A Fourth of July with President Reagan

We now turn the clock back to 1982, in the early days of July.  We planned to travel to Palmdale, California. The high point of a normal Palmdale weekend would usually be the bookmobile arriving from Los Angeles, or tickets to the matinee performance at Western Auto, but on that weekend the space shuttle Columbia, on its fourth mission STS-4, was arriving on Sunday, July 4th, astronauts Ken Mattingly and Henry Hartsfield at the con.

            747 shuutle

          With that in mind, I went to Senator Howard Cannon’s office then on Booth Street and wrangled a VIP invitation to Edwards Air Force Base, where the shuttle was landing. No problem, I was a good Nevadan. We journeyed to Palmdale on July the second, and on the third, a Saturday, we went to the large NASA hospitality building in Lancaster – adjoining Palmdale as Sparks adjoins Reno. To give credit where due, the name “Cannon” rocked the staff due to his advocacy of the Senate aerospace and defense committees, and the kids were treated like kings – tours of past Gemini capsules, “rides” on moon landers, and other courtesies – and we left with four human passes, one for my Suburban’s windshield and some cool NASA baseball caps like the big guys wear. We were advised the landing had been delayed until 9:02 AM that Sunday (tomorrow) morning, from 8:53 AM, so we changed our plans accordingly.

            The view of the Mojave Valley foothills that Saturday night was breathtaking – the firelight of Coleman lanterns and campfires ringing the valley – Caltrans estimated that a million people had camped in the surrounding hills to watch what was planned to be the last west coast space shuttle landing, ever. At oh-dark-thirty on Sunday the Fourth of July we left for Edwards AFB, and upon entering the base, the Suburban was checked from cellar to attic, and beneath with mirrors – for at 9 o’clock the night before it was announced that President Ronald Reagan was coming to witness the shuttle landing. We walked interminably across a parking lot, and I have a photo to this day of a large – make that huge – Rosey Grier look-alike Secret Service agent, who met all at the gate with “Take my picture!” then smiled a display of Ipana-ad white teeth – the purpose to make sure all cameras were indeed cameras and not guns or bombs or whatever.  Nice guy.NASA_T38

            At thirty minutes before 9 AM three tall young pilots, ramrod-stiff, flat-bellied in their powder blue NASA flight suits, arrived at their parked blue-and-white T-38 jet chase planes; the assembled ladies en mass all went ga-ga, the pilots kicked the tires and lit the fires, taxied out, rolled, and climbed out like a trio of homesick angels to points unknown. A moment later, the baseball-stadium-sized Diamondvision TV screens came to life, and the PA system carried the voice from NASA Houston, who was controlling the shuttle’s landing. The shuttle was then over the Santa Barbara Channel Islands, the chase planes transmitting images of it. “You are angels one-oh-two, four miles downcourse” – basically 102,000 feet straight up from Edwards. “Valve off your hydrazine,” and the shuttle complied with a vapor trail; the chase planes laid orange day smoke – all four aircraft now in full view from Southern California.

            “We’re coming down,” announced Hartsfield laconically, and did they ever – straight down, 40,000 people on the Edwards tarmac puckered, expecting the craft to bury itself in the desert. At the last moment, it leveled, its gear fell, the tail split into a brake, and the three T-38s strained to stay above it, using their dive boards, landing gear and full flaps to slow down.  The shuttle rolled to a stop. 9:02 AM. How did they know that a whole day earlier? (And I know,  most T-38s don’t have dive brakes. These were NASA birds, not your grandfather’s T-38s…)    

            Ronald Reagan, in the same western-cut informal duds he’d wear on his

C11451-21A

11/25/1982 President Reagan and Mrs. Reagan horseback riding at Rancho Del Cielo

ranch on a Sunday morning, and his Nancy approached the podium and made a few remarks. He then cleared the NASA transporter for takeoff, a modified 747 with the shuttle Challenger. recently completed at Palmdale’s Plant 41, mounted atop it, to fly the new shuttle to Florida. The 747 rolled, rotated, then lifted gently off the desert floor. I watched it – but it never climbed out – just flew across the desert. Curious…

            A few minutes later, joined by the crew of the Columbia that had just landed, RonNancyReagan made a few more remarks. Then, turning to the audience, he concluded his speech with that great Reagan smile and “Nancy and I want to thank you all for coming out in this hot sun, and we want you to go home now and have yourselves one hell of a Fourth of Jul….”

            The 40,000 people, and millions at home watching TV, never heard the “y” in “July”, only the deafening whine of the 747 transporter’s four massive engines and the roar of the three T-38s, all four planes in a tight fingertip formation, coming up from behind the audience treetop-high at over 250 knots and pulling with MEDO power.  They all dropped their right wings in unison to the American flag behind the podium, just as the Marine band from NAS Miramar cued the Stars and Stripes Forever – John Phillip Sousa never heard it played any better.  The planes leveled their wings then climbed rapidly over Reagan’s shoulder as we viewed him, holding their formation in a left departure into the haze.

Our Fourth of July weekend had begun; the Challenger was away on its first trip to Cape Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, in his western White House Levis and a goat-roper shirt on that hot Sunday morning, had shown us the nexus of presidency and showmanship in its highest form. Dry eyes among 40,000 people: zero. Photos of the flyover by the surprised crowd: zero. Offers to re-enlist into the services: 14,307. Pride in the US of A: Priceless.

• •

Thanks for that morning, Dutch, and God bless America on her 244th birthday. And a happy and safe holiday to all on this 2020 July 4th!

