The Flight of PAL 773

          This  yarn begins in midweek over 55 years ago (May 6, 1964) at the San Francisco airport, where a man, described later by acquaintances and family as debt-ridden and erratic, purchased two life insurance policies with a value of over $160,000 from an airport vending machine, naming his wife as the beneficiary.

          To add relevance to that figure, I’d guess that 80 per cent of the homes in Reno could be bought 50 years ago for under $25,000.  He flew Pacific Air Lines to Reno and knocked around most of the night in the casinos.  And, in the laissez-faire world of the early 1960s, he was able to both purchase a Colt .357 on-the-spot from a downtown Reno hock shop, and to board San Francisco-bound PAL flight #773 in Reno early the next morning, carrying the gun aboard.  [Follow-up correspondence – unconfirmable – speculates that he bought the gun not in Reno, but in his Bay Area home town.  Were that the case we could surmise that he boarded an airliner not once but twice with a gun.]

          PAL 773 was under the hand of Captain Ernest Clark, a 22,000-hour commercial and Army Air Corps pilot with 3,000 of those hours in the Fairchild F-27 in use that day – the plane a twin-turboprop favorite workhorse of short- and medium-range regional carriers.  The flight stopped briefly in Stockton, and passengers who deplaned in Stockton recalled the man seated in the front row, behind the open cockpit door.

            Departing Stockton, the flight was on schedule over the East Bay on a long final approach into San Francisco International Airport when a frantic voice broke over the SFO arrival traffic frequency “PAL seven-seven-three, Skipper’s shot…we’ve been shot…trying to help” – the voice of 6,000-hour co-pilot Raymond Andress.  One account suggested the phrase “…passenger in the cockpit” followed by a gunshot.  Medical examiners would find the pilot and co-pilot shot in the backs of their heads, and all six rounds of the revolver fired.

            Investigators speculated that the F-27, trimmed for landing, would, if left unattended, maintain level flight for a while, and that the hijacker must have exerted considerable pressure on the yolk to start the plane into the near-vertical dive that eyewitnesses on the ground reported seeing.  The plane impacted on a grassy hill near San Ramon, which on that early hour of May 7th of 1964 was just a wide spot in the road in Contra Costa County.

            The incident had worldwide repercussions, inasmuch as it was the first intrusion by an armed passenger into a commercial airliner cockpit.  And the PAL 773 hijacking became even more heinous by the catastrophic loss of life.  Living in San Francisco at the time, I was amazed and amused, but saddened to see my ‘lil ol’ hometown making the news so often for days and weeks – the “Reno hijacking” this and “Gamblers’ Special” that – (which it wasn’t).  The flight originated in Reno with only one Nevadan aboard, with an intervening stop in Stockton and ended in San Ramon, all by a plan premeditated by a San Francisco resident, but around the nation’s newsrooms the unheard-of first-ever hijacking had to be an only-in-sin-city-divorcin’ and gamblin’-Reno occurrence.  The siege of take-me-to-Cuba diversions and D. B. Cooper’s stunt would come in years to follow.  (And none originated in Reno.)

            The fatal flight’s occupant manifest listed 44 souls, inclusive of the pilot and co-pilot, 30-year-old stewardess Marjorie Schafer, the skyjacker (thanks, Herb Caen, for that slang), 39 mostly-Bay Area residents, and …Roger Brander, 34, gnrl. mgr. KBUB-AM radio, Reno, Nev

Endnote: Slain pilot Ernest Clark’s daughter, Julie Clark, who was 15 at the time of the tragedy, went on to buy an ex-Navy T-34 trainer (think Beechcraft Bonanza with tandem seats and a conventional tail) that she flew to numerous international aerobatic championships and demonstrated at the Reno Air Races…




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 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 hangout.  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…

  • • •

Where the China Clippers lived

ClipperCoveOK, pressed for time on a gray day, lousy for taking a few pictures I’m after, I go to the archives for this one taken a couple years ago over Yerba Buena Island in the San Francisco Bay. Note the new bridge coming from Oakland; it’s quite a bit further along now with one tall tower supporting the whole span. The storied Pan American Clippers of the 1930s moored in the bay we see here, known as Clipper Cove. Pan Am built the island to the left – Treasure Island – starting in the early 1930s, planned as the future San Francisco airport. The curved building on the lower corner of the artificial island was built for the 1939 World Exposition, the statuary in front of it created by Oakland’s Sargent Claude Johnson, a decade before he would create the Harolds Club mural from a Theodore McFall painting.The two major building east – (above) – that curved building were hangars and maintenance centers for the Clipper aircraft. The planes lacked landing gear; a ramp from Clipper Cove (near the present yacht harbor in this view) enabled them to be beached on a dolly and taken to the hangers.

