Sunday, July 29, 2012

In Grateful Memory

Sgt. Justin M.Hansen (U.S. Marine Corps), 26, Kingsley, Michigan.  Killed by a gunshot while checking a house for enemies in Badghis  Province, Afghanistan, July 24, 2012.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Crimes without Punishment

Of course, we have no guarantee life will be fair, but sometimes distinctions between illegal and merely bad public behavior are ludicrous.

It is illegal to let your pig run free in Detroit unless it has a ring in its nose. That outdated ordinance most likely was enacted because pigs unhampered by ring jobs harmed people other than their owners.  In their ringless state, pigs greedily root around for food in gardens and lawns, causing considerable property damage—enough damage so early Detroiters decided the activity needed to be declared criminal.

In contrast, it is not illegal in Michigan to conspire to fix an election.  One might think such activities do great damage to society, and thus would be unlawful. But Michigan politicians greedily pursuing electoral victories by fraudulent means are breaking no laws.

This sad situation came to light recently when news media publicized activities by Michigan House Speaker Jase Bolger and Representative Roy Schmidt.  Both now are Republicans, but when their well-documented misdeeds began Schmidt was a Democrat and Bolger carried the GOP banner.  This is what they did:

Bolger helped persuade Schmidt, a long-time Grand Rapids Democrat and a four-year member of the House, to change parties.  No problem with that. It is perfectly legal and ethical.

However, the two conspired to withhold the announcement of Schmidt’s conversion until near the deadline for candidates to file for the November election. Then a fake candidate was recruited to file as Schmidt’s Democratic Party opponent.

Schmidt’s son offered to pay an acquaintance, Matt Mojzak, $450 to enter the race.  They agreed that Mojzak would make no effort to campaign.  His job was to merely fill a spot on the ballot, which would limit any competition from serious Democrats to write-in efforts. Mojzak withdrew, even though the fee offer had been increased to $1,000, when he learned state police were investigating the situation.

The investigation resulted in an eight-page report by Kent County Prosecutor Bill Forsyth. Forsyth said, “Incredibly, while it would be illegal to pay a boxer to take a ‘dive” or a basketball player to ‘point shave,’ it is not currently a crime in Michigan to recruit someone to run for public office, place them on the ballot at the ‘eleventh hour’ and essentially pay them to make no effort to win. This scheme by Rep. Schmidt and Speaker Bolger was clearly designed to undermine the election and to perpetrate a fraud.”

“As a Republican elected official, I am embarrassed and offended by what transpired,” Forsyth said.

Schmidt admits he did wrong and regrets his actions.  Bolger doesn’t even do that.  He admits only to “political gamesmanship” and losing sight of the need to focus on serving the people rather than manipulating elections.

What penalty will the two miscreants suffer?  Probably, none. Although political opponents called for their immediate resignations, both men and their supporters said they will stay in office and urged voters to judge them on their total records.

In a display of journalistic cowardice, our local newspaper concluded editorially that the conspirators should be “judged by the voters.” That hardly is likely to result in any punishment at all.

As things stand, Schmidt is running unopposed in the November election. A quickly organized, heavily funded write-in campaign would be needed to defeat him, which probably will not be possible.  Bolger represents a district so safe he would have to commit a really heinous crime to be defeated in future elections.

Couldn’t we at least require them to wear rings in their noses while we hold ours?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

An Incorrect Weather Assessment

When we contemplated moving from our long-time Utah home to southwestern Michigan we of course considered weather among other factors.

In Michigan’s favor, we listed:

1.  Much higher and more frequent rainfall means we won’t have to worry about watering lawns or most plants.

2. Lower summer temperatures will give us more hours to enjoy the outdoors.

Oh, yeah?

From June 1 to the 22nd, a time when frequent rains usually help plants grow vigorously, our total rainfall has been 2.83 inches.  That’s equivalent to one serious day of rain.

From June 22 until last night we’ve had nothing at all that could be classified as rain—just a few drops from occasional little thunderstorms.

Throughout the whole period, temps have consistently reached the high nineties.  Tuesday the high was 101. Humidity around 75 percent made it a truly unpleasant day.

Yesterday, things cooled off to a mere 90 in the shade.  After last night’s light little rain, we’re going to enjoy 80 degree temps for about two days. Then we enter the fearsome Dog Days of Summer, which last until mid-August, traditionally the hottest and driest time of the year.

One consolation: We don’t have to mow the lawn.  The grass stopped growing  three weeks ago.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Tri-Motor Adventures

The tail tag confirmed our plane was N8419
When pilot Cody Welch activated the starter for the nose engine of the 1929 Ford Tri-motor at the start of our flight this week at Air Zoo, it reminded me of the rasping sound of the starter used to get my first automobile going.  Coincidentally, that first car was a 1929 Model A Ford.

