Unusual Attitudes: DC-3s and DC-4s — but No Alligators

When I was a little girl growing up on the west side of Cincinnati in the '50s, I was obsessed with airplanes, but the closest I came to any were the distinctive V-tails that flew regularly over our house. And I remember my father saying, "There go the Hogans," referring to four brothers who operated an air taxi service from their airport in Hamilton, Ohio, to Cincinnati's Boone County Airport across the river in northern Kentucky. But the real "aha moment" came when I saw the 1954 movie The Bridges at Toko-Ri with Grumman F9F Panthers (depicted as Banshees) streaking through rugged valleys and soaring through canyons of clouds. I distinctly remember looking out my bedroom window that night and vowing I'd do that someday.

That same year, when author Ernie Gann's The High and the Mighty hit theaters, I kind of switched allegiance from fighter jets to "big iron." Watching the copilot, John Wayne, smack the captain, Robert Stack, and take over that big DC-4 — yeah, that's what I wanted to fly.

Well, flying an SNJ and DC-3s would be as close as I'd get to being a female version of William Holden or John Wayne, but I never got over my love affair with DC-4s. Between 1942 and 1946 Douglas built 1,245 for the military as C-54s and R5Ds. Some were meant for the postwar airline market, but they didn't see commercial service for long before being replaced with larger, faster DC-6s and -7s. But the DC-4 earned a special place in history for its role in the Berlin Airlift at the end of World War II. For me, it will always be the quintessential big airplane (followed closely by the C-46 which, after all, has a tailwheel).

For 25 years I would visit Griffin, Georgia, sent by the FAA for recurrent training in the DC-3s operated by Bob McSwiggan's Academy Airlines. Bob also operated two Carvair freighters from this airport south of Atlanta with only 3,100 feet of runway. The Carvair, Englishman Freddie Laker's DC-4 conversion, could haul massive amounts of freight, and seeing it take off and land from a 3,100-foot strip was impressive. They'd go out light, usually in the middle of the night, using every bit of the runway, to pick up and deliver big freight around the country or around the world. With its big bulbous nose (like a mini 747) the Carvair isn't a handsome airplane, but it's essentially a DC-4 and therefore, to me, beautiful. I'd crawl up in the cockpit and rest my hands on those four — yes, four — sets of props, throttles and mixtures and stare at the banks of instruments. There's little chance of anybody stealing the airplane; if you don't start from the ground with the correct foot on the first ladder rung and the right handhold, you'll never find your way up into the "front office." Once up there it feels like you're sitting in a second-story bedroom and flying your house.

On one of my Griffin trips Academy was doing some training or maintenance flight-testing and Bob's son, Bruce McSwiggan, put me in the left seat. I learned how to use the funny, spring-loaded, side-mounted "tiller" for ground steering and line up on the centerline with the tail hanging over the fence. Bruce told me to shove everything forward and the rudder would soon become effective. He'd fine-tune the power and call the speed to rotate, and we'd climb out to the northeast for some landings at the longer Clayton County Airport.

Well, we didn't "take off" in the traditional sense — after eating up nearly every one of those 3,100 feet we actually levitated. With Bruce coaching and helping with the massive amounts of elevator trim required to flare out, I'd give my landings a "6" or a "7." Not too shabby for a heavy, unboosted airplane with a brand-new "captain" at the controls!

There aren't many DC-4s left — maybe a dozen operated by Canada's Buffalo Airways and a few in Africa — so my ears perked up when friends who flew for a company in Houma, Louisiana, told me they used a DC-4 for an aerial oil dispersant business. They assured me I'd be welcome to visit, but I had second thoughts when Google Maps located Houma on the Gulf of Mexico, about 25 minutes south of Thibodaux, Louisiana. If you're familiar with Jerry Reed's song, you know this is where Amos Moses' daddy would "tie a rope around his waist and throw him in the swamp (as) alligator bait in the Louisiana bayou." I am absolutely terrified of alligators!

Flying the Cessna 180 to Houma would take major chunks of time and change, but when a friend who flies for Airborne Support invited me to ride along in his MU-2, I decided it was time to get over my alligator thing. First I thought it prudent to check with the guy who owns the company; having some "loose cannon" lady pilot who writes for an aviation magazine show up unannounced at your hangar might ruffle some feathers — and this was alligator country. However, Brad Barker was not only OK with the idea but even offered a room in the "pilot house" and an invitation to sit in on training scheduled for the following week.

ASI's specialty and expertise lie in being equipped and ready to spray aerial oil dispersant from two recip DC-3s, a DC-3 turbine conversion (BT-67) and the DC-4. There are smaller "spotter aircraft," but the big airplanes have massive fuselage tanks filled with nontoxic dispersant (or water for practice runs) and are fitted with external spray rigs that extend the length of the wings. There hasn't been a disaster since the "Deepwater Horizon" event, but oil companies with rigs out in the Gulf depend on them for immediate response in the event of another spill. The safe, food-grade chemical dispersant is sprayed while flying about 100 feet over the water, and it breaks oil into microscopic globules that are consumed by bacteria. But making good on a pledge of a "24/7 firehouse response" means keeping the airplanes, spray equipment and pilots ready to go at any time.

An old friend, Bob Davis, would be training and giving check rides in the DC-3s and the DC-4 that week. Since retiring from United Airlines, Bob's been a National Designated Pilot Examiner, qualified to give type ratings and competency checks in an impressive array of large, vintage aircraft. He performs on the airshow circuit in a Sukhoi, flies and maintains a Globe Swift and is a longtime A&P mechanic with Inspection Authorization. Bob has flown the EAA B-17 for years, and in their "spare time," he and his wife, Michele, restore old classic cars.

"Mr. Howard," Brad's father, who started the business about 25 years ago, stopped by one day and invited me into his office for a chat. It took me nearly 25 minutes to charm a smile out of this formidable character, but I guess he decided he could trust this "ex-fed lady" and told stories about his early days in Florida "doing rodeo," moving into airplanes and crop dusting, and eventually pioneering this aerial dispersant business.

It was interesting to experience this different Cajun country, which is all about oil and fishing and aviation. But, beyond interesting, I learned a lot about the people, the airplanes and even some life lessons:

I learned about the DC-4 because Bob's close-up photographs of the airplane cockpit, the systems and components were so effective. With those graphics and his explanations, even a klutz like me could understand the DC-4's complex fuel system.

I learned that good old American ingenuity can repurpose iconic 65-year-old airplanes to do a job better than anyone could have imagined.

I watched some pros fly — mostly "well-seasoned" guys with big bellies, wind-weathered eyes and rough, gnarled hands, who love what they do.

I watched a knowledgeable, talented instructor, a real gentleman but also a demanding taskmaster, conduct flight checks. I took away some useful ideas and techniques about demanding proficiency but treating applicants with courtesy and respect.

I learned that N932H, the BT-67 in which I gave so many flight checks when it was a recip freighter in the Midwest and which I flew to Oshkosh for its conversion to a turbine, does everything better than a "standard" DC-3. It just doesn't sound right.

I learned the DC-4 is still the neatest airplane in the world — a big, heavy piece of iron that, with a good copilot and enough elevator trim, can be handled by a pilot who weighs in at 103 pounds.

I learned that any woman who grew up without brothers should, before getting married, have to spend a week in a pilot "crash pad."

And I learned that all the alligators 25 miles south of Thibodaux, Louisiana, have migrated. I didn't see a one.

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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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