55 King Sugar
Lockheed Lodestar, N 55 King Sugar
Kelly-Springfield Tire Company
Cumberland, Maryland calling:
My decision to move on from Holiday Inns flying was motivated primarily by family necessity. I didn’t want to be away from home as much and for so long, because my new wife and I were expecting a child in late summer. I had recently, using my GI Bill benefits, acquired an Airline Transport Pilot rating and so began in earnest our hunt for a serious job. Hopefully, to find one that provided for our young family’s needs, and have a potential for long term employment. So, once more, Mr. Luck knocked on our door.
I answered a classified ad in an aviation magazine, much the same as they remain today; it was either Flying or the AOPA Pilot. “Pilot Wanted”, is how the ad began; Commercial, Instrument, Multi-engine ratings… ATP preferred. Major Benefits – Contact Tom.
I contacted Tom. Tom was the owner of a pilot employment agency in Cumberland, Maryland. He was also a pilot working for the same company that was in need of another pilot; that being the Kelly-Springfield Tire Company. They arranged to fly me from Little Rock to Washington D.C’s National Airport, where they would pick me up to fly with them back to Cumberland, where I would be interviewed.
Bill Holbrook, the company Chief Pilot, a former Navy veteran of WW II and his co-pilot, met me on the appointed date and time at the DC airport. They appeared in another handsome airplane that I would be eager to fly. The Lockheed Lodestar (L-18) was a converted former airliner which had also been used in the military during the war. The aircraft, N55KS (November Five-Five King Sugar), was old for its day but looked brand new to me. It was a bigger airplane than I had ever flown. Originally designed as a bomber prior to World War II, its type served in the European Theater as both a transport and bomber. N55KS specifically began its war service in New Zealand in 1943, and afterwards entered service as an airliner with Union Airways in 1945. It eventually ended up with New Zealand National Airways in 1947. In the early fifties the aircraft was ferried to the US and purchased by the Kelly-Springfield Tire Company becoming N55K.
The Kelly-Springfield Tire Company, founded in 1894 by Edwin Kelly, in Springfield, Ohio, was acquired by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in 1935, and continued operating as a subsidiary. During the interview I was introduced to the nicest group of people I was ever to meet, which included the company chairman. Then later, experiencing it myself, I discovered all the employees at Kelly were treated as family. But then, unfortunately there was Tom, he would be different.
Following the interview I was offered the job. How could they resist, I had eager and earnest written all over my face. After I returned to Little Rock, we, a very brave pregnant wife and myself, packed up our belongings in a U-Haul and towed everything we owned to Cumberland, Maryland. We didn’t suspect it then but we wouldn’t be there very long.
The nature of the flying at Kelly was focused on bringing sales and marketing people in and out of its home office. There were two aircraft (both Lockheed Lodestars), that ran shuttle flights, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. One would leave Cumberland in the early morning making a round robin trip that included stops at then Washington National Airport(now Reagan National), and on to Baltimore and occasionally include Philadelphia, returning back to Cumberland by late morning. The afternoon shuttles would go to Pittsburgh and Akron, the home of its mother company Goodyear, then returning to Cumberland by early evening. Home every night and we really liked that idea a lot.
The Goodyear flight department, based in Akron, also sported their Blimp Operation which has become, and remains, a national icon at sporting events all over the country. The Kelly and Goodyear flight operations were closely related, as they also flew the Lodestars. Additionally they flew a business jet, a North American Sabreliner and a Grumman Gulfstream I, a turboprop. I was fortunate to conveniently hitch a ride in one of the blimps one day, during one of our shuttle flights into Akron; something I would never have imagined happening in my lifetime. As we were landing, I had visions of the Hindenburg’s fateful arrival at Naval Air Station Lakehurst, in 1937, which didn’t turn out so well.
I learned later that none other than American Airlines (my future employer), had contracted to fly the arriving passengers from Lakehurst, New Jersey to Newark to join up with their connecting flights.
