A long and noisy flight during the “good old days” of airline travel

As a connoisseur of airplanes, the DC-4 was far from my favorite heavier-than-air craft. Growing up in the years after World War II, my friends and I collected pictures of the much more romantic P-38 Lightnings, Wildcats, Hellcats, Thunderbolts and Mustangs – airplanes John Wayne would fly.

Living across the bay from Idlewild, soon to be New York International and ultimately JFK, we watched the air traffic to and from Runway 22, mostly DC-4s and the stretched version, the DC-6. Most departing aircraft had made a few hundred feet by the time they crossed our edge of the bay. At night, the transatlantic flights, heavy with fuel, showed incredible blue fire around the engines. They climbed so slowly you could see faces in the windows and practically count the rivets in the skin. Local TV reception was entirely out of the question during these departures.

DC-4
The DC-4 was not quite as enchanting as the graceful Constellation.

My father had a cultivated disdain for brand names and made a point of buying only obscure products, like the Capehart TV that never worked or the power lawnmower that broke and fired a piece of shrapnel into my leg. While my friends were riding Columbia or Schwinn bicycles, one Christmas I received a Huffy Belair. Today it’s a vintage item, but back then it was the silly Trix cereal of bicycles.

One surprise vacation day, four non-scheduled airline tickets to Miami appeared promising that we would soon board a DC-4 and escape January’s bitter cold. This airline satisfied my father’s rule for brand – unknown. On a rainy morning at an outdoor terminal at La Guardia, we climbed the steps into a repainted leftover from the Berlin Airlift.

My idea of air travel was a sexy TWA Constellation or the mighty Pan Am Stratocruiser, not some clunky old DC-4. The Brits were already flying the first jet airliner, the Comet, and Boeing engineers were hard at work on the Dash-80, code name for the Comet’s competitor, the 707. But my father insisted on obscurity…

Nervous passengers filled the cabin with cigarette smoke and snatched the few pillows and blankets from the overhead shelves. Cardboard cups of ice and tiny whiskey bottles appeared as pretty stewardesses with little blue caps showed dazzling smiles with perfect teeth. The door closed, engines coughed to life and we taxied all over La Guardia, finally making a thunderous departure over a drizzling New York harbor dotted with little ships. A tinny intercom came to life, the captain informing us in a southern drawl that we’d be flying at 9,500 feet but that we should keep our seatbelts fastened and enjoy the flight. I’m sure I heard the co-pilot laugh. The cigarette smoke got thicker and more whiskey bottles appeared. The turbulence was continuous and only the brave ate the cold ham and cheese sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper distributed gaily by the stewardesses.

The sky remained gray and in a few hours the pilot came on again to advise us that weather had made a slight detour necessary. “We have to go north to go south,” he explained. A stewardess came by and asked a few children if we had any questions for the pilot. My father, the former aviator, instructed me to ask, “What are the trim tabs for?”

In a little while, a white-haired gentleman with a tan wrinkled face, white shirt with black and gold shoulder bars and the imposing officer’s cap came to my seat and explained how people walking back and forth in the cabin put the airplane “out of trim,” whatever that was, and that the trim tabs and the autopilot fixed all that. I was confused but my mother gave me one of her slow commanding looks that you didn’t ignore, and I responded, “Oh, so that’s what they’re for, helping people go back and forth.” My mother smiled approvingly and now I knew exactly what the trim tabs were for.

In six hours, the chatter in the cabin had subsided as the engines droned on. The little whiskey bottles had thankfully put the louder passengers to sleep. Some, convinced they were going to spend eternity in a DC-4, read the emergency cards over and over again. Deliverance came in another two hours – we landed in the dark in Miami. I was tired, my ears ringing from the engines, but I now felt a special bond with John Wayne from Ernest Gann’s The High and the Mighty. Once outside, I was satisfied that all four engines were still attached to the wings. I fell asleep in the taxi as we rode to an obscure and somewhat shabby motel my father had picked for the occasion.