The two Ford products manufactured in the same year had some other similarities.  Both featured relatively simple systems that were quite easy to repair, both were somewhat boxy, solidly built, rugged machines, and both had received numerous updates by the time I got involved with them.  The differences were perhaps equally important.   

My old Model A chugged along, coughed often, and stalled occasionally due to neglected maintenance and the poor driving skills of the inexperienced owner.  After Welch started the left Tri-motor engine and then the right, and allowed plenty of warm up time, the three Pratt and Whitney engines operated smoothly. Throughout our half-hour flight from Kalamazoo-Battle Creek Airport the N 8419 engines performed like machinery guided by an expert and cared for by dedicated mechanics.

Welch easily fits in the expert category.  When he welcomed the 10 passengers after all were aboard, I asked, “How many times have you done this?” The answer was “5,000.”

Lee Klade learned walks in boarding bridges aren't needed to enter a tri-motor--just duck your head and step right in
After we landed, Welch and our co-pilot graciously stayed beside the plane talking with son Lee and me until just minutes before their next flight.  Welch knew a lot about tri-motors generally, and N8419 specifically.

Mechanics gave N8419 lots of TLC during recent years.  After 10 years of carrying passengers at Air Zoo, corrosion problems caused the plane to be grounded.  During a long-running reconstruction project the aircraft was literally taken apart and reassembled with many new or improved parts.  Work was performed in an Air Zoo hangar and at a facility in Alma, Michigan.

You can get an insider’s look at the tri-motor by visiting
There a mechanic who worked on the reconstruction project has posted photos of various stages in the process and added his comments. As a bonus, you can watch a video of the first flight of the “new” N8419 in 2009 and see how the cockpit and passenger area look today. A mechanic who calls the machine he is working on “the old sweetheart” obviously is dedicated to quality work.

In addition to a lot of updated components, N8419 has a new role. It is owned by Air Zoo, but is not a permanent resident. It is leased to the Experimental Aircraft Association, a large organization of aviation enthusiasts based in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.  Like other historic aircraft maintained by EAA, the tri-motor appears at air shows and also travels to selected sites to offer rides.  So far this year, N8419 has flown in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan. It will be available for rides again at Air Zoo for several days in August.

At a pre-boarding briefing an Air Zoo volunteer told us we could expect our ride to be fairly noisy and just a little bit bumpy. With a broad grin, he said, “We don’t provide air conditioning, but you won’t need it, anyway.”

Our host then said, “Every seat has its own window and every one is an aisle seat, so you won’t have anything to argue about. Just take a seat.” This and his earlier statements proved to be correct. His last statement was a bit of an exaggeration: “You’ll fly low and get great views of the area. If the plane goes over your house and your neighbor is cooking out, you’ll be able to tell if he’s grilling hotdogs or hamburgers.”

The noise level increased as we accelerated down the runway. We gained altitude quickly after lift off, something tri-motors are good at. The ability to ascend and descend rapidly and sturdy landing gear were major assets when the planes began flying in the 1920s.  Long, paved runways were rare and they did not become common for many years.

Our flight did stay “low and slow.”  We traveled at altitudes of about 1,000 feet at speeds around 90 mph.  Pretty tame stuff compared to long-distance cruising at 30,000 feet in today’s speedy jetliners.  But I liked traveling at the slow pace and low altitude.  There was a definite feeling we were experiencing airline flying as it was in its infancy.

I didn’t see amateur cooks flipping hamburgers, but we were treated to great views. As we flew over downtown Kalamazoo every building could be easily identified.  That also was true when we peered down at the Western Michigan University campus. Streets, vehicles, boat docks, and other features of the community were seen clearly.

As advertised, parts of the ride were a little bumpy when the plane encountered changing air patterns.  I thought the small jolts were merely annoying.  I’ve flown in many big commercial liners where the going was much rougher.  In fact, as we progressed I got used to the occasional bumps and forgot all about them. I was only one seat from the cockpit and could see small adjustments being made to keep the plane flying smoothly.

Lee and I agreed that the noise level also was not much of a negative.  The three engines were loud enough to interfere with normal conversation.  Yet it was possible to exchange comments with fellow passengers simply by speaking up.  We thought the noise, as well as the little bumps, contributed to the experience.

One update might have helped hold the noise levels below those reported by old-time tri-motor passengers.  All the original corrugated aluminum that covered N 8419’s fuselage has been replaced by new panels of an improved type of aluminum alloy.  We didn’t hear any noises generated by the exterior covering.

Every passenger did have a window, and every window had a small plastic circle that could be opened easily to let air in.  The pilot and co-pilot opened cockpit windows, and air from them flowed back into the passenger area.  Backwash from the two wing-mounted engines increased the airflow through our window vents.  The combined effect was a pleasant temperature in the plane throughout the flight, and it was a late afternoon trip on a warm sunny day.  The tri-motor had a “green” air conditioning system!

