Saturday, April 17, 2010

First Commonwealth Skyranger: 4/1954- 7/1955

My flight log shows a few entries in the Cessna 140 after I returned from Europe, but none for the 34 months after June 1951.  During that time I became divorced and was a civil engineer for two seasons in Greenland.  There we worked 10 hours a day, 7 days a week, with overtime after 40 hours weekly.   IRS laws made those high earnings tax free if the worker was in a foreign country 510 full days out of any 18 month period.   That left about 37 days one could spend in the USA or on international waters, so we all would go home briefly and then "abroad" until Metcalf & Eddy called us back to Greenland.
So in April 1954, with a total of a mere 61 dual and solo flying hours in my logbook, none in the previous 34 months, for $800 I bought a  Commonwealth Skyranger 185 , registered as N92975, in Lewiston, Maine, for a flight to Mexico.   I went daily to the airport hoping for good weather.   I was rusty and this was an unfamiliar plane, but my original store of 37 tax-free not-abroad days were dwindling.   On April 13 I settled for less than perfect conditions, and got an hour of dual instruction and solo flight.

There were many times, some mentioned below, where it looks like I was pushing the envelope too far.   However, I got as comfortable flying the plane as I did a bicycle, there were far fewer other planes in the air to avoid then, and the Skyranger design was exceptionally safe.   Commonwealth Aviation was one of several companies that resumed producing planes after the War, to accommodate an anticipated huge market.   But production greatly exceeded demand, most small airplane builders went bankrupt, and one could buy a superbly engineered Skyranger for a lot less than it had cost Commonwealth to build it.   Almost uniquely it had leading edge slots near the ends of both wings which, as the plane slowed towards its stalling speed of 38 mph, would force air to flow smoothly over part of the wing ends, providing some support, so the plane would "mush" down instead of dropping like a stone as did other planes when stalling.   In the picture the slot on the bottom of the near wing appears faintly above "9 7".    The Skyranger cruised at 95 mph, but  could be flown safely at 45 mph.   Flying into the wind on landing yielded a ground speed like that of a vigorously pedalled bicycle.

April 14 I headed for Florida, to visit my daughter and my friendly ex-inlaws.  At dusk I landed at Basking Ridge, NJ, where an X at each runway end indicated the field was closed.    I slept on the floor of an empty hangar.

The next morning I couldn't start the engine.  Since there was nobody else there, I phoned an active airport for help.  An affable man arrived, and quickly discovered that I'd forgotten to turn on the magnetos after turning on the  main switch.  He told me that he couldn't get an airline job in spite of his flying experience in the war in Europe and in the USA, because of the color of his skin.   Years later the FAA published a book about that Tuskegee Airman, who died on a humanitarian flight in Africa.

As I approached Washington a black cloud wall ahead forced me to land at the next field.   It was Beltsville, a government facility not open to outsiders I was quickly told after landing, but I was allowed to stay 2 hours until the storm passed.

The only air charts (maps) I had been to get in Lewiston ended about where I was, but I continued flying mapless past DC until I could spot an airport.   I found one in Virginia, landed, and bought charts for my entire route to Texas.   I landed that night in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The next morning the ceiling (bottom of solid clouds) was less than a thousand feet, so I didn't fly.  Then a small Tri-Pacer came in from the south, and out got the pilot, on crutches.   Quite illogically, I figured that if he could fly, so could I.   So I took off, flying at about 700 foot altitude.  However, I found that with no lakes or ocean like in Maine, and without the perspective of ample altitude, I was soon lost.   I struggled with the controls and map folds trying to match railroads and towns to what swiftly passed below, but I remained lost, so landed on a newly plowed field.  The farmer acted as if my landing was routine, and told me where I was.    I got back in,  pushed the throttle all the way in, the engine roared, but the plane didn't move.  That was because the furrows ran the short way of the field, and the two main wheels were in a furrow.   I rocked the elevators back and forth, and the plane struggled out of that furrow, then another, as the bumps got more rapid and lighter.   I left the ground and immediately flew between the barn and the house.   I wonder what the farmer and his wife thought.   The weather improved, and I continued southward by "the other IFR": I Follow Railroad.   IFR really means Instrument Flight Rules, flying "in the soup", for which neither I nor my plane were equipped.

