Airplane memories

I grew up around airplanes and identifying airplanes was something we did at our house. When an airplane flew over, we tried to identify it. There were some that were easy. The airplanes of the fleet of Sky Flight, Inc., the company of our parents, were all well-known to us. We knew the red and white Piper Super Cubs that were used as spray planes and as fire patrol planes for the Forest Service and the National Parks. We could tell the difference by sight and sound of the Aeronca Champs that were used as trainers and bought and sold to students and new pilots. We could recognize a J-3 cub by its distinctive cowl. We knew the difference between a Cessna 170 and a 195. The larger 195 with the radial engine was a give-away. And we certainly knew the sound of our father’s twin beech when it approached the airport. As I got a bit older, I even learned to tell who was flying that airplane by the way the engines were synchronized after takeoff and on approach to landing.

We learned to identify the larger airplanes that other companies flew. We knew the Johnson Brothers Flying Service Ford Tri-motors and their DC-3s. We knew the DC-4s flown by Northwest Airlines by sight and sound. I remember the awesome Lockheed Constellations operated by Northwest. They were the airplanes that flew over at the highest altitude. We didn’t get to see them on the ground very often, not even at Billings, which was the biggest and busiest airport close to our home. One day, however, there was a constellation parked on the ramp in Billings and we flew down in our little Piper Tri-Pacer to see it. The airplane was huge! It had four massive eighteen-cylinder engines with giant three-blade props. The nose gear was long and the pilots sat way up in the air even though the front of the airplane curved down. And at the back there were three vertical stabilizers with three rudders. Our beech had a distinctive twin tail, but the constellation had a triple.

The story I was told about that tail is that the engineers decided to put three smaller vertical stabilizers on the plane because putting on a single larger tail fin would make the airplane too tall to fit into any hanger. There simply weren’t any doors big enough to allow such a big tail to go inside.

The constellation must have been on its way out as an airliner by the time I saw it. I was only six years old when production of the airplane was ceased. Although it was a pioneering feat of engineering, with a pressurized cabin, the ability to fly long distances across oceans, the power to go up to 24,000 feet - above the weather and into the jet stream, and the ability to carry large amounts of cargo made it a useful tool for airlines. Like other airliners of its day the passenger door was at the tail. The constellation was among the first airliners to feature a first class section, which was located at the rear of the airplane where there was less noise from the engines.

The development of jet engines and airliners such as the Boeing 707 and the Douglas DC-8 spelled the end of the Constellation. A few remained in service as freighters for many years and we would see them from time to time, but our attention turned to even faster aircraft. It turned out that even though the planes had a good safety record as airliners, they weren’t all that reliable. The technology of radial engines was pushed about as far as it could go with those supercharged twin radial engines. Pilots referred to the constellation as the best three-engined airliner around because engine failures were fairly common and the airplane could be safely operated with one engine shut down. Unlike the Douglas DC-3s and DC-4s which continue to be used as freight haulers and fire tankers the remaining constellations are pretty much museum pieces, used for display.

The memory of seeing that constellation came to my mind the other day as we drove by Boeing field in Seattle. Boeing still produces 737 aircraft at their facility there, but the main production facility in the area is north at Everett where the massive factory built for the production of the 747 aircraft and now the place of final assembly of 787 dream liners stands. That building is big enough for a much bigger plane than the constellation and it has doors tall enough to allow the largest airliners ever built to go in and out. The engineering of aircraft, notably the 747, caused innovation and advancements in the engineering of buildings. The Boeing Everett Factory, located just 40 miles from where we now live, includes the largest building in the world, covering just under 100 acres. That’s a lot of roof and a lot of really massive doors.

Because of our family’s fascination with airplanes, being around Seattle and Everett always makes me think of the Boeing corporation and its airliners and remember previous trips to this part of the country and all of the airplanes we have seen.

These days, I can’t identify all of the airplanes that fly overhead, but there are a few I can recognize by sound and sight. The F-18 fighters from Whidbey Naval Air Station stand out from the other aircraft. Nearby Skagit Regional Airport is home to many antique and homebuilt airplanes and good weather brings out the recreational aviators. I’m pretty good at identifying some of the antique planes that fly overhead. There is a certain nostalgia that I feel when certain engines sound overhead.

These days I spend most of my time on the ground. I haven’t made a trip by airplane since 2019 and don’t have plans for another flight in the near future. I’m not what they call a frequent flyer. Still there is within me a love of airplanes and the joy of flying and enough memory and imagination to keep me looking up.

Made in RapidWeaver