by Dave Yost
In the newsletter every month Scott Thompson implores members to contribute something that might be of interest to chapter members. It’s supposed to be something about airplanes so that narrows things down a bit but I’ll try to make it work.
I learned to fly at Lincoln Airfield when I was thirteen years old; that’d be about 1958. My instructor was a family friend and I’d been flying Super Cubs with him on the Telephone Air Patrol for quite a while. This transitioned into formal flying lessons.
However, this story isn’t about training and such. Rather it is just one day at Lincoln when I was fourteen years old. Although I’ve flown at Lincoln for over sixty years this day was particularly memorable. There are three parts to the story; all happened on the same day.
I am going to describe events, a few not-so-pleasant, so be warned. The end of this story is pretty bad but everyone should read it. If you’re going to be around airplanes and airports you need to read it and remember. This will be wordy; if you are interested in Lincoln back-in-the-days, you’ll love it. If not, back to Netflix for you.
In the ’fifties I was an “airport kid.” That is I’d hang around the airports and cadge a ride anyway and anywhere I could. In those days half the fathers in the neighborhood had flown in the war so there were a lot of pilots to suck up to.
Burt Lancaster (the lawyer) had a C172 and his son Drew, a classmate, and I were on a mission to fly to Lincoln to fly a glider. Well, Burt was going to fly the glider and Drew and I were along for the ride. This was about 1961.
We would depart from Sacramento Muni and fly straight to Lincoln. How many of you have flown in or out of Muni? Some of you have,
but just don’t know it. Sacramento Municipal Airport was affectionately called Muni back then. Some pretentious city employee then decided that there would be more interest in flying if they renamed the airport so they changed it to Sacramento Executive Airport. Since I was planning to fly crop dusters that hardly fit my vision of flying and I’ve hated the name ever since.
Anyway, as is the custom, Drew and I would share riding in the front seat; one flying to Lincoln, and the other flying back. The term left seat-right seat was not in fashion back then. I don’t recall how it was decided, but Drew would fly to Lincoln, and I would fly back. This is hardly something memorable, and normally not be mentioned in a story. But, as things turned out, my riding back in the front seat was significantly not beneficial. Unforgettably so.
I have no idea why there was glider activity going on at Lincoln back then. Burt had somehow hooked up this glider ride or lesson or whatever. I think it was vaguely implied that we boys might get a ride also, but not promised. As it turned out, Burt never got in the glider either. Things went wrong.
In mid-morning we flew up to Lincoln. This having happened about sixty years ago, there are a lot of details I have forgotten. And a few I will never forget. I am guessing we landed on runway 30. You can scratch your head and say, “Three-Zero? Huh?”
So, a refresher on Lincoln Airfield in the ’fifties-’sixties. Back then, the field was pretty much the same as it was when it was built during WWII. I’m not up on Lincoln history during the war years; it was not a major installation but an outlying field used for training and emergencies. That is, there were no troops or equipment/planes permanently stationed there. It was basically just the runways. There were four runways (or do I say eight?). See the attached diagram.
A big triangle of three runways, and one going up the middle; our present-day 33-15. Those runways were all very wide. If you flew in you just parked at the edge of the runway you landed on. Or, anywhere you wanted except always off to the side. There really wasn’t anywhere else to park. No taxiways, no ramps.
Today, the original triangular configuration has pretty much disappeared. 33-15 is there but it is much narrower, and significantly extended. The only remaining intact runway from back then is 36-18. From the air you can see how wide the runways were. Incidentally, I put the runway numbers on the map overlay with extrapolation; I guessed. Other than 33-15, I’m not sure what the ghost runway numbers were. You can figure it out looking at the map.
I clearly remember the glider was flying on runway 30 because we had to carry it back to that runway and also deposited the body alongside it so it sticks in my mind. This is what is called a “teaser” to keep you interested; body? Carry it back? What?
So we landed and parked the Cessna at the edge of the runway. It was a pretty exciting scene. The whole runway had been taken over by the gliding operation. Back in those days, no one cared; just use whatever is available. There was quite a crowd, maybe twenty or thirty people.
And, a little past-and-present. The tow plane was a WWII primary trainer. A PT-something. It had a metal fuselage and I’d guess a rag wing. Open cockpit, twoholer. Nowadays you’d say forget the glider, I want to ride in the tow plane. Significantly (as you’ll learn about later in the story) it had a big radial engine and a steel propeller. And, very significantly, it was started with a inertia/flywheel starter.
The glider was a Schweizer 1-23. There has been one tied down on the north ramp all winter.
So, time for flying the glider. For us two boys it was quite exciting. Everybody rushing about, airplanes and glider coming and going. Pretty good action. And then things started to happen. I vaguely remember the tow plane roaring by, followed by the glider on the towline. I don’t remember how many flights they got it in before…
Well, they “landed out.” For those of you who don’t fly gliders that means they did not land on a runway. This is not necessarily bad; gliders do it all the time, and their landing gear can handle it. However, after having made literally thousands of landings at Lincoln I have no clue why they had to land out in a field north east of the runway. I was fourteen; I didn’t even think to ask. They landed about where the corporation yard is now. Again, how can you miss a runway at Lincoln… especially when there were four active runways back then?
