Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sundays with Steve - For the Love of Flying

Since I’ve started writing “Sundays with Steve” I’ve been thinking about vignettes of my life growing up in North Idaho. I realize the town where I grew up and the life I lived with my family is really a classic, all-American story. Perhaps you will recognize some of your childhood in these writings. And perhaps you will recognize the town you grew up in, too, and some of the characters you knew. Mrs. Steve has encouraged me to write these as attempts of “creative writing” as opposed to the more factual journalistic style I was trained in and practiced in my early career, all those years ago. So my apologies if I stumble a bit here and there trying to blend the two styles together


I loved airplanes when I was growing up, and I learned in 30-seconds one day that I loved flying, and I still do.

My mother would sometimes pack a picnic and drive us out to the airport, where we would sit at the end of the runway hoping for an airplane to take off or land. It was a thrill when one did. If the airplane was a giant passenger airliner, the thunder of it passing overhead was almost more than I could stand.

This was the mid1950’s, there was no security at the airport, there wasn’t even a fence around the runways, everything was open to anyone who happened along.

Each year there was an “air show” at the NezPerce County Airport as it was, and still is, called. Small airplanes would take off and land all day, a few passenger planes might be open for you to walk through and dream of flying-off somewhere; the military might have brought one of their WWII war birds in for display; two-winged crop dusters would show off their prowess in the air; and I recall small airplanes racing automobiles down the runway, with the cars always leading until the airplane got in the air and got up to speed, then the cars didn’t have a chance. I loved the air shows, I loved the airplanes, and I loved everything about them and around them. I wanted to fly!

In 1958 my father announced my birthday present that year: My mother and I would fly from Lewiston to Coeur d’Alene on West Coast Airlines the next week. Oh man, I think that was about the most excited I had ever been. It was the best present of my life. I was ten years old, and I was going to fly! Flying! Think of it! The next few days were torture waiting to take off.

My father and brothers planned to drive to Coeur d’Alene, a four and half hour trip in those years, and meet us at the airport there. My mother and I would cover the same distance in less than one and a half hours, with a stop at the Pullman-Moscow airport on the way. Amazing, I just couldn’t believe it. Once at Coeur d’Alene, we would spend a Memorial Day weekend at Lake Pend Oreille.

There was only one regional airline in those years covering the Northwest, a Seattle outfit called West Coast Airlines (and that eventually, following 50 years of mergers, became a part of Delta).

The big day came, finally. My father and brothers left the house early so they would be at the Coeur d’Alene airport when we landed there in early afternoon.

My parent’s best friends, Wes and Dorothy Tolennar, drove my mother and me to the airport. Dorothy was an expert on airline flying, she said. As a young woman she had been a stewardess for the former Zimmer Airlines that eventually merged with others to for United Airlines. Dorothy told us that in the “old” days when she worked in 1946 to become a stewardess you must also be a nurse. She briefed us all about flying West Coast Airlines that morning, where the best seats are located (over the wings for a smoother ride), where to find the barf bags (seat pocket), and how to keep your ears clear when climbing or descending at high altitudes (chew gum, hold your nose, blow out your ears). I’m not sure she really helped. Barf bags?

I took it all in, I couldn’t wait. “Mrs. Tolennar, please,” I asked, “Could you drive faster, we might miss the flight”. It was a 10 minute drive from the house to the airport. We got there early, maybe 30 minutes before flight time. We checked in at the counter. The tickets had already been purchased from the downtown travel agency for approximately $6 each. The airplane held only 28 passengers, and as I recall, there may have been half that number checking in. Check in too maybe five minutes. Then we waited.

We were dressed- up, of course. Flying was a big event in those years. People dressed in their Sunday best to fly. Slacks, dress shirt, shoes for me, a long dress and hat for my mother.

West Coast Airlines flew only DC-3s. Douglas Aircraft stopped manufacturing these airplanes in 1946 after building 11,000 of them, mostly for use by militaries in World War II. They were the most popular airliner in the world in the pre-jet era of the 1950’s. They were fast (they cruised at 165 mph), they flew long distances without refueling (up to 1,000 miles), and they flew high without pressurization (a 12,000 feet ceiling, but mostly in the 5,000 to 8,000 feet range for passenger comfort).

I ran to the boarding gate when the announcer called out that West Coast Airlines was landing. The boarding area was outside, and it had a short wire fence separating it from the airplane parking area, called an apron. Security? No, it didn’t exist.

I watched the West Coast DC-3 hit the runway and then roar over to the terminal parking area. The airplane was incredibly loud. I’m sure I was jumping up and down. I watched as the front door opened and the stairs were lowered to the ground. Maybe 12 people got off. I wished they would hurry a bit more.

A man unloaded some luggage from the back of the airplane, and another drove a fuel truck up to the wing and pumped gasoline into the tank. That took maybe five minutes for both. I thought it took a lifetime. Compared to today’s airline travel, it was lightning fast.

We were first in line to get on the airplane. The flight was called; maybe 10 other passengers were with us to board. The airplane had been on the ground 15 minutes that point. I climbed the steep steps to the cabin, walked in and was greeted by a well-dressed stewardess. She said we could sit anywhere. We found two seats over the wing, and I took the window.

Five minutes later the front door was closed, the captain came on the PA system (although you could see him if you looked up the aisle and through the curtains to the cockpit) and announced that we were leaving on the 20 minute flight to Pullman, Washington. The giant two piston engines roared to life, and the airplane started to move across the apron. (No, the plane was not pushed back from the terminal gate – there was no gate, and it didn’t have to be pushed anywhere, it moved forward across the apron under its own power.)

