Unusual Attitudes: Daredevils in a DC-3

My 30-year love affair with DC-3s involved an eclectic agglomeration of pilots — kids working their way up from flying night freight in Aztecs and Beech 18s, corporate and airline retirees with ratings that date back to the '50s, and grizzled soldiers of fortune who've drifted through life hauling "interesting" cargo in interesting parts of the world. I love and remember them all (well, nearly) and many would become great friends, a few close enough to include me in special DC-3 adventures. While I was the inspector — the "checker" — God, they were the real thing and taught me so much.

Carl Hilker had flown freight in Beech 18s and DC-3s for an "on the edge but later respectable" Part 135 freight company in its wild, early days at Hogan Air. He flew the mail and charter for "TV Tom" Noonan, ferried airplanes for T.W. Smith and worked for Ebby Lunken's Midwest Airways. Truth is, Carl could and would fly almost anything, but since he operated on his own schedule he rarely lasted for very long in any job. He was clever, colorful and a splendid airplane driver, but dependability wasn't his strong point.

I first encountered this curious creature in the Lunken Airport terminal on a dark and stormy night in the early 1960s. Unshaven and derelict, wearing a "hat body" (the conelike piece of felt used to form a hat) pulled low over his face, a dripping poncho and dirty white sneakers, he was trying to herd (read "coerce") several anxious-looking passengers to a Beech 18 on the ramp.

Carl came with something of a pedigree. His mother and stepfather were gracious, cultured people who lived near Hamilton Airport in a huge, white farmhouse with pillared columns, peacocks and a strip in the back forty long enough to land a Champ on … well, sort of. My sister flew in with him once and remembers removing pieces of fence and branches from the tailwheel. He was a Dartmouth graduate, but until he married, Carl lived wherever he could find a bed or more often in his rusted out "woody" with all his earthly possessions piled in the back.

Later on, when I joined the dark side, my manager told me he met Carl when he was a brand-new FAA inspector and, just for fun, attended a fly-in at the Hamilton Airport. But his "status" changed when he arrived and saw somebody making a low pass over the runway in a Beech 18 — inverted. So Carl's relationship with the feds was off to a rocky start. He eventually got his certificates back and, by the 1990s, was either collecting weird ratings in airplanes, balloons or gliders or commuting to Namibia, where he and his wife owned a cheetah farm (I'm not making this up) and an airplane.

By January 1991, Greater Cincinnati Airport (CVG) had sold its soul to Delta Airlines. To celebrate its new "hub" status and the opening of the recently constructed Runway 18L, the airport threw a gala party in Delta's huge, new maintenance hangar. A Delta jet would, of course, be the first airplane to actually touch down on the new runway, but, in honor of the airline's early history at CVG, somebody decided it would be fitting if a DC-3 made a low pass while the press and "dignitaries" watched from the sides of the runway.

I have no idea how Carl inserted himself into this venture, but (officially) I gave him his needed currency check in one of Mike Hogan's DC-3s and then (unofficially) flew with him on the celebratory low pass down Runway 18L. The DC-3 wasn't "for hire" and I wasn't working, so I didn't ask for permission, knowing my boss would consider anything involving the words Martha, fun and Carl Hilker highly suspicious if not downright illegal.

The weather was down so we filed to get into CVG and then huddled with Delta people, airport management and ATC. With an 800-foot ceiling, 2 miles' visibility and "No Special VFR" there was no legal way to depart VFR, circle the field and fly down the new runway in front of the crowd. Carl and I agreed we'd do it but it was up to somebody else to make it legal. Somebody did.

It was a spectacular pass, just feet over the runway, and a photographer caught the moment when, of course, Carl lowered the left wing and touched the left main gear on the virgin concrete. We picked up a clearance and climbed out to the north, everybody happy — well, except my boss, who commented that Carl and I had "broken the rules as usual."

