DC-3 Stories by Randy L. Sohn

Permission granted by the author, Randy L Sohn for the use of his "DC-3 Stories" at "The DC-3 Hangar" Copyright Randy L. Sohn, all rights reserved.

Randy L. Sohn can be reached via E-Mail at Ndper@aol.com

R. L. Sohn     ©






I need to hunt up one of my old logbooks from back in the earlier days of North Central Airlines.  Not the earliest days – I wasn't around back then – when the fleet initially consisted of just the Lockheed 10s.  Later came the DC-3s and then later again, the piston-engined Convair 340s and 440s.  When I was hired in 1960, the fleet was made up of over thirty DC-3s, plus the first five Convairs that'd been acquired the previous year when Continental had decided to start disposing of them.  Anyway, I'd just like to find out what DC-3 I was flying along with Bill Robbins on that day – so long ago – when we went round and round the airport at Mitchell, South Dakota. 


Ah-hah, here it is in one of my logbooks – N-17312 – back in 1961.  The day before that, I see we'd flown the venerable DC-3 N-21728, company #18, later destined to become the world’s highest time airplane at the time we donated it to the Henry Ford museum.  Around 86,000 hours at that time, a two-owner airplane, just Eastern Airlines and us.  Anyway, I'd love to be able now to interview a few of those passengers, just to see what their impressions might have been of that whole operation.


Picture this scenario.  Bill and I'd just left Huron that day.  A short climb and we leveled off enroute to our first stop at Mitchell, just a short jaunt some forty-one miles down the James River to the south.  Not too much of notoriety to be observed in Mitchell, unless you count the "Corn Palace".  Mitchell's visibility was obscured in all quadrants by fog; the report we'd been given upon departure indicated a visibility of less than half a mile.  Back in those days we very seldom cruised much above the prescribed MEA (minimum enroute altitude).  This day was no exception to the rule, a leisurely 145 knots at about 3,000' or so.  Every foot of altitude we'd reach at cruise needed to take into consideration the physical considerations of our passenger's ears during the subsequent descent, about 300' per minute was our desired rate in the twenty-six passenger unpressurized DC-3's cabin.


Approximately halfway between the two towns, we radioed the Mitchell station, inquiring as to how the weather – and especially their visibility – was now?  Any improvement?    A short wait ensued while the station manager physically stepped outside the terminal building onto the ramp to again survey the weather and take a visibility check.  His discouraging reply over the airwaves informed us that it didn't really look too good, sky conditions remained an indefinite 600' but the visibility had recently improved to (ha-rummpf) one-half mile.  Unh-huh!  S-u-r-e!  Well, one thing's for sure, with the total lack of wind – which in itself was helping to cause the fog – any runway was legal for our landing – or attempt!  I didn’t know it at the time but this apprentice was very shortly going to participate in – and learn from – the rare opportunity of watching a consumate master plying his trade.


Bill and I briefly reviewed with each other our recollections of Bob Johnson's recitation of the permissable weather minimums at last year's annual ground school.  As best both of us understood the Federal Aviation regulations Bob had so carefully explained, the 600' didn't technically constitute a ceiling because of the modifier "indefinite".  Also, according to the "sliding scale" interpretation (400' and 1 mile, 500' and ¾ mile or 600' and ½ mile) allowed by our airline's operations specifications, we could legally conduct the approach and landing.  Only problem – how were we going to be able to locate the runway's end in time and in a position to accomplish a safe landing?  Oh well, let's give it the old college try!  If we aren’t able to land, then we can always say we tried and go on to our next scheduled stop – Foss Field at Sioux Falls.  After obtaining our clearance for the instrument approach from the Minneapolis air traffic contol center we were all set for the next events in this show.   


Bill slightly rolled the elevator trim forward and – smoothly and almost imperceptibly – adjusted the pitch to begin an unhurried descent.  I busied myself tuning and identifying the appropriate ADF radio beacons that Bill had asked for.  He had quickly determined that an approach from the northwest quadrant afforded us the best possibility of a successful outcome, considering the lack of geographical and man-made obstructions on the north side of the airport.  As soon as this duty was finished, I had time to again peruse the Jeppesen approach chart, studying and rechecking all the details that would need to be committed to memory – or at least available in a flash if the captain should ask!  Our descent continued while I routinely advised the Mitchell station of our fuel on board upon our estimated arrival.  While Bill leveled off at the minimum prescribed altitude, I held the small plastic checklist in one hand while completing the familiar "In-Range" checklist prior to commencing our approach.


A few short minutes later, we watched the rapid reversal of the ADF needle, indicating our position as being directly overhead the station.  Bill smoothly applied left aileron to reverse his course towards the desired outbound heading, all the while descending to our procedure turn altitude.  He languidly called for "Gear Down " and silently held up his index finger to signify his desire for the flaps to be extended to the ¼ position.  I complied with these commands and again referred to the checklist to complete the "Before Landing" portion.  Now, everything's done and all's ready for whatever comes.


An adequate time spent flying outbound and now a turn back in a southerly direction.  After intercepting the prescribed inbound bearing towards the station, Bill again descends towards the minimum altitude allowed for this approach.  I again consult the Jepp approach chart to recheck that altitude – so far, so good – all's well.  Bill mutters to me "Looks like we may get in, I can see some ground below out the side window". I concur in this observation, having noticed the exact same thing outside the window on my side of the cockpit.  Leveling at the 500' above airport elevation required for a circling approach at that airport, Bill again speaks to me out the side of his mouth "Sure wish we could see what's up ahead, the runway’s gotta be there somewhere!"  I nod a quick assent with this wish, frantically staring ahead as hard as I can, in the vain hope that the very intensity of my gaze might help in this hopeless quest.  Alas – to no avail – all I can really see is straight down to my side, this cloud condition is truly indefinite!  If we don't see the runway v-e-r-y soon now, we're gonna be too high for a successful landing.  All of a sudden, looking downward, I see the end of the runway appear and then rapidly go by, 500' below us.  I glumly inform Bill of this, his reply is the very model of succinctness.  "Unh-huh, we'll have to do it again".


