Arctic Exploration Air Force Style

In 1949, Air Force pilot Captain Harry B. Allen needed a thesis project for his geology doctorate at California Institute of Technology, so the Departments of the Air Force and the Interior jointly arranged for him to lead a team of graduate students on a geologic mapping expedition of St. Lawrence Island.

The island had never been properly mapped, and the Soviet Union claimed it had not been part of the original Alaska Purchase. Before negotiating with the Soviets, President Harry Truman wanted a survey to ascertain the island’s mineral resources.

On to Alaska

The Alaskan Air Command’s 10th Rescue Squadron provided Allen with a ski- and float-capable LC-126A, thanks to the support of the unit’s commander Colonel Bernt Balchen, a well-known arctic explorer. The aircraft’s crew chief was a former Bronx bartender less than thrilled about an extended voyage into the Alaskan bush.

Allen and his crew flew from Anchorage to McGrath, camping overnight along the Kuskokwim River, then on to Nome where he had to land in the open ocean since the Nome River was not wide enough for takeoffs or landings. They postponed the final 200-mile leg to the island in the Bering Straits due to poor weather…and a collision with a tug towing a barge as they taxied out.

With only a magnetic compass for navigation, Allen headed in the general direction of St. Lawrence Island and recalled, “After the longest hour, we could see the low-lying island as well as the Siberian mainland only 39 miles distant.”

Allen found the rugged LC-126A ideal for landing on whatever lakes or lagoons he encountered: “Senior officials of the Alaskan Air Command would have put me up before a Flying Evaluation Board if they knew how I used and abused that pretty little bird. In true bush fashion, I lugged everything—lumber, rocks, supplies, fuel—anything that could be stuffed into the fuselage or pontoon ports, lashed to the struts, floats, or wherever. Sometimes it flew a little sideways, but that didn’t seem to bother its flying characteristics unduly.”

Worthy Steed for Arctic Exploration

Eskimos in anti-exposure suits refloating Capt Allen’s LC-126A using walrus hide strips strung under the floats and over six empty 50-gallon drums (National Museum of the US Air Force)

Eskimos in anti-exposure suits refloating Capt Allen’s LC-126A using walrus hide strips strung under the floats and over six empty 50-gallon drums (National Museum of the US Air Force)

Allen remembered landing on a small lake on a calm, moonlit night to retrieve one of his geologists: “I thought I was just about to land and slowed the airplane for landing. I was 25–50 feet high and ended up doing a rudder-exercise stall until I impacted the water. It was such a hard landing that I thought the struts would come up through the cabin. The little LC-126 gave nary a grunt and appeared to have suffered no pain.”

Capt Allen returned the airplane to Anchorage in November 1949 with a walrus-hide patch on one float (a repair necessitated following its resurrection from a sinking episode after an encounter with rocks) and a bent engine mount. The LC-126A was still flying and floating, and Allen noted, “Not bad, after its long-suffering service.”

Allen later flew L-3s, L-5s, Otters, Beavers, and C-64s on wheels, skis, and floats throughout China, Mongolia, and India but insisted, “I have never flown a more reliable, sturdy, can-do, worthy steed as that LC-126. It was a part of my life. It breathed when I did and rested when I did. It was always ready to go. It required little or no maintenance other than filling it with gas and oil and pumping out the floats.”

A succinct testimony to a great airplane’s capabilities from a man who put it to the toughest of tests.

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NOTE: The above is an extract from my book Cessna Warbirds: A Detailed and Personal History of Cessna’s Involvement in the Armed Forces (1996, now out of print).

O-2 Who, Sir?

Back in the fall of 1978, when I was flying the O-2 in the Michigan Air National Guard out of Battle Creek, I signed out at the Ops desk for a sortie up to the weapons range near Alpena where a pair of A-7s out of Selfridge ANGB (north of Detroit) were to join me for some air-to-ground work.

Normally, our O-2s carried white phosphorous target marking rockets to identify the targets for the fighters. However, on this day I carried only empty rocket pods due to the high fire danger (lots of woods up there in northern Michigan).

Mich ANG O-2A flying near Cold Lake, Canada, in June 1978. (©Walter P. Shiel. All Rights Reserved.)

Mich ANG O-2A flying near Cold Lake, Canada, in June 1978. (©Walter P. Shiel. All Rights Reserved.)

