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
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.
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).