So apply the aileron and power, retract the gear and flaps and go back to do the whole procedure all over again!  Climbing back for a second attempt, Bill advises me that this time we'll move slightly over according to our indicators on the instrument panel and –  hopefully – be in a slightly better position to attempt the landing.  So we faithfully retrace our earlier steps and the approach.  About this time the airport station agent radioed us that he'd both heard and saw us go by overhead on the first approach.  Bill opined that this really doesn't do us a lot of good!  I concur.  The results on this second attempt?  The same, except that we both are able to see the end of the runway go by as we fly over it.  But this time Bill divulges a little bit of his plan of action for the subsequent attempt to salvage this operation.  We'll not be making the complete missed approach since the approach isn't the problem, rather it's knowing where the runway's end is – in time to safely land!


So we remain overhead the airport at the allowable circling altitude while Bill applies aileron again to enter a downwind leg on the east side of the airport.  He knows from prior experience just where the east boundaries of the airport lie and the surrounding topography.  Applying this knowledge, he establishes the downwind leg at the proper altitude and what he feels is an adequate distance offset from the runway so as to permit another turn to a base leg and a subsequent alignment.  Talking only slightly to himself, I've never known whether he meant for me to hear – or not – he conducts this airborne tour of the airport.  The only problem I can see (or can't) is that the runway is stubbornly hidden from view – somewhere off to our left in the fog.  No matter, he knows exactly where he is!  Presently he turns to the base leg, quietly muttering over some observed details on the ground in the fields below us.  All the time retaining our circling altitude, never gaining or losing a foot of this precious commodity.  He knows full well that I'll warn him – instantly – if he does!  Never varying his bank angle a degree he continues on around a semi-circle base leg, US Navy style, until he is back on the runway heading.  He again speaks out of the corner of his mouth at me, his wide-eyed (but not yet totally capable) assistant.  "Lem'me know just as soon as you see the runway!"  "Yes'sir!"  We both see it at the same instant, off to our left at an angle that makes it impossible to attempt a landing.  He doesn't miss a beat, or lose a foot of altitude, just keeps chugging away with his airplane at an airspeed of 90 knots. 


Flying overhead the runway some 500' below us, he asks what I saw on my side during the base and final leg.  I quickly tell him what I'd observed.  He nods his head and tells me that he'll increase his bank angle some five degrees on the next base leg and we'll see how we do with that change.  Another turn to the downwind leg, a studied observation on his part of the ground below, followed by another turn with a slightly steeper bank angle on this base leg.  As we continue this turn to the final approach heading he commands me to quickly tell him what type of hay bales I observe in the field below.  Hay bales?  I look again and then quickly describe them as being the conventional rectangular shape.  He says, "OK, good, I'm looking at some Allis-Chalmers round type bales over here off to my left, I think we're still gonna be just a tad too far to the right to land!"  Surely enough, he's right, when we finally see the runway appear, it's still at an angle off to our left but not so far this time! 


This fact seems to bring him cheer as he suddenly demonstrates another facet of the continuous thought process required of a captain.  He asks, "What time are we scheduled out of Mitchell?"  I hurriedly consult my omni-present clipboard and the schedule I had hand lettered on it earlier, prior to our departure from Huron.  I provide him with the answer to his question and he then reminds me that we are operating on a "through clearance" from the Minneapolis Air Traffic Control Center.  Briefly, this means that we are authorized to proceed from Huron to Sioux Falls with an enroute stop in Mitchell – but – we must be off of Mitchell by a certain time or our clearance becomes void.  And – this time is rapidly drawing nigh, considering all the time we've expended making lazy circles in our attempt to land at Mitchell.  No mind, first things first, opines Bill.  He tells me that our next circle will be our last, if we can't land this time we'll just give up and go on to Sioux Falls.  Then he briefs me to watch very carefully outside as we make our next base leg and turn to final, and to let him know the exact instant that I spy round hay bales under my side window.  He'll then align us with that fence line between the two fields, with round bales to our left and square bales to our right.  This fence line will lead us precisely to the runway's end and a safe landing.  I do exactly as he wishes and excitedly inform him when I spot the two different types of bales.  He turns to the exact runway heading and for the first time, holds up his hand with three fingers indicating a desire for ¾ landing flaps to be extended.  At the same time he makes a slight reduction to the throttles and begins a glide angle above the fence line.  Voi-la!  Success!  There's the runway end, appearing precisely where it should be, centered under our pathway!  Magic!  A slight chirp-chirp as the tires kiss the runway and Bill says, "Tell the station we're down and they’ll need to call Minneapolis Center and get a revision to our off time, we're gonna be a little late departing from here."


A thought – albeit decades later – about the present day advantages of having a PA system to keep the passengers informed.  I have to wonder just what we – or Bill – would have announced over it as we made those five circles around the airport.  Nothing dangerous about them, but how would they have been perceived by the present day air-traveler?  I have to admit, I don't know.  We've gotten so used to announcing all the myriad situations we may encounter in an aerospace contraption that spans distances of thousands of miles and in which I may haul over four hundred passengers at one time.  Today it'd probably be unheard of to make that number of circles around an airport while contemplating our landing.  Back then, however, it was probably a different story.  I've talked to a number of the flight attendants that flew the Convairs to the bitter end, out on the prairies.  These holdouts were often referred to as the "Convair Queens".  They liked that "one girl-one airplane" existence.  They insisted that the average passenger out in the Dakotas or Nebraska was far more easy to please, to serve and to deal with than any modern day city dwellers we've encountered much later in our life out on the line.


