[AVweb's reprint of A Pilot's History began with Chapter 1.]
Jeanne, our son, dog and baggage arrived back in Miami just as our tenants were moving out of our home. I checked in with National Airlines and was welcomed as "... someone with the right qualifications; nice to have someone current in DC-4s, also qualified in Loadstars." These were the aircraft that National was using and I had flown as captain for a long time. Recently, they had accepted a seniority system for pilots, which meant a day or two in hiring sequence could mean a year or two in checking out as captain. An early bird in hiring could mean a junior birdman would be a captain and out-rank a seasoned aviator who might become a co-pilot. Pilots with a lot of seniority only had to pass a basic test in skills to become captain, even if they had never had any meaningful command time, which is important. Thus, a lot of mediocre people ended up in the captain's seat.
"Sorry, Carl, but your seniority number is in the early 80s and will place you in the co-pilot's seat. But a checkout as captain should be very quick." I did not like the sound of it but accepted the matter. There was a vast difference in pay between captain and co-pilot. In the previous pilot's union (the one striking National at the time I was hired), the old timers ran the union and did the negotiating with the company for the pay schedule. They saw to it they got the lion's share of pay. Co-pilots were considered apprentices and were paid accordingly.
With the company starting up, the striking pilots began walking the picket line, harassing the working personnel for National as well as the newly hired pilots. One of our ground-school instructors, who was teaching the newly hired pilots about National's procedures, was beaten until he died. Looking into why the old union pilots were on strike, I found out a captain had landed long on a Tampa runway and ended up in the bay with a load of passengers. Supposedly, the stewardess announced, "We are landing in Tampa ... my God, we are sinking!" The captain was fired. The union disagreed, stating, "No, you can not do that." The company said, "We'll give him a ground job." So it became a power play, with the U.S. pilot's union supporting the striking pilots.
It was hard to find sympathy for the strikers after being cursed, harassed and spit upon. The company's on-time arrivals and other efficiencies improved with the new pilots. We tried harder.
I was placed in a Lodestar as co-pilot. It was a 14-passenger, twin-engine Lockheed, a sister ship to the Hudson bombers I had flown for the U.S. and the British in WWII. The fuselage on the Lodestar had been lengthened to hold more passengers, which helped the plane to avoid a tendency to ground loop. My first few trips in the crowded cockpit were from Miami to the west coast of Florida, mid-Florida, and up the east coast to New York with about 15 stops at little "Puddleville towns." We would no sooner get our landing gear up when it would have to go down again. This was not my type of flying, but it was a job. I asked for a DC-4 and was soon put on the Miami to Havana run, where we would stay in Havana overnight. My favorite custom's agent in Miami would bypass a couple of bottles of rum for me if I passed out a Havana cigar or two.
Johnnie was captain on DC-4s so I teamed up with him with the help of the chief pilot. The old adage of "Treat your co-pilot gently because someday he may be your captain" was very true. Jeanne and I had helped him through a hardship or two with a divorce, no job, and then again when his newly bought P-51 crashed on its first test hop when the coolant system blew up. He was lucky to get out alive after crash landing in a cornfield. Now with a well-paying job, he had purchased another P-51 to race in the 1948 Cleveland National Air Race and I was helping him get it prepared. Flying together gave us a chance to work on it during our "down time." I was glad to not be scheduled with another pilot that was so nervous on instrument let-downs he would ask me to take his handkerchief and wipe his forehead, so the sweat would not get in his eyes. I am glad he didn't ask me to wring out his shirt or change his pants.
