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.
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.