Randy Sohn - 1999 ©




One of the first DC-3 captains I flew with after – finally – being able to successfully bid back from Chicago to North Central Airline's home domicile for pilots was Bill Robbins, a veteran of WW II.  Bill was probably (looking back now) the dean of airline comedians with his often sly and understated style and manner.  Almost any trip with Bill resulted in coming home with abdominal muscles that felt as though I'd been doing sit-up exercises because of laughing at his constant jokes and mannerisms.  I believe he'd flown P-51 Mustangs for the USAF Reserve out of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in the post-war years. 


One of my most vivid memories of Bill is in the cockpit on the tarmac at the old Minneapolis-St. Paul stone terminal on a sunny Sunday afternoon.  We'd been assigned a four-day trip together, out in the western division.  Arriving at the airplane, we were busily engaged in completing our cockpit pre-flight duties.  One of my primary duties was to fill out the flight plan, which all first officers (co-pilots) kept on a clipboard, along with all the other bits of paperwork and flotsam that inevitably accumulated during a trip.  At the end of the trip, we'd discard all this material into the circular file, EXCEPT for the aforesaid flight plan.  This was jealously guarded until we safely deposited it in the airline's papermill after completion of the flight, being the sole source of flight-pay information for the entire crew.  Accordingly, we needed to enter our four-digit payroll clock numbers on it; this important matter was usually taken care of almost as soon as we seated ourselves in the airplane’s cockpit for the first time. 


Since this was the first time I'd flown with Bill I'd just finished asking him for his payroll number in order to enter it on the flight plan.  Before I'd finished penciling the number 7548 in the space allocated for the "captain's payroll number", I heard the sound of high heeled shoes behind us, ascending – "clickedy click" – the rather steep incline of our DC-3's cabin aisle.  Within seconds we were greeted with a cheery, "Hello captain – sir –my name is Nancy!"  "I'm your stewardess and this is my very first trip!"  "Hmmmmmmmm", I muttered (to myself), "maybe it’d been better if she hadn’t mentioned that last part to Bill".  This, of course, represented strictly an assumption on my part.  And – since copilots weren't paid for their opinions back then – better to keep my thoughts to myself!  And, by the way, just for the benefit of a modern reader of a more politically correct nature, this was back in the very early sixties, when using the term "flight attendant" would’ve just invited either a puzzled stare or a quizzical look!


As soon as Bill heard her cheery greeting, I subliminally became aware of his brain beginning to race at about ninety miles per hour.  He never missed a beat as he casually reached over and took the clipboard from me.  I'd already written my payroll number, 9580, on the form.  Without hesitation, he glanced at the numbers for the briefest fraction of a moment.  He then turned in his seat to direct his undivided attention towards this petite blonde, every hair in place, just as perfect as the stewardess-training department could have asked.  All this in spite of the heat and humidity that the arrival of summer’s dog days had provided.  e expelled a He expelled a long-suffering sigh, undoubtedly meant to convey the resignation he felt in – once again – having to explain the rituals and intricacies of airline flying.  He began, "Well, I'm so happy to have you along".  "I know they tell you young ladies all sorts of things over there in your new hire classes about pilots and all, like how to behave on your first trip".  "I'm sure you've heard all that stuff and I just want you to know that we're really glad you got to fly with us first so you won't find yourself taken advantage of or anything".  "First thing you should know is, North Central’s a really friendly airline, we may not be big, but we're really friendly, especially among us line crews, sorta like a family".  "And – you should know that we don't go much for that title stuff around here, that's more for the big international airlines and all, so you don’t need to call me captain". "But ever since we've gotten into this spurt of growth, there’s so many new people around here that we've had to start calling each other by our payroll numbers."  "For instance, I'm seventy-five-forty-eight", then – nodding his head in my direction (and he never even hesitated) –, "he's ninety-five eighty".  "But like I said, we've always been friendly around here, and we'd sure like to keep that feeling even as we expand, so why don't you just call us by our nicknames on this trip, I'm Forty-eight and you can call him (nodding towards me again) Eighty".  Since I was busily engaged in looking out my side window in a frantic attempt to stifle my laughter, I can only imagine the puzzled expression on her face.  This bit of line knowledge obviously hadn't been mentioned in the curriculum at stewardess school, or else she'd simply – somehow – missed that small part!  Hesitating for just an instant, she then stammered, "W-e-l-l, they told us to always call you captain but I guess it'll be OK, I'm (and here she quickly referred to a figure she’d previously penciled into her notebook) 2412, but it’ll be OK for you two to call me Twelve".  And so it was – for the entire next four days! 


I’d have given anything to have been a “mouse in the corner” to listen to the next crew she flew with, and what they made of this strange story when “Twelve” wanted to know their payroll numbers!  But – who knows – perhaps they just looked at the bid sheets to find out who'd been the captain of her first trip – and then exchanged knowing glances while grinning at each other! 


One disclaimer here, the passage of nearly forty years seems to have caused me to somehow forget “Twelve’s” exact payroll number.  All I can reasonably be sure of is that it was somewhere near to the number I used!


Randy Sohn - 1999 ©

Captain Earl Adams – The DC-3 and the Wolf Pack!    (41)


     This morning at our retired pilot's breakfast gathering I listened to a story I'd not heard previously – – and I thought I'd heard nearly everything!


