Gooney birds reliable but make for bumpy ride

Michael Raffety

April 28, 2009

My last year in the Navy I spent in deployed in New Zealand instead of on the Ice in Antarctica. I was in training for a flight crew, which netted me an extra $55 a month. To qualify for the flight training “skins” I had to do four hours of flying time a month. In the summer in Rhode Island I did them in a helicopter. It was hard getting four hours a month in a helicopter doing autorotations over Narragansett Bay. The hard part was actually totaling up four hours. Helicopters just don’t stay out that long.

In New Zealand the only flights available were on the admiral’s Gooney Bird. Civilians called them DC-3s and the Navy called them R4D-5s. Most of us knew them as Gooney Birds.

The admiral used his, complete with a red carpet down the aisle, to fly from Chi-Chi, which is what we called Christ Church, to Wellington to play tennis with the ambassador. I came along in the passenger seat to log my flight hours.

They can have those planes. Sheesh. It flies about 8,000 feet. I don’t think it’s a pressurized cabin. And the wings flap. More precisely, they flop up and down. They’re pretty flexible. Probably not as bad as a B-52, which has such droopy wings that they have their own wheels. But the Gooney Bird was special torture. The wings flopped and the plane bumped along like a Jeep driving down a dry river bank. I felt nauseous the whole trip. I was glad this was the last Gooney Bird in our Antarctic squadron’s fleet.

The year before I saw several of these DC-3s half buried, down by the ice landing strip where the C-130s landed and their crews bunked in canvas Quonset huts. Some had their wings removed and were parked along Shelter Cove at McMurdo Station waiting to be put on a cargo ship back to the states. Emperor penguins wandered among them with dignified curiosity.

In the frozen aircraft boneyard near the ice runway I even saw an Otter, a single-engine De Havilland.

The R4D-5 Navy Skytrain was the first plane to land at the South Pole. Adm. George Dufek on Oct. 31, 1956, became the first person to set foot on the South Pole since Robert Scott’s party more than four decades before. Scott reached the pole Jan. 9, 1912, a month after Norwegian Roald Amundsen had. Scott’s entire party of five perished on the way back.

It took two planes to accomplish the admiral’s feat. One plane, piloted by Lt. Cmdr. Bus Shin, and called the Que Sera Sera, landed the admiral on the pole. Another plane, called Charlene, and piloted by Eddie Frankiewicz and Jim Waldron landed on Liv Glacier and kept their engines running as an emergency backup if the admiral’s plane got into trouble.

Because of the soft snow at the pole and the altitude (9,306 feet) it required seven JATO bottles to take off. Waldron recalled the plane as “very reliable. We put it through a lot of terrible weather and cold, but it was always stable and had few failures.”

Frankiewicz said, “It could carry a great load of ice on its wings. And with a great big barn door for a rudder it made for easy cross-wind landings.”

Pilot E.D. Dryfoose said, “For open snow landings at the reduced weight of the R4Ds, they could land where there were possible snow bridges over crevasses that could not be seen. The C-130s would not fare as well under those circumstances with 100,000 pounds more weight.”

The R4Ds eventually ferried enough equipment to build a scientific station at the pole.

The Que Sera Sera is on display at Pensacola, Fla., now, along with an Otter that was used in the Antarctic.

The last Gooney Bird to fly at McMurdo was Dec. 2, 1966, an event I missed, since I was not on the strip, but about five miles away on the Hill. A C-117 landed at McMurdo from Hallett Station, the last C-117 flight on the Antarctic continent, marking the end of 11 years of service to the Antarctic Development Squadron 6. The year before two Gooney Birds had “raced” each other from Rhode Island to McMurdo, a 12,000-mile journey.

Otters have a long history as bush planes in Alaska and Canada. The one I saw on the Ice was not usable. The last working Otter was officially decommissioned and flown off the Antarctic Continent in 1966, a year before I arrived.

A list of Otter accidents includes one parked at Little America in 1957 when 80 mph winds tore it from its tiedown rings and blew it away. In 1958 one cracked a fuselage while taxiing on the Ross Sea ice. It flew back to McMurdo and was “struck.” In 1955 another one flew into a mountain. An Otter meant to rescue the crew stuck on the mountain was off loaded from a ship and dropped on its wing; it was judged to be a ‘strike.”

In 1956 an Otter developed ice on the propeller and flew into the summit of a snow covered mountain on Prince Edward VII Peninsula. No one was injured and the crew walked 40 of the 110 miles back to Little America before being rescued by a helicopter.

Flying anywhere in Antarctica is always a risk. Twenty-four sailors and marines assigned to Antarctic Development Squadron 6 died on duty there.

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