Just before sunset that day, April 16 1954,  I landed at Savannah, Georgia.   My initial IRS ration of 37 days was dwindling, but I couldn't immediately continue, since I'd never flown at night.   In a very lucky coincidence, when I paid for gasoline in the airport office I met a crop-duster,  D. L. Curry, who had just delivered a plane there and wanted a ride back home.  Home was 300 miles south, right beside the people I was to visit in Delray Beach, Florida.  So we flew south in darkness in my plane, a few miles inland from the bright lights along the coast.   He neither used nor needed a map.    Over the dark land west of Delray Beach there was an occasional pinpoint of light.   Over one he circled low, throttled back, and shouted "Hey Monroe" out the opened window until more lights appeared below.   As we circled, we saw that Monroe drove to the little grass field and directed his car lights down its short length.  Landing was a little tricky, because the lights were pointed downwind, towards us.  In the picture below, the next day, are Monroe and Isabel Smith and their son Jonathan, with Monroe trying to start the engine by "propping" it.   Presumably the brakes were set and I took the picture, which looks unposed.   Monroe and Isabel were my friends, the parents of my ex-wife, and the founders of American Youth Hostels.    All these stories are in my aircraft log book, but they don't explain why this plane is not bright red in this picture.

The next afternoon I left for Texas, circling the Gulf of Mexico.    From Brownsville, where USA and Mexican customs and immigration facilities were conveniently combined,  I flew towards La Pesca (The Fish), Mexico, 200 miles south.   My chart showed it as a village without an airport at the mouth of a big river, but an article in True Magazine in a single sentence mentioned that there was a rudimentary airstrip there.  I flew two hours a few feet above the beach, occasionally looking up at cows on the adjacent fields.    I saw not a single person or structure in that time.   The photos in this segment are about 62 years old.  The beach photo was taken when I ascended a little higher to simultaneously manipulate airplane and camera controls.

Looking inland.   Note muddy river water meeting blue sea water.
Laws and government  permeated the airspace back home, but here was anarchy: no government rules, no government help.  After 200 miles of beaches I came on a big river meeting the sea, but the only "airport" was a short strip of sand festooned with holes made by scurrying land crabs.   There was a tattered windsock and not a single structure.  I chased off the crabs in an initial low pass, then landed, carefully avoiding the big crab holes.  From a thatched hut across the river came an Indian, paddling a canoe made from a log hollowed out with an ax, to take me to the village.    His family provided a hammock (screened off against mosquitoes) and breakfast, for which I paid the equivalent of a dollar.  They indicated that was  generous.

After 2 weeks at the next stop, Tampico, I flew south along the Gulf to Tuxpan.  An airline pilot who had just come from Mexico City told me there were big breaks in the overcast, so I could fly up in the clear to continue on top to where Mexico's central plateau penetrated the clouds.   I tried that, but the hole was too small and I was immediately in thick cloud with zero visibility.    I  quickly descended to clear air.   After some thought I decided to climb up anyway.   I knew if I headed towards the rising ground in the soup, "the earth might rise up to smite me", so  I turned left to fly parallel to the  jungle wall.   Below the clouds I set the plane to a uniform ascent of about 400 feet per minute, which with an expected cloud thickness of a thousand feet, meant I should emerge on top in less than 3 minutes.   It was like being in a telephone booth surrounded by brilliant white cotton,  which I could see swirling between me and the propeller.   After a year-long minute I had a constant dilemma: do I give up and descend swiftly, or am I about to break into sunlight on top, or do I continue climbing but go into a spin?    I kept my fingers lightly on the control stick so as not to disturb what the plane was doing so well.  Occasionally I glanced at the simple turn-and-bank instrument, which was supposed to tell me if the wings were level.   The longer I flew the greater the dilemma, until there was a flash of sunlight as I went through a deep hole in the corrugated cloud surface, confirming that the wings were still level.  Soon I was skimming the top.  It was one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever seen.  I took the above picture then.   I felt I was in heaven in body, where three minutes before I might have arrived there in spirit.   I never tried that again.  Solid white cloud below extended all around, except where higher ground appeared far ahead and the high cones of volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl appeared beyond.  Navigation was as simple as it gets.  I had no radio, the map didn't show any mark of civilization, and soon all was  brown below, so I just aimed right of the volcanoes, where I knew the city was.