P-51 and the Thompson Trophy
With the airplane ready to race, Johnnie flew it to Cleveland and the mechanic drove his rattletrap of a car there a few days before the race. I flew up a few days later. The Cleveland event was the biggest in the country and lasted over a week. It was the finish line of the Bendix Race, a cross-country race from California to Cleveland. We qualified for the Thompson Trophy race, 20 laps around a 15-mile course of pylons at less than 300 feet of altitude for a total of 300 miles. The final race would consist of only 12 planes out of the huge number of pilots and planes that had showed up. The qualifying events limited the field to 12. Most of them were ex-military planes and pilots. This was a real race with unlimited horsepower. Competing were the various ex-Navy and Air Force planes plus their owner's modifications to make them even faster. The night before the race, Johnnie and I were sitting in the hotel room debating if the race should be run in low blower or high blower. To sum up the difference, the military only allowed a maximum of 67 inches of manifold pressure with a wide-open throttle. If you held that throttle position more than about five minutes, due to the strain on the engine, it was to be removed and overhauled. We had found a way to remove the limiting restriction and could pull 92 inches. This is a real overload on the 12-cylinder engine, as we would have to hold it for about 40 minutes. It would definitely put a big strain on the engine.
We had heard a couple of competitors would be running their engine in high blower, which would give them 135 inches of manifold pressure. We also knew about half the gain in horsepower would be lost by being in high blower and it would be putting a tremendous strain on the engine. Would the engine last in high blower? Or would it be better to be safer and run in low blower?
As we were discussing the issue, the phone rang. It was the hotel manager. "Hey, fellows, you have been here for a week. We'd like to keep things even. Can you come down and pay your bill?" Johnnie said, "Sure, we'll be down in the morning!" He looked at me and said he hoped I had a pocket full of money. I told him I was broke and he replied that he just had enough money for us to have breakfast.
The race paid out a good sum of money down to about six places. Johnnie said, "I guess we should play it safe and get out of hock." We looked at each other and understood the race would be run in low blower. The hotel manager had made a major decision for us to win the race. Jeanne and Johnnie's girlfriend had flown up for the last few days of the air races, which culminated in the Thompson Trophy race on Sunday. The stands were filled with a reported 80,000 people, and who knows how many non-paying observers were around the perimeter of the field.
When the flag went down, there was a thundering noise of thousands of horsepower. Johnnie made only a reasonable racehorse start from the lineup on the ground. He got his wheels up and battled the other planes to the first pylon. You have to believe it was to be a tricky situation, with a dozen unlimited-horsepower airplanes jockeying for position, all with restricted visibility and trying to get to the first pylon. It is bad enough for racecars, but here there was an added dimension of altitude plus speeds of hundreds of miles per hour and plenty of prop wash to toss the planes about. The first one around the course was a Bell P-39 Air Cobra sponsored by the manufacturer and flown by the factory test pilot. Johnnie was working his way up through the pack. One plane blew his engine. As the pilot pulled up for altitude, you could have heard a pin drop among the 80,000 people until they saw a parachute blossom. And then there was a wild cheer. The P-39 led for lap after lap until the 19th lap, when it blew an engine and dead-sticked into the airport. Our P-51 took the lead and won. Jeanne and Johnnie's girlfriend still wore dresses in those days. They were cheering and jumping up and down so much the girlfriend's pants dropped about her ankles. Not missing a jump or cheer, she reached down and took them off her ankles! I wonder how many other people noticed.
The prize money was many times the cost of the aircraft, which allowed us to pay the hotel manager who had played a crucial part in our winning the race. When I use the words "we" or "our" in reference to Johnnie, let there not be any doubt that he was the "doer." Our lives had been so interwoven over many years in aviation and my family with his girlfriends, wives and children that I felt as though I was in the cockpit with him every mile of the race.
You would think that a man that had a high-performance, unlimited racing plane would have a similar or at least a good road car. Not Johnnie. He had an old rattletrap of a convertible to drive back to Miami with worn tires that could blow at any moment. He asked me to drive it back while he flew the plane to Miami. I loaded Jeanne, the girlfriend and miscellaneous aircraft parts and tools and started out. We were all in high spirits. Somewhere in the night in Tennessee on a winding, mountainous section of the road, the brakes went out. As I was coping with the emergency brake, our lights went out! I was getting the car slowed down, making the curves OK, when I heard a tractor-trailer behind us, really barreling downhill. We could see his headlights shinning around the curves. I had a hard time staying ahead of him on blind curves with no headlights. I had to do this until his lights illuminated the road and he could see us and slowed down. As soon as we could, we booked a motel room and piled on the bed too exhausted to move. I swore that night I would never again drive one of his cars!
