Six Degrees of Separation: A Young Pilot Meets a DC-3

In the early 1970s, I was working as a CFI at Belair Aviation, a flight school tucked into the southeast corner of Long Beach Airport in Southern California.

Around the periphery of the airport were several well-established, upper-crust flight training establishments. Belair was not one of them. Our eclectic fleet of trainers and rentals included three Cherokee 140s (one of which was by default the instrument trainer, because unlike the others its lone NAV/COM had 360 comm channels and a glideslope), a couple of early American Yankees, a doggy old Piper Apache, a Lake Amphibian, a Navion Rangemaster, and the boss’s own J35 Bonanza. A Link GAT-1 simulator pirouetted instrument students about in the non-air-conditioned WWII-era Quonset hut out on the ramp. We were also the first dealer and school for the star-crossed McCulloch J-2 Gyroplane, which is a story for another time. It wasn’t fancy and we didn’t make a lot of money, but I like to think we did a good job for our students.

Long Beach Airport
There was always something going on at Long Beach Airport in the early 1970s.

Into Belair’s office one sunny morning in late June, 45 years ago, walked Ron Whitelaw. Ron was then Chief Instructor at FlightSafety International, which was indeed one of the prestigious flight schools at Long Beach. Ron came to our humble operation to chat with a friend of his, Bob Wagner, one of my fellow instructors at Belair.

From a few feet away I overheard their conversation. Ron said he was to ferry a DC-3 from Long Beach to Medford, Oregon, but he had a problem. He needed a co-pilot to be legal. And he was leaving in an hour. “You won’t get paid,” he told Bob, “but you’ll get some DC-3 time and all it’ll cost you is airline fare back to Long Beach. Can you get away?” It was an attractive offer. FlightSafety offered DC-3 training at LGB in those days, and Ron Whitelaw was in charge of that program. Any of us would have jumped at the chance to get typed in FlightSafety’s DC-3, but the cost – well over a hundred dollars an hour, a king’s ransom in 1972 money – was something young flight instructors without GI Bill benefits couldn’t afford.

Bob looked at his daily schedule sheet – it was full, and he couldn’t cancel all those students. “Sorry, can’t do it,” he told Ron.

Ron looked around, surveying the dusty single-wide trailer that was our flight school office, as he formulated a Plan B. “Is there anyone else who can go?”

It was one of those classic Maynard G. Krebs moments. “You rang … ?”

Soon I found myself on the ramp with Ron, walking around the DC-3. Having never before flown anything larger than an Aztec, I was overwhelmed with the airplane. It was daunting, yet familiar, like one’s first approach to an ancient Roman edifice theretofore known only from picture books. The great expanse of battleship-gray wing (seen from below even though I was standing upright), with its orderly patterns of closely-spaced, heavy-duty rivets, bespoke construction techniques inspired by railroad bridges and ocean liners. Even the fabric-covered control surfaces were massive and substantial. The DC-3 was regal in form and formidable in character, and I approached it with awe bordering on reverence.

DC-3 cockpit
No glass panels here, but the DC-3 cockpit has plenty to keep a pilot busy.

Ron told me the airplane had once been a Goodyear Tire & Rubber corporate transport, and Embry-Riddle had operated it as a trainer for a while. The day’s mission was to deliver the airplane to a new owner in Medford, Oregon, where it would be used for smoke jumping. The clean but dated 13-seat corporate interior was destined to be ripped out for its new role. But on this day, the DC-3 had the appearance of a no-nonsense business tool from another era that though well-used, had been valued and well-cared-for. Its generic white-and-gray exterior, which could have passed for a U.S. Navy paint scheme, showed no major flaws. It bore no exterior logos or markings other than the registration N1213M on the rear flanks.

In the cockpit, Ron introduced me to the tools of the trade for a DC-3 First Officer – the fuel selectors, the multiple hydraulic levers on the floor that operate the landing gear, and the precisely-choreographed sequence in which they must be moved; the ridged twist-knobs on the right-hand sidewall that control the cowl flaps; power settings (I still have Ron’s business card with the numbers scribbled on the back), radios, and so on.

The engines roared to life without objection from either side, and it was my honor to inform Long Beach Ground that Douglas One Two One Three Mike would be pleased to taxi for departure. We took off from runway 25L at Long Beach, flew through the old VFR corridor above LAX (the Los Angeles Terminal Control Area had been implemented just a few months earlier), then climbed to 8,500 ft. for the northbound route along V23 to MFR.

We cruised over the hot, dry Central Valley of California, country music from the ADF blaring over the cabin speaker. Ron graciously let me hand-fly nearly the whole trip until final approach at Medford.

Near Merced, Ron got up out of the left seat to go to the lav in the tail of the aircraft. As he wriggled through the narrow passage between our seats, he tapped my shoulder and said, “If you lose an engine it takes a lot of rudder.” And he was gone.

Alone in the cockpit of a DC-3 in flight, I made conscious effort to savor the moment as vividly as possible, and to etch a permanent memory of the sights, sounds and smells of this scene. Ernie Gann’s books suddenly changed from mere words on paper to full sensory overload. So this is what it was like to fly the line in those days, I thought.

C-47 with soldiers
The C-47 could carry 27 troops in decidedly cozy quarters.