16 Comments

  • Nice story, well written, interesting and funny. Wish I had a chance to fly on a DC-4 or a Constellation but maybe not a Comet.

  • Well told! That’s the first time I’ve heard of a Capehart TV in more than 50 years. My article published here some time ago under the title “Barf” deals with one of the worst parts of low-altitude airline flight: motion sickness. Add the aroma of tossed cookies to the noise, vibration, wah-wah of unsynchronized props, sorry food, & cigarette smoke for a truly unpleasant travel experience. What a relief it was to enjoy the more peaceful, smoke-free environment of jet airliners… until the seats and security areas became torture chambers and “customer service” a bad joke….

  • My father died in October 1959 and I was granted thirty days emergency leave from my USAF base in Japan, which entailed a 10 hour flight from Tachikawa to Wake Island, 11 more to Honolulu and ten more to SFO. I believe all were on a USAF DC-6. I then had my first jet experience on a 707 with American Airlines just 3 hours to Chicago O’Hare. I had never seen the earth from 35,000 feet! The flight was so smooth and quiet and very little sensation of moving at 600 mph. I retired from TWA as a 747 Captain with 15,000 hours.

  • Reminds me of a much earlier time in my life – late 50’s – when my new wife and I traveled from Chicago to Detroit on a DC 4 for a wedding. The only commercial aircraft I had ridden in up to then was a DC 3 between W. Lafayette, Ind. and Milwaukee with stop in Chicago at Midway cruising at about 5-6,000 ft. with springtime thermals – so the DC4 ride at a somewhat higher altitude and heavier aircraft was a treat for me at the time.

    We lived in Kansas City during for a while in the late 50’s and often went to a downtown place to watch the piston aircraft flying in and out of KC’s old airport down near the river. It was about this time that TWA was moving to the then brand new Mid Continent airport and got it’s first B707s. What a change to behold – especially on take off and climb out compared to those old four bangers.

    Somewhat later in the mid 60’s I also rode in a twin engine Martin 404 on a short hopper route from Indy to Charleston and then on to Roanoke, VA and re-experienced the limited climb rate of piston aircraft and the “bounce” in the wind drafts around mountains.

    I am so glad that I came along in a period where I could experience the old piston age and into the new jet age with it’s much more comfortable ride and performance.

    Thanks for the memories.

    Foxcliff Phil

  • Just as I was getting comfy to read more… your lovely narrative finished… looking forward for the return flight to LGA

  • When in Cyprus in 1958-60, the regular troop transport plane was an eagle Airways DC 6B I believe. (It may have been a 4B, but I think I am right with 6B). However, it as a 10 hour flight from the UK to Nicosia. I had gone out on a Hastings via Malta, and it took twelve and a half hour, (fourteen and a half time wise). This thing was on the tarmac every morning except on Sundays and I dreaded flying home on that as I wondered how much maintenance it had. One day it had a fire on the way, and they put it down to the sun on the red top, white bottom, so the livery was changed to White top, Red bottom I believe. Whatever. My turn came in the second week of January 1960, and I was pleased to see they had a British & Commonwealth Britannia. G-APNA. Six hours and twenty minutes after take off, we landed at what was then, London Airport. As a Bristolian who had seen all the early Britannia’s as they entered service, this was extra special.

  • Thirty years from today someone will be reminiscing fondly of the old triple 7s and A320s as they fly along at hypersonic speeds, or perhaps 300 mph bullet trains, or who knows – maybe even Dr Spock’s Transporters.

  • What a wonderful piece! This was really evocative, and you really have a gift of writing! Thanks for a wonderful job, and I hope you’re inclined to write some more pieces. Thank you!

    • I have a few other stories but this is the one that got posted. John Wayne helped but it was the weekend reservists flying from the local NAS that got me. They flew F6Fs, TBMs and Catalinas 200 feet over the beach, low and slow to watch for submarines and girls in bikinis. The rumble of the radials brought us boys into the street or on the beach and inspired not a few future pilots.