Well, that was pretty good stuff for two young teenagers. The glider wasn’t damaged; it’s made for such landings. But, how to get it back? Fortunately, there was an eager, substantial ground crew and we all ran across the fields to the glider. We didn’t roll it back, well, we did for a ways. But then there was the ditch. If you examine Lincoln airfield carefully you’ll see it has major drainage. There are a number of big, deep ditches. One ran right alongside runway 30-12. It was about six feet deep. But, no water. So about ten people picked up the glider, and carried it like a canoe over the ditch. Easy Peasey. Well, that was pretty good stuff but Drew and I were getting a little bored so we decided to go explore the bomber.
I don’t know why it was there, and never found out. But, down on runway 06-24 someone had left a B-25 WWII bomber. This may seem crazy, but back in those days there were many airplanes abandoned at airports all over the country. Flat tires, no propellers, maybe no engines, maybe missing this part or that. Where did they all go? Well, at a certain time airplanes suddenly became quite valuable again and all the old abandoned planes just suddenly disappeared. Back into hangars then back onto the flightlines, kind of like classic old cars. I recall a Republic SeaBee sitting in the weeds at Natomas Airfield in 1985. And WWII dive bombers, rows of them, within the Sacramento city limits; ’another story in that.
So, down on the south edge of the field was a WWII bomber. Funny part is, no one thought a thing about it. That’s what it was like back in those days. Many, many classic airplanes lying around and no one gave them a second glance. Stearmans were everywhere.
So, Drew and I hoofed it down runway 15 to the bomber. Ah, those were the days. No one telling us to get off the runway or that we “weren’t allowed out there.” Someone did warn us to watch out for black widow spiders.
As we walked to the bomber it suddenly poured rain. A serious thunderstorm. So, maybe it was in the Spring, and maybe they thought there would be good lift (thermals) for the glider that day.
The bomber was there, a bit forlorn; flat tires, missing propellers, spark plugs, glass, etc. We climbed in through the open bomb bay doors and thus gained access to the cockpit and up to walk on the wings. It was great, but it wasn’t like we were seeing the Eiffel Tower or anything. In those days it was perfectly normal to see a bomber sitting at an abandoned airfield. I never thought to bring a camera; what could ever change?
So, we got our fill of the bomber and headed north back to the glider operation. That was when things turned a bit dark.
A warning here. The final part of this story isn’t pretty. It is grim. Nowadays you might see stuff like this on YouTube or even in the news. Well, no video cameras then, no iPhones. Only first-person commentary. That’s what you will be getting below. It may seem gory and gruesome. But, this is first-person descriptive narrative. Most of the articles in these newsletters are a bit like “my first trip to Disneyland (glider ride, etc.)” But this is real world and this is what happens when people make dreadful (and stupid) mistakes. If you’re going to be around airplanes, you need to be familiar with how easily and quickly things can go wrong even on the ground. Read and heed.
Burt still hadn’t had his glider ride. But, he was very involved in the operations. Everything was kind of helter-skelter but there was organization and I guess guys were getting their rides and/or instruction. Nothing was amiss. But now things went wrong.
The tow plane from WWII had a huge radial engine. Well, I remember it seemed huge. And, it was, of course, a tail-wheel airplane. So, the engine was quite high off the ground. Starting an engine like that by just swinging the propeller (“propping”) was difficult if not impossible. Nowadays such engines are equipped with electric starters. But this engine was started with an inertia starter. I would guess that most pilots today have never seen one used. If you watch old newsreels of WWII you’ll see them especially on aircraft carriers.
There is a mechanism attached to the back of the engine. This was basically a flywheel and a clutch. A big crank was inserted into the right side of the airplane just behind the engine maybe three to six feet back from the propeller.
This crank engaged a gear system. A couple of the ground crew would turn the crank furiously and the flywheel would spin up to a considerable speed. Maybe some of you are old enough to remember the little cars you could push along the floor and spin up a little flywheel inside. When you let the car go it would race across the floor. The inertia flywheel starter on an airplane sounds exactly the same.
When the flywheel was going as fast as possible, the pilot would pull a knob or lever and that engaged a clutch that turned over the engine. There was enough power stored in the flywheel to turn over the engine three or four times. Usually enough to start the engine.
I’ll tell you what happened next. Yes, I do remember this clearly.
They were going to start the plane and tow another glider. Burt and another fellow were standing on the wing next to the fuselage holding the crank. They started cranking. This took quite a lot of effort. Hard cranking. When they got it up to speed, the pilot engaged the starter and the engine turned over. And started.
