You Can Get Off at the Terminal

Ruminations From the Ramp

You Can Get Off at the Terminal

By Tony Vasko

May 2000

It’s kind of amusing to read of the battles for "Passenger’s Rights" and how, in the midst of a howling snowstorm, people expect that when they arrive on a diverted flight, they will be handled like the Concorde passengers at Charles de Gaulle in Paris. I appreciate that no one should be treated like people were in the following little incident, but at times the public asks for a little much I think.

In the 1940s and 1950s, a lot of people who had been infected with the aviation bug in the service saw an opportunity to buy some of those war weary transports they had been driving around and "make a fortune" flying passengers on the cheap. Some companies like the "Flying Irishman" weren’t really an airline at all but were what we now call charter brokers who leased airplanes by the trip from their struggling owners. The smart owners got paid in advance. The "non-skeds" as they were known, flew surplus machines like the Curtiss C-46 and the Douglas DC-3 (C-47) and DC-4 (C-54). Cheap to buy (they often came with full tanks of gas at the military surplus storage depot), they demanded a lot of work to stay airworthy.

The intention naturally was to make it to the ranks of the "scheduled carriers." Few of the non-skeds made it there, but one success story was Trans Caribbean Airways. They flew only in the booming New York City to San Juan market. The Puerto Ricans were the first big Hispanic wave to hit the States and, like all the immigrants before them, they saved their money and brought the family up too as soon as they could. Unlike the days when it was definitely a one-way trip, they could also return to the Island to soak up a little heat in the winter before returning to the cruel climate of New York.

Trans Carib, as everyone called them, had a two-plane fleet consisting of a DC-6, N-878, and a DC-4, N-416. Both were hand-me-downs and had the maximum number of seats allowed by regulation. The inflight service was sparse, but the prices were low and so business was good. They contracted their maintenance out to the Lockheed Air Service where I worked.

The DC-4, while not pressurized, is equipped with two heaters. A small heater for the cockpit could be used on the ground for it had an electric blower to push the air through it. There was an exhaust pipe on the port side of the nose of the aircraft to let the nasty fumes outs. The cabin heater was naturally much larger and was located in the ceiling of the crew compartment/galley just aft of the cockpit. An air scoop on top of the fuselage faced into the air stream and the speed of the airplane rammed the air in. Most of it was routed for distribution to the passenger cabin. If it was cold out it could be heated, but if it was hot out, there was no air conditioning. Airflow was not as well set up as on today’s airplanes, and so the hat racks in the cabin were fitted with what are now very old-fashioned looking fans to blow some air around.

Comfort on the ground was not good. The cabin heater needed that air ramming into it if it was to run. A small but very important part of the ram air splits off and goes to the heater combuster where 100 octane fuel is added along with some ignition. While the cockpit heater had a blower, there was no blower for the cabin heater. It took 90 knots of airspeed to ram enough air into the heater to allow it to operate.

It was a very cold night at Idlewild Airport (the JFK name was years away) and the Trans Carib crew had picked up old N-416 at our hangar and taxied it to the terminal. The engines had started rather easily for the aircraft had just come out of the hangar, but they made one mistake. They only ran the inboard engines (#2 and #3) to save fuel. That meant that the outboards (#1 and #4) were getting colder and colder and, yes, colder.

Starting big radial engines that have cold soaked can be a real test of skill and to some degree, a bit of luck as well. You definitely want to use a ground power cart for it can be very nasty if the battery runs down just when you get a little exhaust stack fire going. The throttles are carefully cracked open about 1/4 inch. After getting clearance and making sure a fireguard is set, the starter is engaged and the engine reluctantly starts to turn. In very cold weather the engine primer switch is toggled to get some fuel into the blower and the fireguard with the big CO2 bottle gets nervous as the gasoline spouts out to puddle on the ground. We counted the blades of the propeller as they turned. By the count of "nine blades" the ignition switch (mag switch) was turned to BOTH. You used another finger to toggle the induction vibrator switch to stimulate the magneto to throw a few sparks. More prime (raw 100 octane into the engine blower) was added and if all went well, the engine would cough, jump in it mounts, belch smoke, kick, (here you add more primer liberally or it might backfire), and then it would take off at which point the mixture lever was deftly brought up from "idle cutoff" to "auto rich." The starter, primer, and induction vibrator switches were released and everyone looked proud--if it started.

Sometimes it did not start. Repeated attempts led to induction vibrator and starter changes. The worst case though was "icing the plugs." An engine suffering from iced plugs would never start, at least not until summer because each spark plug had a neat little dome of black ice across the electrodes. The ice was the product of the combustion process where the water from the fuel burning collected on the cold spark plug electrodes. It was usually induced by moving the throttles just as the engine fired up.

