Full circle: from watching Buzz Aldrin to flying him

On a Sunday afternoon, back about 1986, I had the opportunity to fly in the right seat of Captain Al Chaney’s Ford Trimotor while he was visiting Petersburg, Virginia. Al used to claim that this wasn’t just any old Trimotor, but the particular Trimotor in which Charles Lindbergh had given Henry Ford his first, and only, ride in an airplane. He spared no effort retelling this story to prospective passengers and newspaper reporters all over the eastern United States, even claiming to have the logbooks and aircraft records to prove it.

No one ever looked, of course, and I don’t know what Al did if he ever ran into anyone who had read Lindbergh’s autobiography, in which the man himself describes giving Henry Ford that first airplane ride… in the Spirit of St. Louis in August of 1927, about a year before Al’s Trimotor was built.

But Al Chaney cast a wonderful spell over that airplane, offering it up as a sort of relic, a piece of the cross, as it were, reminding passengers of what a privilege it was to sit in the seat that Lindbergh had sat in. Tall tales are a part of every American frontier, part of the fabric of early aviation and as essential to barnstorming as they are to cowboying or railroading. And that was Al’s intended mission: to spread an enchantment with flying as far as he could fly that old Trimotor.

Trimotor
Al Chaney’s Trimotor spread some great aviation tales, even if they weren’t always true.

Like many relics and most tall tales, there is a grain of truth, or at least an authentic proximity, to the legend. Al’s Trimotor did start its working life with Robertson Aircraft in St. Louis, which of course was Lindbergh’s outfit when he planned and executed the Atlantic flight. Lindbergh may not have flown this particular airplane, but the men who did would have known him and probably were mentored by him to one degree or another. Robertson used it to carry passengers along the mail route between St. Louis and Chicago.

That day in Petersburg, we, too, flew a revenue flight; there were 12 paying passengers in the back. Al very graciously handed me the controls shortly after takeoff. At 90 miles an hour, with the cockpit window slid open, we wallowed through afternoon thermals that had lately become untethered from the Virginia countryside below, a bit slower and bit lower than my usual zigzags back and forth across the same countryside, in the middle of the night, while tutoring novice airline pilots in the nuances of turboprop-powered, pressurized flight.

The slow, soft, mushy response from the lumbering old tin can was foreign to me; Lindbergh would have been quite at home with it. The feel of the control pressure through the old Model T steering wheel was exactly as it would have been for him. Still under the influence of Al’s spell, having not yet read Lindbergh’s autobiography, it occurred to me that pushing, pulling, rolling that wheel in response to the meanderings of the Virginia thermals was almost as if I was shaking the man’s hand.

I followed Lindbergh to an airline whose birth he midwifed with a sister Trimotor, an airline known to him as Transcontinental Air Transport, or TAT. By the time I got there it was better known as TWA. Before I could say “Shanwick” three times, I was being tutored to fly across oceans by men who had been tutored by men who had been tutored by… Lindbergh. I caught the tail end of the old school, using triple-mixed inertial navigation systems before they became GPS-updated inertial reference systems, copying the met before we lost VHF coverage coasting out and listening for hourly updates on VOLMET, communing with Berna Radio and Paris Dispatch to get our re-release, plotting accuracy checks, gross error checks and two degree checks, trying to figure out why the fuel didn’t add up, or why the position was off, only to find, always, that it did add up if you just did the math right.

I circled the Pyramids, crisscrossed over Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn, Rhodes and Crete, and regularly dropped into Goose Bay, Gander, St. John’s and Stephenville for fuel. The men I learned from started out on Connies, went across the ocean in a 707 with a LORAN, and knew their dispatchers’ first names. Some of them still remembered how to shoot a sun line.

About 20 years after I flew the Ford for those few minutes, I was involved with midwifing an airline myself, an upstart idea by a young fellow from British Airways. It was an all first class concept aimed at capturing the former Concorde set as well as the grandchildren of the former Zeppelin set, salted with generous numbers of people who regularly handled sums of money that exceeded, by several orders of magnitude, the cost of the ticket… or the airplane, for that matter. Along the way, we collected a loyal following of guests who simply appreciated getting what they paid for, even if they paid a lot. It was a very classy way to cross the ocean.

EOS 757
EOS flew 757s with only 48 seats, and catered to “the former Concorde set.”

The airline was called Eos. We were flying Boeing 757s converted to 48 seats. One evening, when I arrived for my trip, I was advised that we would have a very special passenger that night… Colonel Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon. Partway through our cockpit preflight and setup ritual, the lead flight attendant stepped into the cockpit and said, “Captain, Colonel Aldrin would like to know if he could come up and say hello…”

Surely that was a rhetorical question.

We spent about ten or 15 minutes with Colonel Aldrin sitting on the jumpseat, chatting as we finished our preflight and check of the route. We talked about the airline, the airline industry, and of course, about going to Mars. We actually did talk about Mars; the Colonel was, and still is, quite passionate about it. We were parked at gate K3 of Terminal 4 at John F. Kennedy International Airport. About 200 yards away was TWA’s old Terminal 5, from where I had flown my first flights as a TWA flight engineer. And from where, as an eight year old boy in 1964, my parents and I had flown to California for Christmas. So here I was, 42 years later and a few yards away, sitting in the left seat of a 757 about to fly to London, talking about how to go to Mars with the second man to walk on the moon.

