Today is Part Three of seven in the series on Panagra……
I was just plain lucky to get away with it. Every time I think about that day, even after over 35 years, it still scares me.
In July of 1942 I left my flight instructing job in El Paso for Lima, Peru and a copilot job with Pan American-Grace Airways, Inc. (Panagra). During those war years, Panagra was expanding to replace the service previously provided by German airlines and a copilot either checked out as captain soon or was shipped back to the United States. Within a year of my first trip as copilot, I was flying as captain.
Our fleet consisted of DC-3’s, three DC-2’s, and a 450 HP Gull-Wing Stinson hood trainer. Our DC-2’s were NC 13729, NC 14268 and NC 14270 and were used for freight, training and back-up airplanes. At least one of them had come from TWA as the outline of the TWA logo was still visible on the nose. One DC-2 was normally kept in Quito, Ecuador where it and a DC-3 were used by two crews based there to operate a local service in Ecuador.
Nobody wanted to leave our main base in Lima to fly the local Ecuadorian service but since I was the junior man qualified, I had the choice of Quito or giving up my job. I spent a lot of time in 1944 and all of 1945 there.
Shell Oil Company was exploring for oil in the Ecuadorian jungle southeast of Quito. They had a base camp and air strip in the jungle where the canyon of the Rio Pastaza comes out of the east side of the Andes. That camp was called Shell Mera and was more or less accessible by road from the high country to the west. They had another camp called Arajuno more or less 30 miles to the northeast on another river, the Rio Napo, I believe. As I remember it was eleven or twelve minutes by DC-2 from Shell Mera to Arajuno. The only other way to make the trip other than by air was to walk through the jungle which required three to five days.
In their exploration for oil, the Shell people worked out of Arajuno, traveling by dugout canoes with outboard motors on the rivers. A particularly savage tribe of Indians called Aucas lived in that area and the head-hunting Jivaros were in the same region. Some years after my experience there, Shell had abandoned its search for oil and a group of U. S. missionaries were using the facilities at Shell Mera as a base in an effort to civilize the Aucas. The Aucas murdered all of them including the brother of an American Airlines pilot named Saint.
In early 1944 I was sent to Shell Mera with a DC-2 on two different occasions to haul supplies from Shell Mera to Arajuno. Each time I was there for a week or so and when the rain wasn’t too heavy, spent the daylight hours flying back and forth between the two camps. It didn’t rain all the time, just most of the time.
Of course there were no navigational facilities. In those days we carried flight radio operators on all our flights and the Shell people had a radio station in Shell Mera that our operator could work on CW. My familiarity with the area was to be of great value later.
On the morning of July 28, 1944 I was looking forward to one of my rare days off when the company sent a driver for me. I had to go to Shell Mera to get Captain Bill Sindo who had acute appendicitis. Bill was there with a crew and a specially modified DC-3 hauling supplies and parts of a drilling rig to Arajuno so they could drill a test well.
Flying the local service out of Quito (9243 feet above sea level) we always carried oxygen for the crew and passengers but that morning when I got to the airport and was getting the DC-2 organized for the flight to Shell Mera, I found that we were out of oxygen. If we had decent weather, which was most unlikely, we wouldn’t have to go over 12,000 feet for more than a half hour or so, but we had to go anyway. I thought when we got to Shell Mera we would probably change to Bill’s DC-3 which should have a supply of oxygen.
In my crew the copilot was Gene Christiansen and the radio operator was a young fellow named Wesley. Several people from the Quito station went along including the station mechanic, Ralph Underdahl, who later had a good job with Douglas Aircraft.
The way from Quito to Shell Mera was to fly more or less south down the central valleys of the Andes passing west of Mt. Cotopaxi (nearly 20,000 feet), over the town of Latacunga, east of Mt. Chimborazo (20,700 feet), the town of Ambato and before running into the face of Mt. Tungarahua (which I always thought looked like pictures of the Matterhorn) turn left to follow the canyon of the Rio Pastaza as it wound its way out of the mountains past the camp at Shell Mera. That was the way it was supposed to be and if the canyon was full of clouds, which was frequently the case, you couldn’t go and had to go back to Quito or Guayaquil or some place other than Shell Mera.
When we started down the canyon of the Rio Pastaza, we found it completely blocked with clouds. We knew that Shell Mera was reporting rain and low overcast. The situation did not look good.
We went back up over Ambato, where we had a broken overcast, and started climbing to try to get on top. At 18,000 feet we were on top.
I took a guess at a heading I hoped would take us more or less over Shell Mera allowing for about a 30 to 40 knot easterly wind that I thought we could expect. I took another guess at the estimated time over Shell Mera and told Wes to send that to the Shell Mera operator and to tell them to listen for our engines and, if they could hear them at all, to let us know which direction we were from them.
Talk about luck! Exactly on my estimate they said we were directly overhead. I immediately started down through the clouds and when we got to about 12,000 feet we began to see the ground through holes in the clouds. Luck again! Through a hole I saw and recognized the village of Puyo, which I knew to be just off the east end of the Shell Mera strip. As far as I know, Puyo is the only evidence of civilization, except for Shell Mera and Arajuno, in that part of South America. We landed but were far from out of trouble yet.
