The Airmail Flies Again
Ninety years ago, in May 1918, the U.S. Post Office Department inaugurated airmail service and began an adventure in American history much like the days of the Pony Express, a time of lore, legend and bravery. It was also a time when panel gauges—what few there were— had the sophistication of a carpenter’s level, instrument flying was still far in the future and nobody took off in the dark, much less into snowstorms.
But nobody told the pilots, so they died by the dozens. First the Army Air Service flew the routes, then civilians—including a guy named Lindbergh— took over, and eventually Congress appropriated enough money to establish a bare-bones system of beacons and lighted airfields. By then, the airmail route hopped from field to field all the way from New York to San Francisco.
Last September, that same track was flown once more by a Post Office mailplane, a huge Boeing Model 40 biplane that had been obsessively restored from a wreck that left little but the airplane’s data plate and a few parts. Rebuilt by its pilot, Addison Pemberton, the Boeing flew formation with a 1927 Stearman C3B and a 1930 Stearman 4E Speedmail, both also once used as mailplanes.
Stearman became part of Boeing, as did the aerial charts company Jeppesen, which had been founded by airmail pilot Elrey Jeppesen, who hand-drew as his own navigation aid what were to become the country’s first aeronautical charts and approach plates. Appropriately, Boeing and Jeppesen, in cooperation with the EAA’s Antique Airplane Association division, sponsored the weeklong flight re-creation.
Farewell to the T-2
The first lines of an old naval aviator’s drinking song: “Don’t give me a T-2 Buckeye, so ugly it makes aviators cry/Flying it is no chore, but Christ what an eyesore….”
Former naval aviator Jim Nolan, today a corporate jet captain, would argue with that. “It was a hot airplane for kids with 30 hours,” Nolan reminisces. “We respected it. Up to 250 knots, it was nearly as quick as an F4.” Nolan was one of thousands of Navy nuggets who over the last 50 years stepped straight into a T-2 after spending a few hours in a Beech T-34 or turboprop T-34C Mentor. But on August 22, 2008, at NAS Pensacola, a 50-year-long era ended when the last Buckeye trainer was retired.
The Buckeye (so named because all 609 T-2s were built by North American, and then Rockwell, in Columbus, Ohio) used the wings of North American’s FJ-1 Fury, a straight-wing precursor of the F-86 Sabre, and much of the control system from North American’s radial engine T-28 Trojan trainer. But the Buckeye offered one innovation that would quickly be – come de rigueur for all future trainers: Rather than sitting in a hole back aft, the instructor’s seat, behind the student’s, was mounted high, for good visibility. The original Buckeye, the T-2A, had only one engine; the T-2B and C had two.
The T-2 has been replaced by the T-45 Goshawk, a tail-hooked, Americanbuilt (by Boeing) version of the RAF’s primary jet trainer, the British Aerospace Hawk.
Liberty Belle Tribute
On July 8, 2008, the B-17G flew over the American Military Cemetery in Madingley, near Cambridge, paying tribute to service personnel killed Liberty Belle in World War II. Madingley is the only U.S. World War II burial ground in England; 3,812 Americans are interred there. Based in Georgia, the restored Flying Fortress, No. 44-85734, is named after a B-17 that completed 64 combat missions during the war. A regular participant in Stateside airshows, Liberty Belle crossed the Pond for the first—and probably the last—time this past summer to appear at Duxford’s Flying Legends event. Liberty Belle Foundation founder Don Brooks established his organization in honor of his father, a B-17 crewman.
Philip Makanna’s photo will appear on the 2009 poster benefiting the American Air Museum at Duxford. More info at duxford.iwm.org.uk.
Cargomaster’s Final Flight
The Travis Air Museum at Northern California’s Travis Air Force Base took delivery of the last flyable Douglas C-133 Cargomaster when the transport plane landed at the base on August 30, 2008. C-133A N199AB (56-1999) departed Anchorage International Airport, Alaska, on August 28, flying south along the coast of Alaska and British Columbia at 21,000 feet and averaging 260 knots. The second leg of the trip, two days later, saw the Cargomaster depart McCord Air Force Base for the flight to Travis.
The airplane carried a new name for the flight, as Terry Juran, director of the Travis Air Museum explained, “The C-133 has been named Spirit of Fairfield, Suisun, Vacaville to honor our local communities who have been strong supporters of the base, and the museum, for so many years.”
Douglas Aircraft built 50 C-133s between 1959 and 1961, and the Air Force used them for hauling oversized equipment and ballistic missiles such as the Atlas, Titan and Minute – man. C-133A-15-DL 56-1999 was delivered on December 27, 1957. The plane was assigned to the 1607th Air Transport Wing, later the 436th Military Airlift Wing, at Dover AFB, Del., in December 1957. From February through November 1960, 56-1999 was stationed at Travis for a brief time with the 1501th ATW. Returning to Dover, the Cargomaster finished its career there and was retired on April 6, 1971.
C-133A 56-1999 and three others were subsequently acquired by the Foundation for Airborne Relief in November 1973. Plans called for them to be converted into flying hospitals, but due to a lack of funding the aircraft sat while awaiting a new fate. Five years later, Cargomaster, Inc., of Anchorage bought N199AB and moved the plane to Alaska, where it hauled oversized parts for various construction projects. A lack of spare parts and the inability to obtain reasonable insurance were major factors in the decision to end the C-133’s flying career.
Travis is negotiating to obtain two C-133s currently sitting at the Mojave, Calif., airport for use as parts sources in the planned restoration effort. Potentially, one of the Mojave C-133 cockpits might end up as an interior display at the Travis Museum. See travisairmuseum.org or call 707-424-5605.
-Nicholas A. Veronico
Originally published in the January 2009 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.