by Michael Ley
I sat in the base operations cafeteria at Osan Air Base drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette as I waited for a flight on a C-47 (Gooney Bird) to Taegu Air Base. It was 0630 and the triangle shaped flight route was scheduled to depart at 0715. First south to Kunson Air Base and then east to Taegu. After three hours on the ground to do a hear ability survey and have some lunch, the final leg of the triangle would be the return flight late in the afternoon.
It was my first flight on a Gooney bird – a routine puddle jump. However, not much was routine in Korea in 1969. Tensions were still high more than a year after the capture of the U.S.S. Pueblo. The brass I worked for were concerned that there might be a need to establish another ground intelligence collection site further south from the demilitarized zone that separated North and South Korea. As the commander of an Emergency Reaction Unit (ERU) deployed to augment Osan operations, I was ordered to evaluate Taegu as a fallback site.
It was not the flight I was looking forward to make. My 179-day TDY to Osan was ending and I was looking forward to a comfortable flight on a 707, which would cruise above thirty thousand feet at a speed of five hundred fifty miles per hour. That was supposed to be my next flight. The flight back to the states.
I crushed out a cigarette and lit another.
The cafeteria was deserted except for a middle-aged woman wearing a plain blue dress. Her oval shaped face, although pretty, was tired and as plain as her dress – she wore no makeup. It was unlikely she was a dependent because Osan was an unaccompanied tour. There were a few exceptions, but not many. There were no married quarters on the base and off-base housing on the economy was, by American standards, substandard. More likely she was a civil servant in personnel or finance – she had an aura of professional self-importance – perhaps even arrogance. She sat, ball point pen in hand, bent over a pile of papers on the tabletop next to a yawning black hard-shelled briefcase. There were scuff marks on the top of the well-used briefcase.
The woman looked worn also. Her face was drawn and she was mousy, but had nice legs.
A few minutes before 0700 they announced boarding of my flight, so I grabbed my briefcase and hustled out to get aboard. I was met by the steward, a burly tech sergeant, who welcomed me aboard.
I climbed the steps and entered the aircraft. A subtle metallic smell greeted me.
“Sit anywhere you like,” the steward said, waving a muscular arm toward the back of the aircraft. The interior was small and sloped toward the tail, which had a wheel under it. Two rows of metal benches ran the length of both sides of the fuselage. “It’s just you and one other passenger.”
I sat down near the cockpit door. It was open and I could see the pilot and co-pilot going through the pre-flight checklist.
The steward held up an empty Folgers three-pound coffee can with a plastic liner draped over the sides.
“Here’s the latrine …If you use it … you take it with you.”
I frowned and responded, “Got it.”
The steward looked at his watch and said, more to himself than me, “The other passenger better shake a leg,” he commented. “We need to take off-on time.”
I opened the days Stars and Stripes newspaper and began to read.
“Hello,” a female voice called out sharply. “I need some help please.”
I leaned sideways and craned my neck to look out the door. It was the woman in the blue dress from the terminal. She stood with one hand on a hip and nose in the air. Two large suitcases were at her feet.
“Of course,” the steward said. He climbed down and handed the suitcases to me one at a time. He sprang back up and lashed the suitcases down.
The woman climbed slowly up the stairs. She glanced around the interior of the aircraft. It was empty except for myself and the steward. She sighed, sat down, and crossed her legs primly.
The steward pointed to the coffee can. “That’s the bathroom,” he said.
She blushed slightly, nodded, uncrossed her legs, and began tapping a foot on the metal floor.
“Hi. Kunson or Taegu?” I inquired. It was a diversion tactic to help make her more comfortable.
“Kunson. Special assignment to help out with some admin problems.”
“Oh, I see. Civil Service?”
She nodded and said, “This airplane is very small …It smells like aluminum.” Then she turned to the steward and was passively aggressive as she demanded, “I want to speak to the pilot.”
“I want to speak to the pilot.”
I suspected she was used to flying commercial with comfortable seats and stewardesses bringing cold martinis and serving food prepared for gourmets. In 1969 flying was still somewhat exclusive as it was just beginning to catch on with the general public and the airlines treated their passengers accordingly.
The steward stuck his head into the cockpit and could be heard to say, “Colonel, one of the passengers wants to speak to you.”
“Okay,” the pilot said. He got up out of his seat and stepped out of the cockpit. He looked at the woman, smiled slightly, gestured with one hand, and asked, “What can I do for you?”
The pilot was a Lt. Colonel dressed is a well-worn flight suit. His hair was thinning and graying at the temples. He wore aviator glasses and needed a shave and a haircut.
“I’ve always flown commercial,” she said, biting her lip. “Are you sure you know how to fly this airplane?” The insinuation that an Air Force pilot might not know how to fly the aircraft he was assigned to fly surprised me. I had never heard anyone question a Lt. Colonel. It appeared she did not realize he was a field grade officer.