When we got out of the airplane we learned that the DC-3 was not ready to fly and that its’ oxygen bottle, that I was counting on, had only 200 pounds pressure, which was nearly empty. We would have to stay with the DC-2 so we put gas in it, rigged a stretcher for Bill and rigged the oxygen bottle from the other airplane to furnish oxygen to Bill but there would be none for anyone else.
It seemed to take hours for us to get ready to leave with the rain getting heavier and the clouds lower by the minute. Finally, we had everything organized as well as possible and took off planning to take Bill to Talara, Peru where International Petroleum had a hospital.
The DC-2s had a reputation for blowing cylinder heads, which I suspected was caused by over boosting. I was always gentle with them and never had one of those engines fail. And this was no time for an engine failure.
I had no intention of climbing west towards the mountains until we were on top of the clouds or were getting up around 20,000’. My copilot, Gene, didn’t understand why I kept going the wrong way, east, and why I the pulled the throttles back every time he moved them up to the standard climb power setting.
I knew that we could still expect a strong easterly wind that would add to the danger of flying toward the mountains and I thought it likely that the top of the clouds would be lower farther away from the mountains. That proved to be the case as we broke out on top at about 13,000’ at which time we turned west. Climbing to the west we were just able to climb fast enough (with the power I was willing to use) to stay on top of the clouds as they got higher to the west. I was sure that if we had an engine failure before we got pretty well across the mountains we would be in very serious trouble and if that should happen while climbing out over the jungle our chances of survival would be about a negative zero, if there is such a thing.
Well, nothing like that happened. We had to climb to about 18,500’ to stay on top but the old airplane and engines appeared to be just as happy as if we had been sailing along the coast on a clear day at 8,000’. The easterly wind boosted us along and, before we expected it, we saw the top of Chimborazo go by on our right side. Shortly after that we were able to turn to the southwest toward Talara, something over 200 miles away. Our anxious time was over, so we pushed the power up and started a long shallow dive toward the Talara airport.
After we got Bill unloaded and on the way to the hospital, we took off for Quito. As if to add insult to injury, we had to go to over 16,000’ to get into Quito late that afternoon. According to my logbook, we flew seven hours and sixteen minutes that day in NC 13729, most of it at high altitude and with no oxygen the whole day.
Our chief pilot, J.R, McCleskey, was up from Lima flying on the local Ecuadorian local schedule that day. They were able to keep up with our activities by listening to the radio messages. That evening he made a point of getting me unwound (thoroughly) over several drinks, even though he knew I had to fly the next morning. Mac told me that when we were climbing out of Shell Mera he considered sending me a message to climb to 20,000’ and head west, but he decided I would probably do it anyway and he did not interfere.
Bill Sindo had his appendix taken out in the Talara hospital and went back to work. He and I were both later based in Miami flying to South America. In February 1967 Panagra was amicably merged into Braniff. We still flew our Panagra DC-8s to South America. About the most notable difference after the merger was the new paint jobs on the airplanes, new uniforms and the addition of some new routes we had not previously flown.
I still have a warm feeling for the old DC-2s but I guess I am just a Douglas pilot anyway since I never flew anything else in airline service. I never saw a DC-1, which was a prototype of the DC-2 and I think there were one or two built. However, I flew the DC-2, DC-3, DC-4, DC-6, DC-7 and DC-8. Never had access to a DC-5 but wish I had, to make the string complete. I never flew a Douglas airplane I did not like but I think most pilots are loyal to the airplane they are currently flying, unless it is a real dog.
There probably are no DC-2s flying anywhere in the world now. I never flew one again after I left Ecuador in late 1945 but would love to have a chance to fly it again. I always thought that when (and if) a pilot learned to taxi a DC-2, he could taxi anything. I can still feel the throb and grind of those two old 1820 Wright F3B engines and for me they always did their part.
I was born February 21, 1913 on a farm near Bloomington, Indiana but when I was about one year old, the family moved to a farm near Danville, Illinois. My health was never good (nearly died of pneumonia a couple of times) and had to drop out of high school in early 1928.
As soon as I could travel, my Dad took me to New Mexico and arranged for me to stay for a few months with a former forest ranger and his wife who were trying to develop Sandia Park, which is now practically a suburb of Albuquerque on the east side of the Sandia Mountains.
After the Illinois winter ended, I went home and was OK until the fall of 1928 when I got sick again. Dad and I started driving to New Mexico in a new Model A Ford and by the time we got to Kansas, I was OK and doing most of the driving.
We went back to Sandia Park where we heard good things about the school in Estancia, NM. We went there and Dad arranged for me to restart high school and live with a wonderful couple whose family was all grown.
Dad looked at some property near Estancia when he left me there. He was sick that winter and bought a farm by mail that he had looked at. The rest of the family moved to Estancia in March 1929.
I finished high school in Estancia in 1932 and started at New Mexico A & M (now New Mexico State U) at Las Cruces. By now, we were deep in the Great Depression and as I remember, my tuition was $25 per semester. Graduated in 1936 with a BS in Mechanical Engineering.
