Happy Birthday, DC-3

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

In the rush of Christmas, I’m a little late with this post. I had hoped to have it ready for December 17th, when one old friend turned 75 and another turned 108.

On December 17, 1935, at Santa Monica, California, test pilots tried out the first DC-3. Exactly 32 years earlier, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville and Wilber Wright piloted their Wright Flier 1 to what is generally considered the first sustained flight by a self-propelled and pilot-controlled aircraft.

I’m not a pilot, but I enjoy being a passenger. I love both the arriving in some exotic place and—under most conditions—the process of getting there. Maps fascinate me, as does the world they represent. (Ask the two generations of students to whom I have assigned map learning.) Having the earth stretched out beneath me is like enjoying the map in its purest form. I have pressed my nose to the window of multiple crossings of the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Caribbean, and on flights that puddle-jumped across four continents.

I remember all the places I visited, but some of those airplanes I got on, got off, and forgot. By far, my favorite flights were in the airplanes that carried me during the nine years I lived in Colombia. In 1984, I moved my family to Lomalinda, a small Bible-translation and linguistics center on the Colombian
llanos, or eastern plains. When I arrived, the center had three single-engine, Short Take-Off and Landing (STOL) Helio Couriers, and an unusual looking plane called the Evangel. In addition, twice a week, the community was served by a DC-3 flight from Bogotá. Primarily, the small planes connected us to the state capital (Villavicencio, a.k.a. “Villao”), or remote areas where indigenous languages were still spoken. Through Bogotá, the DC-3 connected us to the rest of the world.Loading the DC-3, Bogotá, Colombia, October 1985

Lomalinda was 35 miles from the closest paved highway, miles that were always difficult and sometimes impassable. I remember one rainy trip where buses and trucks lined up on both sides of a thousand-yard mud pit while two Caterpillar tractors sloshed back and forth, towing a single vehicle each trip. In good weather, the road trip to Bogotá took 12 hours. The DC-3 could do it in just under an hour.

Cockpit of the DC-3, with seats for pilot,
co-pilot, a third crew-member, and to
offer one passenger a remarkable
vicarious experience.

When the DC-3 went into production in the mid 1930’s, it revolutionized passenger airline service. It cut the New York to Los Angeles trip from 38
½ hours (beginning with a train ride from N.Y. City to Cleveland, and then 13 more stops to L.A.), to 17 ¾ hours, with just three stops. In four years, as one airline after another went to DC-3s, the rate of passenger fatalities per million miles flown fell by four-fifths. Over the same years, the cost of airline tickets fell by half and the volume of passengers more than quintupled. DC-3s had captured 90% of the world’s airline traffic. By the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Douglas Company had built 507 of the DC-3s. War brought a military version, the C-47, and production that reached 4,878 in 1944 alone.

The DC-3 assembly line shut down in 1945. That means the airplane that carried my family that last leg to Lomalinda could not have been less than 39 years old. It might have been closer to 48. By comparison, I was 35. Before we left California, we junked the Dodge Dart we’d been driving. It died at 19.

It is difficult to pick a date in automotive history as dramatic as Kitty Hawk, but by 1903, motorcars had almost a century of experimentation behind them and were in production in both Europe and the United States. Still, by 1984, most pre-1945 models saved their public appearances for car shows. Few pre-’45 buses had regular runs and few pre-’45 trucks hauled freight. The DC-3 arrived 32 years into aviation history, and then served widely for roughly 50. This would be like the common-place usage today of a 1940’s telephone, or a 1980 photocopier.

My daughter, earning
her wings as a stewardess.

After World War II, cheap military surplus DC-3s made possible the beginnings of many new airlines, or fell into private hands. From Lomalinda, it was 35 miles in one direction and 60 in the other to find airstrips capable of handling a DC-3. Therefore, when storms sealed off either destination, airplanes landed on our strip to wait out the weather. I remember once counting 13 aircraft crowded in our little parking lot, half of them DC-3s.

In many ways, the DC-3, at age 50, was more comfortable than airplanes fresh off the assembly line today. For one thing, seats seemed roomier, aisles wider, and windows larger. True, the cabins were noisier, and unpressurized. At high altitudes (like over the Andes, to reach Bogotá), passengers sipped oxygen from tubes. I remember one painful flight with a head cold, descending into Lomalinda with the pilot circling the airport an extra two times to give my ears additional time to adjust. But more, I remember the spectacular views of Andes and Llanos.