That take-off was the first of thousands in my life-time, and maybe the most thrilling. It look 30 seconds go from a standing stop to lifting off the runway. I couldn’t believe how the ground looked traveling at more than 100 miles an hour down that runway, and the feeling of lifting off the ground was like lifting off for heaven for this 10-year old. The airplane roared, and so did I, at least inside, with excitement.

The ground dropped away and we climbed slowly into the sky. I could see houses from the plane. I saw streets and cars and people. And wait, there was my house down there! I was totally unprepared for the visual experience of flight. I loved it.

We climbed over the city and headed north toward Pullman. I could see the farm fields of the Palouse stretch out, deep greens and browns in patterns I had never seen before. We were speeding across the landscape, the fastest I had ever traveled, and we were sky high: We were passing by white fluffy clouds that you could almost touch outside the window. Astounding, I was floored. We were at least three or maybe four thousand feet above the ground. It felt like 10-miles to me.

The stewardess brought a pair of wings that she clipped on my shirt. The captain came back and shook my hand for my first flight. I think I was self-conscious, but beaming, and I was anxious to get back to the window so I could watch that new fascinating world pass by.

A few minutes later we started our decent into the Pullman airport. Dropping out of the sky was scary and fun, like riding a Farris wheel at the carnival. Then seeing the runway come up quickly on the underside the airplane was a bit frightening. I braced for the crash I hoped wasn’t coming. My mother said not to worry, all was ok. She was right. There was no crash. But I was puzzled. The touchdown was so smooth I couldn’t tell when we hit the ground, and being over the wings, I could not see the tires on the landing gear.

We taxied to the Pullman terminal building, a tiny affair, where the pilot shut down the door-side engine, but left the opposite engine running. Two people got off the plane. One got on. Five minutes later we were taxing back to the runway and jumped back into the sky, where we belonged.

The hour flight onto Coeur d’Alene was a continuing wonder of sights and sounds: white clouds, and some not so white; springtime farm land, mountains covered by pines, a few highways, a few lakes, cows and other animals, it was like a movie without a plot rolling by in real-life Technicolor. The stewardess brought lunch, a hot lunch that had been heated in on-board oven in this pre-microwave time. I don’t remember the lunch; I was too busy watching the views.

We landed far too soon at Coeur d’Alene and found my father and brothers waiting at the bottom of the airplane stairs. We claimed our bags that were delivered to the front of the terminal and walked to the car that was parked a couple of feet away at the front curb. Security? Parking garages? No, none of that here.

I don’t think my excitement ebbed for a long time that day. Actually, 50 years later, I still get excited about flying, although now I hate flying commercially due to security, long lines, crowded airports and crowded airplanes, cramped seats, lack of leg room, bad food, no food, expensive everything, etc., etc., etc. -- you can call me one of those cranky whining passengers, I am one. But flying in a small airplane, where it feels that you can touch the ground or the sky or the passing clouds just outside your window? There is nothing like it. I still love it, and the thrill is still there, almost the same as that first flight on that West Coast Airlines DC-3.

I have more West Coast Airline stories to share.

And maybe we’ll talk about the Cessna’s I piloted for a few years until that near crash on landing one day, when I decided I had enough fun flying small planes and that it was someone else’s turn to have all that fun. Or, well, maybe we won’t.


Pat Tillett said...

Another great story! (I love these things!)
Now that is a great childhood memory! I've flown in more than one of those DC-3's. I think they were the largest tail dragger used for commerical passenger service.

Judie said...

WOW! I'm impressed! Are you Wonder Woman? And where is Lewiston?

Anonymous said...

Another great many memories and told is such great detail I could almost hear the engines roaring...
Those were the days...
Looking forward to more stories :D


Annesphamily said...

What a terrific story! I always like to stop by and read your stories. Anne

myletterstoemily said...

this is such a great story! i can remember
getting all dressed up to fly. now people
go in their flannels. :)

i'm not a great flyer but have to do it all
the time. i'm with you, i far prefer a
small jet to a security line.

thanks for the nostalgic trip.


Susan Anderson said...

I took my first airplane flight when I was 7 years old, in a small plane. It was thrilling.

You've captured a lot of it here. Thanks for the memories.


Pat @ Mille Fiori Favoriti said...

I've only flown in a non commercial airplane once, and it was very exciting!

I also remember airports without fences and security. My father would drive us to the airport to watch the airplanes take off .. such innocent days that, sadly, will never be seen again.

Gattina said...

How times have changed ! I took my first airplane when I was 22 and even that was exceptional in Europe. My first airport I saw when I moved with my parents to Brussels in 1959 it was also all open and you could watch the planes.
In 1950 when I lived in Germany it was still under American occupation and people had other thoughts to survive than watching airplanes, lol ! I used to play in ruins and had a lot of fun.Children don't realize.

Terra said...

Steve, thanks for sharing this story. I so miss the days of old when traveling was a treat not a chore, and your childhood memories of watching the planes are so cool, many young boys are missing out...

H said...

Believe it or not, I still haven't flown in an aeroplane! Over here, we don't use planes for internal hops anywhere near as much as you (for obvious reasons)and most of my holidays have been taken in the UK. I have been up in a glider though. And I'm aiming at a hot air balloon for my last decade birthday(slightly late).