© Karl Breckenridge  … photo credit aircraft NASA, at Rancho de Cielo Bettman Archives

 

The 1949 Haylift

C-119

The Herculean effort to save livestock pinned down by snowstorms in the Rockies this week refreshed a vivid memory held by many of my contemporaries, of the incredible snowstorms of 1948 that closed schools and businesses from the Sierra eastward to the Rockies and even dropped 6 inches of snow in Las Vegas.  The earliest bellwether of what lay ahead for ranchers might have been a blurb in the Jan.27, 1949 Reno Evening Gazette about two C-46s dispatched to Arizona from Luke Field in Riverside, Cal. to search for 50 ranch hands lost in the back country.  As kids we caught a lift to Reno’s Hubbard Field to watch some arriving 1942-vintage Air Force C-82 (later re-designated C-119) Flying Boxcars (pictured above), twin-engine planes with huge clamshell cargo bay doors that could be operated in flight. The planes were staging in Fallon from all over the nation, some from nearby McClellan Field in Sacramento and many more from the 316th Air Carrier Wing in South Carolina.  The initial plan was to airlift hay to Ely and Elko, from where Nevada and Utah National Guard trucks would deliver it to the isolated livestock. But eastern Nevada airports and roads were useless due to being snowed in, so the Air Force pilots suggested dropping the hay from the planes directly into the herds and bands of livestock.

            Hubbard Field saw incidental haylift activity for the next month, as the majority of the airlift centered at Minden’s and the Navy’s Fallon airstrips.  We recall our friends’ fathers, many relatively fresh out of WWII service, departing Reno for two or three weeks with the Nevada National Guard’s heavy trucks, and, if memory serves, a couple of Isbell Construction’s low-boys with drivers. Reno restaurants and food provisioners were pressed into service providing meals around the clock; and merchants kicked in to provide a few creature comforts to the legion of personnel amassing for the airlift.  By the first day of February it had become a major federal project directed by no less than Harry S Truman, with the Nevada effort repeating itself all over Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho and Montana.  The Feb. 4, 1948 Gazette relates that a pattern had become established, of five to six tons of hay being loaded into each C-119 for the 220-plus-mile one-way trip to the ravaged areas.  The hay arrived by commercial trucks from California’s Central Valley where it was handed off to 48 National Guard and army trucks shuttling between Reno, Minden and Fallon.  The Feb. 5 Gazette reported that the storm had increased, temperatures had dropped below zero and that the S.P.’s City of San Francisco passenger train had become marooned in Wells.

            Each plane carried an Air Force pilot and co-pilot, a flight engineer and a loadmaster, who were joined by two civilian volunteers.  Over the drop area the two civilians pushed four 75-pound hay bales aft toward the open clamshell doors where the FE and the loadmaster then kicked the bales out to the animals below (all four crewmen in the cargo bay were tethered to the plane.)   My youthful recollection was that volunteers lined up five-deep to get to be one of the two civilians aboard each sortie.  A contingent of ranchers and hands who knew their own topography rode along to assist the pilots in navigating to drop points where their own cattle and sheep were likely to be found.          

            One can only speculate of the thrill experienced by a Basque herder getting his very first airplane ride while the plane dove down a box canyon at 150 knots with a 30-knot wind bouncing it around and 15-below-zero air screaming through a hole as big as a garage door in the back of the plane.  Over the deafening roar one can almost hear him utter “Well, son-of-a-gun!” in Euskara Basque, Spanish and English.  Nevada writer Beltran Paris, a Basque sheepman who’s made this column before, wrote an excellent account of his terrifying ride over his own ranch.  A Nevada Guardsman who flew as a volunteer on two flights from Minden related to me that they often needed to make multiple passes over a herd or band, and after a first drop the pilot made a sharp turn down a walled canyon to start his second run. The remaining load of hay slid, pinning another Guardsman under a half a dozen bales and confronting the pilot with a ton of weight suddenly shifting his center-of-gravity while already holding a steep bank.

            These guys were good.

            On Feb. 27 the Journal carried a photo of a sort-of victory celebration with a bunch of guys at the Elko airport; visible are Elko rancher and hotelman Newt Crumley and local ad icon Gene Evans, then editor of the Elko Free-Press.  Why the celebration?  The 27 reciprocating-engine aircraft had logged 1,600 flight hours on 26 out of 28 days under Arctic conditions, with some 330 take-off-and-landing cycles in high winds on icy runways and dropped 1,800 tons of hay (they lost two days to weather or unavailability of hay.)  Save for one errant hay bale entering a rancher’s shed at a high rate of speed in Little Cherry Creek and demolishing his wife’s brand-new-fangled washing machine, nary a glitch was reported.  And the sun had come out…

            Eastern Nevada’s Operation Hay Lift was a success – when the snow melted off in the spring, the ranchers determined that 80 to 85 per cent of their livestock – cattle and sheep – had been saved, and this was typical throughout the western states where similar endeavors had been ongoing.

            Now anticipating a couple of e-mails: Yes – there was a second Operation Hay Lift, in March of 1952, and yes, the City of San  Francisco was marooned once again, that time on Donner Summit.  I thank James A. Young of the U. S. Department of Agriculture, the Nevada Historical Society and Phil Earl for their past research. 

The sequel: click here CLOSING THE BOOK – THE AFTERMATH OF THE EVENT

The stranding of the Southern Pacific Railroad’s City of San Francisco premier passenger train a few miles west of Norden on the Donner Summit on January 13, 1952 with 226 souls on board always generates a great deal of ink. And I’m as guilty as any writer in beating it to death; after all it put little Reno in the national spotlight for the five days it took to get them off the hill.

Many years ago, making contact with or visiting the California State Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento, SP Railroad’s headquarters at One Market Street in San Francisco and raiding the morgues at the San Francisco Chronicle, the Examiner, the Call-Bulletin, the Sacramento Bee and the Truckee Sierra Sun, I amassed a lot of stuff about the event. And I give attribution to John Kelly’s excellent book about it, Stranded Streamliner. (Upon the sale of the Mighty SP to the Union Pacific Railroad in 1996, the SP’s archives were split among the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, the Stanford University library, and the California State Railroad Museum.)

