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The Long Approach
On lots of those days during school I would daydream about rambling the world; seeing and doing all the things I had learned about in books and movies. Trans-World Airways and Pan American went everywhere. Maybe I could afford to travel like that someday. I would need to learn some languages, of course. And I needed a plan. The routes Marco Polo took … I could start there. It was always in the back of my mind, to be dealt with when the time came. Maybe I could even get a job with an airline. Their employees get free passes to everywhere.
That spring three soldiers landed a big helicopter inside our football stadium. Graduation was about eight weeks away and they were out recruiting.
They flew in, landed, and gave those of us who were interested a pretty quick history of Army aviation. They talked about helicopters and fixed wing aircraft, careers in the Army and all the educational opportunities. The girls seemed bored with the details, but showed lots of interest in their uniforms. They let us walk around inside, sit at the controls, and answered most of our questions. Mr. McDonald, the principal walked by and thanked them for coming, and they flew away. I couldn’t afford college then, and the draft board would soon start noticing me. The GI Bill was my best hope, so I decided to enlist and get it over with.
Flying was becoming a big deal and I had already taken a few introductory rides at the airport in Valdosta – courtesy of my cousin Ralph, and Holland Flying Service. Whiz Holland would take me up and Ralph would pay the bill. He was also making payments on his own plane.
So I left Georgia the following January, got my training at Ft. Eustis, VA, and six months later was in Germany working on airplanes. I had gotten there aboard a troopship that smelled like rotten apples.
The Army had hundreds of planes over there; from the fixed-wing tail-draggers to the several models of helicopters. I was doing lots of flying, too. Most of our pilots liked to have us go with them on training flights. Mechanics, repairmen, technicians – it was assumed that if we had a stake in the plane’s safety, we would work more carefully. We considered ourselves professionals and acted the part.
Our barracks had been a Luftwaffe fighter base during WWII. The living quarters were as nice as any I would ever see. And off-post, there was plenty of local beer and wiener schnitzel; and pretty girls to teach us their language and customs. That’s how things were going that Sunday afternoon in September, when I got the word to pack some clothing and get ready to go home. My dad had had a heart attack and the Red Cross was already working to get me back.
I rode a helicopter to Rhein-Main, near Frankfurt, and boarded a four-prop charter operated by Overseas National for New York – my first ride in a big plane. The plane was loaded with returning military families and a few on leave, like me. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a journey that would have me make decisions to last a lifetime.
Monday morning. September 12, 1960.
The skies had been clear when we left Frankfurt yesterday, and just as clear at a fuel stop in Ireland. It stayed like that the several hours it took to cross the Atlantic. Now and then I could see the reflection of the moon on the water below; and thought about what would happen if we had to ditch into it. I always worry the most about things that I know the least about. Do they have enough life preservers? Food and water? Blankets? Beacons? Would we even survive long enough to be rescued? It was needless worrying, and I finally gave it up and cat-napped until we got to Newfoundland, our last fuel stop before New York.
Breakfast in the terminal was plentiful, and the coffee much better than the stuff the flight attendants had been serving. The ground crew gave us more fuel and checked a few odds and ends. Afterward, over Boston, a foggy cloud mass that seemed to go on forever obliterated every bit of land and much of the air above it. The Captain told us it would be like that all the way to New York.
Nearing Idlewild (now JFK) the news got even worse. Big meetings were taking place at the U.N., and VIP landings were getting priority. Traffic was heavy, and all the planes were flying on instruments. The fog was a strange, dingy-gray murkiness, with only the hint of a thin shimmer now and then; and planes were stacked high in holding patterns above the whole city. Our lives were in the hands of a few air traffic controllers.
We kept our altitude while others were shuffled in below us. Our own wingtips were barely visible, and we would be number six or so in landing order, if not for those breaking in below us. When a VIP got out of the way, we would drop down another notch and keep circling. By then, the tension that had begun slowly was getting worse. The Fasten Seat Belts sign stayed on. The flight attendants were trying to stay in their own seats, but would still go to those in great need or stress. The looks of concern that had replaced their friendly smiles were even now giving way to the strains of fear. The younger kids were starting to whimper, then cry, then whimper again. Two or three became nauseous, and soon almost everybody was throwing up.
We would know later that Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro, with their entourages, were aboard some of those planes. Khrushchev would soon be beating on his desk with his shoes, to get attention at the meetings. And Castro was bringing a bunch of live chickens to Harlem with him. His cooks would personally butcher and cook them. He was afraid somebody would try to slip some poison into his food.
More than an hour later almost all the barf-bags had been used; and many of the grown-ups were crying softly and praying quietly. I could see their lips moving. When I finally remembered enough words to the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-third Psalm to keep repeating them, I knew that my lips were moving too, but I didn’t care. The sudden shrill screams of some of the younger kids had given way to calmer sniffles. And as our moods became grimmer I gave up the brave front I had been pretending and started worrying again about some of the things that could go wrong, if they hadn’t already. What about fuel? Did they give us enough at Gander? Will we run out before we can land? Why don’t we just go to another airport that’s clear? It even crossed my mind that we could run into another plane while the pilots we were groping around like blind men. How good is their radar when the air is crowded like this? What’s going on up here, and when will we land? I really wanted down.
