It was either the third or fourth day and night of almost continuous flying. Ray and I had taken turns flying while the other slept. This had been working until I recall waking up and realizing Ray was asleep in the left seat. We were flying straight and level and on course—the Beech 18 had no autopilot but was extremely stable in the air. On the ground it wanted to taxi all over the airport.
The usual name for an autopilot was George, but in this case an actual George possibly should have been flying. After snapping awake and wondering who was supposed to be flying, I started wondering where we were. I looked down, immediately saw we were above a large airport and saw the distinctive shape of a Convair B-36 on one of the taxiways. We were above Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the National Museum of the US Air Force. When B-52s replaced the B-36 as our nuclear deterrent, the B-36 was retired. One was sent to the Air Force Museum and became disabled on the taxiway, where it remained for years as a landmark.
Wright-Patterson was right on the course Ray (sitting in the other seat) and I had been repeatedly flying with cargo from Columbus, Ohio, to St. Louis, Missouri. Lane Aviation’s Beech 18, a medium sized twin, served as a cargo carrier most of the time, sometimes taking football fans to Cleveland for Browns games (the Browns were winning occasionally at the time). The purpose of our flights to St. Louis was to haul a large supply of rubber door gaskets from a plant in Lancaster, Ohio, to a Chrysler plant in St. Louis. A rubber workers’ strike was expected shortly and if there were no door gaskets in St. Louis, no Chrysler cars would be built and the plant would shut down. We were flying a preemptive supply to the plant.
Cargo flying was feast or famine. Usually the feast began when a machine would break down in the plant of a supplier of parts to the auto industry. The normal shipping of parts to an auto plant was done by rail on a schedule that would have parts arriving at an assembly plant as they were needed. A delay in this schedule could cause an assembly plant shut down. Traffic managers responsible for the inflow of parts would try to prevent this by having parts shipped by truck, a faster method, as soon as the flow of parts was recommenced. If the delay was long enough that trucks could not catch up, air freight was used to keep the schedule working. Trucking and air freight were more expensive than rail but less expensive than a plant shut down. That would cause loss of revenue from sales and put the assembly workers on furlough.
We picked up our first load in Lancaster, Ohio, which was loaded by a crew from the rubber company. The second load arrived at Lane in Columbus at 2:00 AM. The truck driver, Ray, and I were the only ones at the airport. The truck driver announced that since he was a truck driver, he and his union did not load airplanes. Ray responded that we were pilots and did not load airplanes. We wanted to get in the air to St. Louis and the truck driver wanted to get back to Lancaster and bed, so after a brief impasse we jointly loaded the airplane. We departed for St. Louis and the driver for Lancaster. If we left at night we loaded the airplane and during the day the Lane line crew loaded while we pre-flighted the plane.
Between flights to St. Louis we would generally have enough time to go home to bed and sleep an hour or two before a phone call to Ray would inform him there was another load of gaskets, followed by Ray calling me to tell me to call Flight Service to get the weather and file a flight plan for our next trip to Spirit of St. Louis Airport. This had become easy enough in my groggy state because it was the same flight plan as for all the previous flights. Another load of gaskets was on the way to Lane from Lancaster.
The Chrysler traffic manager who had hired Lane was under a great deal of pressure to keep the plant going so we were always informed that if we did not get to St. Louis by a specific time the plant would close down. The gaskets from our first load and all subsequent loads, however, were still on the loading dock when we made our last departure from St. Louis.
After our night flights to St. Louis, no matter how tired we were, we would go to a little nearby, nondescript restaurant on East Broad Street in Columbus. I would order a western omelette, which to this day I think of as a Twin Beech omelette. The memories of flying that airplane come flooding back when I order what is known here in New Mexico as a Denver omelette, especially starting the radial engines at night and watching the clouds of smoke and blue flame blast from the exhausts to settle down to a small blue glow in flight, similar to that of a Bunsen burner. You could adjust the fuel mixture by watching the color of the flame. I can still see the sparkling lights of cities and towns as we passed over them on clear nights. They seemed to be the scattered embers of campfires seen from far above.
The opportunity to fly with Ray on cargo flights made up for my delayed entry into flying. The delay was caused by the death of my brother in 1944, who flew a P-47 Thunderbolt in support of US ground troops in Europe. Applying for pilot training was more than I wanted to inflict on my mom so flying was long delayed.
Ray had experienced all forms of flying but military. He had been a crop-duster and organized and run a college flight training program. He had been a contract pilot flying C-46 aircraft to the far north, in complete darkness, in difficult weather, with inaccurate charts and compasses, no directional radios, with supplies and equipment to build the early warning radar DEW line. He had been with the airlines. It was extremely difficult to become an airline pilot without military experience at the time that Ray had done it. If you resigned it was impossible to get rehired.
He left because his new wife had become hysterical because of an air crash that occurred while he was flying. She assumed it was him and she had to be hospitalized briefly. He cared more about her than his career. His change of occupation did not change the marital situation and a divorce followed. Ray went back to flying in whatever position was available but never returned to the stable, better paying job with the airlines. He was chief pilot at Lane when I knew him. Women often help a spouse in career achievements but Ray’s experience definitely had the opposite effect.