Long story short, it’s that time of year again, and this year rather than strugging to rewrite an old column, I’m dusting of a few pictures you may enjoy…

All images subject to copyrights as shown. All image captions and the website in its entirety are © Karl Breckenridge 2020

50016 sp_overhead

Here’s the train … this is looking west, the head end of the train is going away from the viewer. The smoke column at the rear of the train is from a steam cab-forward locomotive that attempted to pull the train towards Truckee but derailed. It did supply steam for heat to the passenger train all of the first night, but its boiler flamed out when a valve was left in the wrong position. Toward the left/east of the steam loco is the carcass of a steam snowplow that also died on the rails, obstructing rescue efforts. Above the plow the east portal of a tunnel, which appears in many photographs, is visible. This tunnel serves the westbound track, parallel to the track in view and covered by snow. The snowbound train, while westbound, is on the eastbound track because the City of San Francisco on the prior day was also stuck, but towed to Colfax by a steam locomotive, causing light damage to the tracks. Highway 40 is apparent in the lower right hand corner, where the passengers eventually walked out to the awaiting vehicles. This photo, taken early the first day the train was snowbound, was taken from a light plane rented by the San Francisco Chronicle, with attribution given to Ken Yeo, a Chron staff photographer

 

60012 chp car

Communication with the site proved a huge dilemma, abated by the California Department of Highways appropriating a California Highway Patrol Oldsmobile as the best walkie-talkie available in 1952, loading it on a flatcar and utilizing its two-way radio quite liberally. On a lighter note I’ve never used this shot in a Power Point presentation that some audience member didn’t  pick up on the hogleg revolver on the CHP trooper’s hip!

 

60025 weasels!

The California National Guard sent three flatcar loads of Weasels from Fort Mason, but like the Coast Guard helicopter, they had trouble with the terrain and the savage weather and accomplished very little

 

60050 sikorsky

The piston-engined chopper sent by the Coast Guard from Alameda proved to be of little benefit, due to high winds and poor visibility, deration of the lift of the rotor at this altitude, and an inability to land in the snow adjoining the snowbound train

 

 

60059 site

 

 

60032 grump

“I’m already late for my granddaughter’s recital, by legs have been wrapped in potato sacks for three days, this dingbat in the hoodie has been babbling about God-knows-what the whole time; I’m hungry, I’m cold and now this young man says I have to take my smoke out to the vestibule where it’s four-below-zero. Next trip I’m taking the BUS!”  © SP

 

60014 roehll

Dr. Walter Roehll of Chicago was accompanying his patient to San Francisco, and was the only doctor traveling on the train. There were a group, (4,6?) nurses aboard enroute to a convention in the Bay Area. The SP gave high praise to the significant number of soldiers, sailors and marines aboard, enroute to meet sea transportation to the Korean Conflict for their skills in medicine, survival and a general “can-do” nature. © SP

w

60013 kid

Jeffry Wise and his mother Orell — where are you now?

 

 

60080 depart

The skies cleared, the winds abated, and SP laborers had stomped out a trail in the snow from the snowbound train to a point on US-40. All but a few (4) passengers walked to the highway and waiting vehicles, assisted with their baggage by the SP. Four passengers were taken by stretcher to the highway. All of their baggage went home with them that afternoon!

 

60084 - cars

The only transportation available in the Norden area were those vehicles that were  already there when US-40 closed a week-and-a-half earlier. Their owners were located and – reports vary – about 18 cars and pickups were pressed into service to haul the 255-or-so people the four-mile distance on the one–lane road, making numerous trips, turning together in the turn areas plowed by the highway department, and taking another group. (As a matter of explanation, the 226-passenger count excluded 19 SP employees on board and a number of people involved in the rescue who got to the train but couldn’t get back to civilization and stayed aboard)

 

convoy

No words are necessary…

 

60091 rescuetrain

The “rescue train” (left) at Nyack Lodge – the SP, weary of having their rolling stock derailed by the snow, located 11 heavyweight Pullman cars which had been sidelined prior to WWII, and tied four large F-7 diesels at either end of this train. It was filled with food, spirits, clothes, blankets and medical supplies. SP plowed the track to Nyack Lodge, the California Department of Highways plowed US 40, which had been closed for 11 days, and the rescue train was spotted at Nyack. Passengers walked some 1,080 feet to the train from the lodge (traveling on I-80 today, their route remains evident where the freeway passes over the railroad tunnel). © SP

 

60095 train

Aboard the rescue train – the passengers, now showered, with a change of clothes, a cocktail and a steak dinner, kicked back on the ride from Nyack Lodge to Oakland. A very few disembarked in Sacramento, but rode all the way to the mole, where many were met by friends or relatives. SP made phone service available, but it was spotty

70000 oakland mole

The Oakland “mole” – the west terminus of SP trains, where the rescue train arrived at 3:40 a.m. on January 17, 1952. A UP ferry boat took the passengers across the Bay to the SP passenger station on Townsend Street on the Embarcadero (postcard)

 

sp townsend

The end of the line – the massive, classic Spanish Revival SP passenger terminal (now razed) near Oracle, formerly  AT&T, SF Giants ballpark © KB

 

gold

Jay Gold, 31, was an employee of the Pacific Gas & Electric Company working out of Drum, a few miles west of the site. Word of the train’s predicament reached Drum and Gold trailered a Sno-cat as close as possible to the site. He worked virtually non-stop for three days and nights, hauling stuff and people to and from the snowbound train between rounds of blizzards (he was joined by a second Sno-cat donated by Pacific Telephone a day later)> He passed away 31 days after the passengers were rescued. Unknown to but a very few, Jay had a preëxisting cardiac condition.  His family was generously compensated by both the SP Railroad and PG&E, but I have championed, to no avail, an effort to have a short stretch of I-80 below the snowbound train’s location designated in his honor, with appropriate signage for all to see while traversing Donner Summit. (courtesy Gold family)

Turkey time, already?

