Making DC-3 Pilots Legal

Martha's escapades in a DC-3.

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Oklahoma City FSDO needed a DC-3 "specialist" for certification flight checks with Cascade Airlines, a Part 125 operator who, curiously, didn't actually operate in Oklahoma … nobody seemed to know exactly who they were and where they did fly. But for right now the airplane and pilots were in Guymon, Oklahoma. Having spent a considerable chunk of time in Oklahoma City at the FAA Academy, I long ago concluded that Oklahomans are really, really nice people who live in a really, really dreadful place. But, hey, Guyman might just be interesting … way out in the Panhandle, a long way from, well, from not much of anything and about the epicenter of the 1930's dustbowl tragedy. Anyway, this was about flying a DC-3 so of course I'd go to Guymon.

FAA's pretty comfortable certificating big operators like NetJets and that endangered species, the single pilot Navajo/Baron/Aerostar guy. But let somebody apply for a 125 or 135 certificate using a DC-3 or Beech 18 to carry freight or (God forbid) passengers, and cold terror grips the hearts of FSDO managers. So they often assign the project to a brand-new inspector who curls up in a fetal position, semi-catatonic at the fear of screwing up. Paperwork submitted by the hopeful operator gets shuffled around the office, misfiled, lost, found, reviewed and then sent back for correction. So it goes, back and forth, until an even greener inspector inherits the project. With a little practice even novice bureaucrats can stonewall things until the applicant dies or runs out of money, whichever comes first.

Bill Chase was waiting for me at AAR in a Twin Comanche in the late afternoon after I'd en routed on a Delta flight to Oklahoma City. Nice guy with a million stories to pass the time while we flew for several days over miles of dusty, brown Oklahoma-ness. Whether Bill was the current or former owner of Cascade -- or neither -- wasn't too clear and, anyway, I didn't want to dig too deeply. See, you can't legally "sell" a certificate. You can hire the prospective new owners, make them CEOs and chief pilots and other important stuff and then, in the dark of night, move your airplane to another district. The official base hasn't changed except nobody's there. The old owners quit or just disappear and voila, you're up and running in another district, all kosher or, to mix a metaphor, sprinkled with the requisite holy water.

It seemed odd that "industry" (FAA for nongovernment entities like Bill Chase) was hauling me for free from OK City to Guymon. That had always been verboten but maybe things were friendlier out here in the West. I hadn't broken any rules yet that day and, besides, the only other way to reach Guymon was stagecoach.

Val McCullough, the about-to-be Cascade owner/chief pilot/director of operations, met us at Guymon. He was a Frontier pilot with a 727 simulator business in Denver, a competitive businessman, a hugely capable, dependable and honest Mormon. Val and his guys were funny and friendly, good pilots and enthusiastic about their venture. I would learn that Val was in constant pain from a bad injury to his leg and foot. A year before he'd been helping a friend change a tire on a Sea Fury without the protective cage in place. The tire blew, shattering his ankle, and he was determined to save it but the prognosis wasn't good. He wouldn't let it slow him down but seeing him struggle with the pain was painful for all of us.

Rod McLennan and Val were anxious to get the rides accomplished. They planned to finish up Monday and Tuesday and take the airplane to Denver. That summer they'd fly it to Alaska, where Cascade had a contract to haul salmon off the sandy banks of the Tsiu River to a fish processing plant in Yakutat.

I hung around for three days, stretching out the orals, while Rod muttered and Val and his partner Jeff Jordan "discussed" missing records, unanticipated maintenance and who would pay for what with Bill Chase. But I was getting itchy … you can do orals for only so long and local attractions in Guymon were limited to a ConAgra plant and Wal-Mart.

When Greg Downing finished the annual he announced the airplane could be returned to service after the test flight. Guess who was the only pilot within 100 miles legal to act as PIC for the test flight? You know that breaking a few rules doesn't give me heartburn, but this airplane wasn't exactly a thing of beauty and it had been sitting for a long, long time. Even I shuddered at the thought of a mishap on an official test flight with an FAA inspector (especially me) as PIC. If I was unlucky enough not to be killed it was for sure Leavenworth … possibly even worse than the Guymon Wal-Mart! So they found somebody in Amarillo to come up and do a test flight that night … or that was the story. I must have been at Wal-Mart.

We spent the next day grinding around Liberal, Kansas, doing instrument approaches and in the process nearly wiped out an AT-6. Nobody saw him or even suspected there was another airplane in the area. The '3 had no intercom and it was hot so the cockpit windows were open. Communications in the cockpit and with the outside world were hopeless. I only learned of the near disaster days after I got home and received a call from this justly irate T-6 pilot in California. He was underneath us on an approach and, flaring out to land, saw a skyful of DC-3 rivets descending on him. I was horrified and could only apologize, thankful for one of those "grace of God" saves.

As that afternoon wore on in Liberal, the dump valve overheat light came on and we landed to pound on the stuck flap in the wheel well. Then the gear horn started squawking at inappropriate times followed by the death of the right tachometer and an inop oil temperature gauge. But by then we were nearly back in Guymon with two legal Cascade PICs. Val and Rod agreed with my strong suggestion that they fix the squawks and "get themselves and the airplane the hell out of Dodge."

Some months later I went back out west, now Ephrata, Washington, for Jeff Jordan's ATP/DC-3 type rating. Ephrata is one of those big old military airports from WWII, in the middle of the state and just north of Moses Lake. The Cascade guys had done wonders with the cockpit and added some decent avionics. Jeff, a handsome, strapping guy who'd abandoned his financial ventures in Seattle to fly airplanes, had spent several months single-handedly polishing the exterior. It was gorgeous!

We completed the oral and flew the check ride with maneuvers and holds and misses and circling approaches -- the whole enchilada -- at Ephrata, Moses Lake and McMinnville, Oregon. It's hard work; an ATP with a type rating is like the Ph.D. of flying. Jeff did a great job and, in time-honored tradition, he offered me a takeoff and landing at the end of the ride back in Ephrata. I was probably chattering away as I cranked the old girl around to line up with the runway or, rather, a runway. On close in final I thought it looked different … a little, well, rougher than I'd remembered. We were firmly on the ground when I realized it was shorter than I thought … a lot shorter. Actually the runway was very long but some mysterious lines and a row of lights split it in half about halfway down. Max braking with the tail up still wasn't going to do it and I told Jeff to hang on. I straddled a couple of the lights with the mains as we rolled through the row of lights and thought we had it made! But the tailwheel clipped one of the lights. We rolled to a stop and turned to see one broken off its base. Damn, I hate it when that happens!

"Hey, Jeff, can they see us out here from the hangars?"

"No, this part of the runway isn't visible."

"OK, pull the left engine way back and hold the brakes."

I ran back and opened the cabin door, got the ladder in place, scrambled down and retrieved the light and its base. The tailwheel and elevators were fine so I climbed back inside and buttoned it up, clutching the evidence. We were laughing like bad kids as we taxied in and Jeff swore never to tell.

So, Mr. Wren, I'm the culprit who hid the broken runway light behind the dumpster at the hangar on your airport.

I would fly with Cascade in Alaska -- wonderful adventures -- but I have to end this story on a sad note. Val, so vibrant and full of life, suddenly dropped over dead at home in Denver about a year and a half ago. Denise, his wife, sent me this picture of their little girl, Skylar, in her "pilot suit." It was to be a surprise for her daddy that Halloween but Val didn't get to see her in it … except I'm pretty sure he did.