Tim Nolley was the first officer that night, and he would fly the leg over to London. As it happened, we were flying the Merit departure. After lifting off from Idlewild, er, Kennedy, we flew up over Hartford and out over the Putnam VOR. Tim had us settled nicely into cruise at 33,000 feet by then, and we flew out a bit to the north of Lindbergh’s initial route nestled between the biggest eastern night sky you could ever want and the shimmering lights up ahead of Worcester, Framingham, Providence and, beyond, Beantown. I needed a few moments then to think about this. I slid my seat up as far as it would go, and pushed my face up to the forward windshield. The field of view from that spot in the 757 cockpit is spectacular; it has a 22 degree cockpit cutoff angle and you can see ahead and down at a very steep angle.

I needed a few moments to look down, because it was warm, peaceful summer night, and I knew my dad was down there. He would be sitting outside, in front of his bungalow attached to his machine shop, surrounded by tall trees, smoking his pipe, looking up at all of the blinking beacons passing silently overhead… including mine. For several minutes, as we approached the Putnam fix, I sat like that, the banter of Boston Center in one ear, and the wide open vista before me, taking in all of the lights in a little area clustered to the northeast of the VOR, knowing that he was down there.

Trailer in snow
Not exactly spacious, but this was home while the bungalow and shop were built.

We built that bungalow and shop in the summers of 1968 and 1969, ceremonially lighting off the oil furnace for the first time at midnight on January 1st, 1970. We had established temporary lodgings in an old Franklin house trailer about one hundred yards from the building site. It was eight feet wide and 36 feet long. It had no heat and no running water. We used a kerosene space heater in the winter, supplanted by a big old electric heater in the middle room, where the drafting board was and where we had dozens of long father-to-son conversations on winter nights. We got fresh water from a hand pump at a nearby state park; the telephone was in an adjacent mule shed, sans mules, of course, and everyone knew you had to let our phone ring at least 20 times, maybe 30 in the winter. The other side of the mule shed doubled as an outhouse.

On a hot, mosquito-laden summer night in July of 1969, we had taken the liberty of renting a black-and-white television, which we perched on a small table in the larger front room of the trailer. We dined on our usual Swanson TV dinners warmed up in the toaster oven, and spent some time fiddling with the rabbit ears to get a good signal before we settled down to listen to Walter Cronkite, Wally Schirra and the crowd down at the Cape. It was going to be quite a night.

I don’t remember any of what dad and I said to each other. I do clearly remember the sounds… the periodic beeps and the very distant voices of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the more proximate sound of Bruce McCandless, the capcom.

“Takes a pretty good little jump…” Armstrong said about getting back up to the first rung of the ladder.

There were long gaps in transmissions, punctuated by those beeps.

“I’m at the foot of the ladder. The LM footpads are only depressed in the surface about 1 or 2 inches, although the surface appears to be very, very fine grained, as you get close to it. It’s almost like a powder. (The) ground mass is very fine.”

I distinctly remember his saying that, because I could not believe that he would be describing such detail in the seconds before he became the first man to set foot on the moon. It certainly never would have occurred to me. I believe it may have been at that point in my young life that I became aware of the discipline that people in Neil Armstrong’s line of work actually employed.

“Okay. I’m going to step off the LM now…”

Aldrin on moon
Buzz Aldrin called it “magnificent desolation.”

Neil Armstrong was still upside down on our TV screen when he uttered his next words, which no one alive that night will ever, ever forget hearing, his voice distant, after a long pause, with a bit of crackle from the static…

“That’s one small step for (a) man; one giant leap for mankind.”

Well, then. He had done it. He had really done it. He was on the moon. With the upside down image, it was a bit anti-climactic, but we knew what had just happened. It just took a few seconds for us to let it sink in. Then Cronkite started talking about a 38-year old American, standing on the moon, and history started moving again.

I have always been sure I heard Armstrong say “man”, not “a man”, but the actual reception was murky, mostly because of the signal quality between the local broadcast station and our rabbit ears. He was upside down, of course, because the signal feed from the Goldstone tracking station had not been corrected for the inverted position of the camera on the LEM. Dad and I were familiar enough with the workings of televisions and cameras to know what was going on, and that it could be corrected; we ruminated about whether they would realize there was a problem before Armstrong stepped off the ladder. They didn’t; so he gingerly stepped to the top of our TV screen.

Dad was an aeronautical engineer, beginning his career in the early 1950s with North American Aviation. He was there for the B-45, George Welch and Bob Hoover flying the F-100, the F-107, early drawings for the B-70, the T-28 and the A3J. He was there during the true golden age of postwar aerospace. I remember his trying to explain the difference between the Mercury-Gemini-Apollo programs and the Dyna-soar project. I remember him showing me early pictures of the conceptual crew cabin in the Apollo command module, which would be built by North American.

