I’m not going to write about yesterday. Not going to write about how surprised I was to find myself shedding tears watching Jennifer Lopez sing Woody Guthrie on the Capitol steps. Feeling like I could really breath again. I mean, J-Lo singing Woody Guthrie? It sounds like the setup to a joke. But there it was, and there I was. And I won’t even get started on Amanda Gorman. Just…just…if you didn’t hear her recitation, do yourself, and the entire country a favor and watch her now.
What I am going to write about is January 21st, 1946. Seventy five years ago today at the Fairfax County Airport in Kansas, a factory test pilot only remembered by the initials H.E.L. (license #60402) climbed aboard airframe #16 of the newly-revived Commonwealth Skyranger line and fired it up for its first test hop.
I say “Mr.” and “his” as a guess. I have no more information about H.E.L. other than his license number: 60402, and searchable pilot records only go back to the 1960s. Commonwealth did have at least one female test/delivery pilot – rumor is that she’s the one pictured in the glossy brochures showing how even a lady can easily get in and out of this modern airplane, But at this time, a scant six months after war’s end, it’s inarguable that the preponderance of pilots were male.
I presume Mr. L bundled himself up well that day. While I have no record of the weather that morning (yeah, I could Google old newspapers), Kansas City temperatures in late January typically top out just above freezing, and the Skyranger’s “cabin heat” is of what antiquers call the “shin burner” variety, providing a narrow, feeble flow of too-hot air directly to the pilot’s right shin, and leaving the rest of the drafty cabin unaffected.
I also presume L conducted a seriously thorough preflight, as he was about to take aloft a welded, glued, bolted and stitched assembly of parts that had never been further from the ground than the jacks of the factory’s painting rack. Story is that during the war, Republic Aircraft was being plagued by defects in aircraft coming off the assembly line until they instituted the policy that, for each aircraft’s first flight, one randomly-chosen factory worker would ride along.
But apparently all went well, because the only notation in the logbook after the hour-and-a-half flight is “1-21; 1:30 Test Hop O.K.; H.E.L.” After one more flight that afternoon, presumably after various discrepancies had been addressed (1-21; ” ” ” H.E.L”), Commonwealth Skyranger serial number 1616, FAA registration NC33395 was cleared for delivery.
She must have been pre-ordered, because only two days later, she was off, eastbound to Baltimore, where her first owner (probably “Jack Pfeiffer”?) waited.
Jack had to wait a little longer, however, as the record of ferry flights (Kansas City – Tarkio, MO – Des Moines – Fort Wayne – Latrobe) stops in western Pennsylvania on Jan 26th. The next entry, on April 12th, records a return to flight after “replacement of left and right front landing gear, cowling, propellor, leading edge and outboard ribs of left wing,” along with other miscellaneous parts. The delivery pilot (mercifully remembered only by initials C.C.B and license #216115) clearly botched the landing in Latrobe with what we tailwheel pilots know as a “ground loop“.
No record on where Mr. C.C.B.’s aviation career went after that, but Mr. Pfeiffer did finally get to fly his plane on May 5th after another pilot (“J.E.P.”) brought it the rest of the way east.
NC33395 spent many uneventful years plying the eastern seaboard before being sold out west, then sold again to a woman up north in Tenana, Alaska, where she spent the late 1950’s. My friend Tom Scott and his father found her on the way to the dump in Moscow, Idaho in the 1980’s and spent years restoring her to airworthy condition.
Devon and I bought ‘395 from Tom on April Fool’s Day in 1993 (seemed appropriate) and promptly got engaged while sitting in the cockpit together for the first time. Needed to make an honest airplane out of her, we told people. And we’ve been flying her for the 28 years since.
I know there are those who recoil at using gendered pronouns for inanimate objects. I will apologize to you for doing so, but I will continue to do it. Pilots understand. Sailors understand, and I don’t think I can explain to anyone who doesn’t.
Anyhow. I’ve tried to take her up every year for a “birthday” flight, but weather, especially up here in the Pacific Northwest, can be dodgy this time of year. A couple of days ago, though, the skies cleared and my schedule obliged. We’re in the middle of what we call “Juneuary” here, the unseasonably and inexplicably warm two weeks at the end of the first month of the new year. (Juneuary actually comes twice each year. The missing two weeks of cold can be counted on to show up, as the name implies, at the end of June, leaving unwary vacationers and beachgoers uncomprehendingly huddled shivering in their rented summer RVs.)
But I digress. Again. Short story, NC33395 and I got to take to the skies for the first time in a couple of months to celebrate the 75th anniversary of her first frigid flight. Felt good, of course. Brisk clear air over a scattered marine layer, mountains shining out in all their winter glory. Put her through the paces: steep turns, lazy eights, chandelles. Cruised west over Clallam County farmland, back east over the coast to the Admiralty Inlet, chased inbound freighters and traced island shorelines. We weren’t going anywhere in particular, just stretching our legs.
We weren’t the only ones taking advantage of the weather. The radio was filled with small plane chatter, and there were probably half a dozen folks milling around in the air over my home field. I will admit that, after having gone around on short final when the student pilot in front of me failed to clear the runway as quickly as I expected (my fault, not hers), I was tempted to tell the next pilot who called, inbound on the forty-five, “Negative Ghostrider, the pattern is full.” But didn’t.
Squeaked the landing, satisfyingly, for the benefit of folks on the deck at the airport restaurant and taxied off at the first turnout. Putt-putted up around the back way to our hangar, shut her down, and gave her the obligatory pat on the spinner. It’s a bit of a ritual – I always give her a pat on the spinner after the flight and say Thank you. Again, I’m happy to apologize to those who will insist that anthropomorphizing and gendering inanimate machines is wrong. But I’m still going to do it, for as long as I possibly can.
(Also: Yay democracy!)