My father grew up in a world dominated by the wonder of steam power when the fastest speed record had been set by a locomotive at 100 mph. At the time of his death, a man-made vehicle called Sputnik was circling earth at 14,000 mph. By the time I came along, a New Jersey neighbor named Charles Lindbergh had flown the Atlantic in a monoplane, and another young airman named Jimmy Doolittle was setting speed records flying a stubby red racing plane called the Geebee Racer in which just months before my own birth he set a world speed record of 296 mph. And that was the world in which I grew up. One Saturday Dad would take me to the giant rail marshaling yards at Edgewater, N.J. and tell me true stories of his youthful wanderings around the country hitching rides on logging trains, and the next day-off we would drive to Caldwell, N.J. where Curtis Wright tested airplanes, propellers and air frames, and I would lecture him on the fine points of the Curtis P-40 pursuit plane.
Although I would not have been old enough to take note, the infant Douglas Aircraft Co. changed commercial aviation for decades to follow when they launched a hallmark “airliner” which became the DC-3, whose “modern” design would become the very image of passenger flight across the world. It was 1934, and people began to take notice of the gleaming silver, twin-engine airplanes whose profile aloft drew so much attention. With planes arriving and departing LaGuardia airport on one side of us and Teterboro the other it seemed that I had a seat on the 50-yard line of history. And I loved it. Because I discovered the joy of books and learning even before school, I quickly became the neighborhood “expert” – at least among kids – for all things airborne, and my Dad’s big heavy Zeiss binoculars almost dragged on the ground as they hung from my scrawny neck much of the time.
It would be that same DC-3 which, wearing the logo of Northeast Airlines, would afford me my first flight years later. Because the “Gooney Bird” was a “tail dragger”, I recall that uphill climb to a seat behind the cockpit crew where I could see almost everything. Before takeoff, the stewardess came around with a thermos of coffee and cookies I’m sure she made herself before leaving home. It was all very friendly and casual; no need for tickets or boarding pass; seating was based on “first come, first served”.
In succeeding years I would fly in every model of the Douglas “family”, including a long flight from Japan to Vancouver, Canada in a DC-7, the last of the decades-long propeller fleet carrying that great name. Of all the piston-era airliners, I confess to having an all-star favorite in the Lockheed Constellation with a flowing line to its airframe that made it look like a giant curvaceous bird born to fly. With its triple-rudder tail-plane and tall nose-wheel stance, there was no confusing it with any other passenger plane anywhere. It was a comfortable and stable flyer and wherever you might be seated, you knew you were aboard a proud queen of the skies. Because my home in Kansas City was also home to TWA whose president, Howard Hughes also controlled Lockheed, the builder of the “Connie”, it followed that for six years most business air travel helped to nurture this personal love affair. It even carried me on the first stage of my journey to war in 1952.
During my military years, I had a near-opposite relationship with what was the largest troop carrier and cargo transport of the Korean War era. Built by Douglas and known as the C-124 Globemaster II, the giant double-decked transport with huge clam-shell doors at the nose looked (and flew) like a pregnant whale. It answered to the nickname “Old Shaky” for good reason. Scheduled to fly to Tokyo on one in the summer of 1953, my first R&R ended up being cancelled when the R&R Globemaster scheduled for that operation crashed on takeoff at Tachikawa Air Base in Tokyo killing all 129 passengers and crew a week before. Today the equivalent aircraft is the Air Force heavy lifter, the jet-powered and globe-circling C-17. By interesting coincidence my grand-nephew flies, commands and loves this modern-day “Goliath.” I am waiting for a cockpit familiarization tour one of these days.
Cockpit of USAF C-17 on training flight over Hawaii,
My personal diary records 47 airplanes of all types in which I have flown, and ten which I have piloted, including the Piper Cub in which I soloed on July 10, 1956 and which I happen to know- with the same Continental engine - is still flying today for an owner in Wisconsin.
I look forward to the day when I can once again meet up with my Dad; and bring him up to date with all the things life on earth has shown to me since we talked about locomotives.