I’ve flown in enough smaller aircraft to know that smooth takeoffs are routine, but landing is a whole different thing.  N8419 hit one of those little air bump glitches just as we were about to touch down.  The right wheel made contact a tad early.  I observed Cody Welch fix that with a deft flick of his wrist. He straightened us out perfectly.  I gave the landing a 9 on that proverbial 10 scale, and I’m pretty picky.

Lee and I summed up our flight aboard Tri-Motor N8419 on July 10, 2012 in one word: Enjoyable.

Tri-motors made thousands of successful flights for a long time.  They were the first all-metal airliners.  Ford Motor Company produced 199 tri-motors between 1925 and 1933. We were told only three are flying today, but another five are certified as airworthy and about a dozen more are in various stages of restoration.

Henry would be proud. A "flying Ford" logo goes along on every N8419 flight to show who built her in 1929.
Henry Ford foresaw a great future in air travel and the company’s tri-motors initially were produced for the commercial market. Later, many were built to military specifications and flown by air corps pilots in the U.S. and several other countries.

Ford ended production when more-advanced aircraft were being rapidly developed and produced by others.  New planes, such as the Douglas DC-2, pushed the tri-motors out of the major airline market, but the Ford aircraft found new employment at small airlines and other enterprises.  Ford Tri-motors ultimately were flown by more than 100 airlines world-wide. Many served commercial purposes into the 1960s.

Northwest Airlines bought N8419 from Ford Motors in 1929.  Northwest later sold it to Air Alaska.  After its duty as an Alaskan airliner, it was sold to Johnson Flying Service, a fast-growing aviation company located in Missoula, Montana.  Johnson acquired several tri-motors, plus other aircraft capable of operating in rugged northern Rocky Mountain terrain.  The U.S. Forest Service became a major customer through contracts.

The Forest Service used planes owned by Johnson and flown by Johnson pilots for many purposes. The first full-time fire researcher left an account of an early experiment conducted with a plane piloted by Bob Johnson, founder of the service company.  Tri-motors were used to spray pesticides over millions of acres in programs intended to reduce populations of destructive forest insects. Tri-motors carried supplies to remote National Forest administrative sites. At least one tri-motor was equipped with two large tanks mounted under the wing so it could drop fire retardant chemicals to help control blazes. 

Following several years of experimentation with air drops, two Forest Service employees in 1940 were the first to parachute into a remote area to fight a wildfire. Smokejumping was born, and Ford Tri-motors became the drop vehicles of choice. It was a happy marriage. During World War II, the number of smokejumpers increased to some 250, and many tri-motors well-suited to the task were busy delivering the firefighters wherever they were needed throughout the West.

Considering the volume of business and the circumstances in which they operated, both smokejumpers and tri-motors compiled good safety records.  But wildland firefighting is dangerous business, and there have been some tragedies.  My last post briefly described one—on August 4, 1959 when Tri-motor N8419 crashed and burned at a remote airstrip in northern Idaho.  I said Ron Stoleson, a golfing pal for some 10 years, was fortunate that day, and I would explain why later.  Now I’ll try to do that.

Stoleson does not like to talk about the accident. I don’t recall him discussing it during or after golf games or elsewhere unless someone asked a direct question.  In fact, I think I first heard about the Moose Creek crash from Ross Parry, another long-time member of our golf group.  Parry was a smokejumper for six years.  Like Stoleson, he became a jumper foreman.  Also like Stoleson, he made his first jump and many others from a tri-motor.

The Moose Creek site, now in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness within the Nez Perce National Forest, in 1959 included a Ranger Station and a primitive airstrip. The airstrip is still in use. The site is at the confluence of Moose Creek and the Selway River, 25 miles from the nearest road.  Flanked by steep canyon walls, it is one of the few fairly flat pieces of land in the area.  Canyon winds are unpredictable and can be strong.

On the day of the crash, the tri-motor’s mission was to deliver supplies for the ranger district and then to drop two smokejumpers on a nearby fire. Stoleson was the smokejumper foreman at Grangeville, where the flight originated.

The quirk of fate that kept Stoleson among us involved tri-motor seating and Forest Service protocol.  N8419 was configured to carry cargo and smokejumpers, not 10 passengers in individual seats as its descendant did this week at Air Zoo.  As a jumper foreman, during a mission such as the one N8419 went on to Moose Creek, Stoleson normally would have occupied the only real passenger seat with good visibility—in the cockpit next to the pilot where co-pilots sat when tri-motors served as airliners.

Forest Supervisors can pretty much choose any day they please to review activities at units within their jurisdiction. It just happened that Alva W. Blackerby, the Nez Perce Forest Supervisor, decided the day of the crash was a good time to ride along on a flight to check out operations at Moose Creek.  Blackerby became the top-ranking passenger, and thus occupied the cockpit seat. Stoleson rode in the back compartment with cargo and the two smokejumpers he intended to help later with their jumps.

