Archive for Friday, July 27, 2001

Skywriters flight on old 404 memorable

July 27, 2001


Not too long ago, a Great Britain-based magazine called "Flight International" conducted a contest. Identify five obscure aircraft and you would win an expenses-paid trip for two to the Paris Air Show.

One of my brothers entered the contest and won. Big deal. Heck, he's been an aerospace engineer for 35 years and I'm sure he's seen pictures of every airplane ever built.

My brother and his wife flew from Seattle to Paris a couple of weeks ago and enjoyed a wonderful four days in Paris. Not that I'm jealous or anything.

Maybe I can't identify every airplane ever made, but at least I have the satisfaction of knowing I've flown on a Martin 404 and he hasn't. Not that he would want to, but it's something.

Usually around this time of year I become nostalgic about the old Big Eight Conference Skywriters Tour. For more than 25 years, the now defunct Big Eight sponsored a preseason media tour of the conference football camps.

Early on, writers and broadcasters from the conference area would board such antiquated airborne conveyances as DC-3s, Convair 440s and one time only a Martin 404. During the latter years, a motor coach became the primary mode of transportation.

Those of us who made the journey on that Martin 404 it had to have been in the early '70s will never forget it because, well, we survived it. As I recall, this ancient air warrior that had run on commercial airline routes in the late '40s and early '50s was secured through a charter company out of Oklahoma City.

No, it wasn't Owl Airlines. The charter outfit wouldn't have dared fly that plane at night. I don't remember the company's name, but I'd bet my grandchildren it is no longer in business.

Actually, the short flights were OK. The Martin 404 could handle trips from, say, Columbia, Mo., to Ames, Iowa, and Manhattan to Oklahoma City. But the pilots were clearly nervous about the run to Denver out of Oklahoma.

For starters, the pilots determined we had too much weight so a couple of writers and the late John Waldorf, the Big Eight supervisor of officials and tour hospitality director, were chosen lucky guys to take a commercial flight.

With a lighter load, we took off from Oklahoma City's Will Rogers Airport the only aerodrome in the world, incidentally, named for someone who died in a plane crash with a cabin full of smoke.

It wasn't smoke, really. It was condensation, but it looked like smoke and it left the white-knucklers among the scribes and throats wondering what aberrant gene had lured them into journalism school.

Once the condensation cleared, we chugged our way to Liberal, home of the famous Shrove Tuesday pancake race and, more important, an airport. The Martin 404's fuel tanks needed replenishing before pushing across the high plains of eastern Colorado.

Thus Liberal became a rest stop for the weary, nervous Big Eight Skywriters and they took advantage by deplaning and stretching their legs. While jollying on the tarmac, I happened to see the co-pilot carrying eight or nine cans of oil.

Momentarily, he climbed up on the right wing and began methodically pouring the contents of each can into the starboard engine. Ah, so that black paint on the wing behind the engine wasn't paint, after all.

Yeah, the co-pilot told us, that engine consumed oil, but he assured us we had nothing to worry about. He was right, of course. Then again, we were too numb to worry anyway.

The more we flew the Martin 404, the more confident we became. In fact, when the craft stopped in McCook, Neb., to refuel on the way to Lincoln, we watched confidently as the co-pilot fed more oil to the voracious starboard engine.

That which does not kill you, Nietzsche believed, makes you stronger and, although I don't consider those rides on the Martin 404 a life watershed, it makes me feel really good today to be able to tell about it.

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