At the last minute, the supervisor of flying (SOF) asked me to take a couple of passengers and drop them off at Wurtsmith AFB at Oscoda. They were from the group’s legal office and had a meeting at Wurtsmith. I agreed. The SOF called Maintenance and told them to install a back seat (we typically only flew with the two front seats).

Now, Wurtsmith was a Strategic Air Command base and, as a result, usually required a PPR (prior permission required) number for non-Wurtsmith aircraft to land. The SOF said he’d take care of a getting PPR number for us and would give it to me by radio as soon as he had it.

I already had a Battle Creek to Alpena VFR (visual flight rules) flight plan on file and decided to just file the change of route once I was airborne. The two legal beagles, a major and a lieutenant colonel, met me at the aircraft. One sat upfront in the right seat and the other in the back.

As we taxied out, the SOF read me the PPR number for Wurtsmith. No sweat, so we were on our way. Once airborne, I filed the route change by radio and proceeded to Wurtsmith.

Wurtsmith tower gave me no problems and cleared us to land immediately. We taxied up to Base Operations, I shut down, and we all deplaned.

And then a young airman, 20 at most, shouted, “Stop, sirs. Then turn around slowly.”

We did. The three-stripe airman who had issued that command wore the fatigues and beret of the Security Police. He held an M-16 pointed at us.

I asked, “What’s the problem, sergeant?”

“Base Ops says you don’t have permission to land here, captain.”

“There’s been a mistake.” I pointed into the cockpit. “I’ve got our PPR number written down if you’ll let me grab my notepad.”

“Just a moment, sir.” He keyed his walkie-talkie. “Ops, the pilot says he’s got a PPR.”

“Stand by one,” came the reply over his radio.

We waited, somewhat uneasily as SAC bases were always on high security. After all, they did have nukes on the base. I suspected that the PPR clearance had been misrouted somehow and the two rocket pods (although empty) had caused somebody to overreact.

Finally, the voice on the sky cop’s radio said, “OK, we found it. No problem.”

The young man lowered his weapon and saluted. “They told me to stop you at the aircraft, sir. Just doing my job.”

I assured him there were no hard feelings. The two lawyers walked off toward Base Ops, seeming a bit shaken by the whole episode. I saddled up and “flung my eager craft through footless halls of air” to complete my mission.

I’d flown into SAC bases many times in the past, but that day in the O-2 was the first time I’d been greeted by a nervous young sky cop aiming an M-16 at me.

Extraordinarily Well Written – Cessna Warbirds

Cessna Warbirds, The War Years, front coverJust received notice that the Midwest Book Review posted a new review of Cessna Warbirds: The War Years (1941-45) on their website under Logan’s Bookshelf (scroll down to his third review).

The second volume in Walt Shiel’s outstanding “Cessna Warbirds” series, Cessna Warbirds: The War Years (1941-45): The T-50 Bobcat and the Cessnas Impressed into Military Service is profusely illustrated with eighty period photos and illustrations that greatly enhance the informed and informative commentary. Extraordinarily well written, organized and presented, Cessna Warbirds: The War Years (1941-45) is highly recommended for personal and academic library 20th Century American Aviation History and Military Aviation reference collections and supplemental studies reading lists.

If you’d like a copy for an honest review (posted on Amazon, B&N, your own website, or one of the book review sites), email me.

Cessna 195 in Uniform

As World War II ended, Cessna began developing updated versions of the Airmaster—the Models 190 and 195—with a constant speed prop, Wittman spring steel landing gear, and a semi monocoque metal fuselage. The 190 prototype first flew on December 7, 1944, with a 225 hp Jacobs engine borrowed from the AT-17 line, and the 195 prototype, with a 300 hp Jacobs engine, made its maiden flight on October 15, 1945.

Cadillac of the Air

Development of both models continued in parallel with production of this Businessliner series beginning in 1947. The 240 hp Continental W-670-23 radial engine became the standard for the 190, the 300-hp Jacobs radial for the 195. The 3,350 pound, five-seat 195 achieved a solid 1200 feet-per-minute initial climb rate at 104 mph with a max range cruise of 152 mph at 10,000 feet while burning 12.6 gallons of fuel per hour.

The Jacobs-engined Cessna 195 exhibited an idiosyncratic “Jacobs cough” due to uneven fuel-air distribution to the seven cylinders. Cessna reworked the carburetor’s butterfly valve, but the problem persisted when operated at reduced throttle settings, with a fully leaned mixture, or at high altitude. This “cough” typically occurred just once for a given throttle and mixture setting, but tended to grab the attention of both pilot and passengers.