Sipping oxygen at 16,000 feet
Colombians pass down a story that when God created Colombia, the angels came to complain that no place should be allowed such beauty. God is supposed to have replied, “Yes, but wait until you see what else I will do to it.” In many ways the country has suffered a torturous history, but its landscapes are breath-taking, and to fly over it is dazzling. Few places on earth display as many shades of green, or as wide a variety of clouds, sunsets, or rainbows.

The Colombian Llanos,
under the wing of the DC-3.

I might have ridden the DC-3 eight or ten times. It brought my youngest son home after his birth, brought my in-laws for a visit, and carried my wife and me to a second honeymoon in Bogotá. For part of one flight, I sat in the cockpit’s fourth seat and the pilot pointed out the unremarkable peak of Nevado del Ruiz. On November 13, 1985, a small eruption of the volcano melted the snowcap and sent a wave of boiling mud across the town of Armero, killing some 23,000 in the worst recorded lahar in history. The disaster sent our DC-3 into full-time relief service. Even at fifty, this veteran was not an air-show classic. It was still a workhorse.

For this reason, it came as a shock when the government decided no longer to allow DC-3s over the Andes. Ours had superchargers on the engines that gave them extra power and safety, and our pilots trooped to government offices looking for an exemption, but to no avail. Unable to use it for the Bogotá run, we had no choice but to sell it. My last photographs of the DC-3 are from 1987. I was told the plane had been purchased by a company that flew tourists over the Grand Canyon. It continued to serve.

This year, aficionados celebrated the DC-3’s three-quarters of a century with a formation flight across Wisconsin. Twenty-three DC-3s landed together in Oshkosh; of 26 that had had gathered at Rock Falls, Illinois, to attempt the flight; of the hundred or so still operational in the United States; of the some fifteen thousand made during the decade of their construction. Would you like one? I see this one advertised for only $299,000.

I found some of my history for this here.

Merry Christmas to All!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

For many people, "Christmas Tree" means an evergreen with fancy glass balls and strings of lights. In Colombia, it was leafless stem and branches, wrapped in cotton and decorated with ornaments. I'm coming to appreciate the persimmon tree in my back yard, which hides most of its fruit until the cold weather strips it of its foliage. Then the bright orange ornaments stand out against the gray sky, each one a sweet gift. Merry Christmas, everyone.

Posted by Brian at 10:44 AM 1 comments  

新年快乐 (Xin Nian Kuai Le!), 2011 Rabbit Version

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

When is Chinese New Year? The calendar tells us the Year of the Rabbit doesn't begin until February 3, 2011, but my scientific study shows that the anticipation of it started about a week ago.

It has become a peculiar annual pattern here at
Capers with Carroll that in mid December, Sitemeter reports that my February 1, 2008 New Year's greeting becomes more popular than anything I have written before or since. Throughout the year, a smattering of visitors arrive by Googling either "新年快乐" or "Xin Nian Kuai Le," but suddenly, a week ago, it became a torrent. The Capers archives store 148 entries on a wide variety of topics, but over the last nine days, a full third of the traffic has come for this single, two-year-old post. How can that be? The last ten hits have come from Poland, France, Germany, Thailand, Italy, Canada, and two each from Singapore and Vietnam. Perhaps these place-names define the Chinese diaspora. I do not understand this phenomenon, but like other mysteries in life, I can enjoy it without knowing how it works.

And so, I send my New Year's greetings in advance, to all the Chinese (and other Asians) spread around the world: Xin Nian Kuai Le!

(P.S., This post received such heavy traffic, especially from Singapore, UK, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, UAE, and the European continent, that I wrote about it here.)

Christmas with Huckabee

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Can't Wait Till Christmas

by Mike Huckabee

  • Reading level: Ages 4-8
  • Hardcover: 32 pages
  • Publisher: Putnam Juvenile (October 5, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0399255397
  • ISBN-13: 978-0399255397
With back-to-back best-sellers about Christmas, one might believe that Mike Huckabee was an active candidate for Santa Claus, rather than an unannounced candidate for President of the United States. The two roles have several similarities.

For starters, both Santa and presidential campaigners come with fictions that everyone recognizes, but with which all participants play along. In this case, we have the fiction that Huckabee has not decided whether or not to run. Like sports seasons, campaigns break down into practice gam
es, league play, and a national championship. During preseason play, candidates romance the voters with the fantasy that they have not made up their minds about running. For Huckabee to say he’s not running is comparable to the San Diego Padres saying, “It hurt a lot last year to get beat in the play-offs by the Giants, so we’re coming to Spring Training this year, but we haven’t decided yet whether we will play any regular season games.” While it’s true that candidates may drop out at any time (and at a rate of about one every-other week during primary season), about a dozen Republicans could now be described as running until-they-are-forced-to-drop-out. In this pack, Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich stand out as the leaders.