My brother Bob and I always dreamed of being able to fly but could see no chance of it. The first airplane I remember seeing close up was an old Martin bomber with two Liberty engines out of Chanute Field, Illinois that landed in one of our fields about 1923 and stayed overnight. I still remember it had 44 x 10 tires.
When I finished college, I was a Second Lt. Infantry Reserve from ROTC and the Marine Corps was offering permanent commissions to 50 ROTC graduates that year. I was all set to go and hoped to get into flying. I went to San Diego (at my own expense) for final physical, passed that, and then was turned down on my preliminary physical. I then applied for Air Corps Flying Cadet, went to Denver (at my expense) and failed the physical. I then started learning to fly in an old Warner powered Fleet in Albuquerque for $8 an hour, dual or solo. I wouldn’t say I had instruction. A pilot rode with me until I learned to fly it.
The only place I had been able to find a job was El Paso. My first job there required an engineering degree and paid $85 per month. Since it was a government project, we had to pay common labor 40 cents per hour, carpenters $1.50 and bricklayers $1.62. Since I was management, I figured with the hours I had to work, seven days a weeks, I was paid about 16 cents an hour. I finished the project and quit the construction business.
While working in El Paso, I borrowed $300 from a bank to buy a 1/3 interest in a practically new 1940 65 HP Taylorcraft. That was the best investment I ever made. With that airplane I was flying mostly for fun, but did build up time for a private license, commercial and instructor rating. I flew anything I could get my hands on, some of it unlicensed.
After I got my instructor rating, I started teaching for a friend who owned the El Paso Flying Service and was training a CPT class (Civilian Pilot Training) when I was interviewed by Captain Bob Disher for a copilot job with Pan American-Grace. When they offered me a job, I stayed in El Paso to finish my CPT class before going to Lima.
When I had my interview with Disher, I told him about my medical history. He said if they offered me a job, I would have to go to Brownsville for a physical with the Pan American doctor and not to tell him my history. I did tell him though and he said he saw no problem.
In early August 1942, I arrived in Lima and started training for my copilot job. Panagra was classed as a vital industry and we were exempt from the draft because we were replacing the Germans in providing air service in South America. Because of the expansion, Panagra needed more captains and since I had more than the minimum hours for Air Line Transport Rating, they speeded up my training and within a year of my first copilot trip, I was flying captain on freight and few months later on passenger trips.
In 1948, I was on my way back to Lima from the states vacation sitting on the porch of the old Tivoli Hotel (Panama) with some other pilots when some of our newly hired female cabin crew came out and went down the steps. One of the pilots said,” There is our little Dutch girl”. That was the first time I saw Cookie. She was in the crew on the DC-6 that I rode to Lima that night. We made a date for dinner the next night.
Cookie had just recently come to Lima from Holland with her aunt and uncle and was living with them in Miraflores. Cookie was flying on the DC-6s and I was on the DC-3s. We arranged to be laying over together in the Canal Zone on February 14, 1949 and with the help of Dick Witt and a friend in the Canal Zone, were married in the friend’s house. That night, Cookie flew her trip back to Lima and I flew the DC-3 back the next day. It must be a successful marriage because it is still working after 47 years. (Ed note: the reader may add another year to this figure as of this writing.)
When I departed Buenos Aires the last time, the entire staff lined up across the ramp to see me off. At 2 a.m. on my 60th birthday, my good friend and copilot, Bill Blaugher, and I brought my last trip into Miami from New York by way of Dulles. My daughter, Yvonne, and her husband, Ray Bare, had met us at JFK and Bill’s wife, Gerry, who had come with us non-stop from Panama. We had about 4 hours at JFK and Bill had reservations for us at a nice restaurant near there. I had put out word that I did not want a gathering at the airport on my last trip but Jim Williams was there in uniform. He said he knew I did not want to be met, but he had come to carry my bags. There in the crew room we drank a bottle of champagne that the cabin girls had given us.
I was very lucky to have had a job I loved and to have had it during the very best years of airline flying.
The DC-4 popped out of the stratus deck into the starlit pre-dawn sky, and turned NNW paralleling the Peruvian coast. The great Cordillera Blanca off the right wing was silhouetted against the light of the rising sun below the stratus stretched like a soft llama rug from the base of the Andes to the east, to the horizon to the west. The purser served the flight deck crew their breakfasts and then went on to serve the passengers. Panagra believed that the welfare of the flight crew was essential to flight safety and that it was better to take care of the crew first, because unforeseen weather conditions could later preempt any food service.
As Flight 322 checked in over Chiclayo, the stratus deck below abruptly ended, revealing the arid Peruvian coastal plain, striped at wide intervals by verdant river beds, tying the mountains to the sea. The air was smooth and crystal clear as 322 reported over Talara, on the western shore of Cabo Blanco. Cabo Blanco was not only Peru’s great petroleum producing area but its waters were the finest marlin fishing area in the world. The Black Marlin record at the time was 1640 pounds. Most of the scenes for “Old Man and the Sea” were filmed here.
