Thursday, November 14, 2013

Miami and the Airplanes

YC-125 Raider - AFM - 355-10 Aircraft Recognition Manual (1955)
Ever see a YC-125 Raider? Believe me, you have to be an aviation enthusiast to even know what I'm talking about. Most people will probably flip to their free eBook downloads right about here, but I got to see the rare airplane in flight, and not just one. I watched a squadron of the odd, bent wing propeller driven tri-motors as they headed slowly southwest out of Miami, one by one. It was one afternoon back in the late fifties as I stopped and watched the odd procession of the slow, noisy airplanes. I learned later Northrop only built twenty-three of the strange, fixed-gear airplane. On that odd day, I unknowingly watched the majority of the surplus airplanes as they slowly headed toward Central America and from there, who knows.

I once saw a famous World War Two P-38 Lightning land at Miami International Airport, and remember seeing countless P-51 Mustangs, B-25's, B-26s, and even Navy PBY Catalinas as they either took off or landed at Miami. The P-38 was a photo-reconnaissance model, used to map uncharted land in South America. The P-51's were mostly used as personal sports planes or as air-racers. Several of the B/A 26 invaders were used as executive aircraft. They were the precursors to today's Learjets and Gulfstreams. They were common in the fifties as jets had yet to find their way into commercial aviation.

The Miami airport terminal was located on NW 36th Street back then, between the Eastern Airlines hangars on LeJeune Road and Pan American Airway's complex near Curtiss Parkway. The current, huge Miami International terminal complex was still to be envisioned.

There were several aviation firms further along 36th Street, west of the Pan Am hangars, that converted old World War II bombers and fighters for use as personal aircraft, or for some other peculiar use such as agricultural spraying. Several larger firms like L.B. Smith did repair and service work for several Central and South American air forces. Those air forces were built mainly from American war surplus sales, so we got to see a wide variety of vintage combat or transport aircraft flying in and out that today would be on display at aviation museums. In fact, many are.

We saw one of the old combat airplanes on a daily basis one summer, and we got to see it a lot closer than most people. It was only twenty feet above us as it sped over at 160 miles an hour. If we were still in bed in the early pre-dawn hours, it would scare the living daylights out of us. A World War Two vintage, four-engine B-17 bomber was used to spray Malathion against Mediterranean Fruit Flies back in the summer of 1956. It would come over just at daybreak, and my brother and I would scramble out of the house so we could watch it as it made its return pass as it sprayed our neighborhood, and of course, us, too, as we numbly stood and watched the massive airplane roar directly overhead. The first time we watched it fly over, it clipped the very tips of the Australian pine trees that lined the canal behind our house. My mom picked up several of the clipped tops to show my dad when he got home from work.

They also used an old C-82 Boxcar, the predecessor to the C-119 to spray against the Medflies. We were sprayed by it only once as I recall. It was slower and flew just as low, but it was not nearly as impressive as the fast, incredibly loud, intimidating B-17 Flying Fortress.

We saw a massive, four engine flying boat, a Martin Mars, that was anchored one weekend just off the Rickenbacker Causeway on our way to Crandon Park. It would have been impossible to count the Lodestars and C-46s that continually flew over the house headed for Central or South America while we were growing up in West Miami. Miami was a unique place for an avid aviation-struck teenager.

I saw my first F-86 Sabre as it did a high-speed pass down the north runway at Miami International Airport during an airshow back in the fifties, and got to tour the beautiful turbo-prop Britannia as it stopped in Miami on a world tour. We regularly saw Navy Panther jets, and later the swept-winged Cougars that replaced them at Opa Locka Naval Air station.

Our evenings watching television were often interrupted for several minutes at a time as the massive, 10-engine B-36 bombers laboriously climbed out over south Florida, heading from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa to places unknown. The house, and just about anything in it, would vibrate until the plodding, undeterred noise makers were well out over the Atlantic Ocean. 

We saw big C-124 Globemasters, known to the drivers who flew them as “Old Shaky,” as they arrived at Miami International Air Depot from Ramey Air Force Base in Puerto Rico, and the KC-97 tankers that often lined the apron at the Air Force Reserve Depot, MIAD, along with the search and rescue amphibian Albatrosses. I even saw an Albatross do a RATO takeoff from Miami, a training flight that awed everyone who saw it. RATO was Rocket Assisted Take-Off, where rockets attached to the back of the airplane were ignited to help lift the propeller-driven airplane out of rough seas. The huge smoke cloud drifted off across perimeter road, probably causing unknowing drivers to think a catastrophe of some sort had taken place. The Air Force reserve unit stationed there unit had C-119 Flying Boxcars that were a standard sight at MIAD, They were also famous for being low, slow, and very noisy.