Mexico City is surrounded by higher ground, so one must ascend to at least 10,000 feet to fly there.   I flew beyond the cloud cover, over undulating scrubby vegetation until I could see the Aztec pyramids,


countless swirling dust devils, and some kind of chemical concentration spiral, and the city, with the biggest highest airport I've ever used, at 7300 feet elevation.   The air in that central valley was as crystal clear as when Cortez invaded it.   Decades after my flight it was rated the most polluted and murky on earth, until Chinese cities became worse.  A green light from the tower said it was OK to land on a strip parallel to that used by the international airliners, so I did.

On several landings since Maine the engine had quit when the engine was idled for taxiing, and routine maintenance was needed after the long trip, so I asked for a repair facility.  I was directed to taxi across a main road while car traffic was held up.  At the facility I met someone who was to be the source of much unpleasantness over the next year.   I'll just call him Milton S., because he may still be alive.   He was a Dutch citizen with a crude wooden leg, and said he had the only flying business in Mexico with a female pilot.   I flew Milton in the Skyranger over primitive villages with thatched dwellings and no road access, to Coatzalcoalcos, in the oil regions near the Yucatan peninsula, where we talked of starting a joint air  passenger-and-cargo business.   As a tentative step to that end I bought a local Ryan Navion, registered as XB-GOW, pictured here after it was retrieved to Texas.  My new Chevrolet Bel Air and I roughly date the picture.

I made three flights to Acapulco.  The night club where divers plunge down a cliff to water that is deep enough only when they hit it as a wave comes in is just left of the center of the picture.   The divers are as famous as movie stars, and marry them.  The picture is restored from my 62-year-old 35 mm slide.   I remember romantic evenings with a girlfriend at that night club, watching the divers.

To get to Acapulco I had to cross a higher mountain ridge south of Mexico City, so I learned to find rising air currents, like eagles and glider pilots do.  Some of the areas near my route were labelled on a Mexican map as "tierra desconocida", meaning unexplored territory.   On the first trip I met a girl, a schoolteacher from Mexico City.  That prompted a second trip to Acapulco, on the return from which I was gradually forced upward as the thickening cumulus clouds rose, until the Skyranger was mushing along at 12,600', where one is supposed to use supplementary oxygen.  Before I found a descent hole I was threading a path around towering clouds of ethereal beauty, like iridescent white cathedrals.
Clouds thickening: not many holes left for descending to Earth.
Then, because of the beauty and hypoxia, I never felt closer to this poem that used to be familiar to all pilots:
                High Flight
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air....
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
See:  the author: Pilot Officer J. G. Magee, Jr. 

I took up smoking 5-cent-a-pack black Mexican cigarettes.   I was 29, rather late to begin an addiction that I quit with great difficulty 12 years later.

That may have been why I failed in climbing Orizaba, Mexico's highest volcano at 18,500'.  I took a taxi (about 5 USA cents a mile) from Mexico City to the village near its base, Tlachichuca, the driver stopping occasionally to nervously ask someone if there were "bandits still about".  My climbing guide had a prominently enlarged chest from breathing the air of his home at 11,000' altitude.  We spent the night in a mountain cave at 13,500', the pack horse tethered outside.  I had to force each breath until I acclimatized somewhat, and slept.    The next morning I laboriously ascended to steep snow at 16,500', where I couldn't take another very slow step upward.  I told the guide, "No puedo andar mas" (I can't go further), so we slowly descended.

In Mexico city I logged a few hours in a Link trainer, a pre-computer flight simulator, to develop skill in "blind flying", which is flying with reference only to instruments in the airplane.

On my way back to Maine I flew my longest hop ever, from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, 635 statute miles at about 10,000' with a tailwind.   My 2  days from Mexico to Maine in a little VFR plane might have been a record.  I landed in a pasture near my father's business in Winthrop, and later tried to take off again.  However,  I forgot that on takeoffs from muddy fields the pilot is supposed to hold the stick way back to keep the tail low until leaving the ground, the opposite of the position for normal takeoffs.  As I accelerated to about 25 mph, suddenly the wheels caught in the mud, the tail went up, things cascaded over my shoulders, and the plane came to rest with the bent propeller in the mud.