  • What fond memories this brought back. I too experienced the wonder of air travel in a Boeing Stratocruiser back in 1953. From Ankara Turkey to Idelweild, via, Frankfort, London, Iceland, and finally home. The captain came back and took me and my brother to the flight deck and I got to stear the airplane. I can now truthfully say the 1st aircraft I ever flew was a Being Stratocruiser!!!!!

  • Your story reminded me of a funny but true experience. Having been a pilot for 49 years, I have experienced a lot of interesting radio transmissions.

    On a summer day in 1970 with clear skies and poor visibility due to smog, I was flying near the Charlotte airport and heard an Eastern Airline Pilot call Charlotte approach control. “Charlotte approach, Eastern 352: I think we have run past the Airport. CLT app: Eastern 352 Ident please.”
    (This is for the pilot to press the ident button on his transponder so the air traffic controller can identify the aircraft on his radar screen).

    CLT app. “Eastern 352: Charlotte approach you are 5 northeast of the airport, turn right heading 230, when you get to Howard Johnson’s turn left and we’re the first Airport on the right.”

  • As to piston powered aircraft, I had the privilege of flying a C47 from Miami to Nah Trang with a few stops along the way. The longest leg required some additional fuel so the Air Force added two tanks that took up most of the cabin. Should we find it necessary to dump fuel, we had what was basically a large hose and a tap to let gravity empty the tank.

    To ensure that we had enough fuel, the tail was jacked up, the tanks filled, the caps sealed, and we were instructed not to check the fuel level with our high tech broom handle until we had used at least 3 hours of fuel from the tank. With the first long leg of California to Hawaii, that was no problem. Since we were headed to war, the 15.5 hour trip was no problem.

    Several stops later, Midway, Wake, Guam, and finally Clark we had the ferry tanks removed and our guns mounted. We were now officially an AC47. The whole trip to Vietnam took about 80 hours.

    For a year I got to be a Spooky pilot working out of DaNang. The trip home was on. DC8, a whole lot faster, quieter, and it even had nice lady attendants, not that I had any reservations about a male crew chief serving coffee from a thermos in a paper cup. It just seemed like a more civilized way to travel.

    From there it was on to Panama and the C47 and C123K. That was the end of my piston powered career. I was lucky to fly a variety of jets for the airlines. However, I won’t go into that list now.

    • You write good Kramer, reminds me of Hemingway, no joke. Like to read more of your prose. Clean, clipped, fast.

  • You posted a lovely story !! Here is one from my side.
    As a kid, I used to walk to a grass runway airport to see a DC-3 approach, land and take-off. A siren operated by ATC would sound advising everyone that the airplane was inbound fifty miles. I would squint my eyes wishing to be the first to see the incoming aircraft. Policemen around the airport perimeter would blow their whistle. Cows and buffaloes would move away from the runway area. They use to do that anyway as they were conditioned to move out when they heard the first siren. A second siren meant the airplane was on her final approach.
    Landing was amazing. Dakota taxied to parking, door opened, passengers stepped out, some excited, some looked worried. Cabin crew always looked pretty. I had heard that they were ‘always’ in love with pilots. Pilots who were mostly handsome stepped out. For me they were supermen. Someone would bring them tea that they sipped standing below a wing.
    After thirty minutes, pilots went inside, passengers boarded, could see the air-hostess smiling at everyone. Was always mystified to see how they started the engines. Dakota taxied and rolled down the runway blowing dust and grass. It was great. I stood there watching until the aircraft was a mere speck in the sky and disappearing. At the airpot, life began was usual. Men walking across the runway, cows and buffaloes were back. Life was normal.
    Many years later, after college, I took up flying and became an airline pilot. Flying was so much fun until one day, on nine eleven, when something very dreadful happened. Flying airplanes and air travel changed forever. As a pilot, we flew airplanes, but someone or a group sitting hundreds of miles away always told you what to do, when to do and where? Everything became restrictive and we became more mechanised. We now have many more rules to follow.
    Happy Landings !!

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