DC-3… The Good Ol’ Days

by Richard J. (Dick) Reilly
Published in Midwest Flyer – February/March 2017

In his poem “In The Droving Days,” Australian Poet Laureate, A.B. (Banjo) Paterson, refers to a drover’s lame and aging old war horse nostalgically as “One of the boys of the Old Brigade.” Some of us have similar sentimental feelings about old airplanes.

It was the winter of 1952, December, cold. I rounded the corner of Fanta-Reed’s hangar in the glow of a crisp sunrise and there it was – a Douglas DC-3. An airplane of this size was a real oddity around the airport of La Crosse, Wisconsin, the nearest airport to my old home, Hokah, across the Mississippi River in adjacent Minnesota. I hadn’t noticed the hulking DC-3 in the dark of my late arrival the night before.

The 20-degree sub-zero temperature had covered my Cessna 140 with hoarfrost, and it was fortunate that I had negotiated for a spot in a warm hangar to work on it.

During the summer I acquired the airplane from a major oil company – remember the ‘Flying Red Horse? * And as Texans might say, it had been “rode hard and put away wet.” It needed a bit of wrench work and I was adding a few modifications to make it truly my own.

Several volunteers helped me untie the plane and move it into the warm hangar; the help was welcome because even the wheels objected to being awakened in the cold. The structure was so viciously cold to the touch that I elected to wait for the frost to melt and the structure to warm enough to be more work-friendly. I passed the time perusing the ample supply of aviation magazines that grace the offices of most FBOs.

Outside a ‘Herman Nelson’* hummed away, pumping hot air into a canvas enclosure wrapped around one engine of the DC-3. The hum of the Herman nearly induced a nap, but a blast of cold air got my attention as Jack Fanta burst into the office, stamping his feet in a vain attempt to induce circulation into frozen feet. After a few moments of luxury in the blast of the office heater, he said to no one in particular,

“The crew called from the hotel and said they’d like to go in an hour. I don’t know whether we’ll make it with only one heater.” Outside, a cloud of blue smoke signaled that the first warmed engine reluctantly came to life and slowly settled into the song that is the charm of a big radial engine. Jack turned to me and said, “You’ve got nothing to do for now. While your airplane is drying out, how about you sit in the big machine and keep it from running away while we heat the other engine? Regulations say a licensed pilot must be in the seat when the engines are running and you’ll do.” How could I not take the job? It enabled me to pay for the courtesy of a warm place to work.

Entering through the passenger door, I made my way up the aisle between the second and first rows of seats to the cockpit and took my place in the copilot’s seat. Ken Reed set the parking brake and departed for warmer climes. There was nothing for me to do except to be ready to apply the toe-brakes should the big beast start to move.

Curiosity drove me to explore the cockpit’s side pockets searching for a pilot’s manual or other technical lore that might help pass the time. No luck on the tech manuals, but I found a logbook showing that the airplane had flown 22,000 hours, as best I can recall, but there was nothing of technical interest in the pockets. However, I did come upon a strange document: a bill of sale. The briefest glance revealed that the airplane had been bought and sold yesterday, the day it arrived.

The trip into La Crosse carried a load of military personnel to the nearest airport at Camp McCoy, a military facility about 30 miles away, so the recent purchase caught my attention. A revenue flight on the day it was purchased presented a curious enigma that was really none of my business.

After nearly an hour, Ken Reed came back into the left seat, fiddled with the primer pump, threw some switches and engaged the starter. There was another cloud of smoke; the big, round Wright Whirlwind coughed a few times, then caught and settled into the siren song of the radial. Ken shouted over the din that I was free to go back to the warmth of the office.

On my way out I paused to look at the name plate, riveted to primary structure behind the copilot’s seat that supported the little steam boiler that heated the entire cabin, if one knew how to operate it.* The plate read:

Douglas Aircraft Company – Serial Number 2 – August 1936

Truly, it was “one of the boys of the old brigade” and for me, a brush with history, even in 1952. Now, 65 years later, whenever I see historical references to the DC-3 and its vital contributions to World War II, I wonder what happened to Serial #2 and the history of Serial #1.

The crew arrived shortly and we engaged in some airplane lore since the DC-3 was already legendary in 1952, having been the focus of many World War II adventures. I commented on the bill of sale that I had seen during my hour in the cockpit. The captain responded, “Yeah, we sold it and bought it again in-flight yesterday; we do it all the time. It’s the way we get around regulations.” He then went on to explain the regulatory idiosyncrasies of small-airline operations in the shadow of World War II.

After the big war, many pilots returned with a dream of starting their own airline. The legacy airlines – names that were familiar in news stories of the day – feared competition from ex-military crews flying war surplus airplanes with minimal overhead. They encouraged their congressional representatives to sponsor legislation limiting these start-up companies to flying their airplanes 40 hours per month, a handicap that almost precluded profitable operations. The resulting law challenged good, old American ingenuity, which responded by making every flight crewmember an officer of the company.

The airplane at work was outfitted with a list of alternate company names and properly prepared legal documentation. When flying time came up to 39 hours in a month, the crew picked a new company name from the list and one of the crew sold it to the other, who purchased it in the name of a new company. They were then good for another 40 hours and working for a new company. Perhaps there was some creative accounting associated with the process. The old saw, proclaiming the many ways to skin a cat, comes to mind.

* A ‘Herman Nelson’ was a combustion heater built by a company of the same name. It was fueled by gasoline and readily procured inexpensively from ‘war surplus.’ Nearly every FBO in the north-country had at least one.

* The little boiler, about eight or 10 inches in diameter and a foot and a half high, comfortably heated the entire cabin, but its care and feeding was somewhat of an enigma. A bit of folklore of the time suggested that if a captain was paired with a copilot who could skillfully operate the boiler, he might delay recommending the man for promotion to the left seat.

Richard J. (Dick) Reilly grew up in a small, southern Minnesota, rural town named after Sioux Indian Chief ‘Hokah.’ After primary and secondary education in local schools, he enrolled in the aeronautical engineering program at the University of Minnesota, receiving a Bachelor of Science Degree in 1951.

After two years of post-graduate work, he began a professional career that spanned the aeronautical sciences, including basic research in boundary layer flow, high-altitude research using free-flying balloons and engineering flight test work on general aviation airplanes, supersonic military aircraft and instrumentation for the first manned U.S. space flight.

After 18 years working within corporate structures, he began a consulting career based largely on the aeronautical sciences that reached across five continents. Clients included a variety of corporate, international and government organizations, including the Advisory Group for Aerospace Research and Development (NATO), NASA and as guest lecturer at MIT, Penn State University and at universities of most of the NATO countries.

Reilly holds 16 patents in the general areas of aerodynamics, fluid power, control systems and computing devices.

A book of 45 short stories – “Tell Me A Story” – gleaned from the author’s experiences while working for 50 years on five continents and returning home most weekends. The book is available from Amazon.com, and is best searched under the author’s name: Richard J. Reilly. Also, see Amazon’s review by a columnist for a national magazine: “Interesting Stories Well Told.”

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