Unusual Attitudes: A Lockheed Lodestar Love Affair

Owning the Lockheed was a financial lodestone but worth every penny.

The following article is from Flying’s May 2013 issue.

My pilot certificate has some eclectic type ratings — a Lockheed 18 Lodestar, the Fairchild Swearingen SA-227 (Metroliner or San Antonio Stovepipe), the Douglas DC-3 and then there’s that commercial hot air balloon thing. But I gotta tell you, the most exotic flying machine, the one that makes me feel most like an aviator, is the Lockheed Lodestar. And, hands-down, it’s the one I’d most love to fly again.

An L-18 and the endless Learstar and Howard conversions just ooze glamour. It’s the ’40s and ’50s, a dashing Howard Hughes in that crushed-velvet brown fedora and Katharine Hepburn wearing a shoulder-padded suit, platform heels and bright red lipstick. It’s a Hobo Steak at Chasen’s, an Auburn or a Cord pulled up on the tarmac, Bungalow 5 at the Beverly Hills Hotel and drinks in the Polo Lounge. There’s just something about the cockpit configuration and slanted instrument panel — you can’t fly one without pulling on the brim of that fedora or adjusting those shoulder pads, thinking about your dinner date that night at Jack and Charlie’s 21 or the suite waiting for you at Wilbur Clark’s new Desert Inn in Las Vegas (modeled on Cincinnati’s long-gone, glamorous and illicit Beverly Hills Supper Club). For me, flying a Lodestar evokes a whole new persona and strongly suggests I was born 20 years too late!

Of course, the Lodestar is a DC-3 on steroids. With those same 1,200 horses on each side but weighing 5,000 pounds less at gross takeoff weight, it’ll give you about 175 knots to the Doug’s 145. And the Lodestar’s much more responsive on the controls; you probably know that flying the lovable but gawky Goon is a lot like pushing your great-aunt around a dance floor.

Well, about the time Ebby and I got married, he bought International Paper Co.’s beautiful Lockheed 18, and while I normally abhor the practice of naming an airplane, in this case it was inevitable. See, there was a 30-year difference in our ages, and the newspapers had been carrying a story about a lion named Frazier living in a Mexican zoo. Because of his advanced age, the lion’s “studly” prowess was, well, a thing of the past, and he was on his way to the glue factory. But the San Diego Zoo rescued Frazier and, to the amazement of his keepers — not to mention a harem of lionesses — he thrived and proceeded to sire an impressive number of cubs.

Overnight, an image of a fierce lion with the name Frazier appeared on the nose of our new Lockheed; it was cleverly done, glorious and very funny.

Somehow, this particular Lodestar, N59720, was certificated for single-pilot operation — I think it involved derating the max gross takeoff weight from 19,500 to 17,500 pounds. Anyway, after I got a type rating, I’d occasionally fly it alone or with my sister Mary in the right seat — when I was sure Ebby wasn’t around. It really was no big deal if everything worked; my biggest concern was a go-around, because it’s a heavy airplane and I had to use considerable nose-up elevator trim on landing. The trim is a silly little crank, much like the one on a Tri-Pacer or an Aztec, mounted vertically on the lower center console, and there was no way in hell I’d have the strength to hold the nose down with one hand if I was shoving the throttles forward for a go-around. So I’d conduct an extensive briefing, if anybody rode in the right seat, about cranking that little wheel counterclockwise if I yelled for it.

I was driving past the airport on a hot Friday afternoon in July on my way home from the grocery with a load of stuff for a dinner party that night. The sky was achingly deep blue with cottony puffs of fair-weather cu, and the Lodestar was just sitting there on the terminal ramp, begging to be flown. I couldn’t leave meat, butter and lettuce in a hot car, so I drove out on the ramp (not a problem in those days) and put three or four bags of groceries in the airplane. The low belly on a Lodestar allows you to step right into the cabin without climbing a ladder or struggling with an airstair door.

Well, I flew around for a while and shot a few landings, making damn sure I gave wide berth to the Camargo Club about four miles northeast, where Ebby was playing golf. It was close to 5 p.m. when I landed and parked the airplane on the ramp in front of the Sky Galley Restaurant. This was a popular watering hole, especially on Friday afternoons, for regulars — groups of men heading home to the eastern suburbs from town. I retrieved my car from the parking lot and drove out to the airplane. I was unloading the groceries when a big, red-faced Irishman named Jay Kennedy came striding out of the restaurant and across the ramp, drink in hand (also not a problem in those days).

“Well, I’ll be a &@!%#.” (Jay was a rough-hewn guy who managed a beef packinghouse in the city’s underbelly). “Now I’ve seen everything. You mean you actually fly this %#$!@#* thing somewhere to buy groceries?”

It was far too good to pass up, so I described a marvelous (but imaginary) gourmet grocery in Cleveland, where one could find “real foie gras and special French brie and, oh, even Belgian endives. It was, after all, only a two-hour flight … ”

Jay’s eyes glazed over; he gulped his drink and headed inside for another.

Ebby’s idea was to keep the Lockheed flying by enticing groups of friends who’d use it for Notre Dame football games, golf weekends at Pinehurst or ski excursions to Boyne Mountain. If you’ve ever owned a big airplane, you know how logical that idea sounds but how seldom it works. Occasionally, it did happen, however; there was the trip to Louisiana when I nearly ended up in a swamp as alligator bait.

A former Cincinnatian, a friend of Ebby’s and his set, managed a sugar plantation near Baton Rouge, and his daughter was getting married in their gorgeous antebellum mansion — white pillars, garlands of magnolia blossoms and a staff of old retainers. We loaded Frazier with food, drinks, and 10 or 11 friends bound for the weekend festivities, but the only rooms we could find in southern Louisiana were at a nearby motel — most definitely not antebellum.

Well, late on Saturday night after the wedding, Ebby was sound asleep in the motel and I was deep into flight planning, with charts for the trip home spread all over the bed. We were on the second floor of this no-tell motel, which was full of funny cars, drivers, groupies and fans, as the reason for the dearth of rooms was a National Hot Rod Association race featuring a guy named Don Prudhomme — a very big deal in Baton Rouge.

It was well after midnight and somebody was revving an engine in the parking lot below. When it had gone on long enough, I headed outside in my baby doll pajamas and leaned over the balcony to see an anemic James Dean look-alike in his dragster with his “sweet thang,” beer in hand, draped over him and the funny car.

“Hey, you know, there are people trying to sleep around here.”

“Sweet thang” looked up and shouted a most unladylike expletive followed by a very rude gesture — definitely not Southern belle material.

Ebby was still sleeping peacefully when I charged back into the room, took the still-full ice bucket outside and scored a direct hit on this bimbo and her boyfriend’s obnoxious car.

Well, all hell broke loose as an army of ragin’ Cajuns came charging up the stairs, pounding on every door, looking for the person who’d rained ice on the dragster. Ebby woke rather quickly, and I gave an abbreviated explanation of why we’d better not open the door. The noise outside was awesome. He called the desk and, sure enough, they dispatched “security,” a kid of about 17 who had absolutely no effect on anybody. Finally, somebody had the sense to call the locals, at which point the Cajuns dispersed.

I think I had a drink or two to calm down but very little sleep. Ebby was so angry he wouldn’t even talk, and the flight home in Frazier was very quiet and very, very long.

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