Back to the Terminal

The news has been full of stories of passengers trapped aboard airlines for hours under horrific conditions. Sadly, this is not a new phenomenon in our industry.

In my time, I have seen some incidents that have brutally tested the survival skills of even the hardiest of passengers. One must also sympathize with the flight attendants, who have no control over the circumstances and are trapped inside the same aluminum tube as their passengers.

Trans Caribbean was one of the few non-skeds who managed to make the jump to gaining a scheduled airline certificate. They had long flown a DC-4 and a DC-6 between New York’s Idlewild Airport and San Juan in Puerto Rico. Their fares were low, and they competed against Eastern Air Lines and Pan American. In later years, they were bought by American Airlines as a means of accessing the lucrative Caribbean market. For a short period, American operated their DC-8s, the only ones AA ever had.

In the mid-50s, DC-8s were only a dream and Trans Carib was still using its DC-4 for the evening flight. It was a frigid evening, temperature in the single digits and the aircraft had been parked all day at the hangar. The aircraft was taxied over to the “temporary” terminal using only the inboard engines, a common practice to save fuel. Starting the big round radial engines in cold weather is something of a black art involving judicious use of the primer, careful positioning of the throttle and perfect timing in opening the mixture control. It also was cause for nervous attention from the fire guard who stood by with a wheeled CO2 fire extinguisher. A lot of raw 100 octane was dripping out of exhaust joints and blower drains as the engine lumped over trying to start. Suffice to say, the two inboards fired up and away it taxied to pick up a full load of passengers going home to Puerto Rico for the Feast of Three Kings and the Christmas holidays.

The PA at the hangar announced that the DC-4 was coming over from the terminal for us to start the outboard engines. Unfortunately, a few hours later, the two outboard engines had still failed to start and the plane remained stubbornly in place. It was now after midnight, the wind had risen and it was now even colder. There were only six of us on the graveyard shift and we hustled to park the aircraft and get stands, tarpaulins and most important of all, the ground heaters. The flight crew, in trying to start the cold-soaked outboard engines, had almost certainly “iced” the spark plugs. This is literally a true description as you will actually see a mound of ice on the insulator when this occurs. One thing is certain, the engine will not start with iced plugs, at least until next spring or at least the next thaw.

There were two possible remedies: One was to change the spark plugs of the offending engines, not a pleasant task under the conditions and one that would take some time. The alternative was to heat the power section of the engines to melt the ice on the plugs and to dry them too. Heating was chosen, and I was assigned No. 1 engine. A 28V DC ground power cart was plugged in and as I was pushing an aerostand over to the engine, I noticed faces peering out of the cabin windows. Good Lord! The aircraft was loaded with passengers, not something we normally saw over at the hangar. We certainly had no facilities or passenger service equipment there, not even a proper boarding stand.

I positioned the stand with help, and we draped a tarpaulin over the front of the nose cowl. A tug pulled up towing one of our two vintage war surplus Herman Nelson heaters. The next task was to start the one lung engines on the units, which could be a job in itself. However, the foreman had routed out Vinnie, the auto shop mechanic from his snug nest. He had brought a pint can of ether and this quickly resurrected the put-puts. Next was the flaming torch ritual which involved a piece of rag on the end of a stiff wire. It was dipped into gasoline, lit and then thrust into a small door into the unit’s firebox. A faucet valve was cracked a bit admitting gasoline into the firebox and the heater would light off with a whoof, sometimes a bit more than that if too much gasoline was admitted. You then adjusted the valve to get the desired amount of heat.

With copious heated air flowing, I took the end of the canvas duct from the heater up the stand and inserted it under the tarp and into the nose cowl inlet so it could blow onto the cylinders. Periodically, I repositioned the duct to try to cook all the cylinders as well as I could. Lord, but it was cold and the wind was blowing hard enough to rock the DC-4. It was then that I noted that I could no longer see the passengers peering out of the cabin windows. The windows had frosted over, on the inside. Of course! There was no heat in the cabin.

The DC-4 was not pressurized but it was heated, at least it was heated when it was flying. The cabin heater had been installed in the ceiling of the crew compartment aft of the cockpit. It did not have a ground blower and would not operate unless the aircraft was flying. There was a small cockpit heater that did have a ground blower and it was running, but it was never going to heat the cabin.
At one point, the cabin door flew open and there was much shouting and gesticulating from the cabin. Cleverly, no access stands had been put up to the aircraft. A frightened looking stewardess did her best to get the passenger back away from the door. The Trans Caribbean maintenance representative who was with us ran over and began to yell at them to close the door. Clearly the passengers wanted to get off. It was obvious they were freezing, but we had no ground heater to spare for them. It also became obvious that they did not want to fly on this airline and wanted to go back to the terminal and change airlines. After much passionate yelling, it was agreed that the aircraft would taxi back to the terminal and the passengers released. The door closed. Meanwhile the heaters on the engines did their job. I reached in and the front cylinders actually felt hot to the touch. We quickly removed heaters, tarps and stands and stood by. First an inboard was started with no problem, as it was still warm. Then my No. 1 cranked; fuel spouted from the blower drain. It coughed and smoke poured from the exhaust. It jerked in its mounts and then caught in a burst of flame from the exhaust.

No. 4 engine responded in the same way and then No. 3. We cleared the power unit and then the chocks away. The Trans Carib representative marshaled the aircraft out of its spot for the taxi back to the terminal. To get there, it had to taxi to the exit from our ramp and wait for clearance to cross the runway to proceed to the terminal. The tired Douglas stood short of the runway, and I heard the engines run up as for the mandatory mag check. Strange to do that if it was only going to the terminal, I thought. Then the aircraft moved ahead, then wheeled in a left heading down the two thirds of the runway, the four Pratt engines bellowed with power, the aircraft gained speed and went off down the runway. Eventually, I saw its lights slowly climbing into the frigid night sky.

I have often speculated on the scene in the cabin as the frozen passengers suddenly realized they were not going back to the terminal, but off for the long trip to San Juan. I assume the heater was switched on as soon as they broke ground. I felt sorry for the flight attendants who were going to be faced with a lot of very agitated passengers. Had this happened today, it would have made the cable news and caused a Congressional investigation. In the 1950s, it never made a ripple.