Fleeting Nostalgia

Richard Bishop

© Copyright 2010 by Richard Bishop


Photo of an old Piper J-3 Cub.

 Aviation and the thrill of flying - apparently there's no inoculation against it! And so, there is the ache from the past that sweeps over us sometimes . . . best described by Pilots and Aviation Fans (non-Pilots) alike, when reminiscing about their first times “up.”

 If you do not fly while making your living or you do not fly as a hobby, but you still have a hefty interest in aviation matters, that pretty much relegates you to the armchair as an Aviator. Well, no matter, whether or not you fly, we “garden-variety” Fans can still be impressed if we are given tender handling as Passengers by the Airlines or awed by current aviation events such as the highly televised Red Bull Air Races or Space launches!

 I grew up on a Farm in southern Michigan, on Rural Route # 7, about five miles from the Kalamazoo Airport (now called Kalamazoo County Airport). Beginning at a very young age, the thought of flying got into my blood from seeing the aircraft constantly passing overhead at a low altitude. Over the years, the little airplanes got bigger and bigger which, for a Farm-boy, added to their mystique.

 But at first, I thought that my generation (1930) was one generation too late for all the Romance of aviation. The helmet, goggles, scarf and "stick" were frequently thought of as WW I trademarks of flying which carried along into the Nineteentwenties. Barnstorming and “Wing-walking” with “Doubledecker” Biplanes and setting all the records for cross-country and oceanic travel occurred back then. After 1935, the records of faster, higher or farther required really strenuous and expensive attempts with "well-heeled" Sponsors putting-up tens of thousands of dollars for their favorite Pilot and/or brand of aircraft.

 As a Youngster and while still a Freshman in High School, I set out to re-create the "good old days" of flying and found out quickly that it was good at totally destroying my Piggy-Bank! I looked older than my age and took three separate one-hour dual-flying lessons in an old Piper J-3 Cub aircraft in the summer of 1944 at the age of 13 for $ 16.00 an hour. This was at the Kalamazoo Airport. End of Piggy Bank; end of flyinglessons in just days! So much for the "good old days" of flying and its regretted end for me.

 But, while being sad to see the end of the exciting lessons, I was mostly disappointed because there also had disappeared a big piece of the Romance! No helmet, no goggles and no scarf because, by then, fully enclosed aircraft (with cabins that made cockpits obsolete) had long since become the rage in the Aviation Industry. And a control wheel, resembling “half of a steering wheel” for a automobile, was fast replacing the control “stick.”

 As for the tandem two-seater Piper J-3 Cub, just the “left-over” un-Romantic "stick" and I and twin-magnetos stood between "reaching for the stars" and a safe emergency landing (spottedfor every couple of minutes) under the watchful eyes of the Instructor-Pilot. I looked up to him with near worship because he was a War Hero (a convalesced WW II Army Air Corps Pilot). After several “touch and go” landings he told me that I could solo soon, which made me feel really good although he probably meant at age sixteen.

 Apparently, there was quite a bit of Romance left in Aviation after all, because for the next few years I yearned to become an AVIATION CADET in the U.S. Army Air Corps and dreamed of acquiring those coveted Pilot’s Wings. But, the eyes would not have it and so I settled for another path "forever onward and upward."* It‘s odd, but I never considered becoming a Navigator and acquiring those different Wings.

 But even so, I still was hooked on Aviation and the thrill of flying! The undercurrent of excitement and clutched breathing has never left me in all these years and the pungent smell of AVGAS and DOPE at a vintage aircraft fly-in brings it all back to me in a nostalgic rush! Alas, not since the early 1950s have modern flight lines smelled like that.

 Once an Aviation buff, always a buff.....here at the Flughafen (Airport) in Munich, Germany, Lufthansa German Airlines keeps a pre-WW II Junkers type Ju 52/3m Tri-Motor transport aircraft in mint condition and they frequently give low altitude rides over the city. This 1932 aircraft design is called affectionately "Tante Ju" (“Auntie You” and sometimes “Iron Annie“) and could carry up to 17 Passengers together with “Cabin Attendants” to cater to the wants of the all- important paying guests. The entire structure of the aircraft was reputed to have been strengthened by the unusual lightweight aluminum corrugated metal outer skin.

 When it comes to flying for the Airlines, World-wide, the Junkers Ju 52/3m was the granddaddy (or grandmamma?) of them all. It was used by 12 commercial Airlines and served in 29 countries in civilian and/or military duty. There were 4,800 built (many under license) of which 1,900 were produced before WW II. In one country, Switzerland, it was used by the Military until 1981.

