It all started when I read a Peter Garrison column in Flying. Rather than his usually more esoteric technical topic, he had written a nostalgic article about “Young Walter” (May 2009) which rang a few bells for me, too.
His daughter-in-law had come across a scrapbook that one Walter Kilbowicz had lovingly collected about the earlier days of aviation, as Garrison put it, “… when aviation was still the stuff of a young man’s dreams.” There were pictures and stories of Jimmy Doolittle, the Gee Bee racer, Roscoe Turner, other aviation celebrities, various disasters, and events.
One newspaper clipping Walter had saved about “Harold Neff, airmail pilot, was found with a broken leg and arm beside the wreckage of his plane in a swamp near Jackson, Mich.”… tickled my memory and then startled me. Some years ago, I had known an airline pilot named Harold Neff! He was already fabled at that time, and perhaps this bit of information on his earlier life would fill in some gaps about a man I’d admired.
Back in the 1960s, I worked for the largest land sales company in the world. It was called GAC (an amalgam of Gulf-American Corporation and the General Acceptance Company) and it had developed a string of properties in Florida. To solidify (and often upgrade) the sales made in a scheme involving a free dinner followed by a promotional pitch, they would fly their customers from the North down to visit their subdivisions. They had bought their own charter airline to service this bit of marketing, called Modern Air.
When Modern Air wasn’t flying people down to see Cape Coral or River Ranch for “three glorious days and two fabulous nights” it flew holiday resort tours from Miami, charters in and out of Berlin, and military passengers all over the globe in its fleet of ex-American Airlines Convair CV-990As, the largest passenger jets in the air before the 747. And… their chief pilot was Harold Neff.
As a result of deadheading back from delivering soldiers to some of the more exotic locales, I understood that Neff accumulated a stack of arcane speed records, typically for routes like Manila to Anchorage, or Rome to Tampa.
After their three glorious days in Florida, the customers would emplane at the Fort Myers airport, which was adjacent to Cape Coral, for the trip home. The airplane was always completely filled. Every seat was taken, and we, the company staff, sat together on the banquette seat stretched across the fuselage at the rear of the cabin. Almost every passenger had purchased a souvenir bag of citrus fruit to take back to the frozen cold of Cleveland, Ohio, or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and tucked it under his or her seat.
The engines were started, the aircraft taxied out and the tail of the airplane swung over the fence. Fort Myers had had its runway extended just long enough to accommodate the Convairs, but we were obviously at gross, and Chief Pilot Harold Neff was going to use every inch available. The engines spooled up to full power with the brakes held, the airframe rumbled and shook, and then the brakes were released. He was doing a short field take-off! We rolled and rolled and rolled, and then, seemingly at the last possible moment, he rotated.
I can still see the hundreds of oranges and grapefruit and tangelos and limes and lemons and tangerines rolling down the aisles toward us in the back, and all the arms flailing from the seats to grab them, unsuccessfully. I often wonder how much the center of gravity had moved to the rear of the plane at that moment.
Harold Neff also flew Lyndon Johnson, and even landed one of the Convairs at Williams Field at McMurdo Sound in Antarctica, on a trans-polar circumnavigation commemorating Admiral Byrd’s 40th South Pole anniversary flight. The 1997 FAA Pilot Registry still had him qualified on 14 different multi-engined transports, including Airbuses, the Boeing 747, and the B-25!
But eventually Modern Air went out of business, and as I recall, one of the lovely Convair 990s was just abandoned at O’Hare airport, where it sat on the grass between runways for years.
If Peter Garrison had not read Walter’s scrapbook and written an article in Flying, then my mental scrapbook, with Harold Neff’s exploits, would probably have stayed closed, too.
However… and here is the “rest of the story”… when I started to research this tale I tracked down that original newspaper clipping about Harold Neff, the airmail pilot, in the Schenectady Gazette of September 23, 1933. The full article stated that Harold Neff, airmail pilot, had crashed in Michigan and stayed with his mail for 63 hours. And… after having been rescued, he had died from his injuries and exposure in the hospital.
Aha! There were two Harold Neffs, one a pioneering airmail pilot, and the other a pioneering airline pilot!
I communicated this to Pat Luebke at Air Facts, who commented that she could see how I got confused, as Harold Neff isn’t exactly a common name. Au contraire, I replied, as in my research, I had also found a third Harold Neff, this one a former Air Force Colonel, and a fourth Harold Neff, a general aviation pilot.
Apparently, Harold Neff is a very popular name for pilots, and I know of at least four.