     The year – the early sixties.  The airline – North Central.  The captain – Earl Adams.  The scene – the airport at Ft. William/Port Arthur, Ontario.  Following a short overnight and a few hours of sleep at a nearby motel, Earl and his crew returned to the airport terminal to originate the morning DC-3 flight to Minneapolis/St. Paul.  After a few moments spent chatting with the operations agent and catching up on the latest airline rumors, Earl knew that his pre-flight duties as a captain couldn't be delayed any longer.  He turned up the collar of his uniform’s gray overcoat and pulled it snugly around his neck in what would prove to be rather futile effort to retain some of the room’s warmth, then donned his gloves.  After first attempting to look through the door’s frost-covered windowpane, he opened the door and stepped outside into the biting twenty-five degrees below zero coldness of the Canadian pre-dawn darkness.  As anyone who grew up in this part of the country knows, this sort of temperature causes the electric transmission highlines to emit a humming sound, snow crunches as it's stepped upon and flesh can readily freeze after a short exposure. 


     Trudging across the snow covered asphalt; Earl lifted his gaze and briefly surveyed the sky with an “aviator’s eye”.  Clear skies – the lack of cloud cover certainly helped encourage the earth's heat loss and the frigid temperature.  He lowered his view to contemplate the remaining distance to the location where his DC-3 had been moved for overnight parking.  It was at least a quarter mile – whatever that translates to in meters.  Hurrying along in the bitter cold of the moonless night with no light on the airport's tarmac, he made good time.  Suddenly he became aware of a sound some distance behind him, a faint sound but seemingly echoing the sounds his footsteps made in the snow.  Making use of his three-celled flashlight, he turned and cast its beam back towards the path his footsteps had left in the snow, hoping that perhaps an extra agent was following along to give him a welcome hand with the warm-up!  No one appeared in the darkness.  With a shrug of his shoulders he turned and again set off towards the distant DC-3.  Wait a minute – now he was absolutely convinced he heard a noise behind him!  Enveloped by the suddenly hostile darkness he again beamed his flashlight back towards his path – but yet again detected no presence!  No one answered his call.  Abruptly he turned and made a somewhat agitated dash to the airplane, hastily lowered the airstair door, clambered inside and pulled the door closed!  The eerie feeling he'd experienced was left outside, once the familiar cabin and cockpit of his DC-3 surrounded him.  Gradually the hair on the back of his neck returned to a state of normality.  Wondering if his mind might be playing tricks with him, he resolved to tell no one about the incident!  Ghosts existed only in fairy tales!  And things that go bump in the night?  Those were for other people! 


     It might be apropos at this point to tell you a little bit about this pilot.  For almost my entire aviation career, Earl Adams has been a hero of mine.  Not some distant hero to be read about and pictured in some dusty book, but rather a real person present in day-to-day life and approachable.  Not too long after Eldon Sorenson taught me to fly in a Champ on skis, this crop duster/spray pilot/aerial applicator (I should mention that those are all the same person, but in different decades), went on to other things in the aerial application business.  Earl then filled the resulting vacancy, becoming the new airport manager and FBO (fixed base operator) at the Worthington, Minnesota airport.  By that time I'd already enlisted in the US Air Force and had gone off to see the world via the aviation cadet T-6 program.  I returned on leave a few times during those years and got to know Earl.  Also, during this time Worthington had laid down an asphalt runway complete with lights, and had made the big time – or at least what passed for the big time in our rather limited (and parochial) – view!


     With this burst of improvements to what had been basically a backwater grass airport, the local newspaper editor, Jim Vance, got behind the big push to put Worthington on the map with scheduled airline service.  The Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) was in the process of assigning North Central Airlines several new routes in what was called the "seven-states" airline case.  To this local editor – his aeronautical exuberance undoubtedly fed by his airplane avocation – what would make more sense than to have the CAB designate an airline route from Minneapolis-St. Paul through Mankato, Fairmont and Worthington to Sioux Falls, South Dakota?  So, Earl’s wife Donna pulled out her trusty Royal manual typewriter to get started typing the mountain of letters and application paperwork required by the government agencies, both state and national.  With Jim looking over her shoulder, dictating while thinking out loud, this task was finally finished many months later.  And – in great part due to his lobbying and influence – aided all throughout this process by Earl and Donna, it finally came to pass!


     With these route additions, North Central found itself suddenly short of pilots for the resulting increase in aircraft flying hours.  Poetic justice was served when, in response to this sudden opportunity, Earl tendered his resignation as Worthington's airport manager and went to work for the airline as a new copilot.  Simple, you might say!  Well, sure, but all good things probably have their price!  To this small assemblage of newly hired copilots – whose group would acquire sort of a mystique because of it – a yearlong burden suddenly fell upon their shoulders.  They'd have to become sufficiently salted in airline experience to have their written test completed be ready to check out as captains by the time they completed their first year of probationary service, a previously unheard of brevity of experience.  So it went with this group hired in nineteen fifty-six.  Sink or swim - and the devil take the hindmost!  To those who'd make it, the sobriquet "captain" and the newfound acceptance of their airline peers and brethren.  To those who couldn't – well, their lot in life was a rather unceremonious return through the airline's front door in the opposite direction – – leading back to the street!


     Returning home on leave from the military during this period, I asked the local hangers-on and resident experts in all aeronautical matters "where's Earl", since he wasn't around the airport.  That's how I learned that Earl, along with Donna, had chosen to uproot their lives to take on this new challenge and were now heavily involved in what amounted to a year's crash course (pardon the pun) in scheduled airline DC-3 operation.