Leaving the coast of Cabo Blanco, the water was so clear that huge manta rays were visible loitering around fishing boats, half their size. About forty miles south of Guayaquil, Ecuador the purser announced that we would be landing in fifteen minutes, and that we were over the island of Puna. Puna was the original base camp from which Pizzaro launched his forays into the mainland. The port of Puna still serves as the deep water harbor for Guayaquil. Guayaquil was, at that time, a hot and humid banana and cocoa shipping center, 322 miles south of the Equator.
As we left the coast at Esmeraldas, forward over the wing was the familiar sight of the ITCZ (Inter-tropical Convergence Zone], a towering wall of cumulus and cumulonimbus reaching to 35,000 feet, and running from the mountains east of Buenaventura, Colombia to the west as far as the eye could see. Buenaventura has the second highest annual rain fall in the world. As the flight entered the shielding altostratus, the rain began, and intermittent lightning lit the darkening sky.
Fritz Sterling was the pilot in command of Flight 322. After receiving his flight training in the Army Air Corps, he joined Panagra in 1934 and had flown single engine Fairchilds, Ford Trimotors, DC-2s and DC-3s. He was a tall handsome man with graying temples and exuded an aura of confidence. He would have made a good model for a Norman Rockwell of an Airline Captain.
McCleskey was another Army Air Corps product. He, Frank Havelick and Floyd Nelson went with CNAC (China National) in 1931, and came to Panagra in 1936. CNAC was a Pan-Am subsidiary, so all three were Pan Am trained. Mac had a tough reputation. He was fond of saying, “You can teach a gorilla how to fly, but we aren’t hiring gorillas” or – “After one damn turn, I can tell whether a man is a pilot or not.”
We arrived in Panama an hour behind schedule. I joined the crew for dinner in the Grand Dining room of the old Hotel Tivoli, that great monument to the Colonial Era. Because of a 3 a.m. wake up call, I went to bed early, only to be wakened by the raucous ring of an upright telephone. Knocking the phone off the night stand, and finally corralling it, only to hear, “Buenos Dias, Capeetan DuBoyees. Ju don haf to wake up, Capeetan Mcklusky, he ess naught here jet”. Oh well, a chance to relax, do a little more studying, and get a good nights rest. The next morning, the same time, the same message, the same voice. Finally the following morning: “Capeetan Mcklusky ees hear jure peek up alas tres y media.”
After years of early morning departures, one learns that being packed showered, shaven, and having your uniform hanging in its separate parts makes for more zzz time. Panagra’s dress code was inflexible. They even specified the style number Interwoven socks and Florsheim shoes that were to be worn. The caps were a real pain in the butt. Walking under the wings of piston powered aircraft assured a continuous change of white cap covers.
When I went down to the lobby to check out of the hotel, McCleskey was having a cup of coffee in the alcove. He gave me a grunt of a greeting and started for the camionetta, waiting at the front of the hotel. I followed with cup of coffee in hand. When we arrived at the terminal, I went directly to operations to check the weather, file a flight plan and talk to the dispatcher.
The DC-3’s tail number was NC-29334. A Douglas built DC-3A powered by twin Pratt and Whitney 1830-92 engines with Hamilton Standard Propellers that gave 1250 hp/engine at sea level. Max gross take off weight 25,322 pounds, dumpable to 22,500 pounds, and a gross landing weight of 24,400 pounds. Electronics consisted of dual ADFs, which could be used for flying radio ranges, none of which existed in South America. That was the reason my Airline Transport Rating had the restriction” Not valid for Radio Range on ATR / valid on Commercial”. I had the commercial certification in the Marine Corps but there was no place in South America to get a range qualification. There were 2 HF transceivers for enrooted communications. Because there was no voice communication except in terminal areas, flights carried a Flight Radio Operator. They sent all position reports and were the only source of weather information. They developed their own individual styles and could immediately recognize each others unique rhythms. They were universally a bunch of characters, and at times, “back seat drivers”.
I completed the walk around, “kicked the tires” and boarded the aircraft to find McCleskey snoozing in the copilot’s seat. I climbed into the left seat and buckled up. Mac woke up and we went through the pre-flight and pre-start checklists. The passengers were boarded, and at the all clear signal, we started the engines. That wonderful guttural staccato of those 1830s was music to my ears. The mood in the cockpit changed. McCleskey’s challenges on the checklist became crisper. He joked with the tower operator as he cleared Flight 319 to taxi on schedule, at 500 a.m. We took off and climbed out over Taboga into that wonderful dawn glow as the sun rises in the tropics, “like thunder o’er the bay”.
Jaime de LaTorre, the purser, brought up breakfast. McCleskey shook the yoke saying, “I’ve got it”. The breakfast was orange juice, scrambled eggs and bacon, and strong aromatic Colombian coffee. The meals on Panagra were almost always good, because of a short, volatile, and jovial Italian, by the name of Mike Claverino who gave them the best food in the airline industry. By the time we crossed the Colombian coast; McCleskey had finished his breakfast, grabbed a pillow, put it against the side window and had gone to sleep. I was beginning to suspect that this was all a ploy on his part.