BoeingClipperThe airport on Treasure Island never materialized – the island was used by the Navy for many years after its construction, and was turned over to San Francisco in 1996. A major rebuild of the island is in progress, with upgrades to the existing infrastructure and planned creation of many new residences, leaving many wondering how in the world access, which is limited in either direction off the Bay Bridge, will be affected.

And most importantly, my grandson Andy plays Little League (catcher) at a park on the east side of the island, with an absolutely grand view over the right field fence at the skyline of the Oakland hills!

Cruisin’ in our 1941 Chevy (with a 2018 link to another column at the end)

1941 ChevyAn old friend offered me a yellowed copy of a Nevada State Journal – “Nevada’s Only Morning and Sunday Newspaper,” according to the masthead. Since there’s some readers in town engaged in the current Hot August Nights nuttiness that drives sane people to live in the past, and since there’s readers who would actually pay good money today for a car with a flathead-6 engine, no heater, vacuum window wipers that died going up the California Avenue hill, a carb that needed choking before it would start and steered like a John Deere baler, then it follows that they might also enjoy reading some of what was happening in town when that same car was built, and retracing their car’s old path. The paper was interesting to me because it went to press the day I was born in Santa Barbara, six Sundays before Pearl Harbor. I left Cottage Hospital in a ’41 Chevy coupe. I remember it well.

  • • •

Perspective established, here we are seated now in our brand-new ’41 Chevy, a slick little car like a hundred others that will be in town seventy years later on a Saturday morning at a Show ‘n Shine or a Poker Run to Tahoe. There’s no drive-in theaters in Reno or Sparks yet, but a good choice of flicks, with the Sparks Theater; in Reno the Majestic that defied attempts at demolition 40 years later. Or the Wigwam near where many of us remember the Crest, and the Granada, the Reno, and the Tower –“Reno’s newest and smartest show house,” according to the ad. I didn’t know that; I did know that kids my age went to the Tower in droves on Saturdays for a morning of movies for 14¢ and an Old Home Milk bottle top. But I’ve written about that before, so we’ll keep driving.

Our date might want to stop by Hilp’s Drug Stores for a jar of Marie Earle’s Essential Cream for two bucks, this week only, on North Virginia Street in Reno (phone 6104) or 938 B Street in Sparks (333, free delivery.) Whatever essential cream is, it sounds important, a chick thing. Hilp’s was a great old store… R. Herz Jewelers was a block south of Hilp’s in Reno, Credit Available, wedding rings $7.50 to $300, “You can pay by the week or month.” They must know what they’re doing, they were “Established 1885”and still at it in 1940, [closing in 2007]. A little low on gas in the Chevy? Among other service stations in this paper, try Krieger’s, 14¢ a gallon, which is interesting, but the real item is the address, 111 West First Street – a service station near where the downtown parking garage is today at Sierra. Want a ride out into the country? Head out past the County Hospital on the Mill Street Road to the Reno Riding Stables, “also renting horses for the upcoming deer hunting season.” (The hospital would later be Washoe Med, finally Renown.)

Here’s an intriguing establishment: the Carlisle Bar & Service Station, corner of Wells and Second Street, and another, Dougherty’s, South Virginia and Mt. Rose Streets, featuring a bar, dancing, and Richfield Oil Products. Buying gas was once fun, apparently, beating the hell out of sitting in line at Costco. Lyons & Maffi Signal gas advertises its address at 1111 California Avenue and Granite Street; hearken back to past columns speaking of Sierra Street once being known as Granite. [The address is really 111, not as typoed at 1111. These old typos are what make nostalgia columnists crazy…and, the astute reader will note that that this is on the site of the Levy Mansion, detailed in another chapter.]

Ramos Drug was a favorite, first on the corner of Second and Virginia Streets, after 1952 at midblock between Hill and Flint Streets on California Avenue. Genial Bill Ramos was a great friend to many, and the interior of his drug stores looked like a soda fountain background for a Hot August Nights poster. In this particular newspaper the Ramos ad is for “the Bracer, the First Step Toward That Well-Dressed ‘Executive’ Look, to trim the waistline, pull in the stomach muscles, and eliminate the ‘bay-window’ for the vital, up-and-coming look.” (In my experience, the muscles aren’t the problem.) Two bucks for a Bracer, for the very few readers whom that might benefit, this week only at Ramos’. Cheaper than going to the gym.