     To make a long story short, Earl was one who did successfully pass the Airline Transport Rating checkride.  Yes, back then this pilot's certificate was known as an ATR, not an ATP.  That terminology change occurred somewhere in the sixties.  Interestingly enough, a few in this class had to wait for their twenty-third birthday to satisfy the age requirement to possess this aviation certificate.  Low frequency range orientations and approaches, canyon approaches, aural-null time checks and all that good stuff we used to teach!  So now he was a captain, albeit – for a year or two – what was jokingly referred to as a "zipper stripe".  This meant a captain in the summer when traffic was heavy and back to the copilot's right seat after Labor Day when passenger traffic invariably declined and the winter schedule was resumed.  Seniority – as always – must have the last word.            


     Throughout those years I'd idly contemplated leaving the U. S. Air Force to go with the airlines, once my military obligation was completed.  Once in awhile I might have also thought of sharing the cockpit with Earl, should the fates ever so decide.  In nineteen sixty the fates intervened and I found myself at the bottom of North Central's pilot seniority list.  Shortly thereafter, after a brief training period, I found myself on the jumpseat of a DC-3, enroute to the pilot's domicile in Chicago-Midway as a new copilot. By this time, the days of the one-year checkout were long past, one could more realistically expect on the order of ten years or so as a copilot before checkout as a captain.  One of the first things I did was to look up Earl and renew our acquaintance.  The differences in our seniority dictated that I never would fly in the same cockpit with him, a disappointment but one not totally unexpected.   


     North Central's route system included a goodly portion of the northern states, however it also ventured northward into the prairies and forests of a few Canadian provinces.  The airline's procedures for overnighting a piston-engined airliner at outlying stations during the winter were well thought out and rehearsed.  Early each fall preparations were made for the oncoming season, all for the purpose of ensuring a better operation in this harsh and inhospitable climate.  In fact, the entire rehearsal operation had a campaign name, "Operation Cold Front".  It involved a check of all the machines and operational needs of an airline intent on maintaining a scheduled service in this area.  Each station's "Herman Nelson" mobile gasoline heaters were given a tune-up, de-icing and snow removal gear was checked, vehicles were serviced while both man and machine braced themselves to face yet another winter on the northern prairies.


     I've discussed this elsewhere at length, but one part of the overnight drill involved a station agent arriving at the airport in the wee hours of the morning while everyone else was still fast asleep.  The Herman Nelson heater was started and the resulting cascade of heat was blown through gigantic rubberized tubes to the canvas enclosures snap-buttoned tightly around the wheel wells and engines.  This heating process continued for what must have seemed like hours on end, waiting for the flight crew to arrive from their short overnight at a local motel.  Upon arrival, the copilot and stewardess busied themselves in the terminal with pre-flight preparations and calculations for the upcoming flight.  I always felt that the captain appeared to have drawn the short end of the stick on this deal; he received a modicum of extra pay to go out alone to the cold-soaked airplane and get it started.  He'd then taxi to a remote spot on the far side of the ramp and indulge himself to his heart's content in the machinations required to get it warmed up.  After the oil was thoroughly warmed and circulated, all circuits checked, props exercised and feathering pumps checked he would finally check each engine's power output and magnetos.  After all this, he'd return to the gate, the waiting passengers were by now ready to board their flight.  All of our DC-3s's were equipped with powerful Janitrol heaters with integral electrical ground blowers, providing a warm cabin while up to twenty-six passengers found a seat to their liking.  By the way, like all good things, this solo act couldn't last forever!  Just as soon as we started operating Convairs, the copilot was required to participate in this ritual.  On the DC-3 he'd always been able to remain behind, snug and warm in the station's office, filling out the flight plan and drinking coffee.


     Now that you've been made aware of how the airline's overnight operation went, let's return to the situation long ago at that Canadian airport.  Earl puzzled over the matter but put it aside in his mind to deal with the more immediate matter of the DC-3’s warm-up.  Taxiing away from the remote ramp to another location and the subsequent run-up completely occupied his attention for the next fifteen or twenty minutes.  After finishing, he then started to taxi back to the terminal gate for the passenger boarding. 


     As he progressed along the taxiway towards the terminal he suddenly detected a motion off to the side.  He stopped the airplane, unlocked its tailwheel and swung the aircraft to the side to illuminate the remote area with the landing lights.  Earl was presented with the sight of a pack of wolves, cold and reflective eyes silently staring back at him!  After a moment or so of mutual contemplation the pack turned and nonchalantly loped away towards a grove of trees.  Watching them, Earl suddenly recalled the clicking sounds the claws on their pads had made on the frozen snow only a short while before while following him. 


     Just think of the monumental changes that have occurred to the world and the industry in the decades since that time long ago.  In the seventies, the port cities of Ft. William and Port Arthur merged and the name became Thunder Bay.  Also, sometime near then, the Canadian government began reporting the temperatures in Celsius.  I guess minus thirty-two Centigrade sounds – or feels – colder than minus twenty-five Fahrenheit.  When I first started, the airline provided one motel room on overnights to be shared by the two pilots, a situation remedied many years ago.  The Lord be praised, we no longer have to do those run-ups or warm-ups; the turbine engine's lightweight lubricating oil is largely ready to go just as soon as the engine is started.  The airplane is parked at the end of a sheltered passenger jetway at the terminal.  And – best of all, now that I think about it – a pack of wolves would likely encounter a great deal of difficulty in entering a darkened cabin and successfully negotiating the circular staircase of a 747 after me!