Over the Atrato basin it became apparent, that the ITC was as active as it was on the trip up with Fritz. It looked real menacing in the direction of Dabeiba. I changed course to Urrau, and applied climb power, leaving 9,000 feet for 13,000 feet to try to get above the shielding altostratus. We were on top at 12,500 and could see the build ups ahead, when all of a sudden there was a break in the clouds below us. There, right under the nose, was the tiny village of Urrau, nestled in the mouth of the pass. I turned the seat sign ‘on’, pulled the throttles back. McCleskey woke up with a start and with one scan assessed the situation. I called for gear down. We dropped 7,000 feet hugging the right side of the canyon of clouds, and then slowed to 120 in order to decrease the turning radius, in case we had to make a 180 degree turn out. After nosing into the mouth of the valley a few miles, and not seeing any light at the other end, I applied METO power, and made a sharp climbing turn to the left, climbing to 16,000 feet to try a higher altitude.
The DC-3 had oxygen for each cockpit crew member. It consisted of an oxygen bottle, with a pressure regulator, and tube with cigarette holder like tip which you held with your mouth.. There were walk around bottles in the cabin, so the purser could minister to any passengers in distress. When we reached 16,000 feet, we circled back for another try. The base of the CBs and CUs hung like the skirt of a giant theater curtain under which the base of the mountains stood like feet of Chorus. Beautiful, but no go. So on to try Quibdo at 16,000. We were always careful about changing altitude. A DC-3 climbing from 12,000 to 16,000 at a couple of hundred feet a minute took a lot of time and fuel.
We tried Quibdo high and low, with no success. Ironically, about 90 miles to south, there was a break in the clouds over the mountains, just northwest of Cali. The range is lower there, but this puts the flight over 150 miles from an available airport on the outside, even though you are only 50 miles from Cali. On a check ride, it was a ‘No No’. During all this milling around, Protich the radio operator was beating his bug, trying to get any pertinent weathers and keep Panama informed of our whereabouts. I headed back to Urrau at 13,000. It looked as if it had improved since our last try but such was not the case. Protich handed me a Turbo weather; 700 feet light rain 2 miles, thunderstorms in the vicinity. Turbo was now our only option. I leveled off at 12,000 feet and headed for Turbo.
I had flown five Captain’s route familiarization trips, with Captain Paul Willey, a tall gangly down-easter, from Maine and Colby College who came to Panagra via the Civilian Pilot Training program. We were required to make an instrument approach under the hood at all pertinent alternates. I had made a hood let down at Turbo on one of my familiarization trips. At 1600 feet in the procedure turn, Paul pulled the hood down. The left wing tip was about 100 feet from the tree tops. As I caught my breath Paul said,” A picture is worth a thousand words”. The CAA approach plate had the letdown to the north, for 2 mins and 30 secs, a procedure turn to the right, with a minimum of 1600 feet in the turn. This crossed over a 1500 foot ridge if you had any west wind at all. A left procedure turn would be entirely over the water. I turned to McCleskey and explained to him why I was going to make the procedure turn to the left and was not going to do the published approach. He had been on four engine equipment and in the office and Turbo was very seldom used. He looked at the plate, shook his head.” You know this is the authorized let down. You better be right”.
It had started raining when we initially overheaded Turbo and now it was coming down in sheets. We intercepted the inbound track of 180 degrees. The landing check was completed. No ground contact. Mac yells over the noise of the engines and the rain. ” What are you going to do now?” I slowed to 110, eased down to 300 feet called for full flaps, adding power to compensate for the extra drag. I slid my side window open and could see the water beneath. We were below the clouds. I eased to 200 feet. Mac who had been calling out my altitude in a very matter of fact voice at 1000 foot intervals above 3,000, 500 foot intervals to 500 feet and now with a slight sense of urgency, at fifty foot intervals. The rain was so heavy the wipers were useless. As I was about to abort,” 10 degrees to your right, the field’s to your right”. The pro that Mac was, he never touched the yoke. I spotted it through the rain blurred windshield made a slight slip to the right then turned back to line up, cut the power, and squashed into that grassy mud patch, called Turbo airport. We taxied up to the little tin roof shack that was the station.
As I was checking the weather, McCleskey asked, “Well what are you going to do now?”. “I’m staying here Captain, the weather has shown no improvement.” He barked back,” I have to get back to Lima, I shouldn’t have come on this damn trip anyway.” “Captain, I refuse to take the responsibility”, I answered. “OK, Bill, you’re right, but I have to get back. I’ll fly it, you just sit back and relax and see how the pros do it.”
The local mechanic pumped 5 – 50 gal drums of fuel into the aircraft with a hand pump through a chamois covered funnel. McCleskey took off. Before we even got close, it became apparent that the lTCZ had spread further south and had shut everything down. With a few unrepeatable words McCleskey headed for Panama. After flying for 7 hours and 56 minutes on a 2 hr and 52 min flight plan, we ended up where we started.
The next morning, I went down for breakfast. There was McCleskey, a big grin creasing his rugged face. “Good morning, Bill, that was a good ride yesterday. Congratulations, you are now a Panagra Captain. I have to get back to Lima to finish my battle with the New York office.” We arrived at the airport. Mac said, “Go get another coffee, and relax, I am flying this bucket back”. We had lost all our Cali and Quito passengers, so Mac flew directly Guayaquil, Talara, Lima. When we got into the camionetta, Mac turned and said,” Damn it, Bill, I was supposed to give you a hood let down at Lima .” I thought, well it ain’t over till its over. “Oh hell, I’ll just write you off as having completed it” added Mac. God, those were sweet words!