Some of my columns have become iconic to a time of year; they were crappy when I wrote them 15, 20 years ago and haven’t become any better since, but maintain misleading, boring, non-factual, ill-researched, plagiarized and generally pathetic information. But, if I don’t run the Wreaths & Shamrocks piece on St. Patrick’s Day or the Squaw Valley 1960 Winter Olympics Opening with every new Winter Olympics, I catch hell: “Hey, it’s Thanksgiving; where’s the turkey story?” Just in case anyone alive hasn’t read this yarn that I stole from somebody in 1988, here it is:

Comet3In the dawn of the transition from propeller-driven to jet airliners – c. 1955 – the British DeHavilland builder of the Comet airliner turned to the Yankee builders – Lockheed, Boeing and Douglas – for insight into fabricating test strikes of aircraft windscreens, caused by planes striking birds at low altitude – takeoff or landing. The three Southern California giants gladly sent information about a rudimentary slingshot, to propel a store-bought 15-pound turkey into a windscreen to guage its effect.

Several weeks later, the Brits sent photographs of a windscreen with a gaping holeFrozenTurkey in it, then photos in sequence of a hole in the bulkhead behind the pilot’s head, the demolished flight engineer’s console behind that bulkhead, a hole in the bulkhead separating the flight engineer’s station from the crew lavatory and the interior of the lavatory, also trashed, with the turkey at rest on a countertop surrounded by glass from the mirror above the counter. The final photograph was of a question mark drawn on the damaged lavatory bulkhead. 

“Next time,” the American engineers wrote, “thaw the turkey…”

An air racing story not yet told…

FearlessNoTextThe poor little guy was bawling his eyes out. What the heck………..?

I wheeled my Jeep toward him, a lone little figure about my son’s age, standing with a well-worn paper sack in his hands, ill-clothed and needing a haircut from a real barber, a lad truly matching one’s perception of an urchin. I stopped next to him and killed the engine.MissAmericaP51

“What’s up, Pardner?”

Through sobs and sniffles, I was able to put together the cause of the lad’s grief. It would seem that he received for Christmas, a model airplane kit for the P-51 Mustang that had raced in Reno every year since the races began ten years ago (I’m pegging this event as being in 1976). In the paper sack was the cover of the model’s cardboard box and the assembly instruction sheet.

He had started last Christmas, now nine months ago, to save his pennies and go toInstruction sheet the Air Races the following September, and have Howie Keefe, the owner and pilot of Miss America, autograph the kit’s lid and the instruction sheet. But, upon trudging from his family’s home to Stead and presenting his meager funds at the ticket table for the air race pits – where the airplanes are tied down – he was informed that he was too young to go into the pit area – an FAA regulation and a RevellP51good, valid one.

He was crushed – nine months of hopes and a dream were instantaneously brought to an end. He walked, alone, back along the fence line separating him from the pits, and broke into tears. His life was pretty bleak to begin with; this visit was his beacon since Christmas, and it was just unceremoniously extinguished. I’ve never seen a kid – or a human – that upset.

Let’s take a few paragraphs and fill in a cast of characters. Howie Keefe owned and flew the P-51 named Miss America, race number One-One. It was totally stock – no clipped wingtips, prop changes nor tail mods – and therefore not terribly competitive at Reno. But it had an easily identifiable and unique color scheme, which rivaled be best of Raymond Leowy, the dean of industrial designers who designed Air Force One. The plane got the attention of Revell Plastics, who paid owner Keefe not a small amount of coin to offer the plane as a plastic model about a foot long. The plane was a beauty, and well known by all.

OK, that said, the owner/pilot was a man named Howie Keefe. I Howie Keefetipped my hat to him as a former WWII Navy pilot with a zillion hours PIC and the respect of all with whom he flew or raced in air races around the country. He was immensely respected, in fact got a call from the NTSB to join the team of investigators of the crash at Stead that killed 11 souls and pilot Jimmy Leeward, who I knew and liked very much.

Yours truly was aboard due to my friendship, away from and prior to air racing, with the likes of Fred Davis, George Vucanovich, Stan Brown, Roy Powers, Jerry Duty and a few others who would form the crux of Reno air racing in its infancy. And my name and often photograph appeared for the next 31 years in 31 air race programs, as “Home Pylon Flagman” and later with “Finish Judge” following. I was in.

I looked at my watch. I had an hour-and-a-half until I needed to be at my post at Home Pylon. Plenty of time until the earliest race. I made a command decision. “Hop in,” I said to the urchin, nodding toward the Jeep’s right, co-pilot seat. He did.

Then I broke a couple, if not more rules – the FAA’s about underage people being beyond the “line” – the fence separating competition from spectators, and the Air Race’s, against bringing unticketed people into the pit. I cruised up to the gate and the look on my visage probably adequately conveyed that the Jeep and all it carried were coming in – leave it alone.

JeepersWe drove through the pits. I noticed Jeremy (which by the way was the kid’s name) entranced with the whole vista. I found an extra Air Race Operations hat and offered it to him.

Soon, Pay Dirt! In a little shade-shelter very near Miss America, was a tall, elegant figure wearing a crisp red, white and blue flight suit. I stopped and said to Jeremy, come with me.

I was cheery to Keefe and his friends: “Hi Howie; I brought a little friend of mine to say hello; he’s got some stuff for you to sign!” Keefe looked at me askance, at Jeremy, at the race official’s insignia on my hat, then said hi. Jeremy pulled the kit’s cover and the instruction sheet out, together with a heavy marking pen he just happened to have in the bag. And believe it or don’t, but Keefe asked Jeremy how to spell his name and signed both articles.