Randy Sohn - 1999 ©



A long time ago – on a Wednesday afternoon, the 11th of May in 1966 to be exact – N15748, a Douglas DC-3 operating as Flight 787, departed Eppley Field at Omaha, Nebraska.  Its scheduled route contemplated stops at Norfolk, Sioux City, Yankton, Sioux Falls, Brookings, Watertown, Fargo and ultimately – much later that night – its destination at Grand Forks, North Dakota.  This North Central Airlines flight was commanded by the quietly competent Al Bergum, with Tom Truax in the role of the capable assistant.  After I’d started to write this story, a friend gave me an old clipping – complete with three pictures – from the front page of that week’s edition of the Norfolk newspaper.  I’d never realized that a reporter had been present and had taken photographs of that local event.


Leveling off at the assigned enroute altitude, the airliner cruised serenely along at its normal one hundred and thirty-five knots indicated airspeed.  At this altitude the aircraft was in the clouds, however VFR conditions were known to exist underneath, beneath the cloud base.  During the latter portion of this ninety-two mile flight, a sudden backfire and a tentative ring of the fire bell drew the immediate scrutiny of the crew.  A visual inspection revealed black smoke and flames coming from the upper portion of the left nacelle.  Following the prescribed emergency procedures for an engine fire, Al promptly moved the mixture control to the off position, then pushed the feathering button to stop the engine’s rotation.  A problem with the feathering mechanism caused the feather button to release slightly early.  This, in turn, allowed the propeller – and engine – to continue a slow rotation. This caused the fuel pump to provide the fire with barely enough gasoline to continue burning.  After directing Tom to discharge the single-shot engine fire extinguisher, Al could see that the fire still hadn’t gone out.  With approximately 15 miles remaining to the Norfolk airport, Al faced a difficult decision.  Below him eastern Nebraska’s terrain consisted mostly of farm fields.  With the fire continuing to burn, Al was confronted with the need for an immediate decision.  A “bird in the hand versus two birds in the bush” decision!  Very likely the airplane would be able to continue on and reach the concrete runway.  However, this hope had to be balanced against the safety of twenty-six passengers and a crew of three. Decisiveness, along with good judgment, will always be one of the hardest qualities to evaluate in a potential airline captain.


Another quick glance at the nacelle confirmed the continuing fire. Reluctantly, disregarding his personal wishes and desires, he made his decision.  Ringing the stewardess call button four times to alert the stewardess, Al quickly briefed Tom.  He requested that Tom immediately radio Norfolk to inform them of the impending off-airport landing.  While hurriedly briefing the stewardess, who’d immediately rushed to the cockpit upon hearing the ringing, Al initiated an emergency descent and the crew visually selected an appropriate farm field for their rapidly approaching moment-of-truth! 


Al decided to keep the wheels retracted during the single-engine landing.  The DC-3’s designers had fortunately foreseen this situation back in the thirties when they first envisioned this airliner.  Protruding slightly from the lower portion of the nacelle when fully retracted, the wheels were designed to partially mitigate the resulting airframe damage should a landing have to be made in this configuration.  Although no obstructions challenged the into-the-wind landing’s flight path, the field’s minimum length did present a challenge of a far different kind.  The aeronautical drag usually imposed by the landing gear wasn’t present, therefore a lower than normal power became necessary to provide the prescribed airspeed.  During the later stages of the approach, Al tersely directed Tom to actuate the alarm button at least four times to warn the passengers to “Brace for Impact”.  Approaching touchdown, he closed the throttle on the remaining engine.  First brushing the tops of – and then through – the green alfalfa crop, the DC-3’s contact with the terrain was cushioned by the lush vegetation.  With both propellers digging into the underlying earth, the DC-3’s tailwheel made minimal contact as the aircraft slid – straight ahead – to a swift stop in the field.


Imagine the surprise on the face of the first of the Dicke (Die-key) family to spot – through the kitchen window – the sudden appearance of this apparition, sliding across their field!  It wouldn’t be technically accurate to describe its halting in a cloud of dust, since – by all accounts – the heavy plant growth prevented any dust.  It simply came to a halt, then – for a few seconds – stunned silence reigned supreme!  Then frenzied activities began to occur – both in the farmhouse and in the airplane!  The patriarch of the Dicke family, a farmer who stood well over six feet – as best I recall – jumped up from his place at the head of the kitchen table, uttering an abrupt exclamation!  About the same time Tom Truax unfastened his cockpit seat belt and rapidly exited the DC-3 through the air-stair door at the cabin’s rear, portable fire extinguisher clutched firmly in his hand!  Clambering onto the left wing’s trailing edge, he stepped across the wing’s upper surface to gain access to the nacelle and the fire.  He then hastily discharged the fire extinguisher’s contents into the opening where the fire had charred the aluminum.  Meanwhile, Al hastily completed the securing process in the cockpit, then joined his companion on the wing.  As all this was happening, the stewardess was following the dictates of her emergency manual by commanding the full load of passengers to vacate the cabin – “RIGHT NOW!” 


As all this was happening, David Dicke had run from the kitchen of the farmhouse to the machine shed.  Fortunately, a hay wagon was already hitched to his John Deere tractor.  At David’s urging, the engine sprang to life and he then engaged the tractor’s clutch.  It lurched forward; after exiting the building David turned and drove straight towards the aircraft.  Unfortunately, this straight line disregarded the farm lane's conventional path through a gate.  The end result was a new pathway through the fence that separated the farm buildings from the scene of the landing.    


The group of passengers milling about in the alfalfa hadn’t yet finished their deplaning process according to the stewardess’s loud commands when the sounds of the John Deere and wagon intruded upon the scene.  Circling around the front of the bellied-in DC-3, David stopped at the side of the aircraft where all the activity appeared to be taking place.  Subsequently Al tried to describe this entire scene to me.  He said that he’d become aware of the presence of a farm tractor almost before he’d determined that the engine fire had truly been extinguished and would remain out.  Upon first glance, he became aware of a tall farmer, clad in denim overalls and possessing the fullest red-haired beard Al had ever seen!  In the Dakotas it was common for us to observe the presence – in the countryside far below – of a large number of religious communes, all living a lifestyle as it had existed perhaps a century earlier!  Al‘s first thought was that he had landed in the middle of such a commune.  However, after a short time, he determined that the beard represented a year's worth of careful facial cultivation for participation in Nebraska's upcoming state centennial celebration.