National Airlines took an interest in Johnnie's racing because it got national attention in the media and he was one of their captains. Their V.P. for Engineering and Maintenance took a strong look at the P-51 when it was decided to try for the next Thompson Trophy race. A modification program was started to speed it up. A new, low-altitude engine from Canada was installed, the same model the British used in the Mosquito Bomber. The propeller was sent to the manufacturer for modification for high-speed performance. It came back several inches shorter so the tip speed would not exceed its maximum allowable speed aerodynamically when we upped the maximum engine RPM to 3300 from the standard 3000. The biggest change was to remove the large radiator from the belly and imbed the cooling cores in the wing. This meant the cutting of air inlets in the leading edge of the wing, cutting air slots in the main wing spar and letting the air out the trailing edge of the wing through controllable shutters. This subtracted one third of the fuselage drag by removing the radiator from the belly. I thought it changed the P-51's appearance to look like a German Me109 fighter. The wingspan had been reduced 22 inches on each side as well as shortening the ailerons. The landing-gear hydraulic system received an extra accumulator to speed up the gear retraction, for it was a racehorse start on the ground: The sooner the gear retracted, the sooner the plane could reach racing speed. Next was a set of hand-made, Inconel exhaust stacks that would blow the exhaust aft along the fuselage to avoid air turbulence. She was ready for the big contest in 1949.
We found ourselves once again in Cleveland, working to get the aircraft ready. The ignition system was breaking down on the high-power end. It took forever to find the problem, which reduced our testing time. On the day of the race, there was a powerful selection of aircraft lined up for the start. One or two Navy Corsairs with huge engines (corncob 28-cylinders) with twice our horsepower were entered, but we believed we had the speed and maneuverability over them.
When the flag dropped, there was a roar of engines and the race was on! Johnnie was off the ground in very good time. In the P-51, the wheel-well doors have to open up to let the wheels retract inside the well, and then they close over the wheels. There must have been air in the hydraulic system, as the wheels came up and closed on top of the doors! With the added drag of the wheels, Johnnie fell behind the pack. When he realized what had happened, he cycled the landing gear up and down to get rid of the air in the system. Once cleared, the gear functioned normally and he worked his way into the pack. But it wasn't long before one of the exhaust stacks blew off, causing the engine to backfire and run rough. There was only one thing to do: Reduce power and land. It was a huge disappointment for everyone.
To continue the story of this racing machine: Johnnie wanted to try to set a world-speed record for a prop-driven airplane. This required getting approved officials from the racing authority, flying them, their timing and surveying equipment to Miami, setting them up in hotels and picking out a course to fly. The place selected was a beach off Virginia Key. The flight had to be done at an altitude under 100 meters for something like three kilometers and for a seven-time average. All went well until the sixth run, when the engine blew. He made it OK to the airport. Luckily, for a national record it was only necessary to do five runs. He was very satisfied with the recording of 470 plus miles per hour! This set a new national record for a propeller-driven plane. He was disappointed however, for not having set a world record too.
Due to the large number of crashes of racing planes in 1948 and a plane crashing into a house, the race was discontinued in Cleveland after 1949.
We were living pretty close to the airport and it was a mixed blessing. If an outbound pilot did not show up or fell ill, dispatch would call and say, "Carl, we have flight number so-and-so at gate number X, can you be there in 15 minutes?" When I did, they would favor later requests I would make. Once I was on a ladder halfway around the house painting it a different color when the call came for a week-long trip. Jeanne had to explain to the neighbors about the unfinished paint job, and she was not too happy about living in a two-toned house, either! In the cockpit, I was still rubbing paint off myself.