In 2009, I supported Huckabee in the primaries and waited for him to make a local appearance, if not in Visalia, then in Fresno or Bakersfield. When he never came, I realized he had chosen not to contest California. Huckabee has now worked Visalia twice in 20 months (he spoke at the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast in May, 2009). We may be a city of only 125,000, but we’re the commercial center of a red county in a blue state, and a link in California’s Bible belt. This time, it’s safe to say Huckabee plans to do battle in the California primary.

After writing several books on public policy and a couple of exhortations in favor of weight loss and building a legacy, the pair of Christmas books might seem a little innocuous. Not so. The C
hristmas season follows immediately after the November elections and allows Huckabee to hit the stump before the last recounts have been decided from the midterm contests. It also quietly plays the nostalgia card for Huckabee’s base. There is considerable resentment that Winter Holidays have supplanted Christmas Vacations. It certainly wasn’t that way in the 1950’s, when these autobiographical stories took place.

Last year’s A Simple Christmas told 12 stories from Huckabee’s childhood. They stress the influences and events that built his character. (And certainly character is one of Huckabee’s long suits: there will be no intern embarrassments or Watergate burglaries from a Huckabee presidency.) Each story teaches a lesso
n, and some express Huckabee’s Christian faith. This year’s Can’t Wait Till Christmas takes just one of those stories, adds pictures, and reworks it as a children’s story.

The plot is simple. Young Mike and his somewhat older sister cannot resist sneaking a peek at the Christmas presents wrapped under the tree. One thing leads to another until Mike is re-wrapping a dirty football to return to the pile. His sister is re-wrapping a slightly used chemistry set. They are discovered. Parental wisdom and mercy prevail, but a lesson is learned about the importan
ce of patience.

Or has it really been learned? This two-week, “non-political” book tour started at the Richard Nixon Library (how’s that for an icon of non-politicosity?), and runs to Seattle, with multiple signings each day. Huckabee appears to be chomping at the bit to launch a campaign that technically won't start for another year. Notice the transportation being used for this tour. I ask my author friends: have you ever traveled to a book-signing in this kind of style?

Or has your publisher hired personal assistants to travel ahead, to organize the crowd before your arrival, and then to open and hold the books for economy of motion as you sign and give handshakes as well? (The guffaws some of you may hear are my writing friends exchanging book-signing stories.)

I was about 12 when I attended my first celebrity autograph event, Sandy Koufax coming to a local bank to sign souvenir plastic bats. At 14, as a re
porter for my junior high newspaper, I went through the reception line twice in order to interview Nelson Rockefeller in his primary contest against Barry Goldwater. I’ve attended presidential campaign rallies with Eugene McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Shirley Chisholm, and George McGovern, and author signings by Joyce Carol Oates, Jonathan Franzen, Randy Alcorn, T. Davis Bunn, and Jerry B. Jenkens. All of my experience tells me this was a campaign stop, not a book signing.

Yet it was very impressive, and scrupulously clean. There were no sign-up tables, campaign buttons, or literature handouts. The press release said he would be at Borders in the evening, from eight until nine, and sign 400 books, signature only—no personal inscriptions. Borders distributed numbered tickets throughout the day, and began organizing the line at 7:00. The candidate author arrived four minutes early (Clinton would have been 90 minutes late), as personable and at-ease as I have ever seen any person at the center of attention. Perhaps 250 people stood ready. (For a children’s book, reading level four to eight, surprisingly few of the attendees were under voting age.) When people asked for anything extra, he politely told them he needed to get signatures for everybody first, but they could try coming through the line a second time. I had him sign his 2009, Do The Right Thing, and then went and got a second book. As the numbers thinned, he began posing for pictures. When Pictures slowed, Borders employees rolled out several carts with another couple hundred books, which his staff fed him assembly-line style. Finally, at six minutes past nine, he was out the front door and back on the bus. At each step in the process, as people encouraged him to run or promised to vote for him, he graciously thanked them for the comment, but stated that he hadn’t made any decision.

So does any of the imposture put me off? No. Two years ago Huckabee was my favorite candidate based on issues. Now I’ve seen him up close. He is the most talented politician I have ever seen, winsome, easy-going, yet remarkably self-disciplined.

In a manner of speaking, I can’t wait till Christmas.