The crew members based in Quito (1945-51) were as different as could be but all a pleasure to work with and all had a deep sense of responsibility for their jobs.
Bert Bond, a jovial New Yorker, who grew up in the wings of the vaudeville stage because his parents were the best of the Dance Pairs in the 30s, the golden years of vaudeville. Bert flew 320 B-24 bombing missions over Europe in WW2, but was very self effacing.
John Kemmerling, a powerful , stocky Dutchman from Keamey, Nebraska was a one man Chamber of Commerce for Nebraska and a Big Red rooter. John flew in the Air Corps flying bush routes into the Alaskan interior in single engine Norseman. He was uniquely qualified for the pilotage type of flying involved in the Ecuadorean routes.
Marlowe Wight, (Smoky), a laid back Arkansan, with a background in navy multi-engine equipment, including flying boats. Smoky was so relaxed on the surface that you wondered, whether he was really with it. Just let an emergency come up, and he became, speed, dash, and accuracy.
The Captains were myself, John Timko and Ray Sullivan.
John Timko’s father migrated from Russia and went to work in the steel mills in Mingo Junction, Ohio. Tim, an Ohio State graduate, spoke fluent Russian and flew B-17 shuttle raids over Germany, landing in Russia. On one flight his aircraft was badly shot up and two of his crewmen were killed. This weighed heavily on John, even though he managed to save the aircraft and the rest of his crew.. John was a good friend and bailed me out of many a scrape.
Ray Sullivan was very handsome, gregarious and talented. A master magician, wood craftsman, and innovator. He came through Civilian Pilot Training Program and had a short stint at Eastern. His procedures for starting engines at altitude airports were rituals but hardly by the book. They worked!
The Radio Operators were Bill Crosby and Dan Carter plus several others that rotated into fill the third slot. Crosby was a navy sparks and traveled all over Ecuador. He was one of the few people to climb Illiniza, 17400 feet, not as high as surrounding mountains but had only been climbed a couple of times since 1895’s first successful climb.
Dan Carter, born in New York of French and Egyptian Parents, was fluent in Spanish and French and could handle conversational German. Dan had a sophisticated charm that could get us into any place we wanted to go.
The three captains were all married. The rest of the crew members lived at the Hugo Diller’s Pension, which later grew into the Hotel Colon, now operated by Great Western. Anyone who ever stayed at Diller’s would vouch that it had a continental cuisine that was the finest in South America.
The beauty of being based at Quito was its isolation from Lima operations., the Chief Pilot’s office and Company politics. As long as the flights were flown on schedule and there were no incidents, Lima left us alone. We did our own scheduling by mutual agreement. Periodically we would take our wives on trips.
The departures were all at 8:00 AM except for Loja once a week. Arrivals were back into Quito at 3:50, and no flying on Sunday.
The Loja flight necessitated an overnight in Guayaquil in order to depart Guayaquil at 5:00 a.m. so the flight could get into and out of Loja before the wind started blowing. Loja was only 4300 feet elevation in a bowl of a valley on the western slopes of a low cut through the Andes, which acted like a venturi. Velocities up to 90 miles an hour could occur. The problem also was that the runway had a 3% gradient and only uphill landings and down hill take-offs could be made. The maximum allowable tail wind for take-off was 20 miles per hour. The final approach was made through a notch in the bowl. You had gear and flaps down before the runway was in sight. It was a kick taking a new pilot in there just to watch the expression on his face when you called for “Full flaps” with mountains on the right and left and ahead, the valley makes a turn, and there is the runway right under your nose.
Kemmerling and I went into Loja one morning, landed with no trouble. All of a sudden the wind picked up to 65 knots and stayed there. We sat for four hours waiting for it to die down. Finally it got into the 20 knot range. We taxied out as the tower read off the wind velocities, 30,35,25, 40, 30, 20 – aah “20” the magic number, so off we went. We ran into some of the heaviest clear air turbulence I have ever encountered, like a terrier shaking a rat. I obviously was not very happy. It was eyeball bouncing turbulence and I was fighting to keep some semblance of control. John chimed in, “Hey, Willie, you ought to do this in a single engine Norseman in Alaska”.
“OK, John Boy, you fly it, and give me a rest.”
On arrival at Guayaquil, Louis Saenz, Chief Mechanic and a great one, took the wing root fairing off and wing bolts dropped on the ramp like popcorn. Thank you, Douglas, for putting in 340 of them.
The Loja flight was the only overnight we had in our schedule. Each crew got it, once every third week. Enough passengers experienced this type of turbulence and took the 7 hour bus ride to catch the Panagra flight out of Cuenca to Guayaquil. As a matter of fact, we only had three passengers on the flight I just mentioned. Panagra ended up canceling the service altogether, much to our joy.
