Discovering my Aviation Roots: Part 1

I really do think aviation is in my blood. My parents met as flight attendants on Eastern Airlines in the early 80s and my dad spent more than 30 years in the U.S. Air Force. Simply put, planes are near and dear to my family. So I figured, why not learn a little more about my parents’ ties to flying… from how they began their aviation careers to their most exciting (and scariest) memories. 

We’ll start with my dad. As I’m sure is the case for a lot of daughters, my dad is a hero to me. I loved learning more about his past, and I hope you will too.

When and how was your interest in aviation first piqued?

I had zero interest in flight until I was a junior in college at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. One of my friends and I decided to hitchhike from Jackson to Knoxville to see a Kentucky vs. Tennessee football game. We got one ride all the way to Nashville, which was 120 miles, and then stood on the freeway for a couple of hours with no luck. We were right at the exit for the airport, and thought, “What the heck, let’s see how much it costs to fly to Knoxville!” We walked to the terminal and found that a one-way ticket was $18, but with our student discounts it was only $13. That was the first flight for both of us, and I was hooked from that moment on.

What years were you a flight attendant and what was that job like? Do you have a favorite memory?

I was with Eastern from the spring of 1978 until the fall of 1987, when we moved to Minnesota. Of course there were many good memories, especially having come across a long list of well-known personalities, but my biggest thrill was spending a whole day with Ted Williams.

It was during the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike during the Reagan era. As a result of the strike, there were very few qualified controllers, and many flights were cancelled for a number of weeks… maybe months. Because of this, a lot of previous nonstop flights now had multiple stops before reaching their final destination. I was on one such flight from Boston to Atlanta. I had worked that morning, and was “deadheading” back to Atlanta. Fortunately, I was given a first class seat on this three or four leg flight. Ted Williams sat next to me. We talked about everything from baseball to fishing to single malt scotch that day. I recall almost every detail of that flight.

What years were you in the Air Force and what exactly did you do? Do you have a favorite memory?

I was a navigator having completed my many prerequisite schools in the spring of 1973. Briefly, it was off to Loring, Maine until the summer of 1976, flying B-52s.

I had a tour to Guam in G model B-52s and another to Thailand in the D model. After that, I flew C-141s out of McGuire Air Force Base outside of Trenton, N.J. from June 1976 until May 1982. Next was the C-130, first at Dobbins Air Force Base in Marietta, Ga. until Sept. 1987.

Coming up with a favorite memory is really a tough one, but I’m going to go with my first C-141 flight to Europe. I believe it was to Royal Air Force Mildenhall, just outside of London. After years in the B-52, and almost always landing where we took off, it was great to finally get to see the world.

What is your favorite thing about flying?

It has to be the experience of visiting so many countries, and observing the different peoples and their cultures. You cannot learn that from any book.

What is your least favorite thing about flying?

I’m going to say it was the pressure of being in the B-52 during the height of the Cold War. It wasn’t actually flying itself, but rather, the fear of running out to the airplane during an alert drill, not knowing if it was another test, or the start of a nuclear war.

Tell me about the most frightening experience you ever had on an airplane.

That would have to be on a C-141 flight to Greenland sometime around 1978-79. There were multiple mistakes made by the pilots, the loadmaster, and myself. We were going to Thule, Greenland, and after a stop there we were to fly south to Kangerlussuaq Fjord (Danish: Søndre Strømfjord). The weather in Thule was the pits so we tried to land, and after not being able to, we went into a holding pattern.

After a while, it became obvious that we had to press on to Sondrestrom Air Base as an alternative. It was about two hours away, and we had just over 25,000 pounds of fuel. The C-141 burns about 12,000 pounds per hour.

We knew it would be close, so to keep spirits up, we all guessed how much fuel we’d have when we landed. On the ground, fuel is measured by a “dipstick” where the flight engineer walks on the wing, removes the fuel cap, and places the dipstick in.

We landed safely, without flaming out the engines for lack of fuel. I won the guessing game of how much fuel we would have: I said 2,000 pounds (about 12 minutes worth). When the engineer took his reading, he didn’t get anything… it was too low to measure.

Tell me about the most magical and/or amazing experience you ever had on an airplane.

I guess that would be the Ted Williams story I mentioned earlier. I’m certain that experience wasn’t something that many people had – outside of those associated with Ted Williams in baseball.

Do you have a favorite model of airplane? If so, what is it and why is it your favorite?

I’d say the C-141. As much as I loved the C-130 and all the missions I flew in it, the C-141 could take you a lot further on a tank of gas, and at faster speeds. The range and cargo capability of the C-141 made it a strategic airlifter, while the C-130 had more “tactical” airlift capabilities. That said, the C-130 could get you into airports (or grass strips) that the C-141 (or any other aircraft) couldn’t even consider.

What do you miss most about your career in aviation?

The people I worked with in each of the aircraft, as well as the relationships I tried to develop with all of our support personnel: maintenance, refuelers, life support, etc.

What is the most drastic change you’ve seen over the years between when you first started your aviation career and today?

That’s an easy one: the overall technology changes that have taken place. When I first started in the B-52, we primarily relied on celestial and radar to get from point A to point B. And while we had external navigation aids like Tacan, VOR, Loran, etc., we weren’t allowed to use any of those on check rides because they wouldn’t be available in a time of war. The only difference between that era and the ancient mariners on the sea was that we had radar!

Then came along Inertia Navigation Systems (INS) followed by all of the satellite based navaids, so the career of the navigator was quickly brought to the point of extinction. There are still navigators around in a lot of military airplanes, but that probably won’t be true for much longer.

I came along at a perfect time. I was able start out “old school” with not much technology, but I also experienced all of the modern technology that would eventually kill my career field. And my timing allowed for a long career… folks who worked much earlier than myself never saw the marvels of GPS, and those that came along 20-30 years later would never get the benefits of having a complete career in the field of navigation.

So there you have it, folks. My dad was spot on when he told me his answers would likely result in more questions on my part, but I loved learning more about his career, especially his time in the Air Force.

I remember spending a lot of time on the Air Force Base here in Minneapolis when I was a little kid, and I remember back then it wasn’t always my favorite place to be. Thinking back on it now, I wish I hadn’t taken those visits for granted, but hindsight is 20/20, right?

I can’t afford to dwell on the past, though. Here I am, nearly 30 years old, and with my love of planes I’ve come to realize just how lucky I am to have someone in my life who can tell me such incredible, special stories about flying.

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