Heading for the barn in this ride in our Chevy, we find a foreboding ad from John Whitmire Motors on South Virginia Street: a full half-page layout, depicting an Oldsmobile (with HydraMatic!), with a license plate lettered New 4-42 in the artwork. Why foreboding? Two reasons: Many years later, Olds would introduce a muscle car called a “4-4-2” – four-on-the-floor, four-barrel carburetor, and dual exhaust. That 4-4-2 thing was surely a coincidence that had nothing to do with the 1941 ad. But ponder this: The ad’s text reveals that the 4-42 plate was to indicate New for 1942.

Remember, this paper came out six Sundays before Pearl Harbor. Oldsmobile never made a ’42 model….

            [And it gets weirder: As I assemble this book, the last Olds ever are coming off the assembly line.]

© RGJ 1999

Here’s another old HAN piece, link added August 2018



An update and newer photo of the Black Mariah in the old Reno Rodeo parades

the restored Black Mariah


John: Here I am with the Black Mariah in 1980 in front of the Eldorado. I was the vice-president of the Reno Jaycees and the new winner of the Nevada Jaycee-of-the-Year award. We worked tirelessly all year putting the jail back together and getting the Mariah back in shape for this and many other events. The Reno Rodeo was our most fun event though. We gave out Reno Jaycee Rodeo garters for a $1 or more donation to get out of our fun jail. Everyone wanted to have their picture taken next to the Mariah or while they were in the jail. Our Kangaroo Court enlisted the help of anyone who wanted to enjoy the chance to be part of this fun event every year. We had as many as five thousand garters sold as a get out of jail donations to help many Reno/Sparks charities each year. During the Reno Rodeo Parade, we threw candy and pins to the crowds along Virginia Street and won Parade Honors annually for our contribution to the festivities. We even towed the Jail one year and had crowd volunteers jump in to be part of the parade, after which we gave them a garter for participating.

Responding to my request to reprint the photo: Yes, of course. The jail was in total disrepair and we bought the supplies to bring it back in 1979. We took it downtown that year with the help of my truck and parked it on Virginia Street in front of the Horseshoe Casino and then the next year began to move it to more events. I left the Jaycees in 1981 after six full years of service and a friend told me they had problems with getting a permit for the jail so they put it away in someone’s backyard. The Mariah had engine problems and was tough to keep cool after just a half hour on the Rodeo Parade route so we had lots of water which we added constantly to try to keep it running throughout the day. I think one of the guys tried to get it back in shape a few years later but it cost too much to bring back and so it was parked.

Check out John’s column for other interesting facts about Northern Nevada…

My column about all this is at


The Sparks Heritage Museum [pictures added Tuesday]

Museum older

xxxxxxxxxxx 016 xxxxxxxxxxx 017 xxxxxxxxxxx 013 xxxxxxxxxxx 014 xxxxxxxxxxx 015Over the years of writing these columns a number of truths have become evident, one of which is never write about irrigation ditches, churches, architects and railroads because one can research them all ’til hell won’t have them, and you’ll still be wrong. Another, ranking right up toward the top, is that Sparks, to Reno’s east, is a cool city, had the coolest chicks in Washoe County in 1959, has the best place to watch Hot August Nights revelry, has the Sparks Hometowne Parade with Santa every year, has the Farmers’ Market all summer, the Marina, the best (and biggest)) city manager in the lower-48 in Shaun Carey [when I wrote this originally], John Ascuaga need-we-say-more, and, a museum. Which Reno doesn’t. So I say to my Sparks buddies who rag on me for not writing about Sparks, read the chapters in my book about Ascuaga’s shark, (which is still thriving in San Francisco’s Steinhart Aquarium), about the Nugget flagpole sitter and about Sparks’ fire department – and one of their chiefs who died in the RENO 1948 Lake Street fire. I do write about Sparks. And a few weeks ago on this web a photo of a Sparks fireman and a link to the Man On The Bench, a column I wrote that I’m proud to say is in the FDNY’s firehouse that gave it all on 9/11. I like Sparks, and make no bones about it.

Ergo, whatever that means, this week we are going to learn more of Sparks’ museum – the Sparks Heritage Museum on Victorian Way, with great parking behind it and a thousand stories to tell, and most of them relevant to kid of all ages, and not just the ones growing up in Sparks.