At National Airlines, I was sometimes chosen to fly with the V.P. of Flight Operations on the infrequent trips his work permitted him to take. He had moved up through the ranks as a pilot and now -- as part of management -- was not expected to go out on strike but still retained his pilot seniority. I could tell by his flying that his concentration was on other matters. He would skip over important items in the cockpit; his handling of the aircraft was so rough it was a wonder the passengers did not get airsick, and his landings were something to live through! I did what I could to pick up what he missed and encourage him to find more time for flying. I solemnly swore I would give up commercial flying completely if I could not fly at least 40 hours a month to keep in practice. I pretty well kept to that promise the rest of my life.
When the Chief Pilot wanted to fly, I was quite often asked to go with him on local flights, usually a test flight after an aircraft repair. He enjoyed dropping his seat down so he could not see out and make instrument take offs, depending on me to advise him if the aircraft wandered off the center line and to keep an eye out for traffic. He was all anyone could ask for in an airline pilot. He loved to shoot ILS approaches. He was not able to see out, but would fly with what the needles told him. The last 20 feet was tricky, as he had to use a "not always accurate" altimeter to slow for landing and to flare for touch down. He seldom needed my "seeing" eyes. This system in those days was only supposed to take you down to 400 feet, so he was just doing a hell of a lot better and enjoyed that type of precision flying.
Things were not looking good for National Airlines, with the strikers cutting down on the passenger load-factor and using the union's political muscle. Jeanne's father was involved in the importation of seafood, freezing and distribution. He had a shrimp boat doing exploratory work and production off the east coast of Nicaragua. Trouble was, the boat was not spending much time at sea, and Jeanne's father asked if I had enough time to take a look at what the problems were, especially with the boat's captain. National was very accommodating and gave me a leave of absence.
I flew to New York and talked to the man who was reputed to be the top scientist on shrimp breeding, habitats, and migration patterns. It was a very informative meeting. I flew to Managua then onto Bluefields, on the east coast of Nicaragua, where the boat and crew were located on the Caribbean coast. I became a deck hand, a fifth member of the crew. The captain and I were the only Americans, the other members of the crew being natives of that coastline. It was a ticklish situation not being captain, but having to prod the man into taking the vessel to sea. He knew the shrimp business but his contract paid him a good salary regardless if he went to sea or not. Being a darned lazy man, he was a problem.
When we did go to sea, it was over 200 miles of coastline to work, with only the one port to enter. The charts we had were based on British surveys going back to 1888. There were no radio communications for weather, and no coast guard for assistance if needed. Due to a shortage of harbors, we had to anchor in the open sea, off the beaches, during the night. As time went on, we could locate areas to anchor that gave us some shelter. To prevent rolling in my bunk, I sometimes curled my mattress in a companionway and slept on the deck. We had to patch a lot of nets because of uncharted coral and rock bottoms. We had to guess at the right water depth to trawl because shrimp migrate into shallow or deep water with the season. Sometimes the net was loaded with undesirable fish such as catfish, sharks and sawfish up to 14 feet in length. Other times we caught shrimp, perhaps a ton in one hour. It was like having an oil-well gusher.
We would stay out only about eight days at a time before our ice supply demanded we go back to Bluefields to package and freeze the shrimp. They were stored on a 110-foot steel barge that had six big freezer containers and had been towed from California, through the Panama Canal, to Bluefields. There was also a company 120-foot cargo vessel for running to Key West. These facilities also handled the shark-fishing industry's half-dozen 40- to 60-foot long liners. The sharks were used to get vitamin A from their livers, which were shipped to Florida for processing.
Bluefields, Nicaragua, was not exactly a Caribbean resort. The only hard-surface road was a mile long and the only vehicle was a battered company pickup truck. The truck was such a novelty that a multitude of kids would jump aboard for the joy of the ride and then walk back to wherever kids play. There were only seven white men in the town and they had formed a club, the American Club. It was in an old house that was the meeting place at 5 p.m. most days for drinks and card playing. I was invited to join them. They played a game with Spanish cards that I was not familiar with. No matter what I did, I always lost because rules would change or new ones would be created, which meant I would buy a round of drinks. But it was a good way to meet the supervisor of the lumber business, a general store owner and importer, and the shark-fishery man.
