I received orders to ship from Fort Bliss, Texas to Wiesbaden, Germany in March 1955. The orders came with a thirty day leave which gave me time to get my wife and daughter settled in Weatherford near her folks. Plans were to send for her and baby Andrea as soon as I was settled and had quarters. This took a little longer than we planned but that is another story.
The Army had provided me with an airline ticket on American out of Love Field to JFK, New York. A couple of weeks before I was to leave the first week of April, I noticed an ad in the paper that appeared to offer a twenty-five dollar savings if I could switch my American ticket for one on North American Airlines. I should have known better, I had been employed by TWA in San Francisco. I called and yes, they would gladly exchange one of their tickets for the AA ticket I held. I made the reservation. If I had arrived at the gate sooner, I might have been able to switch back. When I checked in, the desk clerk asked if I had luggage and I produced my duffel bag. He said, that will be twenty-five dollars. I almost threw a shoe! He produced the ad which clearly stated, "Luggage Extra" in print that could only be read with a magnifying glass. He tried to make amends by telling me lunch was included in the price at no extra charge.
I had switched a perfectly good ticket on American Airlines, one of the best in the country at that time, for one on a nonscheduled airline who gouged passengers extra for luggage. I walked out on the ramp to the waiting airplane and was sick all over again. What I saw was the oldest DC-4/C-54 War Surplus, tired old bird, I have ever seen. It should have been on static display in a war museum rather than hauling passengers. The Olive Drab paint was visible under the thin coat of blue and white paint. Inside I was even sicker. The wicker seats had been replaced with airline seats and now faced forward. The head rest doilies were black with used hair oil, trash littered the aisle, it was a mess. As I said, I had worked for TWA and knew what an airplane was supposed to look like when passengers boarded. The Flight Attendant was a dumpy, frazzled, bleached blonde whose uniform appeared to have been slept in. When the pilot and copilot came aboard, I knew where she had slept.
I took my seat on the starboard side, with a good view of number three engine. Door was closed and I watched as number three coughed a few times and finally settled down in to that beautiful rumble that only a radial makes. We taxied out, lined up and were soon airborne. Now, not panic city but time for concern. I watched the oil stream out of number three which had become MY engine. Radials are notorious oil burners, but they are not supposed to vent it overboard as was the case. As the Flight Attendant made her way down the aisle, I motioned her closer to show her the errant engine and told her she might want to inform the captain. She patted me on the shoulder, told me not to worry that, "They had just got it too full in Dallas." Folks, if you never learn another thing. THEY CANNOT OVERFILL A RADIAL ENGINE, not on a C-54 anyway. They have a fifty gallon capacity oil tank reservoir and if most crews could have their way, the capacity would be twice that or more!
We leveled off at 8,000 feet, at least that is what the captain told us over the intercom. I kept a watchful eye on MY ENGINE, knowing there would be nothing I could do in the event of a failure. I was ready to say, "I TOLD YOU SO!" at a moment's notice.
We made a scheduled landing at Dulles in the Nations Capitol and twenty lucky people got off. They were replaced by a contingent of Korean nurses and one Jewish couple who took their seat directly behind me and the sailor, a machinist mate, who had also joined us. I watched the cover that concealed the oil filler cap on the reservoir hoping, nay, praying that someone would replace the oil we had sprayed over the countryside. No one appeared and I made mention of this to my new seat mate. We were just about to exit when the door closed and the engines cranked. Too late. Our fate was in the hands of Donald Douglas.
Takeoff was normal in every sense, No. 3 was still throwing oil if that was normal. We couldn't have been more than fifteen hundred feet in the air when a loud screeching noise emanated from No. 3 engine accompanied by sparks and smoke. It happened so fast the pilot didn't have time to feather the engine and with the added drag, we yawed to the right at an alarming rate. I was yelling, "I TOLD YOU SO YOU SONS #$%$%#! The Jewish couple behind us had switched to Hail Marys and Our Fathers it scared them so bad. I was just mad as was my seat mate. He broke the seal on a pint of vodka and between us, we almost drained it. The Flight Attendant wouldn't even look us in the eye.
I thought for sure we would return to Dulles but it was not to be. Instead, we continued on to LaGuardia where the pilot demonstrated a passable engine out landing. The sailor and I wanted to protest to someone and would have if we could have found someone in charge.