I’ve written about the formation of the museum, of the guys like Carl Shelly and Tom Swart who got the thing going. And tonight as I write I’m betting that maybe we’ll get a few folks to go to the Rail City and enjoy the museum!

The museum, pictured above, is in an old county building that was originally built in 1931 for the Washoe County Library’s Sparks branch, note Harry Scheeline’s name on the plaque, Scheeline the hotshot banker of that era.  The little brick building, attributed to architect Frederic Delongchamps but I’m standing clear of that, became the Sparks Justice Court in 1966 – the domain of the legendary judge Jack Lamberti, one from the family of great Sparks residents spanning several generations, most of them railroaders.

The stuff in the museum is to some degree a story of railroading – from Sparks’ earliest heritage with photos and artifacts and hardware and displays of the tools of railroading, and ranks right up with the artifacts in the California State Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento. I would think that the Sacramento museum would give their eye-teeth for some of Sparks’ displays – and the close-up, hands-on presentation in Sparks. Check out the telegrapher, one of several displays in Sparks using mannequins. His desk probably mimics one in the Sparks of the 1900s. And the photos on the walls – one could take hours just looking at the artwork!

But it’s not all railroad – we’ll see some more railroad photos, like the clock that once was evident in downtown Sparks, a Ball clock that kept time with remarkable accuracy and was available in the window of W. R. Adams & Sons Jewelers on B Street – now Victorian Way – in Sparks.

The railroads of old prided themselves on timeliness, and a method of keeping time – prior to GPS systems and WWV short-wave transmissions – was the Ball clocks (“on the Ball!”). A trackie in Sacramento would look at the Ball clock in Sacramento prior to leaving over Donner Summit for Sparks, set his pocket watch, and get the Ball clock in Sparks “on the ball” (the Sacramento clock in turn had been reset by the same process to the Ball clock in Oakland.) Railroads insisted on a certain brand of watch with a specified dial pattern (trackies couldn’t vary from the Hamilton watch, and only in recent years has Seiko been accepted as a railroad-grade timepiece.)

Many Sparks businesses contributed liberally to the Heritage Museum; a barber chair from a B Street tonsorial artist and the Derby hanging on the rack and the barber-pole, still turnin’ – find another like that in our valley today (OK, Town Barbers has one…!)

The Sparks Heritage Museum is one of the best-kept secrets in the valley – its displays mimic not only the railroad heritage of Sparks, but the lifestyle of our towns in turn-of-the-20th Century, early photos of the Nugget, the agricultural endeavors around the area. They are volunteer-based, get no money from any governmental agencies and do one hell of a job. Next time you have friends in town, or kids that would like to see the way we were – the volunteers would love to show you around!

Next WordPress post, we’ll get closer to the story of the Sigma Nu house and the heiress who built it – join me then, have a good week, and God bless America…

Posted February 18, 2009

Read about Sparks Fire Department’s Guy on the Bench

Leave the driving to us

Bishop Manogue Bus copy

This column © 2001 Reno Gazette-Journal

A fortnight ago in a treatise about Stead AFB I noted that “…there was only one high school in Reno until 1961” and proceeded to recall that all the high school students in town could fit into two 66-passenger school buses.

            The remark endeared me to many a Manogue High School graduate, who called en masse to remind me that there was indeed a second high school in Reno in 1961 – their alma mater, then as now on a site just east of the University of Nevada campus. The thrust of what I was writing was that Reno High was the only school in Reno with a bus program. But, when life hands you a lemonade, a writer makes lemonade: In talking with one of the Manogue alums who was kidding me about my gaffe, Nancy Howell Spina, the topic of school buses inadvertently arose.

            Starting closer to the beginning, a word about Manogue, formally Bishop Manogue High School. The school’s name came from Bishop Patrick Manogue, who contributed to the education of miners’ children during the Comstock gold rush and was later the first bishop of the Sacramento Catholic diocese.   The school opened in 1947, in a couple of old barracks in a beautiful meadow at the old Flick ranch by the Truckee River near the present southeast McCarran Boulevard (it’s now utilized by Sage Winds school). Within a decade it had grown and was relocated to a campus near the University of Nevada in 1957. Manogue’s new campus is south of town by Zolezzi Lane. (Arrowcreek Drive, to the newcomers.)

