Last week I began audio podcasting my Father’s true adventure, Talking To The World From Pan Am’s Clippers. Last week’ Episode was his introduction which provides a good background for his and other Flight Radio Officers experiences during the period of 1939-1949. His book has sold over 10,000 copies. Today’s adventure is entitled First Stop Havana. In this short piece, I believe Dad captures the excitement of first flight. I hope this grabs you as it did me.
As I did last week, I am including the text of this Episode for you to follow as I read if you so desire. Please let me know if you like this or if it is a distraction in the “Leave a Comment” box at the bottom of this page. Thanks!
Pan Am’s Sikorsky S-40 At The Dock – Biscayne Bay, Miami
Click on the link below to hear the audio podcast:
FIRST STOP HAVANA
BY FRANCIS ALLAN CHAPMAN
Time flies when you are having fun. And I was certainly enjoying myself with all that I was learning and the exotic foreign countries I was about to visit.
I must have been making good progress in my Pan American Airways training because it seemed only a short time after I was hired, that the exciting moment arrived when I found my name posted for the first flight. The flight schedule board at the radio station was inside the Pan American Airways International Terminal at Dinner Key, in Miami. The board was always a hub of activities, as it was where all the flight crews could find out when and where they were going next. It showed plane number, pilot’s name, route, time of departure: NC80V, Pilot Captain Doxey, Miami-Havana, FRO Chapman, 7/22 Depart 0800. Man, was that an exciting moment in my young life when I saw my name listed. Date: July 22, 1939.
The morning of my first flight I probably awoke at 5 AM. I rushed through breakfast, got into my brand new Flight Radio Officer uniform, shined my shoes again and ran to the radio station to pick up the log sheets and DF charts, only to find out that the ground crew hadn’t finished their own preflight check. So I’m sure I was pacing around the terminal, muttering to myself. Just had to wait for the beaching crew to get NC80V into the water. I must have finished my preflight check at least an hour before departure. It included running all the equipment and making a quick CW code check with the radioman at WKDL, the Communications Center for the airline. I would be talking to him half way to Havana and back, every fifteen minutes while we were in flight. Each crew member had to do his own preflight checkout well before departure time and then return to the terminal to wait.
The Captain and copilot were doing their thing in the operations office, getting the latest weather, winds aloft and souls on board (SOB). Their major concern was to carefully check the weight and balance of the plane before takeoff. This included getting the correct weight of the fuel plus enough gas to reach an alternative landing area in case the destination weather had deteriorated, making a last minute diversion necessary. Any crew member in charge of loading fuel unofficially added about 50 extra gallons of fuel as “pocket gas” or “gas for Mama” if he was married. This would give a small margin of safety in case winds were stronger than forecast. The weight and balance load figures were critical and had to be accurate, otherwise the center of gravity (CG) would be off, and the plane would have trouble lifting off the water. All skippers knew about pocket gas and automatically figured in the extra 330 pounds of weight.
The moment of departure had arrived. I was 23 years old and I was ready and excited. Impatiently I waited for the skipper to give us the word, March. At last he did. So we tried to stay in step while we shuffled on board the S-40 Sikorsky NC80V, followed by 30 passengers. The two stewards got every one settled and seat belted, while the Skipper and copilot went through their takeoff checklist: Altimeter set, read fuel gauges, master power switch on, ignition switches on, and advance throttles. I had nothing to do but watch.
Finally all four engines were started, the docking lines were dropped and we slowly moved away from the dock. The copilot called the Panair 1 launch to see if our takeoff area was clear and began taxiing out into Biscayne Bay.
I know I must have been on cloud 9 I was so keyed up. We swung into the wind. Captain Doxey checked with Panair 1 once more and found the takeoff area was still clear. He pushed the throttles slowly forward and we picked up speed quickly. Within ten seconds the plane tipped forward slightly, onto the step. We were now skimming along over the calm Bay at 50 MPH. This is when the captain gently pulled back on the steering column and we lifted off the water. Wow! We were flying!! This was the most thrilling time for me that I’d ever had in my life. Everything began to miniaturize: the Bay, people at the terminal, nearby sailboats, all speedily grew tiny. It was a very special moment for me. I felt this was an ethereal sensation rather hard to describe. But I have felt this with almost every takeoff throughout my life. It all began on Biscayne Bay at Dinner Key, Miami, Florida that sunny morning in July.
The skipper continued a slow banking climb to the southwest until we reached 1,000 feet. He leveled off at this altitude. I was peering intensely out the window. All I could see was sunny skies and the blue green Gulf Stream visible below. Stretching all around us was the Caribbean. 220 miles away was our destination. Cruising at 115 MPH, we’d be there in two hours.
Except for three or four brief radio contacts, my radio was quiet. However, I was kept busy taking radio bearings from all directions. I wanted to practice my new skills.
I kept handing a steady flow of little slips of paper to the skipper. They had broadcast station call letters, the time and a number, representing the bearing from the plane to the station. CMA 355 meant a Havana station was 5 degrees off our port bow. Or WKEY 045 meant a Key West station was 45 degrees off our starboard bow. I could estimate how far away from Key West we were when we passed by. If it took us 12 minutes for the bearing to change from 045 to 090, then I would multiply 12 times 2 or 24 miles. That indicated we were 24 miles off Key West. The number 2 was a constant, representing the plane’s air speed over the water of 2 miles per minute.
Time sped by. All too quickly I was peering over the copilot’s shoulder again, scanning the horizon ahead. Havana Bay, whose name I don’t recall at the moment, began magically to grow larger and more distinct. Soon we started our descent. I had to hurry back to reel in my 150 feet of trailing antenna. I didn’t want to forget that before we landed in the bay. Bad news for me if I did. We got clearance to land from the Panair boat that had cleared the landing area. Doxey “greased one on,” meaning he’d made an extra smooth landing. We slowly taxied toward the dock while the copilot opened the bow hatch so he could reach out and pick up the docking lines. It had taken us 2 hours and 5 minutes from Miami to Havana. I was so happy to have done my bit toward making the flight safe and easy, with no problems. My return flight to Miami, in the late afternoon, was uneventful, arriving at 5:10 PM. Thus ended my very first roundtrip passenger flight to a foreign country.