Bill Holbrook, my chief pilot at Kelly, was a very warm and exceedingly pleasant man to fly with. He would also later become the world record holder for distance flown in a glider. That event would take place on May 5, 1973, long after I had departed for what I thought were sunnier skies. Bill, in his Libelle sailplane, did an “out and return” from the Cumberland Airport(CBE), a distance of 783 miles, flying as far north as Lockhaven, Pennsylvania, to as far south as Hansonville, Virginia. The Knobley Mountain Range, lying to the west, provided the initial lift necessary to send him on his way. Bill would add many more trophy’s to his collection of gliding achievements during his lifetime. I was always proud to have worked for him during the early era of my career in aviation.
Flying in and out of the mountainous region surrounding Cumberland, provided some hair-raising experiences. Practices and procedures followed by one pilot in particular, I would find uncomfortable and unacceptable. Most airports surrounded by mountains don’t have what are categorized as precision approaches to their runways. In other words, having an instrument glide path to guide you to the end of the runway you are to land on. Non-precision approaches are the norm, which don’t allow a descent to altitudes that might involve an aircraft coming into contact with the terrain. Which, could be hazardous to ones long term life expectancy.
Turning the page
The hair-raising flight that helped turn the page for me occurred with none other than, pilot Tom. At the end of a late morning shuttle flight on a return leg from Pittsburg back to Cumberland, with the weather marginal, it was customary to radio ahead to the hangar to get a read on the local weather. One of the mechanics, or a pilot if they were there, would answer and run outside and have a look. He would then advise how high he thought the cloud-bases were, often referred to in aviation terms as the ceiling. It is that distance from the airport elevation (ground level) to the bottom of the cloud layer which allows an aircraft, once beneath, to navigate to the airport for landing. It is what you do in a non-precision instrument approach.
Approaching Cumberland, and well into our descent for landing, we could see ahead the ridges of the mountains peeking through the layer of fog that swamped the valleys between them. Though it has been forty-eight years, I vaguely recall there being an NDB (non-directional-beacon) approach into runway 23 which is to the southwest. The beacon itself, the ground station, was located north and east of the airport. In the aircraft, the navigation instrument used for this approach is an ADF (Automatic Direction Finder), that when tuned to the correct frequency points towards the NDB on the ground. Shooting an ADF approach is one of the more difficult tasks one faces as a pilot. Let alone doing it into mountainous terrain. It’s the time when you really pay attention and earn your keep as a commercial pilot. By today’s standards of GPS this, and GPS that, the NDB approach was and remains a primitive endeavor.
We were descending into a non-radar environment, with no control tower at the airport. Once the enroute air traffic controller cleared you for the approach, you were on your own. The weather report from the guys in the hangar, on their guess at the cloud bases that morning, wasn’t exactly comforting to me. Shooting the approach, when you suspect you aren’t going to see anything was doubly troubling. My Captain, the pilot in command, this would be Tom, seemed anxious and I was aware of his tensely chewing on his unlit cigar, of which he was always very fond. As we continued to descend, and approaching the final approach fix, the aircraft was configured for landing; flaps and landing gear were extended. The friction lock on the throttles was loosened to allow for their easier movement, prop controls were pushed to high RPM and the mixture controls were now on full rich. So down we go.
There is no decision height (DH) on non-precision approaches, where upon reaching with no runway in sight, you fly away. There is instead a minimum descent altitude where once level you continue flying along until time runs out. The time element is calculated ahead of time by estimating the aircraft ground speed. If the number is based on 90 mph that equates to a mile and a half a minute, or, if it is 120 mph it is two miles a minute. If the distance from the final approach fix is one mile you allow 60 seconds to the missed approach point referred to as the MAP.
The field elevation at Cumberland is 775 feet above sea level. As we descend into the cloud I could see the many towers on the ridge-lines to the northwest and southwest, some reaching as high as three or four thousand feet. There were more than twenty of them. Because it has been so many years I’m guessing today our MDA, or minimum descent altitude, would have been in the area of 1500 feet and the time to missed approach at a little over a minute beyond the final approach fix. I’m also going to guess the minimum safe altitude is in the vicinity of five thousand feet within the twenty-five miles surrounding the Cumberland airport.