I stayed in an old, wooden, colonial house with the company engineer and his wife. It had been vacant a long time because it was considered a "haunted house." According to the natives, the owner had been murdered there and on a full moon would ride his white horse through the nearby graveyard holding his severed head under his arm. No local person would visit us after dark. It made for a very low rental fee. The only thing I saw that was scary was a small hole in my bedroom ceiling in which a hairy, black, tarantula spider used to occasionally appear.
The card-playing lumber manager invited me out to the lumbering sawmill one day. The Escondido River was wide and deep, and huge mahogany logs were floated down to a catchment area to wait for cutting or shipping. A young boy was to show me around. As we came to a pond filled with logs, he said, "To get to the other side, you can walk around. I will walk the logs across" and he started dancing and skipping across the large floating logs. I thought that did not look too tough to do. By stepping carefully, I got halfway across before one log rolled, dumping me, wallet and watch in the water. As I scrambled up on a log, I saw the work force watching from behind a building and the young lad as well. So I knew I had been set up. It was amazing how many people in town would ask me about my swim. It turned out to be a good way to laugh together.
That was not the only time I was set-up. The company's local bookkeeper had taken a strong dislike to me from the very first time we met. Maybe he thought I was going to check his books. He looked to be a very vindictive black man and seemed to hate everyone. One day he asked if I liked to watch boxing matches. I mentioned I did and that I had once done some boxing. He told me he was a promoter and would be setting up a boxing ring, as they did every year, for the locals to watch and bet on. Would I buy a ticket? Sure I would. A couple of days later, he asked me to do him a favor: The out-of-town referee could not make it. Would I be the referee? The locals would respect my decisions, being an outsider. With reluctance, I accepted. Later, in a group of people talking about the upcoming matches and who to bet on, one fellow spoke up to say that he did not enjoy the boxing as much as he enjoyed watching the losing bettors swarming into the ring to beat up the referee. It happened every time. I advised the promoter, "Sorry, but I cannot referee; I have to go to sea."
My mission was over: Solving the problem of the shrimp business was as simple as replacing the captain. The results showed great promise.
It was time for me to return to National Airlines, so I began to think about transportation to Florida. I had watched a wooden, 104-foot, native-built boat load bananas about every two weeks in Bluefields and sail for Tampa. The captain, born in the Bay Islands, was a stout, ruddy-complexioned man of 60 years, very much an "old salt." He and I had become friends and I was invited to come on board for the five-day trip to Tampa, which I accepted.
All night and all day, the cayucas (dugout canoes) had been coming down the Escondido River heavily loaded with bananas. One man, one bunch of bananas, up the gang-plank to be counted. I can never listen to Belafonte sing "Banana Boat" but it brings back memories.
The captain had used a hand-carved sextant made out of local hardwood for 40 years. His calculations were done by sines and cosines, not with the current use of published navigational tables. I watched him plot his position many times with a great amount of accuracy. When he asked me to show him the modern way of doing it, I answered, "Your way is best and just as quick ... stick with it." He smiled ear to ear.
He had raised a family, lost his wife, and had recently met a younger lady on an island. He was very lonely and she had hinted she was available. He was torn by his desires and what was "proper." Here I was being asked what this mature captain should do. I was only 27 years old when I said, "Captain, do it. Go for it!"
Home Again, to Disarray
In Miami, I found National Airlines in turmoil. In the presidential elections of 1948, the company had encouraged all employees to vote and donate money to Dewey, a sure winner against Truman. Truman was strongly backed by the labor union. After Truman was re-elected, National Airlines came under a lot of financial pressure. The government subsidy of mail pay was held up. The airline was forced to send an agent to all the ticket counters for cash to meet the payroll. They had to capitulate to the strikers. Our group, after keeping National in the air, was invited to stay, but the captains would have to take a seniority number below the lowest ranking co-pilot. Johnnie elected to stay and I chose to leave. There were too many bitter feelings to think that the cockpit would be a congenial place to work.