The most frequent schedule was Quito – Guayaquil – Cuenca – Guayaquil – Quito. Out of Quito at 8:00 a.m. back at 3::50 p.m. weather permitting. Quito was the Capital and Guayaquil was the main commercial center so many passengers went down in the morning and back in the afternoon. I made one thousand two hundred round trips on this route and became acquainted with many of the commuters. We’d take off, clear the mountains, turn the seat sign off and I would go back to talk to the passengers for about thirty minutes. In those days traffic was not a problem and a DC-3 could have easily been a one man airplane. One copilot was heard to say, “Oh, yeah, DuBois. Gear-up, you got it and you do all the work”. Fortunately they all loved to fly and I enjoyed keeping up with the local politics and football teams.
If you disregard a rule long enough, its rationale may be painfully brought to your attention. Several years later I was flying with Chuck Price, son of an Eastern Shore Maryland Farmer and the youngest of 17 children. Chuck was a very conscientious ex-Air Corps Pilot and a damn good one. We were coming out of Guayaquil, and I went back to make my usual visit. As we approached Guallabamba Pass I decided to go back up to the cockpit. Chuck was flying from the left seat. The door was locked and I had no key. I got the purser’s key and it did not work. The only communication the DC-3 had between the cabin and the cockpit was a bell you could ring in back. And the purser had a button that turned a red light on, on the Captain’s side console to confirm he heard the bell signal for takeoff or landing. I sent Chuck SOS in blinker. He saw it, thought I was kidding. So I just sat down by one of the passengers and buckled up. The passengers thought nothing of it because many times we had check pilots on board. Chuck got into the valley thinking I would come up the last minute, started the approach. I didn’t show, so rather than risk a missed approach at 9,500 feet, he went ahead and landed. I sat there and when he came out of the cockpit. I said” Thanks a lot for the ride”. Had it been a couple of pilots I had flown with, I would have come through the door with a fire ax.
Chuck went on to check out as captain, bid Quito and broke my record of six and a half years there. He is still well remembered in Ecuador.
Bert Bond was dating Nancy, a lovely Foreign Service Officer. Bert the gregarious and confident around men but shy around women. We all fell in love with Nancy and kept kidding, “When are you going to propose to her”. He would get quite annoyed at the ribbing. Any way they got married and moved to Lima.
Bruce Simmons replaced Bert. He was raised in Brooklyn, another Air Corps graduate. The word that fit him best was meticulous. Chuck and Bruce had a house together and Chuck had great stories to tell about Bruce. When furloughed by Panagra, Bruce became a pilot on an executive twin for W. R. Grace.
Getting into Quito valley, generally, was a scenic joy ride but during the rainy season, afternoon cumulus clouds would build on the ridges and build into thunderstorms. We would climb out of Guayaquil on a 360 degree heading, which would keep us parallel and clear of the mountains. The flight would climb to 13,000 feet or until on top or between layers with sufficient visibility to execute a 180 degree turn out. We all had experienced entries between 9,000 and 21,000 feet but the touchy ones were the ones between layers of clouds, in light drizzle, when you really had no visual horizon and were constantly transitioning between visual and instrument flight. When we found that spot between layers, we would turn east toward the mountains, peering through the windshield at ill defined clouds, whites, grays and blacks, looking for a hole, and a glimpse of Quito’s green valley. Every once in a while, there would be a spot of glistening white, and you would turn to back out towards the coast.
One of the great stories involved Cameron Herold. Approaching the south pass at 13,000 feet, all of a sudden, in the drizzle, loomed the jagged edge of the north slope of llliniza, dead ahead. Cameron did a chandelle pulling a couple of G’s. An Ecuadorean lady, who had ignored the seat sign, was sitting on the toilet. She started screaming and pounding on the door. Hernan Corea, the Purser went back, jimmied the door open, and said, “Señora, if you pull up your pants, you can walk out by yourself.”
Years later on a DC-8 flight out of Asuncion, I went back to check the cabin. There were a bunch of Ecuadorian Generals and Hernan Corea, Minister of Defense.
The thing that escalated the partying in Quito the most were the relief pilots. They came to relieve for vacations, illness, vacancies because people failed to bid Quito. It was a joy for them to get away from the more regulated atmosphere of Lima. They were ready to party and we obliged them.” Twist my arm.
Witty, Norman E. Smith, from Norman, Oklahoma, OSU, CPT, and Pan Am Ferries, was a debonair, talented man, with a beautiful tenor voice, who loved to party and dance. He was a gourmet cook and could mix every drink known to man. Norm also chaired the union during a critical time for the pilots and became a DC-8 Captain.
“Junior”, H.B. Denham, a gregarious yankee that some 300 hour Air Corps instructor washed out with the profound statement, ” You’re just not pilot material.” Junior went on to Captain about every type of aircraft Panagra and Braniff had. He was one of the most popular and talented pilots on the line. He eased through the transitions from DC-3’s to the heavy jets with a minimum of time.
Bill Raymond, an Air Corps B-29 Pilot, who did a long enough stint with United and married to Gwen, one of their senior hostesses. Panagra in the late forties started to hire women flight attendants. They had assumed for years that flying at 15,000 feet and serving meals in an unpressurized airplane was too rigorous for young ladies. Gwen was made Chief Hostess and ran the flight attendants school like a Marine DI. She turned out one of the finest cadres of flight attendants in the world.