Well, recalling life on the farm, it was customary for visitors, referred to as “company”, to be offered coffee and refreshments as the most basic hospitality.  Accordingly, David invited the load of startled passengers to climb onto the wagon’s flatbed so he could take them all back to the farmhouse.  As soon as the crew had determined that the aircraft was secure – or as much as it reasonably could be made so – they rode back to the farmyard.  I really don’t know about their carry-ons, I’d have to assume that after the aircraft came to a halt the stewardess had commanded them to leave all that stuff behind and get off the airplane – quickly!  So I’d guess that they left most of their personal effects out there on the airplane to accept a ride to the house and warm kitchen.  We were told that Mrs. Dicke then welcomed them all to the house while starting to brew some coffee and serve cookies to this group of “company” that had suddenly dropped in for a visit.  Using the farm's party-line phone, Al finally persuaded the telephone operator to put a collect call through to North Central’s chief pilot in Minneapolis - St. Paul.  He then was able to describe the airplane’s condition as well as the welfare of his passengers.  He also extracted the chief pilot’s promise to immediately advise the Norfolk station manager of the exact location of the missing airplane.  I.e., “in an alfalfa field on the Dicke farm, ten miles south and three miles east of Norfolk”.  So, the entire group was safe and snug inside the farmhouse’s kitchen and living room before we even knew about it at our airline’s home office in Minnesota.      


The first order of business, after notifying the appropriate FAA authorities, was to arrange for a replacement airplane.  In short order our chief pilot, Captain Art Hinke, completed these arrangements as well as determining which personnel from the airline’s maintenance department wished to ride along with us.  We knew that the priority was to deliver the replacement aircraft to Norfolk as soon as possible, enabling the interrupted trip to resume.  We left a short time later with a couple of maintenance supervisors.  It was still daylight when we landed at this small station.   With advance notification of our expected arrival time, the crew and passengers had finished their lunch with the Dickes and had been transported to the Norfolk airport terminal.  In short order the replacement DC-3, N-18949, was re-fueled and the station manager made his customary pre-boarding announcement.  At this time we weren’t exactly sure of how many people wished to resume their trip!  Amazingly, all the passengers elected to reboard the flight and – shortly thereafter – the interrupted flight taxiied out and departed towards the north!


For the first time in several hectic hours the terminal building was empty, now devoid of passengers and activity.  I can still distinctly remember the building’s silence!  Our small group stood for a moment or two, contemplating the circumstances and what to do next.  Finally, Art decided we’d better find a couple of cars to borrow for the night, then drive out to the Dicke farm to survey the aircraft and landing site.  As we drove the gravel back roads while being led back to the farm, night fell.  After driving onto the farmstead’s entry lane, we were further guided to the alfalfa field and the ghost-like presence of a DC-3 on its belly.  We walked around the airliner – looming seemingly larger than life in the moonlight – our flashlights examining its surfaces and examining the tracks in the ground.  In concert with the maintenance personnel we closely studied the left engine and propeller to determine if it had been bent or partially torn from its mounts in the landing with a feathered propeller.  As far as we could determine, the sturdy structure had performed well, no damage of the sort was apparent.  Determining that further inspection of the area would have to await daylight and raising the aircraft to again rest upon its gear, we decided to inspect the belly and structure.  Fortunately, the protruding wheels offered just enough room for a person to slide underneath on one’s back through the alfalfa.  In this posture, I was able to feel the condition of the flaps and structure under the complete center section of the aircraft.  I couldn’t raise my arms enough to be able to visually inspect the aluminum surfaces with a flashlight, but a tactile inspection seemed to justify a “It all feels good under here, I think we can probably fly it out after we change the engines and propellers”.  At this exact point, having removed the ever-present briar pipe from his teeth, Art said “Hey, that’s good news!”  Then, almost as an afterthought, he queried “Unh – say – you didn’t happen to find any snakes under there, did you?”  Up until that exact moment, I’d completely forgotten our location and that there are rattlesnakes in Nebraska.  I abruptly – and somewhat foolishly – tried to sit up in order to make a hasty exit!  Bam!  “Ouch!”  The only injury connected with the entire incident had just occurred – to my forehead when it struck a piece of jagged aluminum skin.  Sliding back out from beneath the aircraft’s center section in the darkness, I attempted to wipe the blood away from the gash above my eye while muttering under my breath about the chief pilot’s ancestry!


Early the next morning we again surveyed the damage, this time in daylight. The maintenance people decided that both engines and propellers would need to be replaced.  Several other small airframe pieces would need to accompany these items on the truck that’d be sent from the airline’s maintenance shops.  Once this effort was underway, Art told me that we might as well get on the first scheduled flight and go back home.  Left to repair the airplane – enough to make it ferryable – were the maintenance foreman, Garth Lowell and his crew.


Their very first act was to rent a crane that could lift the complete airplane.  With an empty weight of approximately 18,000 pounds, this was not exactly a small matter, however one of adequate capacity was subsequently rented.  Next on the agenda was to start removing any of those items that could be reached.  After some time, the truck arrived, with its cargo of engines, propellers and necessary parts.  Following the arrival of the industrial crane the aircraft was lifted off its belly.  The landing gear was extended and, once again, the airplane regained some semblance of dignity, resting upon its wheels.


