Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Famous Formation Photo of 1967

Good morning everyone! I'm pleased, again, to add another story from Randy Sohn today. ENJOY!!! P.S. The Formation Flight photo is the leading photo for our blog...:) FORMATION PHOTO OF WISCONSIN CENTRAL-NORTH CENTRAL AIRLINERS (29) This photograph has been displayed and found its way into so many aviation publications over the years that I’ve finally decided that I need to write down exactly how it all happened while I can still remember what really happened. It all started when I became aware that Lee Koepke (a lead mechanic for North Central Airlines in Detroit and also the owner of a aircraft maintenance school) was considering selling his twin engine Lockheed Electra 10A airplane that he’d restored to an air museum in Ottawa where the aircraft still exists. Incidentily (and, while not germane to this story), this is the same airplane that Ann and Lee Pellegrino flew around the world in 1967 to retrace the route taken by Amelia Earhart). It’d previously been the first new aircraft that Trans-Canada Airlines had purchased; it bore the registration of CF-TCA while in that fleet during the late 1930s. North Central (in its earlier days as Wisconsin Central) had subsequently operated this very aircraft as NC79237. Many’s the time that I’d heard reminiscences of those bygone days and airplanes from Art Hinke, our grizzled chief pilot, who’d flown them in those days. He’d told me of the lean economic times when the airline could only afford to paint one side of the airplane (facing the camera) for a publicity photo. It occurred to me that this would present another opportunity to save some of the repainting expense if we could obtain use of the aircraft for a few days in order to photograph a formation of all the airliner types that the company had ever operated. At that time, we were still flying the Douglas DC-3s along with the reciprocating engine Convairs but were rapidly replacing both with our newly acquired Convair 580s and Douglas DC-9s. Upon giving the matter some thought, I realized that this probably represented a unique opportunity (AND one only possible for a limited time) of flying all these aircraft in formation and photographing this historic event. It’d also coincide with the 20th anniversary of the airline’s first scheduled flight. A few days later, I happened to attend a Christmas party given by our Minneapolis-St. Paul maintenance department. Hal Carr, our airline’s president, was also present at that evening’s gathering. Accordingly, I used the opportunity to present the scenario described above to Mr. Carr. His immediate reaction was that since there was an excessive difference in the aircraft's airspeeds the formation wouldn’t work! My reply was ”Well, if I can choose the pilots, it will work”. After some further discussion of the proposal he responded with a “Well, go ahead - but if it doesn’t work you’re fired”. In the next couple of days, I’d discussed the matter with the airline’s maintenance department who agreed to paint the aircraft in the livery worn while in Wisconsin Central’s service. I also contacted the pilots we’d need, all of them highly competent and possessing previous formation experience. Our airline’s chief pilot, Art Hinke, was a natural selection to fly the Lockheed, considering his USN experience and the fact that he’d flown the aircraft extensively in the airline's early days. He decided to have Bob Murphy, one of our most senior check pilots, accompany him. At the other end of the formation would be the DC-9. Our V/P of Flight Operations, G.F. Wallis, was uniquely qualified to handle those duties considering his previous USMC Corsair experiences. Red selected my boss in the airline's Flight Training Dept., Pete Wahl, to accompany him. Pete also possessed an extensive military history in B-24s, B-29s and others Another USMC veteran, our chief pilot of the MSP pilot base, Louie Farrell, would fly the DC-3 and he’d take along Ret Thompson. Charlie Timberg, a former USN pilot and, most recently, with us in the Minnesota Air National Guard, would fly the Convair 440, along with Greg Meitrodt. Len Dolny, with extensive experience in the F-86 Sabrejet while in the USAF - and now one of our check pilots - would fly the 580, taking along Wayne Palon, another check pilot. We’d also need another airplane, a chase 580, to carry the photographers. Fortunately, just a short time prior to this, we’d received one back from Pac-Aero who accomplished the conversions to turbo-props under a contract with General Motors Corp. Since all this took place in the middle of the winter, I realized that the flight would be extremely cold. Therefore, I started to gather all the cold weather flying apparel I could find. I asked one of our check pilots, Bert Anderson, one of the smoothest pilots that I’d ever flown with, to come along with me. He also endeavored to collect all the cold weather flying gear he could possibly lay his hands on. Word of this proposed flight rapidly spread among the contingent of photographers in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul) area. One of the highly competent people that contacted me wanting to participate was Sherm Booen, a veteran of WCCO’s radio and TV stations. Another was Forrest Sorenson from the Minnesota Air Guard. One of our own pilots who immediately told me of his desire to be included was Bob Smith, a highly acclaimed expert with a camera. I seem to recollect that, ultimately, sixteen photographers boarded the 580 with us that morning. The 580 that we’d use as a chase airplane had only been returned to us a few days previously, it was (to say the least) a “bare-bones” aircraft. The old interior’s upholstery fabric had been baked by the sun at the Burbank tarmac during those months it’d spent out in California during the conversion process. The maintenance department had removed many of the cabin’s windows to allow the photographers a clear - unimpeded by glass - view of the other aircraft in formation. In addition, all the cabin emergency exits had been removed so the main cabin was devoid of both windows and glass in about half of the fuselage’s openings. The Lockheed had been ferried over from Detroit to our airline’s headquarters at Wold-Chamberlain a few days prior to the date of the flight and the maintenance