for faculty and staff. (When I hung up my wings in 2002, I had logged more flight time in the Aztec than in any other airplane: 2200 hours.) My favorite trips took place during football season, when we would load an Aztec on Friday afternoon with several assistant coaches and drop them off one at a time at Big Ten game venues to scout future opponents. At the end of the outbound flight, the remaining coach would often invite the pilot to attend a press party and on Saturday there was usually a press-box ticket for us. When the game was over, we would reverse the route, pick up the other coaches and return to Columbus, whereupon the pilot went home for a good night's sleep -- but not the coaches, who would report to Woody Hayes' office and analyze game films until the wee hours. The ATS also had two DC-3s, a Howard 250 and -- for a short time -- a Douglas B-23 converted from a bomber to an executive transport. Those were all hand-me-downs because corporations with aviation departments were making the shift to turboprop and jet aircraft during the '60s and '70s and the elderly recips were relatively worthless. But one should never look a gift horse in the mouth, and the university welcomed these contributions with open arms. It was several years before I got my hands on the Douglas racers due to an overabundance of qualified pilots on the aviation department staff. (The Howard 250 -- a beautiful airplane -- was wrecked on a training flight and the B-23 was sold). For the balance of 1966 and all of 1967 the Aviation Department's schedule consumed most of my time: Regular teaching in the classroom, frequent ATS flights and a smattering of individual flight instruction. I also flew the C-54 often enough to remain current in the airplane; and if that wasn't enough aviation activity, I became involved in the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) weekend Flight Training Clinics that were offered at airports all over the country. This required leaving Columbus on Thursday to provide refresher training for general aviation pilots I had never met, in a wide variety of airplanes (some of which were "first-timers" for me), and returning late on Sunday. These were busy, challenging and fatiguing weekends ... but I became familiar with a segment of the flying public I would not have encountered otherwise.

Helio Courier short-field takeoff

For fun -- and a few extra bucks -- during that same period of time, I flew a Helio Courier a couple of times a week for a local radio station's airborne traffic reports. The Courier was a most remarkable airplane. It was equipped with slow-flight features including leading-edge slats that deployed automatically at about 46 knots, 3/4-span slotted flaps that effectively increased the wing area by 30 percent (you had to crank the flaps down but it was worth the effort) and spoilers for roll control at very low airspeeds. The castering main gear took most of the sting out of crosswind takeoffs and landing. The Helio could take off in about 300 feet, land easily in the same distance and fly under complete control at 26 knots. There were times when the onboard traffic reporter wanted to get a good look at an accident site or a traffic tie-up, so I would turn into the wind, deploy all the slow-flight stuff and -- for all practical purposes -- reduce the groundspeed to zero. In short, flying this airplane was nothing but fun. [Continued with Chapter 14.]

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More articles, stories and fiction about the joy of aviation are found in AVweb's Skywritings section.

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