Unusual Attitudes: Flights of the Condor

Conducting check rides for DC-3 airfreight operations.

DC-3 airfreight
(LR) Golverdi Peymani, Martha Lunken and Don Toeppen, next to N47CE.Martha Lunken

It was past 10 o’clock, and we were beat after eight hours grinding around Illinois and Wisconsin on check rides for a new Part 135 air-taxi company. Goldie and I were sitting in the dark, deserted terminal building at Rockford Airport while Don went back out on the ramp to see if the mechanic was getting anywhere with the right engine on N47CE. Don had rejected two takeoffs in the DC-3 that night when, just before reaching Vr, the right engine oil pressure light came on. “That’s for real, Don. I didn’t do it,” I said from the right seat. The odd thing was that everything checked out OK — no light and good oil pressure — when we did static run-ups, even at high power settings.

Flying with Golverdi Peymani and Don Toeppen had been a joy, and if we could get this thing fixed and back to Aurora tonight, we’d launch tomorrow on 25 hours of proving runs. This old girl (the DC-3, not me) had an astounding history. Built in Oklahoma City, it was ferried to England during World War II and made a record 186 Berlin airlift flights. Somebody bought and ferried it from England to Sydney, Australia, and then it came back to another company in England. The current owners, Condor Enterprises, had found it in Canada, where the Hudson’s Bay Company had flown it for years on mining surveys in the far north. Back home as N47CE, it had been lovingly restored and “passenger-fied.” Unfortunately, the current owners had fatuously, vacuously and inanely dubbed it Happy Charley.

No airplane — and especially no DC-3 — should be desecrated with a smiley face or a name like Happy Charley.

Don, a retired United captain, had been working with Condor since the beginning of a marathon (eight years) certification process with the Chicago FSDO. Goldie was new to the company but had plenty of experience in DC-3s as well as large jets. A native of Iran, he’d flown for Shah Reza Pahlavi and was well-known in his country as an Olympian and torchbearer. But when the shah was deposed in 1979, Goldie’s Baha’i religious beliefs forced him to leave Iran — fast. Although Baha’i is a form of Islam, members are considered apostates in Iran. They’re subject to arrest, imprisonment, torture and execution; at best they suffer confiscation and destruction of property and denial of employment, government benefits, civil rights and access to higher education. So Goldie immigrated to the States, got his U.S. pilot certificates, became a citizen, married and proudly showed me pictures of his wife and two Japanese-Jordanian-American boys.

He’d been flying big jets for several airfreight companies on the East Coast but told me that night he was tired of the nomadic existence; he wanted to settle somewhere and spend more time with his family. Comparatively, the starting pay at Condor was modest, but the cost of living in the Midwest was far lower than New York, and the company seemed promising — the brainchild of two lawyers who believed Chicago-area people would jump at the chance to fly in a DC-3 to football weekends and golf outings.

Passenger-configured DC-3s with clean, nicely decorated interiors and comfy reclining seats, window curtains and well-stocked galleys, weren’t my shtick. I’d grown up in utilitarian freighters with metal-sheathed interiors, beefed-up floors, big cargo doors and winches mounted up front to pull in freight pallets. Elegance and cleanliness were not priorities; you were OK with a wardrobe of oil-stained T-shirts and pants, cockpits littered with candy wrappers and empty pop cans, and leaking windshields stuffed with Kotex or paper towels. Maybe I’m wired oddly (OK, no maybe), but I’m more comfortable in a Goon with a coffee can of tobacco juice and cigarette butts on the cockpit floor than in one with carpets and plush seats.

At Cincinnati FSDO, my real job, loosely and facetiously called safety program manager, meant I managed nothing more than staying below my boss’s line of fire. The safety program was great fun, but I still thanked the Lord for my type rating and DC-3 experience. There weren’t many in the FAA, so I was in demand for freight outfits hauling auto parts — a big business in the ’80s and ’90s. When I pulled out an old logbook yesterday, I was surprised to see initial type ratings and check rides with 11 different freight companies in 1992. This Condor certification had hit snags and stretched on for an uncommonly long time; it would eventually be certificated, only to shut down soon after. But more about that later …

No airplane — and especially no DC-3 — should be desecrated with a smiley face or a name like Happy Charley.

We did make it back to Aurora that night. I’m embarrassed to admit we all believed the mechanic who dipped the tanks and said 20 gallons in the 32-gallon right engine tank was plenty. It wasn’t. When we accelerated down the runway and the tail came up, there was cavitation in the tank and the pressure light came on. Pouring four or five gallons in the tank put everything right.

I anticipated the proving-run marathon with inspectors from the West Chicago FSDO would be interesting. My memories of the guys who’d be (reluctantly) riding along were, uh, troublesome. As Nevil Shute wrote in Slide Rule, “I am very willing to recognize the good in many men … but a politician or a civil servant is still to me an arrogant fool till he is proved otherwise.” It was probably mutual: I might consider them arrogant fools, but they didn’t see me as the FAA’s poster child. But heck, they’d be riding the cushions in back, and I’d be on the jumpseat — and probably up front flying but ready to scramble back if somebody wanted to come into the cockpit.

While we talked that night in the terminal, Goldie had asked what I thought about Condor’s chances for success. I admired him, and this wasn’t my first rodeo with passenger-carrying DC-3 schemes. It sounded eerily similar to my ex-husband’s Midwest Airways and Richard Branson’s Vintage Airways, where I’d done check rides in Florida. Both offered passengers nostalgic DC-3 experiences on scheduled routes. Both failed.

Now, I should have said nothing. But I’m not built that way, so I told him that I honestly believed Condor’s chances of a successful, long-term operation were zero. This in spite of a letter of reprimand already growing in my file (I’ll share more of them with you some day) after one of the owners had called me about another pilot applicant.

“Do you know ‘Ace Noise?’” she’d asked.

“Yeah.”

“So, tell me, is he a good pilot?”

“One of the best sticks I’ve ever flown with in the DC-3.”

“Anything else?”

“Yeah, he doesn’t have the sense God gave geese.”

She related what I’d said to the pilot, who of course called my boss, and you-know-what hit the fan. I was both confident I’d done the right thing and a little miffed at the lady-lawyer-owner who’d quoted me to the rejected applicant.

Well, we successfully completed the proving runs, but Don retired and Goldie took a job flying freight in DC-3s with Rhoades Aviation in Columbus, Indiana. He would stay there for years, raising his kids in the “Athens of the Prairie” until he died in the late ’90s. I was still involved with Condor about a year later when they hired a new chief pilot with legal but minimal DC-3 experience. In May 1989, Karen Ulane was training other pilots in the ’3 for the Part 135 check rides I’d be giving.

“The twin-engine airplane was owned by Condor Enterprises Inc., of Aurora, which only last week had received certification from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate an air-taxi-and-cargo service. The accident occurred on a training flight 5 miles from DeKalb Airport [when] the DC-3 entered a spin, recovered, entered a second spin and crashed. The airframe was destroyed, [and] there were three fatalities.” (From the NTSB report.)