EXCERPTED FROM “THE GOLDEN YEARS OF FLYING”
By Old Frontier Airlines Captain Tex Searle with his kind permission
and his publisher Aviation Supplies & Academics (copyright 2009).
His grand memoir is for sale at Amazon.com and ASA
DO YOU NEED A NO-GOOD COPILOT
It was a cold morning in February 1949 when Captain Ken Dealy shut down the engines in Cheyenne, Wyoming and walked into the small terminal in search of a mechanic. He was advised that it was the mechanic’s day off but there was a pilot in the coffee shop that might be helpful. That pilot/mechanic turned out to be Jack Kettler, a tall, good looking cowboy who had been a mechanic for Inland Air Lines and a copilot for Western Airlines. He was laid off by Western when business fell off and Kettler describes what happened next.
When I learned Captain Dealy’s DC-3 had a stuck throttle, I agreed to take look at it, but since I didn’t have my tools with me I needed two bits. I dug in my pocket and came up with the twentyfive-cent-piece I needed to remove the cowling from the engine. After a quick inspection I requested the captain to retard the throttle. Captain Dealy was apprehensive it might break the cable until I informed him there was a small sandstone rock stuck in the bell crank mounted on the fire wall. By closing the throttle it crushed the rock that had flipped upward into the bell crank from the tire, and the DC-3 was ready for service.
After the logbook sign off, Captain Dealy told me to go get ten dollars from the station manager. I told him, “I don’t want your money, but do you need a no-good copilot for that operation?” I informed the captain of my past flying experience and the various aircraft I had flown in WWII and that I was currently serving with the Wyoming Air Guard 187th Fighter Squadron in Cheyenne. Captain Dealy said, “You be here at 1800 when I make the return trip. Chief Pilot Scott Keller is coming through with me this evening.” I was hired on the spot by the chief and told to be in Salt Lake City two weeks later on the 1st of March, 1949.
The big, likable cowboy from Wyoming was everybody’s friend and he didn’t take no guff from anyone.
Kettler laughs when he tells that after he had been flying for two years he was called into the chief pilots office and told that he had never filled out an application for employment. “So I filled out the papers and they said I was hired.” He received a recall from Western Airlines but elected to remain with Challenger. His reasons: “Our airline was one of the best and we had a group of people to work with that was like a big family. We busted our butts to make it one of the best.”
STEEL MILL APPROACH AT PROVO
A widespread storm system covered the mountain states. Kettler, who was pulling gear for Captain Sam Grande at that time, relates they departed Albuquerque at a late hour for Salt Lake City with scheduled stops at Farmington, New Mexico and Grand Junction, Colorado.
We had planned to take on extra fuel at Farmington in view of the weather conditions at Grand Junction. Our present fuel load would only sustain us to Grand Junction with enough alternate fuel on board to continue to Vernal, Utah, plus an hour reserve.
As we approached Farmington, we were advised the airport was below minimums with snow and sleet. Grand Junction weather was still holding so we continued on. When in range of Junction we were advised that snow and sleet had obscured the southeast portion of the airport, and within a matter of minutes the airport would be entirely obscured.
The strong surface wind was still holding out of the northwest which prevented us from shooting an ILS (instrument landing system). Unable to land straight in on runway 11 because of the strong tailwind, and with the lowering clouds preventing us from making a circling approach to land into the wind, we had no choice but to bypass Junction. Fuel was now becoming a critical factor. We had feeble hopes of trying for Vernal, Utah, but we were informed the whole Uintah Basin was reported socked in. With reluctance we continued on with only enough fuel to reach Salt Lake City—with no reserves.
Almost an hour later, flying over the Spanish Fork H-marker located forty-nine miles southeast of Salt Lake, we contacted dispatch at the Salt Lake airport. Our expectation took a further down-turn when we were informed the visibility at Salt Lake City was now zero in fog. With fuel gauges registering zero on all three tanks there were decisions to be made. An emergency would be declared and if we could make it to Salt Lake, we would attempt a blind landing on the runway.
Continuing on to intercept the airway leading into Salt Lake, I yelled, “Sam! I can see the Provo steel mill directly below and also the north boundary of the Provo airport.”
Provo had no instrument landing facilities, so I advised dispatch we were going to make a steel mill approach into Provo. Sam made a nice spiraling descent through the large hole caused by heat from the steel mill. We could barely make out the threshold of runway 13 with the remainder obscured in fog. Sam banked the DC-3 around until we were on final for the runway, and after flying the last portion of the approach in scud, he planted the old girl onto the mist shrouded runway.
It took twenty minutes taxiing in the fog before we could locate the ramp at the fixed base operations. It was past midnight and the office was deserted. Off to one side the little terminal still remained from when Challenger once served Provo. Luckily, Sam still carried a key. Inside we found the old company radio and called dispatch at Salt Lake, and informed Mitchell that Fat and Omar had safely landed.”
