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Friday, February 26 2016 00:27

Full Circle

Written by  Thomas Block
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September 2015

Last time we were together (Full Circle, July 2015) I spoke about the audio productions of two of Robert Gandt’s nonfiction books, “SkyGods : The Fall of Pan Am” and “China Clipper: The Age of the Great Flying Boats.” Gandt engaged me do the audiobook productions and narrations of these aviation books which are available at Audible.com, Amazon and in Apple’s iTunes Library.

Doing the narrations not only rekindled my love for Pan American, it made me remember quite clearly three of the most memorable discussions that I ever had with fellow pilots.

 

When my close friend, the late Capt. Jim Poel of American Airlines, mentioned that he personally knew one of the Pan Am captains who had flown the big boats, I knew that I wanted to meet this man. Then, by coincidence, the entire event turned into something even more special.

A few days before my meeting with the retired Clipper captain that Jim Poel knew, another friend mentioned to me that an ex-neighbor of his, who many years ago retired from Pan Am, would be visiting his house. He wondered if Sharon and I would be available to come over for dinner and a chat.

Capt. Stewart Doe, Beech Mountain, N.C., had retired from Pan American in 1978 at the age of 60. While our wives chatted, I pressed Capt. Doe for the details of his career.

He had hired on with Pan Am in 1941 at the age of 23. At the time, he had less than 200 hours total flight time, which wasn’t terribly unusual in the early 1940s. (Back then, airlines were having trouble getting new recruits since the military was taking so many.)

Stewart Doe started out as a copilot on the boats, flying Commodore S40s, S42s and S43s until he got a captain’s position two years later. Doe’s initial captain position was on a Consolidated Commodore twin-engine flying boat in the Caribbean.

From there, he moved on to DC-3s in Alaska and eventually, to piloting a larger flying boat—the Boeing 314—across the Atlantic.

After the war, Doe moved down to Rio de Janeiro and soon was flying Boeing 377 Stratocruisers. Finally, he came back to the New York base and flew the last Stratocruiser flight out of Europe. He transitioned to the Boeing 707 in 1960, then the Boeing 747 in 1970.
“I liked the 747,” he said. “It was the easiest.”

Of the old flying boat days, he said, “We navigated by celestial or dead reckoning. If you missed your destination by much more than 30 miles, you couldn’t pick up the radio beacon. Then you had to improvise. Most of the time, we looked out the cockpit windows to pick up the drift, figure the winds, eyeball the headings.”

When I asked Capt. Doe how he learned to do this or that, he was complimentary of Pan American’s training: its standards were high, with lots of cross-checks. “Also,” he added, “being a captain meant more then. You were really in charge, really responsible for everything that happened. Not like today.”

Capt. Doe went on to say that there was “increasingly no difference between procedure and technique, a trend that began around the era of the 747.

“It might somehow be better for aviation, but it sure is lots worse for the pilot,” he commented. Capt. Doe was 20-plus years away from the airline flying business, yet he still had an unmistakable captain’s bearing about him.

Finally, he started telling stories from the old days about the things that interested me most: rebuilding a flying boat’s engine at the mouth of the Amazon River over a four-day period while a PBY seaplane ferried in the parts; making an emergency descent into Bangor, Maine with a Boeing 747 after receiving a bomb threat.

Then Stewart Doe got an idea and made a telephone call. My afternoon the next day was suddenly all set up.

Unknown to me, living not very far away, was Capt. Kim Scribner, another retired Pan Am veteran who had held line flying and chief pilot positions. I met Capt. Scribner at his apartment in Daytona Beach, Fla. and we spent the afternoon looking at the memorabilia—photos, plaques, models, magazine and newspaper clippings—that lined his walls and filled his scrapbooks.

Also hired in 1941, Scribner was in that fortunate batch of people who spent only a couple of years as copilots, then the remainder of their careers as captains in a wide array of equipment. Capt. Scribner was one of the few civilian pilots that Pan Am had hired at the time.

“In the old days,” Scribner told me, “we had to figure out everything for ourselves. We had very minimal facilities. The cockpits of the old flying boats leaked so bad that we put away all our maps and put on rubber coats before we flew them through the rain,” he recalled.

“Westbound across the Atlantic, we sometimes flew as low as 100 feet to avoid the winds, and we flew with the landing lights on and pointed down so we wouldn’t descend into the sea. Each journey was unique; on many an occasion we would turn back.

“We had eight men in the cockpit of a Boeing 314, and I started out as Fourth Officer. Eventually, after a great deal of time and much training, I became what was designated as a Master Pilot of Ocean Flying Boats. I was the last Pan Am pilot to qualify as a captain of the Boeing 314,” Capt. Scribner explained.

