Fire horse

DC-7
The beautiful DC-7B in full Eastern livery.

Did you ever hear about the horses that were used to pull the fire engines in the 19th and early 20th centuries? The horses were big, strong, and fast.  They had to be to pull the fire engine with a tank full of water and a boiler to make pressure to push the water out of the hoses.  The horses apparently loved their work for when the fire bell rang they got all excited in their stalls and would whinny and prance around.

As soon as their stall doors were opened, they would immediately go to the fire engine and stand in their proper place so that they could be harnessed. When all was ready, the large doors of the fire house were opened and the horses would lunge ahead pulling with all their might.  The fire engine, with the firemen hanging on for dear life, would bolt onto the street pulled by six magnificent horses in a fury to get to the fire.  People on the street knew to get out of the way when the fire bell rang because to be in front of the fire house was to risk death by being run over by the charging horses.

As the years passed in a fire horse’s life, he gradually lost strength and eventually had to be replaced by a younger, stronger horse.  The old fire horses were sometimes retired to a farm at the edge of the city where they were used for light work. On the rare occasion when there was a fire near the farm and a fire engine from town came charging out into the country side with bell ringing, smoke pouring out of the boiler stack, hooves pounding the road, the retired horses would go nuts.  They would gallop the length of the pasture snorting and leaping for joy.  They so wanted to go to the fire and be important again.  Sometimes one would crash through the pasture gate and run off down the road to follow his past life.

Now, dear reader, please fast forward to the year 2010.  We are at the largest air show in the world, thousands of airplanes are there.  A group of aviation history enthusiasts have spent large sums of money and time to rebuild a piston-engine, propeller-driven airliner from the late 1950s.  It is a Douglas DC-7B.  It was purchased new in 1958 by Eastern Airlines. The DC-7 was the fastest piston engine airliner ever put into service.  Each of its engines could produce 3,500 horsepower.  It was capable of speeds in excess of 400 miles per hour.  The group of current owners had restored the DC-7 to its original configuration and paint scheme when it was the pride of the Eastern Airlines fleet.

Paul Richardson
The author, next to his new Husky–Fire Horse.

It is Thursday morning the week of Oshkosh; we are walking near the runway in the Warbirds display area.  We hear the rumble of something large coming our way from the far end of the runway. It was the DC-7 just lifting off with the sun shining on its new paint and polished aluminum skin.  The pilot raised the landing gear as soon as the airplane was airborne but kept the aircraft level at twenty feet above the runway.  When it got to where we were, it was going like a bat out of hell with the engines and propellers making a roar that vibrated inside my ribs and soul.

Why my soul?  Because in 1963, I was hired as a pilot by Eastern Airlines and for the first year and a half I was a co-pilot on the DC-7s.  I had earned my private pilot license before I graduated from high school and after my first flight all I ever wanted to do was to fly airplanes.  To be hired to be a co-pilot on the DC-7 was so thrilling that I never got over it.  My logbook contains many entries of me flying that very DC-7, (ship # 836D).

If ever there was a fire horse that crashed through the pasture gate it was me when the DC-7 roared past me that Thursday morning. Though I hadn’t flown an airplane since my retirement 18 years before, I knew I had to fly again.  Before we left Oshkosh that day, I placed an order for an Aviat Husky.  I feel young again and excited to be starting another life adventure.

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9 Comments

  • These really were great aircraft. The sound of the engines was wonderful. I was a passenger in them a number of times.

    Who can forget “The Wings of Man”!

  • Yes me too I keep a wonderful memory of these wonderful flying machines or every moment was enjoyable. Now I simply just look at photo.

  • Wow. As a career firefighter and private pilot I’ve got to say this article really got my blood flowing. It took the two things I’ve been so passionate about in my life and reminded me how lucky I am to have experienced both. I love fighting fire, but man I wish I had more ratings and got to fly more!! Thanks for the motivation and congrats on the adventures you will have in your new Husky!!

  • Just gotta add a comment.

    I spent thirteen years flying the DC-7. Half as copilot the other half as captain. Still my favorite piston airliner. All of those stories concerning the high failure rate of the engines is as phony as the idea that it needs a flight engineer. The engines were fine as long as they were operated lean of peak in the manner required by Curtiss Wright.

    The airplane was designed to be flown by a two man crew and the reason a Flight Engineer was added was because the unions pushed for it. I flew them often as two man airplanes. We were legal to do so for Ferry Test and Trainng flights. An engineer was required only for revenue flights. As a junior captain, I flew a LOT of ferry, test, and a few trainig flights with a two pilot crew.

    Wonderful flying machine!

    Happy Skies,

    Old Bob

  • Trained with Doug Mitchell, pilot for Eastern Airlines, who lost his life in a DC7 flying a charter from NYC in 1963 or 1964.

  • There is no better sound in aviation than a big radial belching to life. Smoke, sometimes fire, lots of whining and finally a roar.

    My first flight was in a TWA Connie from CVG to LOU at the age of 12. I also flew one of the last flights of a TWA Connie from DCA to DAY. Lots of Champagne and fun on that trip.

    Many fond memories as a Pax on Piston airplane at night with the glow of the exhaust against the dark sky.

    Cheers

  • I flew the DC-7 for EAL from Dec.62 thru Mar.63 after the engineers strike. Not sure if I flew this particular DC-7 or not. Almost all of these trips were MIA-MSP. Lots of cold weather starts. Like the DC-4 it was a great landing airplane.

  • That refurbished DC7 was sitting at the St. Paul downtown airport for many years. I took walks around the airport daily over lunch and wondered about its history but never thought it would ever fly again. It really looks amazing now.

  • Never flew or worked on the DC-7. However, I did a few months stint in charge of engine build-up for C-54s (DC-4). Spent 6 1/2 years with Boeing Stratocruiser (KC-97). These were 3500 Horsepower, 28 Cylinder, R-4360s. Man, holding all 4 at 2000 RPM during prop checks and Turbosupercharger checks was something. You pulled 45″ manifold pressure to get ADI and then went to 60″ and 247 Foot Pounds of torque on the take off @2700 RPM.

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