The shrimp business in Nicaragua had taken another bad turn. The company had given the dictator 20 percent of the stock as a franchise fee for fishing the east coast of the country. Consequently, he knew what the catches were and the great prospects of the shrimp beds. Our company began to receive government pressures, and when we learned President Somoza was having five trawlers built, we knew he was getting ready to take over the shrimping business. It was a midnight departure for the Jeanne M (named after my wife) and other boats and equipment to Florida to avoid confiscation.
The shrimp industry flourished in the intervening years. When Jeanne and I sailed into Bluefields in 1970 in our sailboat, we were received with a lot of courtesy by the mayor and governor of the province. About 200 shrimp boats and crews were employed and a couple of hundred packers. I was surprised to note that the people remembered the Jeanne M that started the industry with its research.
It was from this coast that the Cuban exiles mounted their invasion for the Bay of Pigs with B-25s and ships against Castro.
Once again I had an airline collapse my job. I was getting downcast with the whole airline industry. After I had left Peru, Peruvian Airlines (PIA) had started to fold up. First was the pay cut, then General George and his staff left. An investor insisted his son (a third officer) be made a captain. He ran the plane off the end of a runway with a load of passengers and did a good job of wrecking the plane and public relations for PIA. Then Braniff Airlines started competing with DC-6s against PIA's DC-4s and taking the passengers away from PIA. Jeanne and I were glad to have left Peru when we did.
A New Airline
I heard that two captains that had worked for me at the Puerto Rican Airline had started up a non-scheduled airline using C-46s. This type would carry twice the number of passengers as a DC-3 and only had two engines to maintain and consume fuel. It was a more profitable plane to operate than a DC-3. They were ex-Navy pilots and feeling their way in the business world. They put me to work as captain immediately, flying passengers about the country, cargo to South America and charters through the Caribbean area. They also developed passenger service to cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit. That kept the small outfit busy. The cargo trips to South America were the more interesting ones, but also more troublesome. Flying day-old chicks by the thousands would tend to suffocate anyone on board with the ammonia fumes from their waste. Racehorses had to be sedated to avoid rearing up and hitting their heads on the ceiling. Of course the studs had to be penned in forward of the mares. Funny thing about take-offs: When accelerating on the runway, horses and cattle would step back to brace themselves, changing the center of gravity, requiring us to re-trim the plane.
One trip when we were delivering a load of highbred cattle from Canada to the Dutch held island of Aruba, the customs agent would not clear the load. Why not? A pregnant cow had given birth, so we had one more head than the cargo manifest stated. The cow had backed up to the open doorway, except for a chain across it, and dropped the calf about 10 feet to the concrete runway! Amazingly, the little fellow stood up unhurt. Eventually a few dollars from my pocket to the custom agent's pocket took care of having the papers fixed.
One time we had a planeload of docile milk cattle to deliver to Lima, Peru. The cowboys there pushed a loading ramp up to the plane, strutted up the ramp and proudly led the cattle out of the plane, down the ramp into the truck. I returned a week later with three planes to unload. The loading cowboys in central Florida told me, "Be careful with these cattle, they are not milk cows." These were wild and mean Brahma bulls! I warned the strutting Peruvian cowboys as they went up the ramp. They only gave me a confident grin. I stayed on the ground as the plane began to shake, quiver and jump around. I saw a wild-eyed, disheveled cowboy run past the ramp opening too fast to make the turns and ran into the "blue room" with a raging bull trying to give him a horn or two. The second cowboy made it to the ramp, saw he could not outrun the bull chasing him, and jumped over the ramp's rails, about 10 feet to the ground. Thereafter the planes were unloaded very, very carefully.