“I still can’t get over how the United States government let Pan Am go under after all that the airline had done for this country,” he added.

Capt. Scribner talked about his landplane days—flying aural-null low-frequency approaches into Rio in DC-3s; flying through thunderstorms in DC-4s; making a record-setting flight into Paris in a DC-7C.

He declared that the change to the Boeing 707 from the piston airliners that preceded it was the most dynamic of the changes that he made in his career.

What made it even more difficult was that all their training in the Boeing 707 was in the airplane itself—there were no suitable simulators at the time. There were, Scribner recalled, quite a few teething problems with the first 707s.

Finally, he talked about the Boeing 747—which he flew on its inaugural run to Paris. He retired off the 747 in 1977 at the age of 60.

Twelve hours after I left Capt. Scribner, I was sitting in a restaurant in Stewart, Fla. with Capt. Chuck Bassett and my friend Jim Poel. Capt. Bassett retired from Pan Am in 1975, yet continued to fly his Republic Seabee for many years. Of the three retired Pan Am captains I interviewed, Bassett was the only one who was still an active pilot.

Hired by Pan Am in 1940, Bassett had already accumulated 788 hours and had served one year of active duty in the military—all a pilot could hope to get in those budget-strapped prewar days.

Capt. Bassett originally flew DC-2s and DC-3s. He even had a short stint on the lone Ford Tri-Motor Pan American still owned. A year later he went back to New York to check out on celestial navigation and was assigned as Second Navigator on the Boeing 314 flying boat.

Nine months later he was ready to advance to First Officer on the 314, so he had to go back to New York to learn water flying techniques. Training was done out of the marine terminal at La Guardia, and it took six flights off Long Island Sound for Bassett to get qualified.

Capt. Bassett said that the 314 was the finest water airplane he ever flew (the 747 was the finest land airplane, he said) and he was particularly fond of the cockpit, which was the same size as the cabin on a DC-3. The airplane was so big that mechanics routinely got to the back side of the engines in-flight through a tunnel through the wings in order to change accessories and spark plugs.

World War II changed everything for Pan American and its pilots. Capt. Bassett still had his Army Air Corps commission, but he was now flying for the U.S. Navy in a civilian airplane. Now a Master Pilot of Ocean Flying Boats, he flew the 314 to South America, Africa, Europe.

“The captain had all the authority,” Bassett said. “Pan American had almost no communications with us after the New York departure. We did whatever had to be done.”

Piloting the big boats was rigorous. Flight controls were so heavy it sometimes took two men to move them. The captain did most of the takeoffs and landings; the copilots might get one out of four.

Before a long trip, the captain would go to the Pan Am office a day early, take a physical, then take the airplane out for a short hop to see if it was ready. As part of the wartime regime, the captain wouldn’t tell the rest of the crew where they were going until they were airborne on the first leg.

Long trips were scheduled for 27 days and 210 hours of flying—and that would often stretch to five weeks or more. You could leave New York before the World Series began and not return until basketball season was over. The longest nonstop flight Bassett ever made was 24 hours, 16 minutes.

When the war ended, Capt. Bassett went to DC-4s, which he didn’t particularly enjoy—even though he admitted they were a lot easier to fly than the old boats. Eventually, he transferred to Constellations, DC-6s, DC-7s and Stratocruisers.

Capt. Chuck Bassett flew the 747 for the final five years of his career. It was like a multi-engine J-3 Cub, he said. “Redundancy was fantastic,” he told me. “Easy to handle, taxi, land; good visibility. The best landplane I ever flew.

“Everything has generally gotten better over the years, except for crew fatigue problems: jet lag has made the problems worse, and the onboard accommodations are far less than what we had in the 1940s. Deterioration of command authority is increasingly a problem—it’s gone steadily downhill since the early days,” he said.

The time I spent with these three men had been a great pleasure for me. This trio of pilots was representative of the Clipper skippers that I had held in such high admiration for so long, and I was gratified to see that their histories were everything I had hoped they would be.

As a friend of Capt. Scribner told me, “These men were in a unique situation, doing a special thing at a special time. They saw it all and did it all. These were the men that lived many men’s dreams.”

 

Editor-at-large Thomas Block has flown nearly 30,000 hours since his first hour of dual in 1959. In addition to his 36-year career as a US Airways pilot, he has been an aviation magazine writer since 1969, and a best-selling novelist. Over the past 30 years he has owned more than a dozen personal airplanes of varying types. Send questions or comments to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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