Since my dad was born late at night in a sod hut with no clocks on the Cherokee Strip of Oklahoma Territory in 1895, the family wasn't sure if the date was March 31 or April 1. They opted for March 31, thereby sparing the newborn a lifetime or April Fool jokes. So today he would have been 122 years of age. Not a lot of us who are more or less still breathing have a dad born in the 19th Century, even those of us well past Medicare eligibility, but I'm not nearly as unique as he was. Here's a requiem of his life I wrote four years ago:
In 1978 I was working in a Los Angeles office when my mother called from New Mexico to say my father was dying. “You better come now. He’s going,” she said. The man was 83 years old and in poor health. I had been expecting my mother’s call. I muttered my assent, closed the office door, put my head down on a desk and wept. An elderly secretary brought me half of her lunchtime sandwich, her consoling kindness only provoking more tears.
That night I was in a half empty Boeing 727 which seemed to whisper thorough the desert sky en route to Albuquerque as passengers dozed in the dimly lit cabin. I was thinking of other flights, the ones of my childhood in Alaska when I rode with my dad when he flew mail, freight and people to villages along the Kuskokwim and Yukon Rivers down to the Bering Sea. His airplanes didn’t whisper. They roared and rumbled like angry gods.
My ears would ring for hours after a flight in dad’s Bellanca, Waco and Stinson powered by thundering Pratt & Whitney engines. Sometimes I sat in the still warm pilot’s seat after a flight, listening to the metallic click and tink of heat stresses working out of the engine while an unseen gyroscope in the instrument panel whirred to an eventual stop, the ringing in my ears adding a musical note to a cadenza of cooling machinery.
That was in the late 1940s and dad was not a young man. He was 54 when he married my mother and later adopted me after my mother was confident the marriage would last.
He’d had quite an airborne career by that time. The number on his airman’s certificate was #712. Orville Wright had been issued #1. Dad dropped out of dental school at Baylor University in 1918 to join the Aviation Section of Army Signal Corps, then the nation’s air arm. The war ended before dad could fight the Hun, but he did manage to keep Oklahoma and Texas safe from the Kaiser’s army.
After the war he bought a surplus Army trainer known as a Jenny, the nickname of Curtiss Aircraft’s JN-4 trainer, and sold rides at county fairs all over the south and midwest. By 1925 he had accumulated enough experience to qualify as a test pilot for Swallow Aircraft, which was building an early version of the flying wing, an ahead of its time airplane the German Luftwaffe copied when designing a rocket powered fighter late in WW2.
Swallow sold its assets to Clyde Cessna, William T. Piper and Olive Ann Beech 1927. Dad went to work for Ford Airways in Dearborn, Michigan, where he flew Ford Tri-motors between the midwest and New York. Then Ford got out of the airline business and sold its airplanes to other carriers, but by that time dad was off to other adventures, which eventually led him to South America and later Alaska -- after a failed attempt to make a solo flight from Seattle to Tokyo in 1932.
Please forgive a digression. During dad’s stint with Ford Airways, Henry Ford himself took New York office supply manufacturer Jim Rand of Remington Rand for an airplane ride with dad as the pilot. Rand was in the market for a Tri-Motor as a present to his wife, the equivalent of giving a spouse her own jumbo jet today. Rand bought a Tri-motor and hired dad to fly it, but Rand’s wife, who was not well, died the very day dad delivered the airplane to New York’s Roosevelt Field on Long Island.
About that time a man named Ralph O’Neill, and his friend and former Harvard roommate Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, approached Rand to invest in an international airline they were starting. The proposed company would fly a route from New York to South America and be named NYRBA Lines, an acronym for New York-Rio-Buenos Aires Lines. Rand became a backer. Dad was sent to Buenos Aires as NYRBA’s chief pilot for its South American operations.
Prior to going to South America, dad was sent on a tour of the U.S. in a Tri-motor to publicize the safety of air travel by giving elected officials, reporters and famous people who attracted reporters along for a ride, Will Rogers and Amelia Earhart among them. The publicity paid off. NYRBA got its charter, a mail contract, and flourished until 1930. That year, in a series of political machinations with the postmaster general -- in short, bribes -- competing Pan American World Airways nabbed the mail contract and forced NYRBA into a shotgun marriage, offering dad a job as lowly copilot where he had once been the boss. The postmaster general was later indicted for accepting payoffs, but the damage had been done to NYRBA Lines.
Dad declined the Pan Am offer and took flying jobs here and there until 1932. That year he attempted to fly non-stop from Seattle to Tokyo for $25,000 put up by the city of Seattle and Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper as a prize. He was even given a gold watch to present to Emperor Hirohito.