The bulls had relinquished their frustration on the ramp, really doing a certain amount of damage, which ended up coming out of my pocket to fix. There was a lot of paperwork to clearing in and out of Peru in various offices, and I took care of it for the three aircraft. We stopped in Talara, Peru, the westernmost hump of South America. It was a dusty, little village located in the desert without any redeeming features except as a refueling stop. Actually, it was a collection of wooden shacks. The lone occupant of a small shed at the airport greeted us, phoned for a refueling truck, checked our papers and returned to his shed. After our refueling, he came back and said we had to stay. Lima had no record of our clearance papers. I told him what offices had our papers, etc., and that I would leave in 30 minutes because of other flights we would have to make. His reply was, "No leave." Next he said, "Radio no work," then "No papers." I replied, "We go now." Getting the crew into the three planes took a few minutes, which allowed a truck full of armed soldiers to park in front of my plane. Next, the soldiers surrounded the planes and pointed their rifles at the cockpits. We were not going anywhere.
As I got out of the aircraft, two Peruvian F-51 fighter planes flew low over us from a nearby military airport and circled. I definitely was not going anywhere.
We got instructions to go to an old, dilapidated, army barracks that was doing duty as a hotel. It had a long hallway with a single, dim, light bulb and lots of little rooms with army cots. I think we were the only guests. Well, what can you expect for less than a dollar a room? We walked down the dusty street to a place for dinner. It must not have been real bad or real good or I would remember more about it. Walking back to the barracks, we straggled back in two groups. A black prostitute approached the last group. Someone with a diabolical mind gave her a few dollars and the promise of more if she would knock on the door of the captain, who was the noisiest, boisterous and bitchy guy. If she could get in bed with him, she would receive another great sum (to her) of US$5. We hid out until the appointed hour, waiting until we heard a soft knock on his door, and a voice. And then all hell broke loose. She was a strong girl and forced her way in the room of a very fuzzy, sleepy pilot. They must have wrestled some, for he came running out, yelling and shouting without any clothes on. She got a bonus payment and he was very quiet for the rest of the trip, as he knew the whole airline would soon hear about it!
After two days of waiting, the radio reception returned, the papers were found in Lima, and away we went.
Tramp Ships of the Air
Do you remember the old books and movies of old, rusty ships steaming in the tropics looking for cargo in out-of-the-way primitive ports and having all kinds of difficulties? We were following that kind of life, in a slightly more modern way. You had to be on your toes, very self-sufficient in many ways ... a better, more knowledgeable pilot than one flying the same old routine day after day with a major airline and having a thousand people telling you and helping you get to where you were going with the major carriers. After the flight, all you did was pick up your briefcase, walk out of the cockpit, into the limo, to the company hotel and repeat everything in the morning without having to think. Other people were paid to do the thinking for you. Your major worries would be your standing on the seniority list, your bid on the trips you would take and how the business or store you bought with surplus cash was doing and you sure hoped you wouldn't have to fly over 80 hours a month next year.
To me, the scheduled airline flying was only half of a flying job. At times, I had almost felt like a couch potato. When a scheduled airline in New York needed a maintenance overhaul on a plane with its facilities in Miami, they could not haul passengers over another carrier's routes. Therefore, to get the aircraft to Miami without flying it empty, they would leave it with a carrier that flew the route. The carrier's pilots flying that route were not checked out on the peculiarities of that plane, so the owners of the plane furnished the crew. The company owning the route would call up one of their crews at home and tell them, "You are flying from N.Y. to Miami today with full pay. Just take it easy at home." So two flight crews got paid for one flight. That is only one example of feather-bedding.
If the pilot's contract called for pay based on scheduled flight time, and the actual flight time was about to exceed the scheduled time by, say, 10 minutes, there would not be any extra pay. But if the contract called for extra pay over 15 minutes, throttles would be backed off, requests for lower altitudes delayed and the log would show 15 minutes plus. Passengers would be late, and added time on the airplane meant added expense for the airline. Human nature was at work. A lot of pilots did the best they could but there were a lot who did what was best for their pocket.
We continued to service the people in the northern hemisphere. We landed in places like San Juan (Puerto Rico), Ponce, Arecibo and Mayaquez to pick up people coming to Florida as farm labor. At the Mayaquez airstrip after dark, we would have cars parked at both ends of the runway with their headlights shining on the narrow runway. One night, while filling out the papers in the old, wooden building using just flashlights, we noticed the papers had some of the "i's" too well dotted. Looking up, there were wild chickens on the rafters.