In an interview, Stoleson described the events that day for an article published by the Lewiston Tribune in 2009. I found the piece recently during a web search and asked him if it was an accurate report.  He said it was, except for two small errors. Those errors are corrected in this account.

Stoleson told the reporter the tri-motor made its usual flyover at Moose Creek to check the wind sock, and then went back down the Selway River to turn around and return for its landing on the slightly uphill runway.

“So we came back in and just as we were setting down there was a strong gust of wind that pushed us ahead into the trees.  The pilot (Robert Culver) knew what was going to happen because he yelled back at us, ‘We’re going to hit.’

“We knew we were in trouble. Then we hit.”

At first Stoleson said he thought everything was OK.  But then a fire exploded back through the plane. A tree that had caught on fire fell on the aircraft. By chance, Stoleson was in position to tumble out of the plane’s open doorway, but not until he was burned on his face and arms. (Smokejumper planes usually flew without a door on the entrance.)

A fire dispatcher at the Fenn Ranger Station got an urgent message from Moose Creek when the crash occurred.  Because communications from Moose Creek to other areas were limited, the Fenn dispatcher radioed a request for help to the Supervisor’s Office.

Smokejumper Gary G. Williams of West Valley, N.Y., who had been sitting under the plane’s gas tank, was burned extensively. He was carried outside and laid on the ground. Some smokejumpers who had come to the rescue talked to Williams and the other jumper, John A. Rolf of Buchanan, N.Y. Both Williams and Rolf were 23 years old.

Williams asked one of the smokejumpers, who was a good singer, to sing him a song. Then Williams died.

Rolf and Blackerby were transported to a hospital where they died a short time later. Pilot Culver also was badly burned, but survived for several years.

Only Stoleson and parts of Tri-motor N8419 lived long to fly on other days.

I fully understand why a survivor would be reluctant to talk about the incident.  It’s hard to write about it.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Up, Up and Away

Tri-motor N8419 today carries the markings of a military plane, but its last regular service was as a U.S. Forest Service smokejumper aircraft.
Next week son Lee and I are going to take a brief flight over the Kalamazoo area aboard an airliner designated N8419. 

So what?  In the recent past, N8419 has carried many passengers on short hops originating at Air Zoo, the aircraft museum that owns the reconstructed 1929 Ford Tri-Motor. 

Our adventure will be special for me because of a personal connection.  One of my golfing buddies for many years, Ron Stoleson, is the sole survivor of a tragic day in 1959 when the original N8419 crashed and burned at a wilderness airstrip in the Nez Perce National Forest in northern Idaho.  The crash killed two smokejumpers and the Forest Supervisor. They died soon after rescuers pulled them from the aircraft. The pilot was badly burned, but lived for several years before he died.

My friend Stoleson escaped through the open door of the rear compartment.  Lady luck was with him that day.  A future post will explain just how lucky he was.

The original N8419 over 30 years flew a number of different missions before becoming one of several aircraft owned by the Johnson Flying Service of Missoula, Montana.  During fire seasons, Johnson contracted with the U.S. Forest Service to fly the plane for smokejumpers.  In that role, it carried cargo to remote forest locations as well as dropping parachutists on fires.

N8419 was thought to be reduced to scrap after the 1959 crash.  A Kalamazoo company bought the remains and those of two other Tri-Motors to be used for parts in restoring another Tri-Motor, which flew from Port Clinton, Ohio. However, when that restoration was completed the firm decided enough remained of N8419 to justify bringing it back to life.

The restored Tri-Motor made its first flight at Air Zoo on July 24, 1991. Over the next 10 years it carried tens of thousands of passengers on short trips over the Kalamazoo area.  However, in 2001 the plane was grounded when corrosion problems were identified in its wing spars. 

My son and I saw N8419 in the Air Zoo shop about 5 years ago.  We got a briefing on extensive work being completed, in addition to wing spar replacement, to make the aircraft ultra-safe again as an airliner. An old Johnson Flying Service sign and the original plane's number were displayed on the shop wall.

After the two restoration projects, the plane has a modernized fuel system, three upgraded Pratt & Whitney engines, a new electrical system, and updated brakes, among other improvements.

The most recent restorers decided to jazz up the plane’s appearance with identification from a slightly different model Tri-Motor flown by the U.S. Army’s 60th Service Squadron as a medical transport. Those Tri-Motors started flying in 1930.

Despite the changes, we will be taking a ride in the direct descendant of N8419, a designation the Air Zoo Tri-Motor can carry with pride reflecting its many years of service as one of the first all-metal airliners in the world. We’re looking forward to a happy landing.