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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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″