Sunday, September 01, 2013

My Aviation History

I’m a baby boomer, a child of the space-age.  Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier two years before I was born and I was six when the Russians launched Sputnik and the Space Race was on.  To me, flying was as natural as walking or driving, if you had enough money to do so.  My family wasn’t poor, but we weren’t rich either.  We were part of President Eisenhower’s vast Middle Class, although I saw us as part of the lower half because my dad drove a truck, my mother worked in a factory (much to my embarrassment), and we lived in the city, not the suburbs.  Oh, we had a TV, and Daddy bought a new car every two years.  We lived in a house, not an apartment, and I was in Girl Scouts and choir and I got new clothes every spring and fall, and I heard the usual admonitions about children starving in China if I didn’t clean my plate.  I got a transistor radio when I was ten and my own stereo when I was twelve, and every summer we visited my cousins in the country, so maybe we were upper middle class in terms of income.

When I was ten, I went to visit my cousins over Spring Break.  My uncle drove me up to Iron Mountain, Michigan from Chicago, but then his plans changed and he couldn’t drive back.  How could my family get me home?  I don’t know who came up with the idea of flying me home, but my aunt put me on a North Central Airlines flight.  I flew on a converted Douglas C-47. The plane was a troop transport during World War II, converted from a DC-3 passenger plane.  After the war, many airline companies bought the surplus planes and re-converted them to passenger planes.  Like Sydney Bellek and Elian Davies in M. S. Spencer’s Lapses in Memory, I received my “wings” on that flight.

My next flight was aboard a Cessna.  I don’t recall the model.  My sister, brother-in-law, and their best friends rented a cottage in Eagle River, Wisconsin and took me along to babysit.  That was a disaster.  I was fine in the city, but when a raccoon got into our garbage outside the only door I could have used to go for help, and I was stuck in the woods without a phone, this city girl panicked thinking it was a bear.  The next time the adults went out, they got a sitter for me.  But I digress…  We went on an aerial tour of the resort area, and at the age of twelve, I got to sit up front, next to the pilot.  That was so cool!

I didn’t get to fly again until I graduated from high school.  My graduation gift from my parents was a trip to Los Angeles to visit an aunt and uncle out there.  I got to see the mountains and go to Disneyland, but I didn’t get to see the ocean.  That was my first experience on a jet.  I believe it was a Boeing 707.  I had a few flights on those and 727s—a couple more vacations, and then my flights to and from Boot Camp and the Navy Hospital at Oakland, California.  The difference is in the engines.  A 707 had engines on the wings, while 727s had them on the tails.

I discovered the Boeing 737 Baby Jet when I was engaged.  My fiancé was stationed in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and it took two flights to get there from San Francisco.  Three, if you counted the chopper service across the San Francisco Bay!

Yes, I’ve even flown on helicopters.  San Francisco and Oakland Helicopter Airlines made sixty-two passenger flights per day across the Bay between the two airports, using Sikorsky S-62[3] turbine helicopters.  They even had flight attendants who would make sure each passenger’s seat belt was properly fastened.  Once we were airborne, they would jump up, pass out mints, sit down, buckle up, and we would land.  It was much easier to get to the San Francisco airport than taking busses.  I had to really hang onto my wedding gown when I went home to get married.  It got caught in the updraft and was headed for the rotors!

The weekend of my twenty-first birthday was quite an adventure.  I flew home on a hop out of Travis Air Force Base on a C-131 cargo plane.  We sat backward and instead of a flight attendant, we had a burly sergeant telling us how to don our parachutes and pull the oxygen tanks off the wall in case of an emergency.  (Yes, I used that in Rock Bound.) There was a trailer on board in which some brass were flying across country for some sort of meeting.  We stopped at an Air Force Base in Kansas while they met with someone there.  The sergeant took inside the trailer.  He said it was the one used by the Apollo 11 astronauts during quarantine when they returned to Earth.  I didn’t appreciate the historic significance at the time, because I didn’t realize he meant Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins when they came back from the Moon.  I thought he meant one of the later missions.  Eventually we made it to Scott Air Force Base near St. Louis, and I caught the last civilian flight to O’Hare.

I couldn’t catch a hop back to San Francisco, so I grabbed a civilian flight.  It was a Boeing 747 with a piano bar, and since it was my birthday, I didn’t have to pay for my drinks.  Flying from Central to Pacific time, my twenty-first birthday was twenty-six hours long.  Sydney and Elian spend time aboard a 747 with a piano bar in Lapses of Memory.

My last interesting flight was the hop I caught to Hawai’i.  It was a Lockheed Orion P-3 used by the Navy for anti-submarine and marine observation operations.  I was assigned the starboard observation post.  Being the only female aboard was fun.  I got to sit in the catbird seat behind and above the pilot and co-pilot and watch the sun set over the Pacific.  The navigator let me speak to a picket ship in the middle of the Pacific whose only job was to steam in a tight circle and speak to aircraft to let them know they were on the right course to Hawai’i.  They hadn’t heard a female voice in months.  The drawback was that since I was basically a hitch-hiker, they didn’t bring along a bucket for the head.  Translation—there was no ladies’ room.  And, because the P-3 flies low to spot submarines in the water, it’s not a jet aircraft.  It’s powered by four turbo-props, so it’s slower than a jet.  A flight that takes about four hours by jet takes six hour in a P-3.  Yup—six hours with no restroom.  I didn’t care about seeing my husband when we finally landed.  I just needed to find the facilities.  The crew wanted to wash the plane and put fuel onboard.  I convinced them to let me out at the fuel tanks.  My husband, who had been in the control tower when we landed, was on the stairs and missed my sprint across the tarmac. He was quite flummoxed when the plane finally taxied to the terminal and I wasn’t on board.  The pilot told the tower I was on the flight—where had I gone?

It’s been awhile since I’ve felt the power gathering beneath me, the G-forces pushing me into my seat as we tear down the runway, and the sudden smooth freedom of flight.  I miss it and hope to feel it again someday.  But if I don’t, I hope you will.  And no, I’ve never joined the Mile High Club.  For me, flying’s fun enough.  I cry on takeoff for sheer joy.


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