Jeremy’s nine-month quest had come true! But wait, it gets better:

“Howie,” I said, “May I show Jeremy your office in the Mustang?”

Keefe, as I expected he might, said, well why don’t I take him myself?  Jeremy, as one might expect didn’t need a second invitation. They both clambered up the wing – I, by now the ex officio photographer, followed,

Not tall enough to sit on his butt in the cockpit, he scrunched on his knees while Keefe pointed out the “stuff” inside – the throttle, flaps, rudders, joystick, gear, radio, trim knobs. I dutifully clicked shots of Jeremy, Howie, the cockpit, the crowd. My favorite was one with Jeremy and Howie, both with a smile you could see a mile, looking at each other and playing with some control on the panel. A bonding moment, indeed.

Time was fleeting. I corralled Jeremy and thanked Keefe profusely. And he actually thanked me for bringing them together. Jeremy and I returned to the Jeep.

I had already broken a couple no-no’s that as an official I should have been busted for, but on the way out to the ramp, I decided that once your heels are off the ground, it doesn’t matter how high they hang you. I steered toward my duty at Home Pylon. Tower cleared me on my handy-talkie to cross the main runway, and Jeremy was put to work at Home.  I sensed that the FAA overseer looked the other way.

Jeremy helped us raise Old Glory on cue, as eight Nevada Air Guard RF-4Cs passed over loud and proud just as the flag reached the top of the pole at the end of the Anthem.. He saw the Blue Angels, (the Thunderbirds?), from the best seat in the house. He saw air races. Some of my firemen buddies took him down to a crash truck. He learned how to cook hamburgers on a grill, the only skill really a requisite for working at Home Pylon. He helped us lower the flag and make a crisp tricorner fold, to fly another day.

Jeremy went to the air races. I took him home to a shabby trailer in Black Springs, to where 35 years before I drove a school bus. My first trip back. Yikes.

He was dead-ass tired – noise, excitement, smoke, seeing Howie – he’d had a day. I told him I’d see him in a couple weeks (I was shooting Kodachrome II back then with a Canon A-1; a bit different than pointing and shooting a digital today!). Roy Powers helped me get 8-by-10 copies of a dozen of the best pictures.

I went back to the trailer with the pictures in a fortnight. He was still on Cloud Nine. A Saturday, I took him to lunch. I wasn’t sure he was getting square meals.

I never saw him again. I sent some cards and letters, with return postage envelopes with my address. Nada. I went to his family’s home – they left, no forwarding address.

I’d like to end this with some Mitch Albom-feel good conclusion, but can’t. Howie Keefe, at 92, banged life’s throttle for the final time in the midsummer of 2013, pulled the stick back and climbed up, up, the long delirious burning blue over Florida where never lark nor ever eagle flew, and touched the face of God. His passing was an immense loss to the air racing and aviation community.

Jeremy? Dunno. He said during the brief tenure of our association that he’d like to join the Navy when he was old enough and work around airplanes. I’d like to think he won his Wings of Gold and is now the wing-king of an F/A-18 Hornet  squadron flying off the Ronald Reagan.

But I doubt it….

I’m just happy to have brought him that day at Stead. I’ve written about Air Racing ad nauseam, or did a few years ago. But Jeremy’s story stayed within me. They’ll be back tearing up the skies over Stead this week. And for reasons unknown, I thought I’d put one last air race tale out.

I’d give anything to get that kid in the Jeep once more….

© Breckenridge 2019

Excerpt of Airman’s Prayer credit to John Gillespie Magee, Jr. “High Flight” 1940

Air Race Home Pylon Crew

Home Pylon Crew, 1984: from left, my younger son Brent; Dale Tucker, now the home pylon flagman with Mickey on his t-shirt; next a fugitive from Reno 911 in his shorts; Dale’s parents Polly and Ed Tucker, (chief timers); chief judge Fred Hallett, the father of Reno Air Race timing and statistics. The latter three have passed away, Dale’s now the head flagman

 

 

Up Ship!

BalloonRace“Up Ship” – the launch command of the ground crew of a lighter-than-air balloon, time-honored from the days of Jules Verne as the aeronauts drop a pennant with a braided rope to sample the wind.  The modern Goodyear blimps continue that tradition, dropping a line with the American flag from their tails.  We’ll hear it a lot at this coming weekend as the colorful envelopes fill and open, then rise over Rancho San Rafael.

            The early balloon races in Reno started with less-auspicious beginnings as an event to fill the early hours of the Reno Air Races, offering spectators a little diversion while the racers were prepping for the main event.  They drew a lot of attention – the propane burners slowly filling the gasbags, that gradually blossomed open and disappeared with their wicker baskets and champagne-swilling aeronauts into the distance in a sort of hare-and-hound race, mostly for fun.  The envelopes were less colorful yet more traditional in shape – the logo gasbag shapes, starting with Mr. Peanut and a champagne bottle setting the pace for those.  On that first windless morning they didn’t go far, and posed a hazard to the later air racers by blocking course safety escape routes and cluttering up the course with ground support trucks.  I’ve tried to pinpoint the year from old air race programs with little luck, but I’d guess this all started about 1973, reader help appreciated.

            The next year they were back, in greater numbers and a little more organization, with a few VIP passengers and some sponsored balloons.  And problems similar to the year before with the congestion.  But the event was catching on and few enjoyed them more than the volunteer workers at the air races – the balloons a pleasant diversion from the noisy race planes.  And their pilots.

            I’m shaky on the year now, but believe it was the third year at Stead that the air race trustees, and I detect the fine hand of Roy Powers in this stunt – “We’ll have a Reno Air Race Zip Code, with a commemorative postmark on one-ounce-max letters, put a shoebox full in each balloon, and put these races on the map!”  The U.S. Postal Service went along with that, and official airmail lifted off with each aeronaut.