However, while the flywheel was spinning up, a very large Weimaraner dog in the area became very agitated. I mentioned that things were a little chaotic; cars, people, airplanes all over the place. So, no one gave this dog a second thought. The dog belonged to the guy standing on the wing cranking the engine with Burt.
The dog ran straight into the propeller.
Everyone saw it go in. And everyone was frozen; what could you do? Yes, horror.
And the engine balked and stopped.
And that was when things got insane.
Someone pulled the dog back away from the airplane well clear of the tail. And then someone yelled at Drew and me: “You kids, hold on to that dog!” Back in those days kids did as they were told. So, we got on our knees and grabbed the dog’s collar and held on to the dog. No problem… until the engine started again. The engine took hold well, and the pilot gave it some throttle so it wouldn’t die again; a thousand, maybe twelve-hundred rpm.
While it was spinning up, the dog went crazy again. But, we held on. It was a huge dog, but we could hold it.
Until the engine revved up. And then the dog attacked us. Really, like an attack dog in the movies.
I held on even when it sunk its jaws into my arm. When it started to tear me apart I let go. Of course. So did Drew. That dog was on a mission.
The dog then ran straight for the airplane. It came under the left wing and then across the front. For a split second it looked as though it was going to run right past the front of the plane. But no, as it passed the propeller, it twisted back and attacked it.
I turned my head to the left to avoid seeing the inevitable. I missed seeing the contact, but looking down the runway I saw the dog’s right front leg and half its body fly down the runway at a very high speed. It was going so fast that it didn’t roll; it skipped and bounced like a stone thrown on water. It went maybe a couple hundred feet. It sounded like a board with a nail going through a table saw. The steel propeller literally rang like a bell. The pilot quickly shut down the engine.
And this was not the end, or the worse.
I looked over to the front of the plane. The dog was lying directly under the engine. And, it was still alive. And crying. The owner did his duty. He took the big steel crank out of the airplane, hopped off the wing, and put the dog out of his misery.
This kind of put a damper on things. Flying was over for the day. People began to drift off; everyone wanted to get out of there.
Burt, Drew, and I walked down to the Cessna to return back to Sacramento. Remember how Drew got to ride in the front seat going up to Lincoln? I got to ride in the front seat on the trip back. No good. Burt had been standing on the wing turning the crank with the dog’s owner. The propeller was turning pretty fast when the dog attacked it. It tore the dog part. And, the slipstream covered the guys standing on the wing with powdered bone, blood, and God-knows what else.
I still remember that Burt was wearing a light tan cotton windbreaker… soaked in blood and bone. And I got to sit next to him on the ride home. So this trip wasn’t one of those “would you like to take the controls” times. We all just grimly flew back to Sacramento.
As we took off I looked down and saw the dog being dragged into the drainage ditch by its owner. Well, how else? It’s still there about where the north hangars start. It’s right in front of Tony’s hangar. I think of it every time I taxi out to 15.
Being pretty old, I like to think that we were much smarter back then than folks are now. But, this whole thing? How could we have been so stupid? “Hey you kids, hold onto the dog.” Huh? The dog had just attacked the propeller. Only the engine quitting had
saved it. So, we all just went right ahead and did it again.
There’s a lesson here somewhere. I guess if folks are determined to be stupid there’s no stopping them.
Burt’s wife, unaware all this was going down, had prepared a wonderful dinner for us. We sat down and it came out of the oven; fried chicken. Every piece looked like parts of the dog.
I looked at Drew; it had not gone unnoticed. I said: “We eat it now or we’ll never eat it again.”
We ate it.
A few years later the bomber disappeared. I heard that a crew of aficionados, skilled ones, had come in, rebuilt the B-25 to flyable condition and flew it out.
I don’t know if Burt ever got his glider ride. I was nineteen when I started flying gliders in Kufstein, Germany over Austria’s Wildenkaiser. One good thing; no tow plane. If I can find the photos you’ll have a good story. I soloed out in a Grobe 103 in Minden in 1989 and on my fifth solo flight was awarded the SSA Diamond Pin for climbing over 10,000 feet from point of release. I’d brag about it but the hardest part was putting on the oxygen mask; I had no idea I’d need it or how to put it on as I was climbing over 1,000 feet a minute. ’topped out at 17,400 feet and would have kept on going but that was the ceiling that day.
The flight lasted three hours and forty-five minutes. Five hours would have also meant a record, but I was wearing shorts and damned near froze to death; ’had to come down.
I hope no one was upset by this story. It is just one of many I could tell about flying at Lincoln: test flying Carl Mueller’s 1911 Curtis Pusher, the many crashes I witnessed in the 1980’s, finally getting my license from Karl Harder in 1986, and flying Jet Rangers into the helicopter repair facility that used to be where the skydiving operation is now.
I have described the events that day in uncomfortable detail because, well, I learned a lot that day; ’things people should know if they are going to be around airplanes. Just writing this brings back memories I would as soon forget. As far as propellers go, be afraid. And don’t bring the pooch to the airport.