The Cessna 195, the biggest and fastest civilian single-engine airplane on the market, earned the nickname “Cadillac of the Air.” The big radial engine somewhat limited taxiing visibility but provided macho appeal with its distinctive roar on arrival and departure.

US Military Buys Cessna 195s

LC-126 on ramp

US Army LC-126A at Fort Rucker, Alabama, in 1958 (US Army Aviation Museum)

In 1949, the US Army acquired 15 “off the shelf” Cessna 195s—with pilot-side seaplane doors, Spartan interiors, and interchangeable wheel, float, or ski landing gear—for evaluation as light cargo, search and rescue, and liaison aircraft. The 195 proved rugged, dependable, and able to haul loads from unimproved airstrips.

Side view of LC-126A on skis with "Thunder Mug" logo on side

US Air Force LC-126A “Thunder Mug” on skis in Alaska in the 1950s (Kansas Aviation Museum)

The Army also liked the easy-access engine compartment that simplified in the field maintenance—the entire engine and cowl assembly on the C-195 aircraft was hinged on the left side with the engine on swing out mounts held open by an over center lock. With the engine in this position, a mechanic could easily work on engine components and accessories. Following evaluation, these aircraft were designated LC-126A (redesignated U-20 in 1962) and turned over to the Air Force for Arctic search and rescue work.

In 1950, the Army National Guard bought five LC-126Bs, almost identical to the LC-126A, and three continued to serve into the mid-1960s. The active-duty Army acquired 63 LC-126C aircraft with a larger baggage door to allow two stretchers to be placed in the passenger and baggage area for aeromedical evacuation. Many LC-126s were used for instrument flight training.

The LC-126A incorporated conventional landing gear, a single lever to lock both the brakes and the aileron and rudder (the pilot’s seatbelt around the yoke secured the elevator), and a removable rear seat allowing a stretcher to be loaded through the cabin door. The radio system included a crystal-controlled receiver, separate transmitters for voice and Morse code, a loop antenna (rotated by a crank in the top center of the cabin roof), a top-mounted fixed-wire antenna on top, and a trailing wire antenna on the underside (weighted to keep it vertical and deployed by a cockpit crank).

The B-model introduced the unique Goodyear crosswind landing gear, which swiveled for taxi, takeoff, or landing in a crosswind, plus two self-locking drain valves for the wing tanks. Modified pilot and copilot seats accommodated parachutes. A new parking brake/control lock now included the elevators. A new VHF radio incorporated a pair of crystal-controlled transmitters with six installed frequencies and used a spike antenna on top of the fuselage (the new ILS used a rams-horn antenna, the ADF a top-mounted loop antenna).

C-model changes included relocation of some items, a 40-inch longer baggage compartment with a longer access door (hinged at the top rather than the forward edge) to allow loading two stretchers, and some updated avionics.

LC-126C on ramp

US Army LC-126C at Love Field, Dallas, Texas, in 1952 (Kansas Aviation Museum)

Between 1947 and 1954, Cessna produced 233 C-190s and 866 C-195s, with a list price for the C-195 ranging from $15,795 to $23,500. The current FAA registration database lists only 134 Model 195s and, out of 83 delivered, only six LC-126s—one A-model, 1 B-model, and four C-models.

Click here to download the LC-126 specifications.

Next Cessna post, I’ll cover “Arctic Exploration Air Force Style,” a fascinating story of how the USAF used an LC-126 for a rigorous mission.

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NOTE: The above is an extract from my book Cessna Warbirds: A Detailed and Personal History of Cessna’s Involvement in the Armed Forces (1996, now out of print).

Tractor Therapy

I’ve been looking around for an old, but not ancient, compact diesel tractor with 4WD and a front end loader. I finally found one, it was nearby, and the price was right. Needs some cosmetic touch-up but starts and runs great. As a local dairy farmer told me, a tractor is great but not until you have a front end loader do you have a real tool.

We’ve dubbed the tractor Little Blue.

Here’s a video of its first working outing (June 27), wherein my goal was to level a rough area in front of the horse barn.

In the 6 days since, I’ve put another couple of hours on it and moved at least 40 wheelbarrow loads of dirt and horse manure. I’ve just about got the hang of using the loader to dig and level the ground, something we really needed done.

Just thinking about digging up and moving all that dirt with a shovel and wheelbarrow makes my back hurt. With Little Blue, I didn’t even break a sweat.

Nothing like some tractor therapy to put a smile on a man’s face.