            Unlike the past years, the wind was freaky at launch time, coming from the east, west, north, and south and maybe straight down.  Hot air balloons with U.S. Mail aboard drifted from hell to breakfast and the post office minions went postal, their mail, their charge, their duty through rain, sleet, dark of night and Washoe Zephyrs, spread from O’Brien Middle School’s parking lot to the Black Rock Desert.  Red, white and blue right-hand-drive mail trucks drove all over the racecourse.  Well, not really, but from the squawk on our walkie-talkies that wouldn’t have surprised us.

            The event matured, from its early beginnings as a schedule-filler for the air races to a stand-alone weekend, and what a hand the early organizers are due for turning it into one of our valley’s major annual shows.  And, for proving that the near-silent rustle of a balloon cleaving the air with the occasional whoosh of the burner, can hold its own with the popularity of Hot August Night’s big-block Chevys, the air race’s V-12 Packard Merlins and Street Vibrations’ Twin-V Harleys.  Up ship, aeronauts; we’re glad to see you back again.

            And, for the trivia that one can only find in this paper on Saturday mornings, the U.S.-based Goodyear blimps have been traditionally named for racing yachts that have successfully defended the America’s Cup, so decreed the late Frank Seiberling, Goodyear’s 19th century founder, a yachtsman himself, now retired.  (Get it?)  And, we all know that just as Bill Harrah went to the four corners of the Nevada to get low auto license plate numbers for his fleet, the Goodyear big wheels garnered the lowest tail numbers in American aviation, from N1A through November Eleven Alpha.

           

© Karl Breckenridge  2006

A friend asked about Stead AFB – here you are…

Here’s how quickly seven ill-chosen words can germinate into a whole column: Walking Virginia Street in a recent column set in 1950, I alluded to “…the recently-renamed Stead Air Force Base”.  This elicited several inquiries, all reducible to either “Recinchombrenamed from what?” or “We’re new here; tell us about Stead.”

            Let’s start at the beginning: The facility was commissioned in 1942 as the Reno Army Airport, renamed as Reno Air Force Base in 1948 (when most former Army airbases were ceded to the U.S. Air Force), and finally to Stead Air Force Base in 1951.  The Defense Department, in 1949, adopted a policy to name military facilities more after notable people, less after geographic references.

             Accordingly, Reno Air Force Base was renamed, not for Spanish Springs rancher/air race co-founder Bill Stead, as many of you thought; rather, for his brother Croston Stead, who crashed on takeoff into the desert on December 16th, 1948 in an Air Guard P-51 Mustang, not too long after the Nevada Air National Guard was commissioned at Reno Air Force Base in April of 1948, flying P-51s.  (Croston’s older brother Bill Stead, a hot-stick, high-time World War II fighter ace, died in an air race in Florida in 1965, flying a midget racer.  Go figure…).  The third Stead brother is Sparks developer L. David Kiley. 

The base’s mission over the years was basic aviation training, later rotary-wing training (OK: helicopters), and airport fire suppression – recall the Kaman-built fire-choppers (“Huskies”) with the weird twin “eggbeater” rotors that frequently flew over downtown.  There were a few uncontrolled auxiliary airports – patch a better word – around our valley, which were associated with Reno AFB in the early years.  I lived in the most northwest corner of Reno in the late 1940s and often hiked to a now-long-gone unnamed satellite Reno AFB strip that was between the present Keystone Avenue and McQueen High School.  Two youngish cadets in a Beech D-18 trainer with Army tail markings gave three of us kids a spin around Peavine Peak in a 20-minute ride neither our parents nor the flight-line officer at Reno AFB ever needed to hear about.  Some things are better left that way for fifty years or so.  Another Reno AFB satellite strip parallels Highway 70 at Beckwourth, in use to this day as the Nervino Airstrip.  (The bygone Sparks Airport strip northeast of Pyramid Way and Green Brae – the 1950s spelling – in Sparks was not a Reno AFB satellite.)

            Stead AFB conducted desert and mountain survival training, for pilots of all branches of the military, other nations, and even for the early astronauts.  Later there was a “SAGE” facility, an acronym for Semi-Automatic-Ground-Environment, or whatever paranoids do all day in a great big ugly four-story building with no windows, something to do with global air defense.                      

            One interesting occurrence that some old-timers may remember was when the Pentagon, in a convincing effort to demonstrate the massive economic impact the airbase had on our community, paid Stead troops one payday in crisp two-dollar bills.  Those bills circulated around for years, many emanating from the Grotto Bar at Fourth and Virginia Streets, the Stead airmen’s branch offic.  And apropos of probably nothing, I can report that yours truly drove a big bright-yellow, flat-front 66-passenger Cornbinder school bus to the enlisted men’s housing area at Stead, and that Ty Cobb Jr., son of the late RG-J columnist, drove a like bus to the Stead officers’ housing unit.  Between the two of us we delivered every single high school student who lived from the Reno city limits north past Stead and all the way to Bordertown, to Reno High School – the town’s only high school until Wooster was built 1961.  [And I caught Nancy Howell Spina and Tony Clark’s ire with that: “What was Manogue High, sliced bread?!”  Sorry…].  Believe it or don’t, only 132 kids, excluding truants, lived north of town in the early 1960s, and we drove them 36 miles a day for three school years, and never harmed a hair on their heads nor creased a fender.  Damn, we were good.       

            The Defense Department began phasing out Stead AFB in 1963 – actually selling off some of the original 20,000 acres as early as 1958 – and it was finally fully decommissioned by 1966 and acquired by the City of Reno.  The renamed Reno-Stead Airport once hosted all airline passenger flights into and out of Reno while our downtown airport, at that time hung with the unpopular name of Reno-Cannon Airport, was closed for a major runway resurfacing.  For five weeks the PSA pilots in their DC-9s raced the AirCal Boeing 737 guys around the Reno National Air Race’s 8-mile unlimited-class course pylons at Stead on their way to final approach for runway two-four.