Flying with Ray, I had the opportunity to do things I would have been very apprehensive to do alone. We flew in all kinds of weather, mostly at night. I learned navigation skills and dealing with Air Traffic Control that could only be learned from an old hand. On one of our VFR night flights to St. Louis, Ray said to me, “which way do you think it is to St. Louis?” I pointed to where I thought it was and Ray said, “that looks OK to me, let’s fly that way.”
In a little while he said, “In about an hour we should see the lights of Terre Haute just off to our right.” As predicted, the lights of Terre Haute showed up where and when Ray said they would. That night I learned relaxed confidence was as important as the calculations one learned in pilot training. It was not as easy to get lost as I thought.
Another night, landing in Wilmington, Delaware, on an instrument approach, I was handling the radio. As we descended to the runway through heavy cloud, the tower asked at what altitude we had broken out of the overcast. I was about to respond 180 feet when Ray grabbed the mike and responded, “250 feet.” He then said to me, “check the take off minimums. If you said 180 we would be stuck in Wilmington for at least the rest of the night.” I learned a new communication skill and to be suspicious of other pilot’s reports when landing in instrument conditions.
Just about everyone has driven in a rainstorm so heavy that they have pulled off the highway and parked. One night flying into Rockford, Illinois, in Lane’s Cessna 337 Skymaster, Ray and I landed in a rainstorm like that and the only place to park was on the airport—but we had to land there first. There was no forward visibility as we were in clouds, and water was streaming in sheets across the windscreen. As we flew down the ILS path to the runway, Ray hollered over the pounding noise of the rain, “watch for the strobes, I’m staying on the gauges until you see them.”
I watched for the flashing runway end lights while Ray kept the needles centered on the ILS to keep us on the path to the runway. I was glued to the windshield, which was almost opaque with rain. Suddenly, pulsing flashes of light lit up the windshield and I yelled “I got the strobes.” Ray had flown us right down to the approach end of the runway to land. I don’t think he could see to land but instinct from many other hairy incidents took over. We managed to get to a taxiway and get off the runway in case someone else was unlucky enough to be landing at Rockford behind us.
Ray showed me how to use the Automatic Direction Finder (ADF), an instrument now being phased out, to avoid thunderstorms while in clouds. When lightning would occur, the ADF needle would swing wildly in the direction of the strike. One could fly in a direction away from the strikes and the accompanying dangerous turbulence. That principle was later used to invent an instrument called the Stormscope, that showed where lightning strikes were occurring in relation to your flight path.
Once on a daylight return trip to Columbus, I asked Ray what it was like to crop dust. Since we were flying at low altitude to avoid stronger headwinds, Ray responded by spotting a large cornfield ahead of us and descending at 200 miles an hour—to about 10 feet above the tassels on the corn stalks—and said, “like this.” What I remember most is seeing a rabbit fleeing through the rows of corn at maximum hopping speed. I have to admit I was relieved when Ray took us back up to 500 feet.
There are methods, developed over time, regarding most of the difficulties encountered in flight to safely deal with them. There is one that I encountered on a charter flight to Grand Rapids, Michigan, that I have never found a solution to, except by quick reflexes and hoping for the best. That situation is a crosswind on an icy runway, especially one that has partial, bare, non slippery patches. The icy patches require one set of control actions and the bare spots another. Destructive side loads on the landing gear would be one result and being blown off the runway would be the other from such a situation.
One night flying into Detroit Metro in blowing snow, I saw Ray chew his ever present cigar with great intensity when landing the Twin Beech in a strong crosswind on a very icy runway. The plane had a reputation for being a very difficult airplane to handle on the ground, which added to the intensity of this landing. We, and Ray’s cigar, survived the experience. We did better than the cigar.
In addition to the invaluable learning experience, I got most of my instrument training from Ray in actual conditions and also did part of my instrument flight test in the Beech with Ray (who was also an FAA Pilot Examiner). I respected Ray and was very grateful for what I learned from him, however a problem came up involving a conflict of interest that I had to acknowledge.
Mr. Varner, a partner at Lane, did the hiring of the front desk ladies and did a very good job of finding attractive ladies for the position. Ray told me he was interested in one of the ladies running the front desk at Lane Aviation. I did not know how to deal with this as I was already in a relationship with that lady, one that had reached the point where she was making nightly visits to my nearby apartment. We were both helping overcome the loneliness of fairly recent divorce. The problem was solved for me by an offer of a position teaching industrial design at Kent State. It removed me from the conflict of interest and also the concern that the desk lady relationship was not a permanent one.
Although I had design clients while flying, I went back to industrial design and teaching design, the other strong professional interests in my life. I continued personal flying at a much higher experience level than I would have otherwise, because of a year of flying as an instructor, charter pilot, and especially cargo flying with Ray. This was possible because Ray needed someone that he thought could keep a Twin Beech right side up while he napped. This was an experience that most general aviation pilots do not have access to and which I treasure. I hoped Ray and the desk lady would connect and live happily ever after, but unlike most fairy tales, that did not happen.
What is called a western omelette in Ohio will always be a Twin Beech omelette to me. When eating one, I will hear the rumble of radial engines, see the blue flame from the exhausts, and the sparkle of city and small town lights scattered below in the blackness.