Because of a medical disability Captain Kettler retired in 1981 after a career of thirty- two years flying for Challenger/Frontier. He resides in Manville, Wyoming, sixty miles east of Casper, Wyoming. As the mayor of Manville, Captain Kettler says his city, like all large cities, is suffering from exploding growth problems. At last count the population had increased to one hundred citizens.
FIRST SCHEDULED COPILOT TRIP
With the completion of my line observation trips, I was cleared to fly the line as a first officer. One of my first line trips stands out as though it was yesterday. Arriving at the crew room in my new uniform to fill out the flight plan, I was happy to learn I would be flying with Captain Jack Kettler, who was responsible for getting me up to speed in the Link trainer.
Departing Salt Lake City I was busier than a grizzly bear who had sat on a hornets nest. I had to remember the procedure for manipulating the gear, read the checklist out loud, and set the climb power on both engines without getting them out of sync, all while watching out for other traffic and trying to communicate with Salt Lake Departure and the company radio at the same time. Who said this flying was a piece of cake?
When we approached Rock Springs the radio informed us the main east-west runway was closed for the new overlay, so we landed northeast on the shorter northeast-southwest runway. We made a one engine stop (only one engine was shut down to save time on the ground). After exchanging MPX (mail, passengers and express) we proceeded on to Frontier’s small hub in Riverton, Wyoming where MPX was exchanged with the flights from Billings, Montana and Denver, Colorado. After a quick turnaround we returned to a windy Rock Springs for the second time that morning. The agents hustled to exchange the sorted cargo and get us out on time. Climbing into the Wyoming skies we picked up a heading for Vernal, Utah. I was behind the power curve, but with patience from Captain Kettler, I was feeling more assured about this flying business, but soon I didn’t feel so good. Twenty miles south of Rock Springs the right engine let go with a vengeance and began to shake and snort so unmercifully that Captain Kettler had to shut it down.
With a full load of passengers and a heavy cargo of Howard Hughes’ oil drilling bits, we were grossed out in weight. That and the high airport elevation at Rock Springs, just under 7,000 feet, added up to a higher ground speed during the approach and a higher touch down speed—not a good situation for the northeast landing we planned on the northeast-southwest runway. Landing on runway three would have the good engine upwind for better directional stability on the runway. With no other alternatives and forced to make a single engine landing in a crosswind that was gusting to 25 mph out of the northwest, Captain Kettler would have his piloting skills tested.
The captain fought to make the turn back to the airport in the rough air and clear the high terrain at the same time. High hills and valleys surround the Rock Springs airport causing turbulence. Even with a calm wind at Rock Springs the air is turbulent. The captain commented, “They should use a log chain instead of a windsock.” After lining up for a straight in approach to the runway, we listened to Rock Springs radio advise to watch for equipment alongside the runway. The outside temperature was indicating in the high 80s and the moderate turbulence at the lower altitudes, caused by high surface winds over the terrain, was beginning to strain the seams of my unruffled composure. Captain Kettler had the throttle to the fire-wall on the remaining engine, but she kept losing altitude in the hot, turbulent air. The captain, his jaw set, had a look of determination that this old gal was going to get us down in one piece come hell or high water (not seeing any water I knew it was going to be hell). “As bad as she wants to land we need to keep her head up and pointed to the runway,” he said. He asked me to check the location of the equipment alongside the runway.
“Mercy! its a bulldozer,” I cried, “and its in the middle of the runway about two-thirds of the way down.” Kettler replied, “We have no choice, drop the gear and complete the checklist.” With the turbulent air bouncing the old gal all over the threshold, we touched down on the edge of the strip. Kettler stomped full right rudder and held full left aileron with a touch of power on the upwind engine to keep her straight down the runway. Approaching the mid intersection of the east-west runway, we didn’t seem to be slowing much. I now could see the windsock whipping on its staff showing a wind shift indicating it was now coming from the west, giving us a quarterly tailwind. Kettler was aware of the wind shift. He yelled, “I may have to ground loop.” Ahead of us I could see several construction workers headed for the boonies. I can still hear the screech of the tires as Kettler fought to terminate the flight in one piece. She was losing headway, but with the dozer growing in size it didn’t appear she could stop in time. Kettler was poised to ground loop, but he held his course and we slid to a stop 75 yards short of the bulldozer. The Captain hurdled from the cockpit, I suppose he had something to say to the bulldozer operator. After the excitement was over, Kettler said, “The priest we had on board saved us.” The priest replied, “Captain Kettler saved us.” As for me and my maiden trip, all I wanted to do was go home.
We are FLamily