            Just kidding…

• •

A Fourth of July with President Reagan

We now turn the clock back to 1982, in the early days of July.  We planned to travel to Palmdale, California. The high point of a normal Palmdale weekend would usually be the bookmobile arriving from Los Angeles, or tickets to the matinee performance at Western Auto, but on that weekend the space shuttle Columbia, on its fourth mission STS-4, was arriving on Sunday, July 4th, astronauts Ken Mattingly and Henry Hartsfield at the conn.

            747 shuutle

          With that in mind, I went to Senator Howard Cannon’s office then on Booth Street and wrangled a VIP invitation to Edwards Air Force Base, where the shuttle was landing. No problem, I was a good Nevadan. We journeyed to Palmdale on July the second, and on the third, a Saturday, we went to the large NASA hospitality building in Lancaster – adjoining Palmdale as Sparks adjoins Reno. To give credit where due, the name “Cannon” rocked the staff due to his advocacy of the Senate aerospace and defense committees, and the kids were treated like kings – tours of past Gemini capsules, “rides” on moon landers, and other courtesies – and we left with four human passes, one for my Suburban’s windshield and some cool NASA baseball caps like the big guys wear. We were advised the landing had been delayed until 9:02 AM that Sunday (tomorrow) morning, from 8:53 AM, so we changed our plans accordingly.

            The view of the Mojave Valley foothills that Saturday night was breathtaking – the firelight of Coleman lanterns and campfires ringing the valley – Caltrans estimated that a million people had camped in the surrounding hills to watch what was planned to be the last west coast space shuttle landing, ever. At oh-dark-thirty on Sunday the Fourth of July we left for Edwards AFB, and upon entering the base, the Suburban was checked from cellar to attic, and beneath with mirrors – for at 9 o’clock the night before it was announced that President Ronald Reagan was coming to witness the shuttle landing. We walked interminably across a parking lot, and I have a photo to this day of a large – make that huge – Rosey Grier look-alike Secret Service agent, who met all at the gate with “Take my picture!” then smiled a display of Ipana-ad white teeth – the purpose to make sure all cameras were indeed cameras and not guns or bombs or whatever.  Nice guy.NASA_T38

            At thirty minutes before 9 AM three tall young pilots, ramrod-stiff, flat-bellied in their powder blue NASA flight suits, arrived at their parked blue-and-white T-38 jet chase planes; the assembled ladies en mass all went ga-ga, the pilots kicked the tires and lit the fires, taxied out, rolled, and climbed out like a trio of homesick angels to points unknown. A moment later, the baseball-stadium-sized Diamondvision TV screens came to life, and the PA system carried the voice from NASA Houston, who was controlling the shuttle’s landing. The shuttle was then over the Santa Barbara Channel Islands, the chase planes transmitting images of it. “You are angels one-oh-two, four miles downcourse” – basically 102,000 feet straight up from Edwards. “Valve off your hydrazine,” and the shuttle complied with a vapor trail; the chase planes laid orange day smoke – all four aircraft now in full view from Southern California.

            “We’re coming down,” announced Hartsfield laconically, and did they ever – straight down, 40,000 people on the Edwards tarmac puckered, expecting the craft to bury itself in the desert. At the last moment, it leveled, its gear fell, the tail split into a brake, and the three T-38s strained to stay above it, using their dive boards, landing gear and full flaps to slow down.  The shuttle rolled to a stop. 9:02 AM. How did they know that a whole day earlier? (And I know,  most T-38s don’t have dive brakes. These were NASA birds, not your grandfather’s T-38s…)    

            Ronald Reagan, in the same western-cut informal duds he’d wear on his ranch on a Sunday morning, and his Nancy approached the podium and made a few remarks. He then cleared the NASA transporter for takeoff, a modified 747 with the shuttle Challenger recently completed at Palmdale’s Plant 41 mounted atop it, to fly the new shuttle to Florida. The 747 rolled, rotated, then lifted gently off the desert floor. I watched it – but it never climbed out – just flew across the desert. Curious…

            A few minutes later, joined by the crew of the Columbia that had just landed, Reagan made a few more remarks. Then, turning to the audience, he concluded his speech with that great Reagan smile and “Nancy and I want to thank you all for coming out in this hot sun, and we want you to go home now and have one Hell of a Fourth of Jul….”

            The 40,000 people, and millions at home watching TV, never heard the “y” in “July”, only the deafening whine of the transporter’s four massive engines and the roar of the three T-38s, all four planes in a tight formation, coming up from behind the audience treetop-high at over 250 knots and pulling with MEDO power.  They all dropped their right wings in unison to the American flag behind the podium, just as the Marine band from NAS Miramar cued the Stars and Stripes Forever – John Phillip Sousa never heard it played any better.  The planes leveled their wings then climbed rapidly over Reagan’s shoulder as we viewed him, holding their formation in a left departure into the haze.

Our Fourth of July weekend had begun; the Challenger was away on its first trip to Cape Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, in his western White House Levis and a goat-roper shirt on that hot Sunday morning, had shown us the nexus of presidency and showmanship in its highest form. Dry eyes among 40,000 people: zero. Photos of the flyover by the surprised crowd: zero. Offers to re-enlist into the services: 14,307. Pride in the US of A: Priceless.

  • • •

Thanks for that morning, Dutch, and God bless America on her 244th birthday. And a happy and safe holiday to all on this 2020 July 4th!

© Karl Breckenridge  … photo credit NASA

 

Don’t tell Mom….