Over at the old Quonset hut terminal at Idlewild, Trans Carib's DC-4 did indeed suffer from iced plugs on its outboard engines that cold and grim night at IDL. The flight crew was fooled by the ease of the inboards cranking up easily. Back at the hangar we received a call saying they were bringing the aircraft over to our ramp. We couldn't put the airplane in the barn as we had filled it, but we could fire up our two Herman Nelson heaters.

The old Herman Nelson heaters were finicky machines as I have mentioned before. On this night they started easily for they were in regular use and were in the hangar and nice and warm. N-416 appeared at our ramp, inboard engines running, and taxied in. We waved it into the designated parking spot and realized the plane was fully loaded with Puerto Rican families trying to get home for the holidays. In the silence after the two inboards were shut down, you could hear babies crying and a dog barking. We quickly put ground power on the airplane but had no ground heater for the cabin. The plan was to heat the thoroughly iced outboard engines with the two available Herman Nelsons. We covered the outboard engines with tarps and applied the heat through the front to warm the cylinders, melt the ice from the spark plugs, and hopefully, dry them too.

I stood on an Aerostand directing the air into the #1 engine. The tarp around the engine billowed in the blasts of near arctic air. The temperature was in the low single numbers and the wind was howling and the whole airplane shook. The cockpit heater was running but, as you will recall, the main cabin heater could not run on the ground. The cockpit heater was far too small to do any good. We poured the heat to the engines. It was so cold my eyes were streaming and my glasses were frosting over. I opened the tarpaulin a little to leak some heat on me. I looked at the airplane through eyes filled with tears from the cold. The round cabin windows were filled with faces staring out as us wondering what we were doing out there in the cold. I waved at those intense eyes staring at us. The temperature inside the airplane dropped quickly in the wind and cold and shortly, no faces were peering out anymore. The windows had frosted over on the inside.

It was obvious, even out at number one engine and over the chug of the Herman Nelson heater that a furious dispute was going on inside the cabin. Unsurprisingly, these people wanted off this frozen tube. Cleverly though, no boarding stand had been placed up to the airplane so when the cabin door opened the frozen but enraged passengers, by now in full rebellion, could only stand at the threshold and scream at people on the ground.

"Please let us off this plane," they begged. "We are freezing." So was I and I was wearing thermal underwear, two sets of pants, coveralls, a sweater and a parka not to mention wool socks, gloves, a fur-lined parka hood, a wool cap and thermo-pac boots. They were dressed for a flight to the sunny Caribbean.

The Herman Nelsons were in fine form pouring out very hot air and we had been at it for over an hour. Ignoring the pleas of the frantic passengers, the Trans Carib maintenance representative shouted up to me, "That's enough heat. It should be hot enough to start so uncover the engine and we’ll give it a try."

We quickly pulled the heaters, tarpaulins and stands. The rep walked across the ramp and looked up at the open cabin door. It was crowded with passengers who wanted to get off and who were gesticulating furiously. They were wild eyed for it was ferociously cold. They screamed down to him. "We want to get off! We will not fly on this cruel airline. Get us off. We want off." The stewardesses (this was the fifties) looked frightened and couldn't control them.

The airline's rep stood below and was adamant. He called up to the frenzied passengers. "Close the door. You can't get off here. The plane will take you back to the terminal. You can get off when it gets back to the terminal. They screamed some more and he told them that the airplane would taxi back to the terminal and let them off."

Somewhat mollified, the rebellious passengers responded and the frightened stewardess closed the door. We signaled to the cockpit. The crew up front was warm and toasty of course. The #3 engine came to life first because the inboards have the hydraulic pumps needed for the brakes. The blades spun on #4, one of the iced plug engines. Yes, the Herman Nelsons had done their job. #1 spun and fired and then #2. With all four going, we waved him off the blocks for his short trip back to the terminal.

The aircraft taxied out to the end of the little taxiway that led to and from our ramp to a runway. The DC-4 paused at the edge of the runway, which it had to cross. Presumably they were calling for clearance from the tower to cross. The engines roared and plane moved out onto the runway but instead of proceeding directly across toward the beckoning terminal, it made a sharp left turn onto the runway. The engines bellowed and, without benefit of a mag check, it rolled down the remaining mile and a half of runway and took off for SJU. It was then I remembered seeing the maintenance rep pull the landing gear ground locks and, after all, he hadn’t said what terminal they could get off at.

I have sometimes speculated at the scene inside N-416 as, instead of taxiing to the terminal, it trundled faster and faster down the runway and lifted off. I always hoped the cabin heater fired up promptly. The stewardesses must have had an interesting trip.

Such were the joys of economy air travel in the 1950s.