I was fortunate enough to have been a cadet member of the Civil Air Patrol in the late fifties, and one day while visiting nearby Homestead Air Force Base, we watched as the entire Strategic Air Command Wing of B-47 jet bombers deployed to Zaragoza, Spain. We watched as bomber after bomber after bomber took off in rapid succession headed for mid-air refueling somewhere over the Atlantic. It took a solid 45 minutes to get them all off the ground. We watched a similar deployment a year or two later after the Wing had converted to the huge eight-engined B-52 bomber. Again, the massive display of airpower had to be seen to be believed. Most of us were simply awestruck.

A good friend of mine, Jim Coleman, also stood and watched. We were not just engrossed, we were enthralled; we were going to be part of the Air Force, that was our common goal. Jim, later a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, was killed in 1969 when the T-33 he was a passenger in crashed at Mountain Home, Idaho. In the eight years I served active duty in the U.S. Air Force, I only flew once on an Air Force airplane.

Civil Air Patrol Honor Guard - 1961 Jr. Orange Bowl Parade, Miami, Fl
 Jim Coleman, center, Don "Dean" Mindling on right
Photo courtesy of Mrs Glen Mindling

One of our favorite family outings back in the fifties was to drive over to MacArthur Causeway, the man-made strip of highway connecting Miami to the Island city of Miami Beach, made by dredging Government Cut, and watch the Goodyear blimp. We sat on blankets on Watson Island, the first island in the causeway, and watched the Goodyear blimp as it took visitors for rides over Miami and Biscayne Bay. I still remember the name of one of the blimps; the Mayflower. There were twin-engine seaplanes, or more correctly, amphibians, that landed in the water behind us, and then taxied up on the shore of the island. They flew to and from exotic sounding places like Bimini and Freeport. For my fiftieth birthday, my wife and I flew one of Chalk's seaplanes from Watson Island to Bimini, just to spend the day and finally fly on one of the seaplanes.

Government Cut today is home to a fleet of monstrous cruise ships. There were no huge cruise ships dominating the port in the fifties. The old docks in downtown Miami simply handled cargo ships and freighters, while Pier 5 was home to the tourist boat fleet, such as the Jungle Queen that still plied the Miami River as far up as the Musa Isle Indian Village. Today, Pier 5 is just a memory and that area is a tourist Mecca called Bayside.

Later, in 1965, I shipped a Volkswagen from Antwerp, Belgium, to the P&O dock at Miami's Pier 2. The Port of Miami hadn't changed much by then, but today, the Miami Heat professional basketball team plays its home games at the American Airlines Arena just yards from where the old docks used to be. Miami's Bicentennial Park now takes up the rest of the old port.

The Goodyear blimp became quite a local sensation when it began flying at night back then, its sides blazoned with scrolling white lights that became a silent, floating billboard for Goodyear. The blimp would show up over heavily congested areas at night and everyone would stop and watch as it slowly floated overhead. It once circled the nearby Tropicaire Drive-in theater and slowly passed directly over our house on its way back toward downtown Miami. I was about fourteen years old, and foolishly ran into the house and grabbed my grandmother's emergency flashlight, one of those big, industrial types so bright that you could probably see it from the moon. [My Grandmother, Laura Mindling, was a press operator for Ford Motor Company at River Rouge and built B-24 bombers at Willow Run during the 2nd World War]  

Dean, my younger brother, and I ran out into our dark front yard, aimed the flashlight at the blimp and turned the flashlight on and off to signal dot-dot-dot dash-dash-dash dot-dot-dot. That's three short flashes, followed by three long flashes, then three more short flashes, or as it is known everywhere in the world: SOS, the international distress signal. The blimp throttled back and slowly turned back toward us. It came lower and it turned on its landing light to illuminate our front yard. I panicked and ran for the house with my younger brother right behind me. My mom, laughing so hard she could hardly stand up, walked into the center of the front yard and with a big smile, waved at the blimp. It was almost on top of us by then, it looked like it was going to land. He turned off the landing light and slowly headed back toward Miami. My mom and dad, usually with a drink in their hands, ragged me about that incident for the rest of their lives.

Miami was indeed a unique place for a teenage aviation enthusiast to grow up. Aviation was still growing up then as well.


WWW said...

It was a sad day when the blimp moved up the coast. The blimp used to travel north during hurricane season and one of the crew told me thay would find bullet holes and arrows in the skin when it landed. There was only 1/2 lb difference in the internal pressure and the outside pressure so no real damage was done.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Hialeah and most of my friends fathers worked for the airlines. Well known names like Eastern, National and Pan Am, all long gone now. Most of the blue collar workers lived in Hialeah while most of the pilots and executives lived, as we used to say, "on the other side of the canal" in Miami Springs. Many fond memories!