            Nancy told me that a bus made the loop around Reno picking up Manogue students to transport to the school’s original location, which back then you had to pack a lantern and a lunch to drive to. “A bus, you say?” I asked. “A bus,” she replied. There I was prepared to get myself off a hook by saying that Manogue never had a school bus system and get myself into yet-another jam. But you read it here first: Bishop Manogue High School indeed had a school bus system, in the 1940s. There were two high schools in Reno in 1960. Finally, we wish Manogue’s leadership well in completing their new campus.

• • •

On the topic of schools, Reno High School Alumni Club honcho Joe Granata tells of a bit of school apparatus that has been around longer that it might appear. There’s a strong probability that the flagpole at Wooster High, which spoiled Reno High’s place as the only PUBLIC! High school in Reno when it opened in 1961, was the same pole that was originally installed in the front courtyard of the Reno High School on Fifth and West Streets in 1913. (I almost wrote “the original high school”, which it wasn’t.) Take a look at the flagpole next time you’re traveling down East Plumb Lane past Wooster – that baby’s been around for a long time.

            Now, I’ll solicit some reader help, maybe from Dale Sanderson, Washoe County School District’s great facilities manager: I think, but have never been able to prove, that the scoreboard that originally clocked basketball games in the old Reno High (later serving as Central Junior High) gymnasium, was later relocated to Vaughn Middle School on Vassar Street near Kietzke. It’s a classic scoreboard/timer with a revolving hand, not the contemporary 00:00 electric numerals – the words I’m groping for might be analog and digital. Last I saw it it was hanging unused in the Vaughn gym, alongside a modern digital scoreboard. It might be nice – if it is indeed the old Reno High gym clock – to relocate it to the Reno High Alum Center on Booth Street someday, or at the least be aware of its heritage and not trash it as pre-WWII junk.

• • •


Flyin’ with Ty Cobb on Air Force One…



Off to San Francisco for the weekend?  Let’s see; reservations on Lombard Street for a couple of nights, done; a call ahead to see if the kids are available for a visit, check; pick a couple of joints for dinner in the Marina and the Buena Vista for eggs Benedict, easy; gas up the pickup, or the ragtop? – let’s see what the weather is the morning we leave.  No sweat – we’ve done it all before; let’s not complicate our weekend.

            But instead of a couple, let’s plan a trip four hundred close friends from the Beltway, this one a little further in advance.  We’re off to Geneva, the one in Switzerland, and instead of the kids we’re meeting the heads of state of a half-dozen world powers so we better bring an interpreter or a half dozen.  We’ll start five months in advance and make reservations for our group in five Geneva hotels – reserving rooms on a onesy-twosy basis is burdensome so we won’t mess around – let’s just book the whole Maison de Saussere, the Fleur de Eau and three more for a week or so.  Better get a hundred rooms a little early ‘cause we’re sending some guys over to make sure the accommodations are up to snuff and to scope out the traffic.  And, White House chefs to check out the bill of fare in the restaurants we’ll be eating at.  We don’t want to get POTUS or FLOTUS heading for the Tums when they get back to their rooms.  POTUS, of course, is the President of the United States; FLOTUS the First Lady O-T-U-S, but you figured that out (we’ll have a couple of American doctors with their own instruments unit and extensive medications aboard, just in case the food or a health issue gets too gnarly.)

            A word about where my mind was when I strung all this together on a dismal evening: My old childhood buddy, later Sigma Nu frat brother Ty Cobb the Younger has been speaking around our village about his life and times as a National Security Council advisor to President Ronald Reagan, and writes a fine column of his own in the Gazoo every now and then.  At breakfast at the Gold-n-Silver last week I told him that I abhor anything political, but getting President Reagan to a world leaders’ Summit conference, of which Ty went to four, now there would be a fine column through a Homefinder’s eyes.  Ty loaned me the weighty three-volume White House planning document for a November 1985 Summit, in which his name appears liberally – T. Cobb – and I can even tell you from the documents, if asked, where he rode in Marine One helicopter from the White House to Andrews AFB (right next to C. Powell).  That’s how intricate the trip planning for these sojourns was and probably remains.  In one volume, the American delegation leaving a formal dinner at a Swiss mansion with other heads of state is assigned, from POTUS on down to the Official Photographer, which of the three elevators in this palace they will be riding in, and who will board and disembark the elevators first and last.  Leave nothing to chance, as John Ascuaga counsels us.