The hourly cost of crane rental factored into the next decision.  A discussion among the mechanics revealed that the crane wouldn’t necessarily be required for the subsequent work.  With the assistance of David Dicke’s tractor-mounted hydraulic manure loader the engines could be lifted and changed.  Following this the propellers could also be changed, completing the heavy repair work.  Xxxxxxxxxx


All through this several day process, the Dicke family provided a steady supply of coffee and refreshments for the maintenance crew diligently working on the project.  Following the completion of the repairs, the final step was to test “the proof of the pudding”. Starting the venerable DC-3, Garth taxied it away from the buildings and faced it into the wind.  Following the warm-up, each engine was thoroughly tested and its functions checked.  Every function that could possibly be checked on the ground was also tested.  After this, nothing remained except to notify the home office that the repairs were completed and it was ready to ferry. 


While the repairs were being performed, Art and I’d both decided that we’d have to practice a few short-field takeoffs while also determining two things (a) how much distance we’d really need and (b) the aircraft configuration to be utilized for this takeoff.  Accordingly, we’d used the short runway 11L back home at Wold-Chamberlain airport to experiment with several different takeoff flap settings.   After several liftoffs at varying airspeeds, we determined that it really didn’t make a great difference whether we used partial flaps from a standing start or lowered them after we’d raised the aircraft’s tail, they all resulted in about the same performance as regards distance.  We were satisfied after determining that it’d take us approximately 500’ to become airborne since the alfalfa field was about 900’ long with a fence at the east end.  In addition, both Art and I had recently returned from an assignment to a Bolivian airline.  In that developing country we operated everything – including DC-6B’s – off of sod strips.  So this really didn’t present too much of a challenge or worry to either of us.  Now feeling rather confident in our figures and abilities, Art asked a company check pilot conducting flight training with a spare Convair to drop the two of us off in Norfolk.  Flying over the scene in the Convair, we could see the DC-3 parked on its gear, very near the farm’s barn.  After arriving once again at the farm, we walked over the field’s surface, carefully noting its condition.  Hoping to avoid any more damage to the Dicke hay crop than had already been done, we both felt that a couple of swathes with the hay cutter would define enough of a pathway through the alfalfa for our takeoff.  We noted that the local school apparently had decided to dismiss their classes for the afternoon to allow the students to watch the show.  After David had cut a couple of swaths through the hay with the stalk cutter, it’d been trampled and mulched enough to provide a definite pathway.  We also laid the fence at the east end of the impromptu runway on the ground so we wouldn’t have to consider this obstacle.  We’d been discussing the fuel load; we arrived at a collective decision that draining all but twenty-five gallons in each of the two main tanks would easily permit the short nine-mile flight to Norfolk’s airport.  After confirming this fuel quantity with a fuel measuring stick, nothing was left to do – but – to do it!


I think everyone reading this would recognize the necessity of an extremely – more than normal scrutiny – close pre-flight inspection of the entire airplane.  After experiencing the indignity of landing on its belly, along with the necessary repairs, it passed our inspection with flying colors.  Again, both of us knew that we would be operating outside of the normal parameters on the takeoff.  Normally an airliner can suffer the loss of an engine’s power on takeoff and climb away after feathering that propeller.  Alternatively, it can abort the takeoff roll if the engine failure occurs prior to reaching the liftoff airspeed.  In this case, however, if we encountered any sort of an emergency requiring an aborted takeoff, we’d be in the neighboring farmer’s field!  Whether this neighbor would be more – or less – hospitable than the Dickes was something neither of us – and I’m sure our airline – had any intention or desire of ascertaining!  Taxiing to the extreme far northwest corner of the improvised runway, we again carefully checked the power of both new engines. 


A short cockpit briefing that would likely appear rather perfunctory to a layman followed.  After agreeing on the extension of ½ flaps after the aircraft’s tail was raised, Art then revealed a habit born of long experience as a pilot – he checked the surrounding skies for traffic as though this was a real airport.  Without hesitation, he smoothly aligned the DC-3 with the narrow pathway, then promptly advanced the throttles to 45½” of manifold pressure while rolling.  A slight crosswind attempted to cause a swerve; however a touch of rudder maintained our alignment with the narrow pathway of mowed hay, defined mostly by a subtle difference in color.  As soon as the tail was raised, I moved the flap handle to lower ½ flaps.  About halfway down the field, Art applied slight elevator backpressure and we were easily airborne.  A retraction of the gear and flaps, followed by a left turn to fly over the Dicke farmstead.  My logbook shows a short ten minutes later we’d traversed the short nine-mile distance and parked the airliner at the Norfolk terminal. 


In the retelling of this story – with the inevitable reminiscing – I’ve been reminded by Karen Dompier, Art’s secretary of many years, that a couple of weeks later  North Central Airline’s chief executive officer invited the entire Dicke family to the airline’s headquarters for the day.  Accordingly, Art and I – along with Dee Wisnauskas – flew down to get the family in the airline’s executive configured DC-3, N-21728, and brought them back up here.  They were able to enjoy a day of sightseeing with tickets to a Minnesota Twins baseball game. Later that evening they were our guests of honor at the well-known Parker House restaurant for a get-together of all the people involved in this incident of so many years ago.                 

Randy:   Regarding the Norfolk incident and the Dickie family, remember we brought the entire family to MSP for a day and entertained them.  Some went to a baseball game and I took the youngest girl to the zoo.  Then in the eve we took them to the Parker HOuse for dinner.  I think they were impressed and as I remember they were a very nice family.  Enjoyed the story.   THanks     Karen


R. L. Sohn 1999 ©