The Ace Team: having a little fun in a DC-3

Summer, 1993, St. Louis, Missouri

My captain, Mark Luman, was the most skilled DC-3 driver I have ever had the pleasure to fly with. He was a red-haired ex-Marine, tough as walnuts and a veteran parachutist who had flown small tailwheelers and the challenging Beech 18 taildraggers in Tennessee for many years before hiring on with Kitty Hawk in Fort Worth.

By pure coincidence, we were hired on the same date, total strangers, but thank my lucky stars, we hit it off right away and really got along well for the four years we spent together flying N302SF all over the United States and Canada.

To jump ahead a bit, we were in St. Louis on a two-week contract, based at Lambert International, flying car parts. The company had two of us Kitty Hawk DC-3 crews there: Mark and me with N302SF (our permanent bird), and another captain sent from Dallas—we’ll call him Joe—assigned to N305SF, a super DC-3, the US Navy version, with servos and beefed-up rudder and powered by powerful 1,475 hp Wright Cyclone engines.

I’d had a few run-ins in the past with Joe the few times we were scheduled to fly together. He was a gooey-minded person, always sad and depressed, and utterly miserable in his marriage, but he’d never learned to keep his problems to himself. He took out his frustration on us copilots, and the truth was, even though we felt sorry for him, none of us low-lifer copilots trusted the guy in the air.

His handling skills were way below anything close to confidence-inspiring, and God forbid, he was frightened of flights in poor weather and Cb clouds scared the hell out of him. We had no radar in those days, so poking in and out of cloud formations (not Cbs of course) was part of our everyday life on the line. Beats me how he got away with it for so long.

DC-3 landing
Landing a DC-3 requires skill, practice, and good instincts.

One pre-dawn morning we were on approach to Dayton, Ohio. Joe was flying and we were cleared to land. Visibility was severe clear, no wind reported. I have to mention that, at every airport we flew to, tower controllers and pilots stopped whatever they were doing to watch us land. The unique and precious DC-3 touched a soft spot in every aviator’s heart, and we were constantly visited on the ramp by pilots of all sorts who had either flown the DC-3 or dreamt of doing so one day. I could just imagine the expectant tower controllers watching our approach through binoculars and laughing their butts off.

Joe held the yoke with a white-gripped hand, over-controlling the aircraft, banking left and right in the zero-wind conditions, unnecessarily pitching the plane like a sloppy dolphin as the tarmac came ever closer. It was clear we were going to hit hard. His eyes were fixed on God knows what, more inside than out. His throttle hand was frozen to the levers, and then the fun began.

I was taught to look ahead towards the end of the runway in the flare. Joe didn’t flare at all. He cut the power and the plane fell, the main gear with its large rubber tires hitting hard and bouncing 15 or 20 feet in the air. Joe pushed the yoke forward and we hit again, ballooning higher this time.

“Go around power, Joe!” I yelled.

But, no. Joe ignored me. Thank God we had over 10,000 feet of runway.

He pitched down, then added power in a change of mind. I thought we were dead. We hit the runway again and bounced for the third time. I didn’t say a thing. I knew he wouldn’t take my advice. He leveled at about four feet. Then he pushed the yoke forward again and, to my utter delight, managed a three-point landing. Tower called us.

“Nice landings, 302! You made our day. Clear to UPS, have a good one.”

Being a Hemingway fan, I used to exaggerate and tell my colleagues we did nine landings-in-one, but the truth is it was only three-in-one.

Back to St. Louis.

Joe left us a note at the FBO. We filled up on popcorn and black coffee and sat on the sofa and opened up the envelope. Mark read it out loud.

Mark, Paul,

It would be appreciated you don’t park so close to my plane. A good fifteen feet separation will keep us safe in case of winds. Let’s have a coffee and talk soon. Joe.

Mark went into a rage. Neither of us wanted to have coffee with Joe. And listen to his complaints. No thanks.

“We’ll show him what close is!”

He folded the letter in his shirt pocket and we headed out to 302, prepped her, and were soon in the air heading for Ohio with car handle mechanisms for the assembly line in Youngstown.