 This particular Munich-based aircraft is a Spanish Civil War model CASA 352L, one of 170 that were built under license in Spain through 1939. The Spanish Air Force kept them active as late as 1974. These are occasionally sold as a substitute for the Junkers Ju 52/3m whenever an airport wants to get a vintage Tri-Motor to use for rides (or static display) because the original German Junkers Tri-Motor has become so rare. Just today I heard that unusual motor sound vibrating from overhead and I ran over to the window like a shot, staring upwards. No, you can't confuse the pulsating, droning roar of three radial engines with a Helicopter or anything else, it's just totally unique. And there it was - - - loafing along steady as a corrugated rock with wheels dangling giving the passengers what must have been the thrill of their lifetimes. My wife thinks I'm crazy (at the very least, incorrigible) to chase out the front door for a better look. She’s mildly scandalized that a grown man would do such a thing.

 But, anywhere in the U.S.A., what aircraft would it be if you heard what you knew for certain to be a Tri-Motor flying overhead? Well, it could be the real thing! There is, at present, a Spanish-built CASA 352L version of the Junkers Ju 52/3m at the Gary Regional Airport, Gary, Indiana, owned by the Great Lakes Wing of the Commemorative Air Force, and it’s reputed to be airworthy and equipped with Pratt & Whitney radial engines and three-bladed propellers.

 This brings up an aspect in the development of our Airline Industry that is generally not known to the Public at large. There was an enormous contribution made by Tri-Motored aircraft in the early formative years of the commercial airlines. We need not comment further about the Junkers Ju 52/3m except to say that it was not marketed in North America (the one exception, the U.S. Army Air Corps possessed one exemplar). But, included are descriptions of other similar aircraft that were involved with the U.S. Airlines in those pioneering days of the 1920’s and 1930’s.

 And so, to continue, if you hear a Tri-Motor overhead, it might just be a Ford 5-AT Tri-Motor. These were manufactured by the Ford Motor Company of Detroit, Michigan, together with the predecessor, the Ford 4-AT (it carried up to 12 passengers, who also were pampered by Cabin Attendants). There were a total of 194 of both of these models built during the eight year period from 1926 to 1933. This ‘aerial workhorse” was affectionately called the “Tin Goose.” The last that I heard, a fully restored 1929 Ford Tri-Motor belonging to the EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, was still flying later in 2010.

 Or, it could just as well be another old-timer, such as a 1931 Stinson SM-6000 Tri-Motor, last heard of at a Museum in Florida and still airworthy. Another version of the Stinson Tri- Motor was introduced in 1933 as their final model of this type Airliner.

 It could be the F-10 Tri-Motor designed in Holland by the Dutch Company Fokker -- but built in the USA by Fokker’s U.S. subsidiary, Atlantic Aircraft Corporation, and which (together with the Ford Tri-Motor), dominated the airlines market in the U.S.A. in the 1920’s. It carried up to 12 passengers together with those diligent Cabin Attendants that were demanded by the heavy competition.

 This latter type aircraft became World-famous but with a mixed reputation. First, Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd is reputed to have flown over the North Pole in the Fokker F. VIIa/3m Tri- Motor named Josephine Ford on May 9, 1926 and Secondly, on June 17th, 1928, Amelia Earhart flew across the Atlantic as the first Woman passenger in a Fokker F. VIIb/3m Tri-Motor and Thirdly, in 1931, the great Notre Dame Football Coach Knute Rockne was killed in the crash of a Fokker F. 10 Tri-Motor, which had been designated as Trans World Airlines (TWA) Flight 599.

 The Aircraft Accident Investigation blamed the plywood construction and further banned the Fokker F. 10 on flights of a commercial nature. This gave a monstrous boost to the production and use of the Boeing 247 and the Douglas DC-2 Airliners, that were all-metal in design, and which became the predecessors of the fleets of modern Airliners to which we have become accustomed and that we take for granted.

 This more modern “all-metal” phase of the described evolution started anew in 1935 with an aircraft that is still flying; the twin-engined Douglas DC-3 (U.S. Military version, the C-47). This aircraft was first named the “Skytrain” and in Canada it was called the “Dakota” and later everywhere (sometimes even affectionately) dubbed the “Gooney Bird.” It introduced the “Sleeper” -- so equipped to encourage the Passengers to choose air travel instead of train travel. The Cabin Attendants were now called “Flight Attendants.” Without the beds, it could carry up to 35 Passengers, which was twice that which earlier Airliners could carry. This specialist in the airlift of Passengers and Air Cargo has long since been superceded in the transition to Jets with their unbelievable load capacities and range.

 As an overwhelming example, the Airbus A380 can carry 853 Passengers plus 22 crewmembers and the Extended Range version can fly a distance of 16,200 Kilometers (10,125 miles). This recent development, which is now contemporary and therefore well known to most people from press articles, is another story; but is also all wrapped up in Aviation and the thrill of flying! . . . otherwise known as the Romance of flight, if you will.

 We’ve came a long way from the “barnstorming,” open-cockpit “Double-deckers” to a fully enclosed, tandem two-seater like the Piper J-3 Cub to the pioneering, but almost unknown, Tri- Motor aircraft (complete with coffee-serving Cabin Attendants) which were the vanguard of our burgeoning Airlines Industry when I was growing up.

 I wonder - is the Romance still there and "so addicting" for the modern generation as it was (and still is) for me?

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