I  returned to my job in  Greenland, while the farmer cut the field length in half with a new fence, and cows chewed holes in the plane fabric.   One day, I was told, the mud had dried, the holes were patched, the wind was just right, and Bill Perry, the Augusta airport FBO, attached a new prop, squeezed aloft over the fence, and flew to a real airport which has since disappeared, South Portland beside the Rigby railroad yard.
The next year, 1955, I again went from Greenland to Maine, then by Skyranger to Mexico.    Enroute I visited in Geneva NY an engineer friend from Greenland, Paul "PJ" McDonough, as shown in an issue of  Geneva Times accessible by Googling my name.    Continuing, I buzzed Niagara Falls, which was legal then but not now, and took this photo:   

In the evening of May 6 I landed for gasoline in southern Texas as another stack of 37 days was dwindling.   I could reach the border at Laredo by 10 PM, but had never soloed to in the dark.  I figured I'd teach myself the new skill by continuing, like learning to swim by jumping off the dock, so I flew into the night.   When I got a few miles from the glow of Laredo ahead I searched in vain for where lighted airport runways were supposed to be.   There was not even a street light to mitigate the darkness below.    So I flew to the Rio Grande, the border with Mexico, its waters visible down but not ahead in the faint moonlight, turned downstream until I found a unique bend shown on the chart, then turned left for what I now calculated was the airport 2 miles ahead.    I dimly recall that my altitude was about 500 feet.   With the  faint moon I couldn't see the airport ahead until at the predicted moment I suddenly saw a runway below, indicating my dead reckoning had been perfect.   As I looped around to land I  turned on the landing light.  It didn't help, but blinded me, so I turned it off, circled away from the unseen hangars ahead, and returned to land in the dark, very cautiously since I could barely see down, and hardly at all ahead.   The hangars were visible only as I passed them.   I came to a halt at the very end of the runway.  The buildings were locked so there was no phone.    I went to the adjacent deserted road, looking for a car that might give me a lift to town.    Perhaps 15 minutes later one appeared and slowed.  The driver apparently thought better of my outstretched thumb, and started to drive onward.    I shouted, "PLEASE SEND A TAXI !"    The car stopped, and I was invited into the back seat.    In the front seats were two older ladies.   Between them was propped a large shotgun, pointed just over my head.   They said they had been hunting rattlesnakes, which lie on the hot pavement after dark.   It was good I hadn't attempted to walk the 5 miles to town.

In Mexico City I found the Navion had been attached and hangared by a business to which Milton owed money.   That was illogical and illegal, because he never became my partner, but I struggled with lawyers and courts and corruption to retrieve my Navion.   My life was threatened, so my lawyer suggested I change my hotel residence, which I did by walking several blocks in a maze until I was sure nobody was following me.  Finally I gave up and flew N92975 back to Maine.

The rainy season had begun, so I flew north across a couple hundred miles of high central plateau under a low overcast, then down through corrugated jungle valleys to Ciudad Victoria for gasoline.   
This exactly matches my vivid memory of the flight in marginal VFR, following valleys from  the high tableland down to the lower plains.

From there on the ground was much lower but the clouds were still at the same high elevation, so pilotage (navigation by comparing the map to the few features on the ground) to Texas became much easier.

I sold the Skyranger in Maine and  went to Holland to buy a small sloop, which I eventually sailed back to the USA alone, detailed in

Flying then was a lot cheaper then than now, even allowing for inflation.    I figured it cost me about dollar an hour.    Five gallons an hour at 16 cents/gallon.   Ten cents an hour for oil changes.   10 cents an hour for miscellaneous.   Zero for overhauls because I never had any done.   Zero for insurance: I had none.   Zero for depreciation, since I sold my $800 (tax free) plane for $900 minus a 10% commission: a $10 profit. 

While I was sailing,  my lawyer had Cantinflas's (click on that) chief pilot take the Navion when nobody was looking, and fly it to the airport at Grand Prarie, Texas.   Apparently he could do that because his boss, "the Mexican Bob Hope",  had influence and was above the local corruption.   By then I had learned that  Milton had dropped bombs in a recent war in Guatemala, was wanted for murder there, and was a pederast.

I didn't return to Mexico for several years.  However, these and subsequent visits to Mexico left me with a deep respect and affection for its people and culture.  That it has some bad dangerous people is obvious.   That some of its underpaid police and officials seek bribes in order to support their families is well known.    However I, and later my wife Marge with me, have had so  many experiences of kindness, trust and dignity from Mexican residents, especially the poor, that we consider it the norm.

PS on 8-16-2015:  N92975 is still flying 60 years later, based at West Lafayette, Indiana.