Finally, the pilot made some kind of announcement that nobody understood, and we broke out on final approach, just above the few boats in the bay. There was no cheering or back-slapping; just a quiet and determined walk down the steps. Nobody said good-by nor offered a hand to shake. I figured they were still thanking the Lord for saving us. So with nothing left to do or talk about, we went our separate ways.
Two hours later – after grabbing a sandwich and a Coke – I was landing in Atlanta aboard a new DC-8 jet owned by Delta. The differences in the planes and their speeds were striking. After getting aboard, I chatted with an off-duty flight attendant for a few minutes and went to the john to freshen up. The lower cabin pressure had caused the high-pressure can of lather to fill my shaving kit with soapy foam. And I got back just in time to fix my seat belt. We were there already.
Monday afternoon. About 2:00 PM.
There had been a Red Cross rep to guide me to my flight out of Idlewild, but nobody was around in Atlanta; so I fended for myself the rest of the way. Trying to get into the Southern Airways terminal, I was partially blocked by a line of pilots with placards claiming that their employer was “unfair.” Wondering if I was going to get a ride to Moultrie, I asked and one told me that, yes, the planes were still flying, but by a bunch of drunks and scabs who might be able to find the place. I was naive, and thought he was serious, until two others walking nearby laughed at his comment.
I had more than an hour to kill, so I walked toward a cafeteria. The Atlanta airport was very small then; friendly and accessible. Approaching the double doors of a restaurant, I saw something that I hadn’t seen before or since. Beside the door on my right, an elderly black man—dressed elegantly in a black suit and a white shirt, and with a snow-white beard, was sitting in a chair, holding the end of a rope that was tied to the door handle on the other end. When a patron, or patrons, started to enter, he would tug the rope, opening the door for them. I felt embarrassed and a little offended when I first saw him. Then I noticed the different denominations of paper money gathering in his bucket: tips from the customers. I watched for several minutes and saw him empty the bucket. And didn’t worry about him anymore.
The Southern Airways plane was parked to one side and almost hidden by some buildings and other, larger planes. It was a C-47 – very reliable, and referred to as a “workhorse” – that had been designed around 1938. Its brothers and sisters had flown thousands of hours over The Hump – the mountains separating India and China, on supply missions before and during the early months of WWII; and later took paratroopers and other soldiers to France and Germany during the rest of the war. They were re-classified as DC-3s, and were still in service; here, and all over the world. They were famous for the bumpy rides that the thick wings generated from the airfoils. But that was okay with me. All the Army planes did the same thing. That was part of their “short take-off and landing” design.
There were several seats and most of them were empty. The five or so of us passengers just sat anywhere we liked. The single flight attendant seemed past retirement age already. She offered us a Coke from an ice box sitting on the floor. Her own seat was in the very back – the first one in front of the passenger door. It was mounted facing rearward—for safety, we guessed. And she sat in it without saying a word until we made a stop. Then she would stand and tell us where we were.
About three hours later, following all the bumps and bounces and stops in Macon, Columbus and Albany—then Moultrie, it was dark but I was home. Dad got lots better during the following three weeks, so I did a little visiting. Then it was time for a few parting tears again, and a ride back to Ft. Dix – by train.
I ran into Clem Weldon, an old friend, and we rode to Trenton, NJ together. He had orders to Germany, too; and almost unbelievably, to the same airfield that I was returning to. Together we bought enough boiled peanuts to fill a gallon bag, from some kid at the Tifton depot. Lots of people leaving south Florida for their homes up north had still never seen nor tasted any. If they asked, we would let them sample one. I don’t recall anybody asking for seconds. But that was fine.
When we got our port-call papers, Clem was assigned a seat on a charter flight to Rhein-Main. I was placed on another troopship to Bremerhaven; and couldn’t have been happier—rotten apples and all.
December 17, 1960.
Back on my base in Germany, I had already told everybody about flying into New York in the fog. That morning during breakfast, a week before Christmas, someone reading the Stars and Stripes spoke to me from a few tables away, pointing to a story about two planes running together over New York yesterday; killing everybody aboard and a few on the ground. One was a four-prop Constellation – similar mechanically to the one we had flown in on, in the fog that morning. It had collided with a DC-8, like the one I left there on. Flying conditions were similar—heavy fog and over-worked air traffic controllers. When I read the article the similarities were chilling.
I was already having doubts about my future in aviation. Later, I had time to think long and hard about it. All that happened several years ago and I haven’t flown in another airliner since. There were several times when an employer wanted me to go someplace right away, and I still wouldn’t fly. But I was willing to drive anywhere they asked.
That might seem a little silly nowadays, considering the safety records of commercial aviation these past several years. But I have a perfect record, too, if it can be thought of that way; and lots of reasons to not spoil it.