I preferred to fly commercial as well. The atmosphere on the 707 commercial airplanes I flew from the states to Seoul was relaxed. It was smooth and comfortable flying. The stewardesses were young, cute and friendly. They smiled with red lips as they served martinis in a professional way. The martinis were cold and calming.
My thoughts on flying commercial were interrupted.
“Oh, yes, ma’am,” the pilot said. “I’ve got over 3,000 hours in Gooneys and have been flying them for more than a decade.” He stood erect, almost at attention. His lips hinted at a smile. It might have been my imagination but his eyes seemed to twinkle.
“Oh. Good. You’re experienced.”
“Yes. Yes I am.” He paused and then went on to reassure her. “It’s not my first flight and weather’s going to be great … it’ll be smooth sailing.”
She laughed nervously and said, “Thank you. Flying gives me anxiety.”
The pilot smiled and disappeared back into the cockpit.
The Gooney Bird was a safe and reliable aircraft. It was the military version of the DC-3 commercial aircraft that began service in 1936. The C-47 was an adaption of the DC-3. It was built by the Douglas Aircraft Company. Over the years almost thirteen thousand were built. It was small – only about sixty-five feet long with a wingspan just over ninety-five feet. It was powered by two Pratt and Whitney fourteen-cylinder piston engines. Cruise speed was a pedestrian 160 mph – very slow compared to a 707.
I doubted the woman knew she was flying on an aircraft that had been flying for more than twenty-five years. The pilot had reassured her, but she fidgeted as the steward closed the cargo door, then the cockpit door. He sat down on one of the bench seats and buckled up. We did likewise.
There was the sound of electrical charging and the right engine started. The three bladed propeller began spinning as the engine cranked, sputtered, and smoked before running at a loping idle. The left engine then did the same. With both engines running, there was a short delay while the pilot and co-pilot went over last-minute items and talked to the tower. Slowly and smoothly the plane began to move away from base Ops toward the runway.
After taxiing, we came to a stop. The co-pilot, a freshly shaved Captain with thick lips, opened the cockpit door and said, “We’re cleared for take-off. We’ll be rolling soon.” He closed the door.
The aircraft vibrated. I resumed reading the Stars and Stripes, the steward sat with his eyes closed, and the woman continued to fidget, wide-eyed.
Then the engines roared and the brakes were released, The Gooney Bird lurched forward, and started down the runway, slowly at first, but then rolling faster and faster. When the speed was high enough the tail lifted and the aircraft leveled-up. This indicated we would soon be airborne in ten or twelve seconds. The engines continued roaring as the plane rolled faster and faster. Then, suddenly, the engines stopped roaring, the tail settled back down, and the plane slowed.
The cockpit door opened. The co-pilot stuck his head out and said, “Nothing to worry about. The oil pressure dropped a little in one engine. We’re gonna go around and try it again.”
The cockpit door shut. The plane rolled at taxiing speed. The face of the woman in the blue dress was ashen.
“Nothing to worry about,” the steward said.
The woman did not respond. She tugged at the hem of her dress. I set the Stars and Stripes aside.
The aircraft came to a stop. The cockpit door opened and the co-pilot told us, “We’re ready for take-off again. We’ll be airborne in a few minutes and on our way to Kunson.” The cockpit door closed.
The ashen-faced woman continued to fidget. The steward sat relaxed on his bench seat, but his eyes were not closed. I was no longer reading the Star and Stripes.
Again, the engines roared, the brakes were released and we started rolling down the runway – just as before. The tail rose as we picked up speed and I knew we would lift off in a few more seconds. But just as before the engines stopped roaring and the tail bumped back down on the runway and the plane began to slow.
The co-pilot reappeared. “Sorry. We lost oil pressure again. We’re going to taxi back to Ops … everyone can have a cup of coffee while we have the engine checked.”
The woman, the steward, and I were silent on the ride back to Ops. When the aircraft stopped the steward opened the cargo door and let down the steps.
The woman tore at her seat belt buckle, cast it aside, and quickly stood up. She looked directly at the steward and said, “Those two suitcases are mine. I’m getting off here. I’ll catch a jeep or a bus.”
The muscular steward helped her to the terminal. I followed, thinking, that was a short flight.
About an hour later, the steward walked up to me in the cafeteria.
“We’re ready to go, Captain. Just a minor problem.”
“Fine,” I replied as I crushed out a cigarette.
We boarded the plane again and taxied out to the runway. This time the engines roared and smoked, the brakes were released, the tail came up and we lifted off for a smooth uneventful flight to Kunson and then Taegu. I looked out a window at the ground below and enjoyed the flight as the Gooney Bird floated on the air currents, gliding slowly through the sky. I completed the survey/assessment concluding the hilltop location would provide fine reception of various signals. My mission accomplished, I had a smooth uneventful return flight to Osan.
The Gooney Bird is my favorite airplane. Flying in it feels like riding a butterfly bouncing softly on the light breezes of gentle air currents. I suspect the woman in the blue dress would have enjoyed the sensation of flying immensely. I did.