By Nancy Warren, Director – United Flying Octogenarians Photos courtesy Nancy Warren

At a time when piloting an aircraft was still considered by some to be a bit unusual for a 57-year-old woman, I was part of a crew flying air freight in DC-3s over most of the eastern half of the United States and Canada. And, loving every minute of it!! For almost four years the shout of “Locks, Chocks, and Pins!” was my call to adventure. To the crew, though, it was a final warning from the captain prior to  taxiing. Chocks forgotten and left in place at the wheels would be quickly discovered, but locks left on control surfaces, and pins still in place to prevent gear retraction, might go unnoticed and soon present a serious problem!

DC3, C47, Dakota, Li-2, R4D, DAK, Gooney Bird, Super DC-3,DST, C-53, C-117, C-49, Douglas Aircraft

 Nancy sitting in front of Karen Blixen’s home where a lot of  filming was done for the film, “Out of Africa.”

My romance with the DC-3 began the first time I met her. My pilot husband had died the previous year, and I was still struggling with the anguish of a profound loss and the decision to continue flight instruction.  And then one evening, I received a call from a DC-3 Captain friend, Jim Voyles, to “come out and see what real flying is like!” I hesitated only briefly before heading to the airport.  At the plane, helping hands reached down to assist as I climbed the ladder and stepped through the cargo door into a whole new world!

Seated in the jump seat back of the cockpit, the first tingle of excitement began when I heard the sound of those big radial engines! I sat transfixed, my senses taking in all the sights and sounds around me, as we slowly taxied to the runway.  And then, as we lifted off into the night sky, I suddenly realized that I was feeling joy again!  All my grief and loneliness had been left on the ramp with the tie-downs.

dc3 dakota, Douglas dc 3 aircraft, dc3 plane, gooney bird greenNancy in her favorite seat

Upon reaching our cruise altitude, Jim came back and invited me to “come up front.” I carefully made my way forward and slid into the Captain’s seat. Following his instructions, I moved the seat forward and up, fastened my seat belt, and donned the headset. Then, I turned to speak to the copilot, AND HE WAS GONE! I was the only one in the cockpit! So….who was flying the plane??  Oh, arrgh!  What to do!?

 I unfastened my seat belt and leaned way out to look for a pilot….any pilot! There they were….standing back of the cockpit, laughing their heads off at the look of panic on my face. And, that was only the beginning of the many “tests” I experienced to see if I would complain, whine, or cry “uncle”.

I never did.

Instead, I went on every DC-3 trip available to me for the next four years. I became a freight dog…a “gopher”.….the one who was called by the Captain right after his contact from dispatch: “We are flying to Evansville to pick up freight, then on to Baltimore. Get to the airport ASAP, call flight service for weather, and file our flight plan. Get out the approach plates and make sure we have a J-bar on board.”  The call could come at any hour, day or night.

I will admit there were winter nights when I reluctantly crawled out of my warm bed and drove to the airport muttering things to myself like, “You  must be crazy to do this! It’s snowing and blowing out there and who knows what else before the night’s over!” But as soon as the three of us were on board and Jim began the start-up procedure, the first “cough” of an engine unleashed the joy and excitement of another DC-3 adventure!

This dear old bird had lifted me out of despair and into a joyous way of being.

 Dakota Airplane, Douglas C-47,douglas dc-3 airplane,R4D Navy,C-47 ,R4D MarinesNancy Warren and Johannes Beckel a mechanic.

Jim, Ken, and I have been flying all night. I agreed to go on this trip because it was supposed to be a short one to pick up freight at Anderson, Indiana, deliver it to Pontiac, Michigan, and fly home. When we landed at Anderson we learned that we had to make a return trip there for another load, so have flown from Columbus (last night) to Anderson, to Pontiac, to Anderson, to Pontiac, and are now on the way home…at last! This is my first trip in the newly acquired DC-3, 141 JR, and she’s a sweet one to fly. The day is beautiful and the discomforts and fatigue of the long night are being erased by the comforting sound of the engines. Sunlight is glinting off the great silver wings of this wonderful old bird; there is a cloud deck of scattered cumulus below, and clear skies with unlimited visibility stretch before us.

At this moment, all I can think is that I have made friends with the sky and fallen in love with the Gooney Bird! 

 And, I learned! Always, I learned….about weather, planning, communicating, and perhaps most importantly, I learned to go with the flow! A “short trip” could easily keep us out for days at a time, so I learned to adjust to all kinds of situations and to make the best of them. I also learned about flying in “real time”; things you couldn’t get from a book or in a classroom. No one can tell you what it feels like to fly an over-gross-weight aircraft on the edge of a stall in freezing rain; you have to experience it. And, you don’t forget it.

There were times when I grumbled to Jim about his pushing me so hard, and he would just grin and say, “Lightnin’, you are a good pilot and you can handle this. You just need to discover that about yourself!”  

I must have believed him, because all the time that I was flying freight, I was also working on acquiring  ratings: Private Pilot in May, 1985….Instrument rating, November, 1988….Tail dragger sign off in a Citabria, Sept. 1989 ….Commercial License and multi-engine rating, March, 1990. I briefly considered becoming a charter pilot, and did complete the DC-3 Ground School. But then I paused and realized that I was getting up in years; too old for a career in aviation. So, except for some aerobatic training, I didn’t go further.  Besides, I was doing what I loved… flying and adventuring in a DC-3! Everywhere we landed, people loved seeing the plane and Jim loved showing her off.  Usually, after our freight had been off-loaded and before heading for home, Jim would make a low pass down the runway, engines thundering, my hand behind his to guard the throttles, and then pull her up in a graceful arc.  Awesome!