LittleKarlThe following is a tale of the Grandpa without a Clue. To elaborate, at a family gathering in San Mateo recently assembled some folks, dear friends all. On Saturday a cortège was leaving my younger son’s home – sons and daughters-in-law, grandkids, grandfathers, grandmothers – a lot of grand people in a flotilla of cars. The trip was to be short – through a quiet neighborhood to a youth ballpark where two granddaughters would play in separate games. The Final Boarding Process began. My grandson Andy spoke up: “I’ll ride with Grandpa Karl.”

I sensed a bonding moment. He examined my nearly-two-decade-old Miata ragtop rice Miatarocket, fire-engine red and looking as if it were going Mach One, when in reality 65 MPH was about all it wanted to go. But it looked hot. Andy, now 15, offered to drive. “I can get us there.” Having lived 62 years longer, I sensed the peril of his request. “You have a learner’s permit yet?” I asked. “Working on getting it online. No,” he responded, strongly reminiscent of his father in 1982, absent the “online” afterthought.

“How bad could this be?” I pondered and flipped him the keys. “Don’t tell your Mom,” Mom was now aboard a car enroute to the ballpark. I entered the passenger side, he the driver side. I noted that he didn’t pull the seat forward, owing to his frame well on the way to his father’s 6’-4” range. He cranked up the tiny engine. He slipped it iAndyBnto gear and made a smooth start up the avenue. “YouKFB bow tie been driving your dad’s stick-shift much?” I asked. “Yup,” he answered. “Don’t tell my Mom.” We were off to the races. But not to the game – he passed the turnoff to the ballpark. I just sat and watched, my mind going back to having his dad drive me around in my pickup in 1981. We didn’t tell Mom about that either.

I sensed my error in giving him the keys when we turned onto the El Camino. A right turn put us on to Highway 92, and a short block later a big swoop put the rice 747rocket onto the Bayshore. He slipped into fourth gear, then high. Approaching the SFO airport a Boeing 747 that had probably just ridden United’s Friendly Skies from Hong Kong for the past 13 hours was paralleling our route, low and slow in the clear blue sky with full flaps and all the gear hanging. “Take a good look; that’s the Queen of the Skies and we won’t see them in another year.” The death knell hasBeemer sounded for the Seven-Fours and soon they’d all be parked in Mojave, replaced by the Triple Sevens and the big Airbuses. Quite a sight. North we went on  US101, and in a quick glance in my outside mirror I saw a BMW 1600 in our wake, with an older gent in a jaunty driving cap, surely a grandpa, and an underage kid at the wheel. Curious…

T_BirdThe  light towers of AT&T Park came into view on the right. The Giants were in New York, but Jon Miller was on the radio, Pence was on second and Crawford was at the plate. Out Third Street to Van Ness and then Geary, turning south onto 19th Avenue. Looking around, the same Beemer was on our tail, but now with a ’57 T-Bird MG TDdriven by a kid with an old guy like me next to him, and in the inside lane a classic MG TD, with a youngster driving a geezer. Four old ragtops…curious.Muni

Past Coit Tower and the Golden Gate’s orange towers we went, a Goodyear blimp overhead, out 19th Avenue, Stonestown and the Parkmerced Apartments to our right, an SF Muni “M” streetcar on our left. A slight jog at Junipero Serra put us on Highway 280. “Wanna hit the Crab Shack?” Andy asked. I told him no, we’d better get to the ballgame to watch his cousins. Our speed was still OK. Crawford singled with an RBI as Pence scored in New York. And I looked over my shoulder – yikes. The trailing Beemer, T-Bird and the MG had been joined by an early ragtop ‘Vette – a beauty with another youth driving an old guy with a yarmulke then a red Fiat 124 with a young dude namedFiat Luca driving what looked to be my buddy Joe Fazio from Marin. We took up the whole three  southbound lanes of Highway 280. Still doing only 65, as student drivers with no permits should.

But passing Half Moon Bay, the blue Pacific to the west, I noted a black-and-white helicopter overhead, and joining the parade of ragtops in trail was a black Crown Vic, “San Mateo” on the white door over a gold CrownVicstar. We were busted. A CHP cruiser joined the Crown Vic, all with annoying red and blue lights. Then another. And into that mix, an old Mustang and a ’68 Camaro melded, with, you guessed it, underage drivers hauling grinning old guys. Turning off 280 in unison, a dozen old ragtops merged onto Highway 92 toward San Mateo, with half the police in the Peninsula following and H32by now three helicopters overhead. Highway spikes and flares crossed Highway 92 ahead. “What’ll I do?” said Andy over the deafening sirens.

“Punch it,” I responded.

Onlookers were mesmerized to see an aging red Miata, followed by XK120the MG, the BMW, the 124, a T-Bird, a Jag XK120 [left] that had recently joined the convoy, with another half-dozen old roadsters rise up from the pavement, gently lifting through the low hills of west San Mateo, not unlike Elliot and his friends on their bicycles with E.T. in the basket in the Extraterrestial movie. Thin smiles crossed the countenances of the Grandpas without a Clue, and I think I even detected a ETslight grin on the mug of a rather senior CHP trooper alongside the formation as it made its mass ascent. In the manner of airmen everywhere, we tossed a thumbs-up to the other Grandpas and their underage chauffeurs, barrel-rolled the red Miata back to earth to a full-stop landing on the ballpark parking lot, chocked the tires and Andy flipped me the car keys with a grin.

“Don’t tell Mom,” I reminded him.

And this essentially fictitious tale is dedicated by all Grandpas without a Clue to Grandmas with an Attitude everywhere, and to Moms, on Mother’s Day [when this piece was published originally. And yes, the “Grandmas with an Attitude” was in tribute to Gazoo columnist Anne Pershing, who passed away four days prior to the  piece’s appearance in the paper, and editor Brett McGinness let it stand as written].

Thanks for reading and believing, and God bless America.