“Frosty Butt” C.W. Winterbottom used to say,” You can only survive a name like mine if you have sense of humor”. That C-dub (short for C.W.) had, and still has, in spades.
Navy trained, he was in VTB-1, the torpedo squadron of which Ensign Gay was the only survivor. Because Chuck was so capable the Navy transferred him to their test flight program. His transfer was effective the day before VTB-1 shipped out. Over a martini, C-dub would muse, “I wonder, if I had gone, would it have been Gay or me?”. C-dub lightened up a room when he walked in and was a walking anthology of sometimes unrepeatable jokes.
George Poske! Everybody in the Marine Corps knew George. One of the Marine Corps top Aces who was not as proud of the victories he scored in his F4U Corsair as he was of the fact that he never lost a wingman. George was an expert on everything; flower gardening, zoology, history, delivering and raising children, wines, gourmet food, Grand Prix racing, ad infinitum and was almost always right. Never arrogant about his ideas. George was our Station Executive Officer at U.S. Marine Corps Air Station at Edenton, North Carolina and——- I’ll stop right here.
He was the smartest and the most fascinating character I have ever met and his life should be a book by itself. He went from Panagra to Chief Pilot’s Office of Air America in Laos during the Vietnam War. He came back to the air line when it merged with Braniff. George and I went way back.
Eventually Quito base slimmed down to two crews, myself, Tim, Chuck and Bruce and once again became a laid back operation. We lost our radio operator friends when Ecuador became the first sector to go all voice in communications. It was really the beginning of the end of an era. Quito base was the most wonderful six and half years of my life. I loved Ecuador and the Ecuadorian people, particularly the Panagra ground personnel. All capable, loyal and considerate and deserve a book of their own.
The DC-4 replaced some of the DC-3s in 1946. They were mostly aircraft leased from Dodero (an Argentine company). They flew Panama-Guayaquil-Lima-Santiago-Buenos Aires and on the Korean Airlift. They were an improvement over the DC-3 but did not provide the two most needed things, an engine out ceiling that would allow them to clear the highest terrain on instruments nor adequate provision for passenger comfort and safety at high altitudes.
March of 1947 the first DC-6 was delivered. It solved the passenger problem with a pressurized cabin. It partially solved the engine out problem, so now both night and instrument operations were feasible on all the main line runs except Quito. The DC-6, powered by Pratt and Whitney R-2800 engines, had a higher wing loading, higher performance and longer range than any of the aircraft of the past. It was a major transition for many of the older pilots.
Up until now, the basic instrument flying technique had been needle, ball, airspeed. When I went through my Captains training they were still counting turns. Dinty Moore was giving all the Link training and this wonderful aviation pioneer left us with some lessons that served us all well. For instance, he would cover up the compass and make you do 180 and 360 degree turns, both right and left, using the turn and bank and counting one thousand and one, one thousand and two——
Using a two degree per second turn and stopping within five degrees of the new heading holding altitude within 50 feet and airspeed within five knots with the gyro horizon caged. Before you started each turn you were to loudly say, “Toward the mountains” or “Away from the mountains.” At the time I thought this a rather childish and archaic way of instructing but believe me, every turn I made in my flying career later, I asked myself “Away” or “Toward the TV towers”, buildings, mountains, etc.
My belief, that even in this highly automated electronic era, the pilot should have a geographical picture in his mind. Both Eastern’s crash into Illimani, outside of La Paz, and American’s crash outside of Cali would never have had occurred if those pilots had been through Dinty Moore’s Link trainer course.
The military made the transition in the early forties from needle/ball/airspeed, to attitude instrument flying. When I was with SCAT in the Pacific in 1943, the Navy sent instrument flight instructors with SNJs, to retrain all our R4D pilots using the horizon and gyro compass as the primary instruments. Snapping into 60 degree bank turns and snapping out of them exactly on heading using attitude speed change drills. The most important application was in flying heavy turbulence, flying the artificial horizon to maintain a level attitude and holding air speed and altitude within proscribed parameters by power changes. If that was not possible, forget holding your altitude, if there was no terrain problem. For higher performance aircraft and for flying ILS approaches, attitude was a necessity.
Most of the CPT, military, and domestic airlines programs changed at the same time. Many of the older Panagra pilots had not had the advantage of this type of training so it was a difficult transition. They did not want to give up what had served them so well.
Domestic pilots had the same problem but several years earlier. U. S. approach and airport facilities were modernized years before those in Latin America. Many people felt that Juan Trippe dragged his feet and was wed to the romance of the flying boats. I think it was more likely that he knew his superbly trained pilots, radio operators and navigators could handle the lack of facilities in Latin America.
I am glad I had the opportunity to have a “peek” into that early era. If I had turned to United, American, any domestic airline except maybe Northeast Airlines who told me in a job interview, “We’re a needle, ball and airspeed outfit”, I would have missed it all.
Take care, enjoy the day, and join me tomorrow when we continue our series on Panagra.
September 3, 2021