We have descended now to our published minimum altitude, cruising along, looking out for the airport ahead and have just run the limit of our timed approach. There was no airport, only fog. At this point I say to Tom, in the form of a question, “Missed Approach Tom?” Captain Tom doesn’t reply and I glance at him and watch as he continues gnawing on his cigar. I then look at the altimeter and become alarmingly aghast as I see we are continuing our descent. We are now just a few hundred feet above the airport elevation and Tom hasn’t said a word. What does one do at this point? I feel trapped and somewhat terrified. Busting minimums is not something I am accustomed to doing, nor has Tom let me in on his plan. Fortunately, within a few seconds, we break out of the clouds and dead ahead sits the runway. I got the feeling that Tom has done this before, I just wished he had let me in on his plan. At least then I might have had a vote.
Afterwards, I let Tom know how unhappy I was with his procedure. He was a gruff character to begin with, and my questioning his piloting decision didn’t sooth him to any new degree. Tom and I didn’t get along well after that event. I was to learn later, what goes around comes around and continuing with bad habits have a way of biting you in the butt.
Nearly ten years after our incident, Tom was involved in an aircraft accident at the Cumberland Airport in a Kelly airplane. Fortunately, there were no injuries to the eight passengers aboard. The aircraft, an MU2, suffered substantial damage. At the time of the accident there were low ceilings in the area, the visibility, restricted by snow was less than 2 miles. The NTSB lists the probable cause of the hard landing as: “Aircraft not aligned with the runways intended landing area, improper level off, and failure to initiate a go-around.” The aircraft, a small turboprop, ended up in a snow bank. The winds were listed as calm.
I was to continue working for Kelly through the end of the year in 1968. We were happy living in the area and loved our neighbors. Our apartment was on a hilltop overlooking the North fork of the Potomac River. We were settling in for the long haul and so I signed up once again with the Famous Artist Course in Westport, Connecticut; my second attempt. And why did I suffer this continuous urge to also be an artist, it would take another generation before I was to discover the why of that.
A blessed event occurred on August 23rd of 1968; our son Ronnie Jr. was born in Cumberland. Doctor Leland Ransom, a self-described glider pilot himself, of the soon to be Cumberland Soaring Group, delivered our prize possession.
Yet another Big Surprise
Sometime in early November, of the same year, I received a letter from a friend that had attended, along with me, the same Electra Flight Engineer Course at American Flyers in Ardmore, Oklahoma. His name was Bill Sieg. He went on to inform me that Overseas National Airways was hiring both pilots and flight engineers for their Lockheed Electra cargo operation. Without hesitation I sent them a request for an application and received one back in a few weeks. I hadn’t decided that I wanted to leave Kelly just yet, I still had major issues with Tom, but I was able to work around them. Bill Holbrook made it worthwhile, but I sent in the application anyhow.
Within a week or so I received a telegram informing me I have an interview scheduled at the ONA Headquarters, at the JFK Airport in New York; during the second week in December and to please confirm your attendance. They outlined my interview would involve taking a written Stanine Exam, a medical, a psychiatric exam, and to expect a lie detector test. Whoa I thought, am I ready for this, so I showed up anyhow.
Their forewarning was correct; I experienced all of the above as it applied to the exam process. I returned home to Cumberland slightly disillusioned, because the number of pilots appearing for interviews that day owned flying experience that far outweighed mine. There were former military pilots, furloughed pilots from other airlines and active pilots from local feeder carriers. I didn’t expect to hear back from ONA other than a thank you for attending and we’ll be in touch when we have something. This was a standard reply for most all airlines. I had a drawer full of them. Well, maybe not a drawer full, but I had a few.
Shortly before my 28th birthday, which is the 15th of December, I received a telegram asking me if I could start ground school training on January 6th, 1969 at the ONA Training Center in New York. But, here is the biggest surprise of all; I was to be trained not to fly the Lockheed Electra, but to fly the Douglas DC-9, a pure jet. I had never flown a jet aircraft in my life. Where had I gone wrong?