department then set about the task of re-painting it in the original paint scheme. As best I recall, the famous “blue goose” insignia was a maroon color, as per the original, instead of the later dark blue of this rather famous airline logo. The day prior to the formation flight Art Hinke decided to take that aircraft for a short test flight and asked me to accompany him. The strongest memory I have of that flight was the extremely high noise we experienced in the cockpit, compared to the aircraft of only a few years later vintage. The morning of that formation flight dawned clear and cold. I don’t recall the exact temperature, however the photographs show that snow covered the ground. I also don’t recall this part but photos that were taken before the flight that morning indicate that the airplanes were towed to or placed in alignment on the old terminal’s ramp on the west side of the airport. The pilots (with their overcoats on - did I mention that it was cold?) briefly posed for a “posterity record” type photograph before boarding their aircraft. Another thing caused a sharp jog in my memory of that event when I reviewed those photos a few days ago, seeing those USN P2V aircraft in the backgrounds of those old photographs of the formation’s pilots and airplanes. The naval reserve base at that time was located on the airport’s north side. After we’d finished a final briefing, Art took off first and proceeded to an area northwest of here, one well outside the area congested with air traffic. After Bert and I’d taken off in that converted 580, I remember that as Bert retracted the wing flaps upon my command, the old rotten cotton headliner made sort of a sickening “whoosh” noise as it was suddenly sucked out through the openings in the cabin, disappearing as we passed over Richfield. After flying to that area, Art leveled off at an altitude that furnished smooth air. We’d all agreed that he would lead the formation with the Lockheed’s engines set to METO (Maximum Except for Takeoff) power. Simply stated, this power setting meant that it could be maintained for the entire flight, any higher settings would mean that there would be a time limit at that high power. This resulted in an indicated airspeed of about 145 knots, so that’s the speed the formation used for the entire period. This, inevitably, brings up the oft-expressed opinion of many that view the photo for the first time. “It’s altered/photoshopped, those airplanes didn’t really do that". Guess that you could ask any of the participants, they know the truth, it was done. All one really needs to do is to look at the angles of attack of those aircraft. Notice that the Lockheed’s nose is way down while, at the other end of the formation, the DC-9’s is decidedly nose up. In addition, note that the DC-9's leading edge devices (slats) are extended along with the corresponding amount of wing flaps in this configuration. It’s been several decades since I’ve flown the DC-9, however I think I recall a minimum clean airspeed of about 200 knots without slats/flaps. I recall a couple of things during that flight that probably could be considered unusual and requiring some extra effort, the first was to attempt to constantly place ourselves in a position relative to the formation that’d allow the photographers the best viewing angles. To accomplish this the position of the sun needed to be constantly considered. As best I recall, the openings in the aft part of the cabin worked best since they weren’t obstructed by the wing. Almost immediately, I found that I needed to feather the propeller on the formation side of the airplane in order to prevent any visible exhaust heat waves in the photos. This added to the difficulty of flying formation, requiring it to be flown “over-my-shoulder” while simultaneously contending with the yawing motion. To furnish even more problems, every time I’d change position relative to the formation in order to take advantage of the sun’s angle I needed to restart one engine and then shut-down and feather the other. Necessitating, of course, having to quickly jump back and forth between both pilot seats in order to fly the position. Bert finally decided to stand in the cockpit’s entrance right behind the seats to accomplish what I’d asked - “really keep a sharp eye on what I do, lots of things happening and chances here to really screw something up”. Of course, as soon as one engine was shut down the auxiliary AC cabin heater stopped. This immediately caused a frigid temperature situation aboard our unpressurized aircraft. Then, to add to our woes, the photographers began to complain that their film was freezing. I believe that the formation flew off to the northeast towards Duluth for a period of time, then reversed course and proceeded back towards the Twin Cities. The formation flew in both echelon and V shapes while we chased them around with the photographer’s airplane to afford each the opportunity to get the views they’d need. As best I recall at this late date, we flew for about forty minutes or so and then returned for the landing. The photos were later used in many publications and various forms of company publications. The photo that I personally always liked the best is the one that also seems to have been used subsequently in many books; it was taken by Col. Forrest Sorenson of the Minnesota Air National Guard. I’ve seen it in many locations and, if memory serves me correctly, I believe that Louie Farrell had a framed copy in his office. Randy Sohn - 2012 ©

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

So just this day exist on video also? I would love to see a home movie of this.

blugoose

randy sohn said...

Actually, it was in 1968, not 67. And the photo by Forest Sorenson was the echelon of all 5, not this V formation.

best, randy sohn

randy sohn said...

and no, back at that date/time, nothing such as "video" was around. or, as connie edwards calls it "vih-day-oh"

best, randy sohn

randy sohn said...

Actually, it was in 1968, not 67. And the photo by Forest Sorenson was the echelon of all 5, not this V formation.

best, randy sohn

randy sohn said...

Actually, it was in 1968, not 67. And the photo by Forest Sorenson was the echelon of all 5, not this V formation.

best, randy sohn

Skip said...

I like your stories Randy, I suspect you have more. Lets see'em. THX Skip