Bags fly free

            The planning document volumes are made available in advance to the participants of the trip – White House staff, the military branches involved, the State Department, Secret Service, press – and contain an incredibly intricate, virtually minute-by-minute itinerary of the four-day trip. A facility at Andrews AFB was clearly indicated, with an arrival time at some God-awful hour of the morning.  That many folks have a lot of luggage and it appears that unless one lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue most schlepped their own bags, with instructions to leave them open – they were inspected before loading (T. Cobb always opted for carry-on).  From that point their walking route to which airplane – AF One or the several support planes – was mapped.  According to Ty, the most salient issue for the whole trip for most was not some vast life-changing worldwide issue being debated by the heads of state of the world powers at the Summit, but who got to get there on Air Force One.  Ty flew aboard it on many occasions to several Summits, a thrill he likens only to driving the Vagabond Touring Association’s ’34 Ford school bus, uninvited, into Kezar Stadium during an East-West Shrine Game in his college days. I recall that Saturday also. Gingerly…

The limousines arrive in a C-5B

The volumes held drawings of the eleven venues and hotels for the Summit, both of their interiors floor-by-floor and topographic drawings of their exteriors and driveways, including vegetation that could block a photographer’s view or conceal an assassin.  Walking routes the delegation will take within a ballroom or disembarking Air Force One at Cointrin Airport in Geneva – who leaves by the front steps or through the aft door – are clearly delineated.  Where the limousines and vans (hauled in by a C-5B prior to the delegation’s arrival) will be parked by Air Force One and the support planes and who will ride in each, where the honor guard meeting the President and First Lady would stand; the locations available to photographers, and the route the motorcade would use to depart the airfield are clear, and according to Ty that’s the way it had to be, period.  Some of the documents weren’t classified; it’s a pretty safe bet that other, tighter Secret Service maps showed routes to a designated hospital and other security protocol.  Interestingly, one sticking point that had to be worked out was whether Secret Service agents could carry their firearms in neutral Switzerland.  I don’t know the eventual outcome of that negotiation and wouldn’t ask.  And, the planning volumes indicated Air Force One by its tail number 26000, the Boeing 707 in use then – parked alongside the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Cal. now is 27000, the last 707 used as Air Force One. 

The event times during the four-day summit?  Leave us not forget that Geneva is a bunch of time zones ahead of any of the four in the US of A. and in the final evaluation these ritualistic and formal handshakes between eight world powers weren’t being choreographed just to go on live TV in some morning between “Regis Live” and “General Hospital” – prime time is the operative word for live formal events at a Summit and some of them were some pretty strange hours of the day in Geneva.

The three volumes were a thought-provoking read of the highest level of worldwide statesmanship, and Ty’s first-hand insight brought to light some facets of such a trip one would never think about without his narration.  Thanks, Tyrus…

Have a good week; summer’s right around the corner, trust me, and God bless America!


© Reno Gazette Journal  Jan. 10, 2006



The 1949 Haylift


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, 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 180 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. 

A turkey lays an egg


The non-sensical piece that follows has run innumerable times, usually proximate to Thanksgiving, in the Gazoo when I wrote those columns, on my website when I had it years ago, and a couple times in the SF Chronicle when I sent it in (I didn’t really write it; I merely stole it from someone who told it in a joke and turned it into a news story.) It may be true, or not. The photo is a vintage British airliner, a Comet made by the forerunners of the Airbus consortium. A friend asked me over the weekend, are we going to read that stupid turkey story again? Yes you are; here it is. Maybe the next post will be of some substance. Or not. Happy Thanksgiving to All!

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Early in the maturation of jet airliners, British aircraft engineers, addressing the dilemma of strengthening pilots’ windscreens against bird-strikes at low altitude, think a Canadian honker vs. a FedEx Airbus getting together over Peckham Lane after takeoff. They knew the United States had much experience with this matter and contacted some Southern California aeronautical engineers, who supplied plans for a rudimentary catapult that hurled a standard, store-bought turkey at a test windshield at a calculated velocity for analysis.

            The British guys fashioned a catapult, and soon after sent the Yanks photos of a test cockpit with the windshield shattered, the pilot’s headrest in smithereens, a gaping hole in the bulkhead behind the pilot’s head and the flight engineer’s console behind that bulkhead totally demolished. Other photos depicted another huge hole aft of the console in the next bulkhead separating it from the crew lavatory, which was also trashed.

            A few weeks later, the Brits received a telegram from the Americans: “Next time, thaw the turkey.”


If you’re after the Thanksgiving flood story, click here