A couple of days later we were heading back to St. Louis. At Mark’s request, I asked tower if 305 was on the ramp. It was.

“Paul, this is gonna be fun,” he said with a big old smile on his face. We lit up and smoked as we descended, the P&Ws purring. Naturally, Mark kissed the tarmac, nary a screech to be heard. He played on the brakes and throttle to keep the tailwheel in the air and we taxied on the mains to the ramp. I have to say that such a challenging maneuver is not easy. I watched a DC-3 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, tilt-down on its nose when the pilot didn’t get it just right. Destruction.

Wingtips
Is that close enough?

We taxied perpendicular to 305 and, as accorded, I grabbed my deck of cards we always carried before I jumped out the cargo door. I ran towards 305’s right wing while Mark did a quick 360 turn-around and slowly inched forward at a 45-degree angle to 305. At the last moment, with only inches left, Mark whipped 302 to the right with a zap of left engine and hard braking and she lined up in parallel with Joe’s Super 3. It was absolutely perfect, a flawless maneuver worthy of Bob Hoover’s admiration, I thought.

With engines shutting down, I walked to where the two wingtips nearly kissed. I flickered through the cards and picked out the Ace of Diamonds and stuck it snugly between them and stepped back as Mark arrived.

“Man, that’s cool!” He said. “Let’s get a picture.”

“Yeah,” I said. “And we can go get it blown up, poster size.”

“And dedicate it to the Kaiser himself!” Mark and I were laughing at the prospect.

Two days later we tacked Joe’s dedicated poster on the wall in the pilots’ break-room, so everybody, especially Joe, would be sure to see it.

It was dedicated to him.

To Joe,

With the closest of regards.

The Ace Team, Mark and Paul

St. Louis, KSTL, 1993

Not an especially enticing text, but as they say, an image is worth a thousand words. Joe wouldn’t talk with us after that and he tore the poster down, but boy, that incident fueled a truckload of laughs for years to come.

9 Comments

  • Hey Paul…….BAAAAAROOOOOT! Remember landing the -3 back in Ypsilanti that morning! Hehe. Hope you are well pard! Paul

  • My first paid flying gig was copilot in a DC3. I was REAL green – got hired with only about 300 hours total. On my first trip (an all night freight run, CMH-MEM-CMH) I was stuck with a captain who was a part time pilot / full time state policeman.

    Maybe it was his lack of experience with a low time newby, but he kept yelling at me and barking orders, clearly displaying a lack of confidence in his own abilities as I was doing my best to comply.

    Thankfully, I never had to fly with him again and enjoyed the rest of my time there with a great guy who taught me a lot.

  • Thanks guys! Many more stories to go. Yes, I stand corrected: former marine. Thanks to all our military forces.
    Paul, how could I forget that particular perfect moment, on our last flight before you went southwest, a greaser landing and our full laughter all the way to Ops.
    Thanks to all! I’d like to dedicate it to Pat for her support in seeing my work as worthy of AFJ’s publication.
    Paul

  • Great story, Paul. Have some Corps time in the Super-3. Great airplane, earned my trust more than any of the myriad aircraft I’ve had the good fortune to fly over the past 50+ years. Luck was with me, ‘tho; never had the honor of flying with anyone like Joe. My experiences were with pilots more like Mark, good guys who respected the aircraft and their own limitations. Could not help but learn a good bit from those folks.

  • Paul, excellent story and very well written. It flows like hundred-dollar bills on Front Street on a Saturday night… I too, for a shorter time than you, was an FO on a WWII veteran C47 back in the late 80s. Among other infirmities, the right engine on this sick bird would always try to quit everytime we flew through a dense cloud… Each time we’d stop at some outstation a bunch of new, fledgling aviators would slowly migrate toward the airplane to gawk and admire; I always stood watch in the cargo doorway while the captain, a crusty old Korean War Navy pilot who constantly chewed on unlit cigars and spit anywhere he pleased, did his paperwork inside the FBO offices. Without fail, one of the emergents would eventually get around to asking me if I was the pilot. (I suppose I looked the part in my dirty, wrinkled jeans and sweatshirts). I usually would answer: “No, I’m the assistant curator.”

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