We swatted at a couple of mosquitos, sitting in our trousers and t-shirts in that hot night air, watching a fuzzy picture on a tube TV, now right side up, hoping the vertical hold would stay put, watching everything from the past ten years come to fruition, from Jack Kennedy’s aim to put a man on the moon, through Alan Shepard and John Glenn, Ed White refusing to get back in the Gemini capsule during the first spacewalk, the Apollo One fire that took the lives of White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee, the Christmas reading of Genesis by Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders… everything everyone had worked for… watching everything just pay off in an instant with one small step. For dad, this was the ultimate achievement of his profession, proof positive that there was nothing that an engineer proficient with a slipstick, drafting machine and a Bridgeport could not do. In those days, we could do anything.

Dad was working for Pratt & Whitney at the time of the lunar landing, and they shipped him, and me, down to Florida for three years beginning in 1970 to begin work on the F-100 engine that would power the F-15 and, later, the F-16. On January 30, 1971, at age 14, I took my first flying lesson in a 1967 Cessna 150, N5111G, flying from the ramp at Palm Beach Aviation, on the south side of the Palm Beach International Airport.

Apollo 17 liftoff
Watching a Saturn V rocket lift off was a memorable experience.

The following day, January 31, me, my high school friend and fellow student pilot, and our dads, drove up to the Cape to watch the liftoff of Apollo 14. I’ll never forget the sound of the Saturn V, literally felt in your ribcage even at that distance, and the intensity with which a cumulus cloud lit up, in bright Florida sunshine, when the vehicle climbed through it after liftoff. By the time of Apollo 17, Dad and I had our own airplane, a 1958 Cessna 182, which we loaded up with attractive women and flew up to orbit around south of the Cape and watch the night launch. Of course, it was delayed for hours; we elected to forego running out of fuel, and returned to land at Palm Beach. Fifteen minutes later, while we were still on the Butler ramp tying down the airplane, we watched the last moonshot arc upward through the eastern night sky, out across the Atlantic.

It was the same eastern night sky that I had been staring off into for several minutes after we had passed Putnam. I finally slid my seat back. And in our sleek, heart-stoppingly beautiful big jet, the man whom I watched climb down that ladder, on that old black and white TV, moments after Neil Armstrong… he sat comfortably a few feet behind me, being waited on by the most meticulously attentive flight attendants the world has ever known, more than half of whom had not yet been born when Apollo 11 flew. Tim and I sublimely tracked a course out over the North Atlantic, following Lindbergh.

When we reached London Stansted, Tim flew a routine, well-planned visual approach to runway 5, culminating in a landing that was not quite as imperceptible as he would have liked for Colonel Aldrin. A slight but noticeable “clump” of the main trucks, and the brief shudder of the fuselage, was followed by an expletive of less than five letters, and then he gently lowered the nose as his hand pulled both engines into reverse thrust. We slowed, and I took control of the airplane, turning right off the runway for the parallel taxiway. “Relax, Tim…” I said, “As I recall, Armstrong didn’t exactly grease it on, either…”

“Yeah,” he said wistfully, “That’s probably not the first one of those he’s ever seen…”

“No, I don’t think so,” I chuckled.

The Colonel had deplaned for Customs before we left the cockpit; with only 48 people on board, deplaning was pretty quick. We gathered our bags and turned the ship over to the maintenance guys. Exiting Customs, it was a short walk to the Stansted Radisson Hotel. After a couple of hours sleep, waiting for the eastern time zone to catch up, I called dad.

“Hey, were you sitting outside last night about nine?”

“Yeah, I was.”

“We came right over the house about then,” I said.

“I was wonderin’ if one of those was you,” he said, knowing I was scheduled to fly that night.

“Yeah, one of them was us. Dad… you’re not going to believe who I had on board…”

4 Comments

  • What a great story! I am two years older than you Steve, but remembered most of the moon walk and where I was watching from, the static, the beeps, you sure brought it back to life for me. Thanks for that! What a story to have Buzz in the seat behind you! We lived right next to Martian Airport in MiddleRiver MD. What a time watching the planes. Later I would land there to see the folks and take them for a ride in the Tri-Pacer. Thanks again for the memories.

  • Wonderful telling of those recollections, thanks. I also remember so well that summer evening when Armstrong and Aldrin stepped out. One of the most amazing things I have ever seen.

  • Great story and very nicely written. At about the same time I was getting my private license out of North Perry airport in Hollywood, FL. I remember well the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions as my Dad would bring home all sorts of information from Pan Am when they had the maintenance contract at the Cape.

  • I was 14 when they landed on the moon. My family and I sat in front of a small black and white tv and watched Neil and Buzz touch down. And later, about three in the morning, they decided to go out and make even more history. Neil did say, …”a man…”, but just when he was saying (a) there was static, but I heard him say it. The static was from the moon to earth, not from the local tv to your set. Everyone heard the static that is why they eliminated it not only from the recording but from the history books, as well — a big pet peeve of mine, because it does not make sense without the (a), and I know how meticulous Neil Armstrong was in choosing his words.

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