Double sunsets: falling in love with aviation and Alaska

I discovered Air Facts a couple of months ago and have been delighted to find some great reading about my favorite subject. Richard Collins recounting his double sunset experience westbound via the Concorde caused me to think about double sunsets and my personal experience.

PBY Catalina
The PBY was pretty good at inspiring young people to pursue aviation.

My interest in aviation was born of living on Lake Washington near Seattle in the mid-1940s and seeing PBYs shoot landings in front of the house. I remember as a very little kid being fascinated watching the plane and its reflection in the water slowly come together and then disappear in spray.

Probably like most who read this, I built and flew model planes of my own design, but unlike some I was fortunate enough to meet a neighbor who rebuilt wrecked planes in his backyard, garage, basement, rec room and spare bedroom. I was told if it wouldn’t haul ice, it was a toy plane. His poor wife – I know the aluminum shavings tracked in the deep pile carpeting were a source of conflict. Airframes were repaired at the house, and the finished parts were hauled out to the old Issaquah airport where he leased a hangar. We had to chase cows off the runway to fly.

From the time I was fourteen years old, I spent every spare moment at his place stripping paint, sanding tubing, drilling holes, bucking rivets, doping, wet sanding and rib stitching wings, whatever might require high interest and two more hands. We installed a complete box section, the fore and aft bulkheads, and the forward doorposts, the assembly that connects the right forward wing spar attach point to the left forward wing attach point in a Cessna 195. We repaired the box section in a rag wing 170, rebuilt and recovered the wings and replaced the tail wheel attach bracket on a ground looped 140. We installed wide spray rails, a flush fuel filler and stripped and painted a Seabee. I’ll bet the flush fuel filler made that Seabee a lot faster, what do you think? I remember the 195 part, the box section and door posts all in one piece, came new from Cessna and cost somewhere around $450, an outrageous amount.

It may be because of my airplane distractions that I was only just able to graduate from high school. Because of a bit of a rocky home environment, I found myself with a need to get out of town. Two days after said graduation I got off a plane in San Antonio, Texas, about to begin an Air Force career. I’ll never forget that first breath of Gulf air and wondering, “what have I done?”

The Air Force determined I was a good candidate for B-47 crew chief school at Amarillo. It may have been because I did much better there than I had in high school that I got what I have come to appreciate as a plum assignment to the 303rd Bomb Wing at Davis-Monthan AFB, Tucson, Arizona. In the early to mid-1960s, DM maintained a B-47 alert force and a reflex action force at Elmendorf AFB outside of Anchorage, Alaska. Partly because of being a low ranked unmarried troop, I got TDY orders to Elmendorf in the fall of ’62.

I loved being at Elmendorf and being in Alaska. It was supposed to be a 90-day tour; I volunteered to stay much longer. My memory causes me to believe there were about a dozen B-47s cocked on alert. Four days a week, three B-47s arrived from Tucson, two of which were turn arounds rotating flight crews, the third cocked to replace an alert bird being rotated home. Airplanes tend to break just sitting and 21 days was a long time for a B-47 to sit unexercised. Sometimes I would be an alert crew chief; other times I would recover and launch the turnarounds.

B-47
The B-47 was the mainstay of early Cold War defenses.

The mission was to be able to launch the alert force within 15 minutes any time, day or night. Even though it was no longer Curtis LeMay’s SAC, his spirit was still there, and by God we could do it. I don’t know how the cockpits were set up, but the drill was when the AC hit the first step of the entry ladder, electric power from the ground power cart was applied. The flaps started rolling down, the anti-collision, position and wing illumination lights came on, radios came on and number three engine started turning. By the time the AC was in his seat, it was time for fuel flow and ignition. It was a rock and roll operation for sure.

SAC was a tenant organization at Elmendorf. The Alaska Air Command was flying F-102s and T-Birds. Base flight ran C-123Bs flying supplies to radar sites all over the state. After I had been at Elmendorf a couple of weeks, I discovered an A&E school not far from the barracks. The A&E school was ostensibly tasked with providing GIs the opportunity to learn the skills one needs to be a licensed airframe and engine mechanic. In reality it was more of a hobby shop where permanent party personnel could do annual inspections, overhaul engines and recover Pipers and Stinsons under the supervision of an IA, the instructor.

The A&E school became my home away from home. I met a C-123 AC who was overhauling a 0-290-D2 and recovering his Pacer. He had been an F-86 troop and lost a canopy at altitude. I remember him saying how great it was to fly a C-123s off a 10,000 foot runway. I had helped overhaul an engine and knew how to rib stich. I met a Duce pilot who was recovering a Fairchild 24R, and I was able to provide value sanding tubing and building wing ribs. The person who was the commander of the SAC group owned a Stinson 108-2 that needed work, and I was able to lend a hand.

At that time ceconite was just coming into use replacing grade A cotton. It was thought to be great on a stout airframe, like say a Stinson, but not such a good idea on something like a Fairchild 24 that should be opened up and looked at more often. I remember hearing stories of “interesting” flights to Galena, Northeast Cape, Unalakleet, Sparrevohn, King Salmon, Tin City, Kotzebue, Utopia Creek and others. Was that big Diomede or little Diomede? The Duce pilot told of forcing the Russians to scramble in crummy weather.

I was so lucky: these were wonderfully generous men. The first hours recorded in my logbooks are a result of them taking the time to give me dual in a PA-11 on floats out of Sixmile Lake. Home cooked meals were so appreciated. When I told that my aunt would be in Anchorage to attend a business meeting, it was arranged to fly us down to Ninilchick for salmon fishing.

Denali from airplane
Denali from the C-123.

So what does all this have to do with double sunsets? I was invited to fly C-123 hops on my days off. I remember being told that one could pickle the engines and fuel tanks on the 123. It was after all, a glider to start with. I remember getting pretty dizzy climbing down from the jump seat to use the relief tube at better than 12,000 ft. over the Brooks Range. I remember being amazed at seeing the Alaskan wilderness from the air.

But most of all I remember a flight to Barrow. The takeoff time was fairly early on a bright sunny Anchorage morning. I do remember that there was not much cargo tied down; there may have been a fair amount of beer on board. Denali was resplendent in the low Alaskan sunlight as we flew past. When we got farther north the sun set.

The approach to Barrow was under low VFR conditions. At that time, either side of the runway was flanked with rows and rows of what I presumed to be empty 55 gallon drums. We parked next to a building bearing the name Arctic Research and unloaded. It was snowing lightly and a dark gray twilight.

On the way back the sun rose and then set again just before we landed. When we got into Base Ops there was a copy of the Anchorage newspaper on a counter with a headline announcing President Kennedy had been shot. Nothing had been said when we were in the air.

Double sunsets.

3 Comments

  • A refreshing recollection of my home state. Mr. Carkeep misspelled a couple of our
    DEW sites (it’s Galena and Sparrevohn, at Cairn Mountain) and missed those at Takotna, Cape Newenham, Fire Island, King Salmon, and Cape Lizburne). Little Diomede is ours, while Big Diomede is Russian, only 12 miles apart, with the International Dateline separating them.

    An interesting return to Alaska for me, and I both appreciated and enjoyed the article.

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