I wondered where this particular airplane had been and what it had done. In recent years, of course, the internet knows all and tells all. If I had now a direct line to my 1972 self in that airplane, I would relay that Douglas DC-3C-S1C3G, manufacturer’s serial number 4209, was built at the very same Long Beach Airport whence our own flight originated. It was delivered to the U.S. Army Air Forces on February 11, 1942, as C-47-DL s/n 41-7730. Of the more than ten thousand C-47s and later variants built, 41-7730 was only the ninth. It was also the ninth airframe produced by Douglas at its new Long Beach plant opened in October 1941.

These early C-47s were designed to be operated by a crew of four: pilot, co-pilot, navigator and radio operator, with accommodation for up to 27 troops along the bare cabin sidewalls.

Military records reveal that 41-7730 was sent to the Africa-Middle East theater in May 1943, and mustered out of the service the day after Christmas 1946. It went to the civilian registry as NC1213M, later N1213M. One source, unconfirmed, suggests it first went to Pan American Airways in Africa.

But within just a few years after the war, the airplane was in service for the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. Goodyear’s recently-patented castering “cross-wind” landing gear, which found wide use in several types of light single-engine tailwheel airplanes, was also approved by the CAA for DC-3 aircraft, and N1213M was duly so equipped. The main gear axles were modified to swivel up to fifteen degrees to either side, allowing the airplane to land while crabbed into the wind. For years N1213M flew throughout the country with the company’s blue-and-yellow ensign on the nose, and “Equipped with GOODYEAR Cross-Wind Wheels” boldly painted on both sides above the passenger windows. But the cross-wind gear was eventually removed, and this Gooney Bird was no longer pigeon-toed.

Goodyear ad
For a while, Goodyear promoted its crosswind gear for the DC-3.

Droning along over California, the veteran DC-3 was most tolerant of this newcomer at the controls. The ocean-liner comparison again came to mind, for the airplane was loath to be distracted from the business of moving straight ahead in the direction it was pointed, however modest that rate of forward progress may have been.

The flight deck was of just sufficient size, and no more, for the task at hand. The rectangular, starkly vertical windshield seemed curiously small and close to my face, as if I could momentarily create simulated IMC by merely exhaling. With the windshield and instrument panel so close, I surmised that the rudder pedals, and my feet upon them, must be mere inches from the very front of the blunt, round nose. I resolved not to strike anything ahead of the airplane.

Ron returned, and though I continued to be the “pilot flying,” my seniority number in the cockpit, short-lived at “one,” returned to “infinity.”

When it was my turn in the lav a while later, the captain determined that it would be a good time to verify that the rudder still had full travel in both directions. It did.

As the afternoon progressed, we continued into northern California. I had never flown north of Sacramento before, and the rugged scenery of Mt. Shasta and the Siskiyous added to the emotional impact of the trip.

Ron greased the landing on runway 32 at Medford, four hours after we left Long Beach. I learned the procedures for securing the airplane. External gust locks had to be installed in the control surfaces. The unbalanced elevators are very heavy, and care must be taken not to let go of them until the gust lock is in place to hold the surfaces level. The force of the elevators falling of their own weight would send the yokes right through the instrument panel, Ron said.

The flight on a Western Airlines 737-200 back to Long Beach, and the second half of the twentieth century, was an anti-climax. Later Ron endorsed my logbook with 4.0 hours “Douglas DC-3 – First Officer checkout.”

So far the internet has disclosed only sketchy information about N1213M’s history after June 1972. There is a photograph of it online, supposedly taken at Oakland a year or two later, in the livery of something called “Jefferson State Airlines.” Later the airplane was in the hands of a succession of shoestring cargo haulers in Texas. Finally, the FAA database shows the registration was cancelled in 2003, “reason: destroyed.”

DC-3 on ramp
DC-3s are remarkably large airplanes when viewed from the ramp.

The flight in N1213M was my first, and still only, opportunity to fly a transport-category airplane. It is still a valued memory, one that resurfaced in surprising fashion decades later.

On another fine June day, this one in 2014, I was flying my Cessna 172 from San Diego back to Washington State, where I was living at the time. Following more or less the same route toward Medford, I reflected on the DC-3 trip so long ago. The landmarks and vistas, which were now so familiar from dozens of trips through that area over the years, I beheld for the very first time through the cockpit windows of that DC-3.

Passing Medford, my reverie was broken by chatter on the Cascade Approach frequency. Over the course of several transmissions I became vaguely aware that a sleek new Lancair Columbia was IFR from the Medford area eastbound over the Cascades toward Burns. There were a number of transmissions between the Columbia’s pilot and the controller about intended route of flight and altitude. I was becoming slightly annoyed that their ongoing conversation, important though it may be, was distracting me from my thoughts about the day I flew a DC-3 through this same sky.

All of a sudden something said on the radio clicked in the recesses of my mind, and I refocused and listened more closely. I got a chill when I realized that the Columbia’s callsign was … N1213M.

3 Comments

  • Jeff, very good story. Brings back a variety of memories (some good, some not so…) for me. I jerked the gear for an old ex-navy pilot in a 1942 model C-47 for a good while back in the mid 80s. I used to stay with the airplane while he’d go in and do the official business at hand. Airport folks would naturally gather around for a looksie after a minute or two. Invariably, they ask me if I was the pilot. I always answered: “Nope. I’m the assistant curator.” Good read, sir.

  • Jeff you absolutely took us back to those days that will never come, but rather we continue to remember. Thanks it was a good job well done.

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