With a fully-loaded plane on a night flight back to Florida, the large-scale farmer sitting on the jump seat was very pleased to have a full load of people to help farm his land. He was an honest man in dealings and thoughts. There was a bright, star-lit sky surrounding us and nothing to break our tranquility. He leaned over to me: "Carl, I can see why you do this kind of work. It has everything. It must never be boring and it takes a lot of versatile skills. I would guess you do a lot of fast and clear thinking. It appears to be a very adventurous life." After a quiet interval, he said very quietly, "I wish I could do it."
Not So Easy
Life was not as bliss as he made it sound. Jeanne and I had given our son, Ronald, a little sister we called Carla. It was 1949. Life kind of rocked along. Occasionally there would be a bit of excitement with new challenges in flying. The C-46 was a good workhorse; an Operations Manager's dream for low-cost transportation of passengers or cargo. To me, it was not a pilot's dream. It should have had a tricycle landing gear, which would make for a more level deck while on the ground and eliminated a pilot's apprehension for strong crosswind landings. I never did see one properly sound- and insulation-proof, of decent passenger seats, heads, or galleys. She was really built strong and tough. Some of its shortcomings undoubtedly were the result of low-cost payloads that could not pay for any luxuries.
The C-46 flew the hump in India-China runs early in the war. She was late into commercial use when the war ended because she could not pass the government's requirements mechanically for flying passengers in the U.S. It was not until a few years passed that engineers and entrepreneurs met the government's requirements on flight controls and changed the props for a faster cruising speed. This made it a viable plane for airline use. I was thinking we should be operating the four-engine DC-4s for passengers, but none were available at a reasonable price.
I decided I should get a seaplane rating. I had never used any of my VA credits for schooling, as there had just not been enough time for it. I checked out a seaplane school. Yes, they would gladly help, but first get the VA involved and it would not cost me anything. The next stop was the VA Administration Building in downtown Miami. My appointment was with a nice young man with a large bunch of forms and questions. When I expressed my interest in flying a seaplane, he remarked, "We have a specialist for that department. Go up to the next floor and ask for Dr. Parker." I thought, that's pretty good if they have a Ph.D. to handle my application. Dr. Parker, in his nice office, got right down to business: "How old are you? Are you in good health? Why do you wish to fly? Have you had any hereditary illness?" It suddenly dawned on me this guy was a head shrink! "What the hell goes on here? I have supported myself by flying for a good many years and I asked for additional training," mentioning many more things for his ears to hear. He jumped up with an angry look on his face and ran down the stairs. A short time later, he returned with a calmer look on his face. With no more questions, he handed me the papers I needed and said, "Sorry, that will not happen again." I left his office and, as I walked by a display window, I looked to see if I was wearing a dunce cap. No, the image I saw looking back was an average-size fellow, average ugly, dressed in white shirt, tie, sport jacket and a confident, pleasant look. I got to thinking: This is twice, when I said I wanted to fly, people have arranged for me to see a shrink. Yeah, a lot of people think if you were meant to fly, you would be born with wings and lots of feathers. Well, maybe they were right.
So, in a couple of days I received my floatplane rating. Flying a seaplane was not as much fun as taxiing, landing and taking off. So that was how I spent my time.
The airline I was flying for was getting ready to fly troops for the military, as the war that was not a war -- in Korea -- was getting into high gear. A captain in the military reserve and also an airline pilot said, "Carl, why don't you come to the other side of the airport on weekends and help check out some reservists in C-46's. We could use someone who knows those planes and instrument flying. Also, they pay twice the salary for your rank for this reserve time. By the way, it's all set up and you are approved for this weekend."
When I was not flying for the airline, I was flying for the Air Force on the weekends.
[Continued with Chapter 8.]
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Michael Kussatz, of Olathe, KS, captures the essence of grass roots aviation with this image of a Luscombe just waiting to go flying at a grass strip in Kansas. Click through to see our other submissions.