Fate had other plans. His airplane crashed during an attempt at air-to-air fueling over Puget Sound, as Boeing Field was not long enough to permit a takeoff with the amount of fuel his airplane needed for the transpacific flight. The plan was to take off with his tanks half full with the rest being supplied by another airplane in flight.
He carried a helper named Edward Muldowney in the back of the cockpit to handle the weighted hose from the fueling airplane flying above. Once the transfer was completed, Muldowney was to bail out, as the flight was supposed to be a solo effort.
Both planes made two successful practice flights, but the third ended in disaster when the fueling hose snagged the tail of dad's airplane and yanked it off, causing the overloaded aircraft to roll over and fall apart in midair. Dad and Muldowney parachuted out. They were picked up by a boat as the wreckage sank to the bottom of Elliot Bay, along with Hirohito’s gold watch.
After a brief hospitization, Dad recovered and bought a one of a kind all metal airplane called a Thaden T-2 and sought his fortune in Alaska. Fate again intervened in the winter of 1933. The Thaden was wrecked when its skis struck a snow covered log on landing in Chitina, Alaska, bending the airframe beyond repair. The fuselage was recovered in the 1980s by retired Eastern Airlines captain William Thaden, the son of the manufacturer, and is now on display at the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos, California.
Dad found the wherewithal to buy a Waco (pronounced walk-oh) YKS and flew bush routes out of Valdez, Fairbanks, Anchorage and Bethel during the late 30s and early 40s, which is where he was based when he married my mother.
It was his fourth marriage. “I am the fourth and final Mrs. Nat Browne,” my mother announced. “Please, honey,” dad responded. “You make the future sound so dull.”
The marriage lasted 35 years through thick and thin economic times, mostly thin. There was a government contract to map potential radar sites in Alaska for the Air Force during the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, a mining venture that bankrupted him, a heart attack, and his final employment in a foundry owned by his son-in-law in the Los Angeles area. He’d had a daughter and a son by a previous marriage. The boy was killed during the 1920s when a car struck the bicycle has riding. My step-sister was my mother’s age and had two kids of her own. This made me an uncle by default the moment I was adopted. Some uncle. My niece was two years older than me. My nephew was my age and could beat me up, and did.
Dad made his final flight in 1958 when selling the last of his airplanes, a Piper Super Cub, an aircraft light enough to glide a considerable distance in the hands of skilled pilot if the engine quit. His engine did quit three times during that flight, forcing dad to land on river sand bars each time. Dad traced the cause to particles of dirt that had clogged the vented caps of the two gas tanks in the wings, creating a vacuum that stopped the flow of fuel.
“See there? I learned something new on my very last flight,” he cautioned me when I was learning to fly and had more confidence than sense. He also gave me the most valuable counsel I’d ever received about flying when I was complaining about an airplane that was difficult to control: “The worse the airplane, the better the pilot.”
The 727 began a gradual descent approaching Albuquerque. The whoosh of air over the fuselage diminished. The fasten seat belt sign blinked on. Flight attendants turned up the cabin lights and patrolled the aisle making sure passengers were buckled in. Sleeping passengers awoke and stirred as the jet bounced on landing.
I was met at the airport by a neighbor of my parents who drove me to their mobile home in Santa Fé, sixty miles away. Mom was in no shape for the drive. “Your father died,” the neighbor said the moment he met me.
“He likes spreading bad news,” mom later explained. So I noticed. Glad I could I could make someone’s day. Anyway, I was emotionally a zero by that time. Numb.
Sometimes I believe in an afterlife, sometimes I don’t. If there is one, I hope there are airplanes in it, and fathers to fly them.
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Thank you for sharing this with me. Wonderful piece. -- Kaanii
Mike, I have always loved this story about your dad and his flying excapades. One day maybe you'll write about the miner who kept "tinking" your little metal hat with stones. I've always enjoyed your stories, and even your mother's memories, starting from the time you would read them to me over the phone.-- Shannon
The hat pinging occurred when i was working at a mining operation in western Alaska dad leased after he quit flying commercially. I had to wear an aluminum hat around heavy equipment. One of the guys on the crew like to ping pebbles off it. We were easily amused at that camp.
Loved this, ty for sharing -- Julisari
Very well done. Thank you for sharing.-- Bob G.
Thanks... always love your stories about your mom and dad. -- Sum
Thanks... always love your stories about your mom and dad. -- Sum
Thanks for the piece you sent today. Your writing is stunning, the detail so important in painting the picture of great memories. I am sorry for the loss of both of our fathers, but I am infinitely grateful for my being able to remember so many wonderful times. These memories make their absence. -- Zoey