After landing an Aztec today with one "in the cage" because we couldn't get the propeller out of feather on a flight test, I thought about another one of those odysseys, this one with Kevin Uppstrom, whose DC-3 career got off the ground when he was a kid in Thailand, riding along with his Air Force dad dropping sport jumpers. Kevin was chief pilot for Miami Valley Airways (earlier known as Hogan Air) — a freight hauler in Middletown, Ohio, that operated a bunch of Aztecs, Beech 18s, DC-3s, Learjets and Falcons. After 30 years, when the DC-3 freight business and the company sadly tanked, Kevin reluctantly moved on to flying Boeing 727s for an international freight company. But at Hogan Air and MVA he incredibly logged nearly 15,000 hours in DC-3s and Beech 18s plus many hours in the Falcon and Lear.

This 1993 "expedition" happened because Ohio University's Avionics Engineering Center needed a couple of engines for N7AP, a former FAA flight-check DC-3 the center owned and operated. John Cornett, Norm Crabtree's successor as Ohio's Aviation Division director, told them that the state's old DC-3 was parked and deteriorating outside on a ramp at the Air Force Museum in Dayton. At least the low-time engines had been pickled, and since the museum didn't want the airplane for display, Ohio University bought it from the state.

Retired Ohio University DC-3 driver Dennis Atkeson recalls, "Boy, was it in sad shape after sitting outside for three or four years. Lots of bird dung in the cabin and lots of ‘ramp rash' on the tail feathers. But the engines were nearly new, so, in the summer of 1990, one of our maintenance guys and a couple of students drove a van to Dayton, removed the engines and brought them back to OU. We sold the airframe ‘as is' at the Air Force Museum; I think the successful bidder was some guy from the Akron/Canton area. The story is he hung two engines on the airplane and hired somebody to fly it off Wright Field on a ferry permit."

Well, flying anything off the long-deactivated Wright Field took something like an act of Congress, but the museum director (and Kevin's father), Col. Dick Uppstrom, somehow made it happen. And guess whom he asked to fly it out — and guess whom Kevin asked to ride the right seat?

We got there early on a cold January morning and waited for hours while mechanics fiddled with, fine-tuned, cowled and uncowled the engines, finally declaring the airplane ready to fly. My friends Norm Crabtree and Bob Lang had long flown this airplane for the state of Ohio, and I was glad they weren't around to see what had happened to their beloved, pristine N34D. We did the world's most exhaustive preflight and run-up, shut it down for more tweaking and finally decided we'd better haul ass before the group of "important" Air Force types, assembled to watch this takeoff from the historic Wright Field, changed their minds.

Kev brought the power up; I made the calls. We lumbered down the runway and launched into the ether heading for Middletown, about 30 miles southwest. The plan was for Miami Valley's mechanics to go over everything before delivering it to the owner in northeast Ohio. But just after liftoff my head was down unlatching the gear with my eyes at the same level as the oil temperature and pressure gauges.

"Uh, Kev, the left engine oil … "

"Yeah, I see it," he said as he pushed the feather button, shutting down No. 1 before any more ­damage could occur (hallmark of a true freight dog).

We ran a quick shutdown checklist, but there was no question of returning to land at Wright Field because "Colonel Dad's" parting words had been "Whatever you do, don't bring that thing back here." Anyway, there were plenty of airports en route to Middletown and, blessedly, No. 2 didn't burp. We got to Middletown Regional Airport (MWO) where Jim Branam (MVA's chief of maintenance, DC-3 guru, pilot extraordinaire, best friend and all-around splendid person) and company restored it to reasonably flyable condition. Eventually Kevin and the new owner flew it to Beach City Airport in northeastern Ohio, where to this day it sits, rotting away, never having flown again.

Flying iconic airplanes with wildly different but hugely talented and beloved friends — for me it was perfect heaven.

Martha Lunken is a lifelong pilot, former FAA inspector and defrocked pilot examiner. She flies a Cessna 180 and anything with a tailwheel, from Cubs to DC-3s.

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