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  • Writer's pictureJohn A. Mark

The Magic of Flight

At the age of seven pretty much everything is exciting, wonderful and new. So when it was announced we were going to spend Thanksgiving that year at my maternal grandparents’ home in New Jersey and that we were going to fly there I almost jumped out of my skin. I’d been enthralled with the idea of flying and airplanes ever since I could remember.

Earlier that year my Dad had to take a business trip to Denver, and I went to the airport with my Mom to see him off. I was allowed to go onboard the airplane for a few minutes. The stewardess, that’s what they were called back then, sensed my excitement and gave me a tour of the cabin. And then the big moment, the cockpit. The two pilots and the flight engineer welcomed me with smiles and open arms. I had never seen anything like it before. The dials, gauges, switches, how could anyone ever master the knowledge needed to operate such a machine?

I was transformed – well as much as someone can be at seven. And I also knew that one day I’d fly one of these planes.

Fast forward a few months and here I was back at the airport ready to get on a plane and actually fly somewhere. United Airlines Flight 608, Douglas DC-6, nonstop, Salt Lake City to Chicago (Midway) departing at 8:45am, arriving at 3:30pm. (As an aside, my Dad encouraged me to keep a record of my flights. I started that day and still do it. 3,044 flights, 2,556,544 BISM – butt-in-seat-miles).

We were seated in the second row behind the cabin door. The seats were upholstered, wide and very comfortable, I mean I was only seven but hey give me a break, And then there was the in-flight entertainment! The most amazing things I had ever seen. God’s Earth sliding by below me and blue sky and fluffy clouds seemingly so close I could touch them. And I could have since we flew through some.

As you can see sitting behind the wing of this prop liner has its advantages. First, the views

are fantastic and secondly, it’s much quieter, though still noisy as all get out. I was in heaven. The only time I didn’t have my

face glued to the window was when it was time to eat. And yes, lunch was served on

china by a white-gloved stewardess. I don’t remember what it was, but it was delicious even if I did have to balance the tray on my lap atop a pillow. No tray table back then.

We landed in Chicago and had not quite two-hours before our connecting flight that, for

some reason, was not on United but TWA. Being young I had no idea why we didn’t continue on

United, frankly I still don’t, but then we got to our new gate and I saw it.

The mighty Constellation in all her glory. I thought the DC-6 was big, but the Connie took the prize. I just stood there in awe.

The Connie was first flown in 1943, originally developed as a military transport. Its unique triple tail design was born from necessity. Lockheed engineers determined that if the plane had a conventional single tail it would be too tall to fit into existing hangars. Later models were fitted with Wright R-3350 18-cylinder Duplex Cyclone engines, the same engines that powered the B-29 Superfortress bomber of World War II. They were just as finicky on the Connie as they were on the B-29. Inflight failures, while not the norm, happened more often that one would have liked. Because of the size of the propellers the landing gear had to be lengthened. She stood tall on the tarmac.

Not to mention too that she was fast. With a maximum speed of 375 miles per hour she

could outrun a Japanese Zero if need be. She cruised at 340mph, 30mph faster than the DC-6.

TWA flight 37, Chicago (Midway) to Philadelphia, departing at 5:15pm, arrival at 8:30

was about ready to board. But not before the pilots arrived.

The Captain must have sensed me staring at him as he waited for the agent to open the boarding gate. No jet bridges then, everybody walked out to the plane and boarded from air stairs. Anyway the Captain noticed me and came over to say hello. He asked if this was my first flight. “Oh no, it’s my second!” I answered. I also added that I was going to fly one of these planes one day, “it’s my dream.”

I remember him smiling, “Well then we have veteran with us. Very good.” And off he went.

So we boarded and away we went. Somewhere

over Ohio I think a stewardess came to our seats and whispered into my Mom’s ear. She

looked at me and grinned. The stewardess said

to me, “The Captain would like to see you.” Huh? Me? Yes. So I got up and to the cockpit I went. Remember, times were much, much

different then. It was dark outside, the only light being that given off by the glowing instruments. The Captain turned around and welcomed me and told me to stand or sit behind him. I’d never seen anything like it.

I know we talked but I can’t remember about what. I was in heaven and somehow, I sensed, at

seven, that life could never get any better than this. I went back to my seat. My Mom asked how

it was. I couldn’t talk. I just knew that not only was I going to be a pilot, but I was going to be a

TWA pilot.

By the way, that little shaver in the tan coat about to step off the air stairs in the photo above is me.

As is oft the case, things didn’t work out quite as I had dreamed. Oh yes I did become a pilot. In fact I soloed on my 16th birthday, two days before I took my drivers’ test. I got my Private Pilot’s license on my 17th birthday and my Commercial ticket at 18. I was fortunate enough to fly for 27 years off and on before health issues cost me my medical certificate. I flew many different types of planes all over the world. But never for TWA.

For several years during and after my flying days I owned an aircraft maintenance and modification business with a partner and became friends with many, many wonderful people including several TWA pilots. About a year after TWA’s absorption by American Airlines I received a 9x12 stiff-backed envelope in the mail from a group of former TWA pilots. Enclosed was a certificate naming me as an Honorary TWA Captain for my many years of dedication to aviation. I was touched beyond belief.

So I guess, in a way, perhaps I did live out that seven-year olds’ dream after all.

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