There is something so special about a DC-3 when it is flown with love and gracefulness, for it unites those watching from the ground with those who are carried within, and we are simply and completely one with the thrill of her.

DC-3 hangar, airline travel, travel by plane, airline planeNancy with Rebecca, a Turkanna girl

A special highlight in my aviation journey was to join my crew in Africa in 1988 for a United Nations operation that required DC-3 pilots. This time we would be transporting seed and grain to areas where flooding had damaged much-needed crops. Since the flooded terrain prevented landing, a drop zone had been laid out at Adok, near the Blue Nile. With his wealth of experience in drops, Jim had set up a signal system of buzzers, bells, and lights on the plane.  African boys were trained as “kickers” to respond to the signals and kick the bags along the plywood slides and out the open cargo door as Jim banked the plane over the drop zone.  Our cargo was 4800 pounds of grain and seed in reinforced bags of 120 pounds (50 kilos) each which had been shipped to Mozambique, transported by train to Nairobi, then trucked to our compound in Lokichoggio. 

                         With the DZ 450 statute miles away, weather and timing were critical in order to locate our target, make the drop, and have enough fuel for the return trip. Upon reaching the DZ marked by a signal fire and four parachutes on the ground, we would circle at 800 ft. AGL, at 105 knots. On the downwind leg, Jim would turn on the red light in the cargo area to alert the kickers, continue with the red light on the base leg, then give them a green light on final. A bell would sound at the precise time for the drop.  Jim did a great job and we never lost or damaged a bag.

The time in Africa was a bit challenging (there are NO creature comforts in the bush!), but also enormously rewarding. It provided a wealth of memories which I will always treasure, especially celebrating my 60th birthday there with my flying comrades and new friends:  Johannes Beckel, our mechanic, and Jim Gaunt, Aero Commander pilot flying relief missions.  Jim Gaunt and his wife, Sharon,stayed in touch with me for a while after I left Africa.

dc3 for sale, world war two planes, airplane travelA typical dirt strip in Africa

  I have been enormously blessed to have the opportunities and experiences I’ve had throughout my aviation journey, particularly to have flown the DC-3. I will forever be grateful to Captain Jim Voyles, a crusty old pilot, (flew west Oct.11, 2005), who introduced me to the DC-3 and opened the door to a new world of learning, joy, and adventure.

 After all these years, I can still hear his shout……“LOCKS, CHOCKS, and PINS!”

Copyright Nancy Warren 2013

For the complete story on the Douglas DC-3 see: “The Legacy of the DC-3″

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13 thoughts on “LOCKS, CHOCKS, and PINS!

  1. Sam Autrey

    Nancy, I loved this article and would like to share it with former members of my old flying club, the Skylarks of Southern California. The club has dissolved, but a lot of us still maintain contact. Do I need permission to just copy the article and email it to a lot of friends?

  2. Betty Young

    Nancy, I truly enjoyed your story. I started flying at age 50, and only fly single engine aircraft for pleasure. I am a proud member of the UFO.

  3. bob bloch

    great article nancy, sounds like a great adventure and many fond memories, keep flying. I live in naples fl and if you get around here give me a call and we can go play with my bonanza.

  4. Mort Mason

    After 35-years and 20,000-hours of Alaska outback flying, I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed riding along with you through this truly marvelous tale!

  5. Charlie Lopez

    The United Flying Octogenarians are fortunate indeed, Nancy, to have you on our Board of Directors. Not only do you contribute with your keen insight in important matters but also with your clarity of thinking and your skill with words. In moments like this, I am tempted to say “with your gift of words” but deep down I know it is not just a gift. It is something you have worked, developed and fine-tuned all of your life to turn words into pictures and joy into the lives of your readers. As a fellow pilot, the shout of “Locks, Chocks and Pins” lingers still in my ears as I reread your wonderful story.

    Charlie Lopez
    UFO VP of PR

  6. Nelda Lee

    Nancy, your story is wonderful……I love reading your articles about flying, talking with you about flying, listening to you tell about flying, and wondering what you will reveal about flying that will be more rewarding. Our times together over the years have been an inspiration for me to make the best of each day and enjoy life to the fullest. That’s what you have done and it shows in your stories and your actions and your love of others. Getting up in years is what we do but getting on with our lives is also what we do……keep it going. It is what it is!

  7. Bob Barker

    A great story about a grand ‘ole lady by a grand ‘ole lady. Makes you wish you were there beside her for some of those missions.

  8. Mary Ann Long

    This is a wonderful story, shared by a woman, with spirit, adventure and aviation knowledge, that inspires all of us. Thank you, Nancy!

    Mary Ann

  9. Julie Kieffer

    Nancy, I loved the inspiring story and admire your bravery and attitude. Thanks for taking us readers along for the ride!

  10. Eric DeBusk


    The pictures are just absolutely fantastic and truly make the story come alive as you read! Well done!

    ~ Eric

  11. Terry Reece

    A great article and brought many memories of being a freight dog in a C-130 in Africa and worldwide. Thanks for a great article..the best to you. keep writing!
    Captain Terry Reece

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