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Flying Civilian Light Planes in the Canal Zone

To refresh my memories of Panama flying I went back to my old log book and have made copies of pages from it covering that period. The size of each page was slightly more that 14 inches, so the comments part didn't copy. But I'll try to give you some commentary on what I can remember.

Before I try to remember those details, I want to respond to your question about Col. John C. L. Adams. Yes, he is the one who had a Piper distributorship after WW 11. He served in Italy before leaving the service, and, according to what he told me, he was influential in Washington to convince the Army to utilize the J-3 type aircraft for Army spotter and reconnaissance during the war.

The letters I wrote to Lou Chapo brought another letter similar to yours from Daniel P. Hagedorn. He is compiling a history of Panamanian registered aircraft. He has a world of information on civil aircraft in Panama. I was able to answer some of his questions about the registration numbers of some of the aircraft I flew. You might contact him, to obtain some information about aviation during the WW 11 years.

My log book pages (with my changes of address and license numbers ) is enclosed to give you some of my experience during the period.

I stared taking flying lessons in Roanoke, Virginia, 30 minutes at a time when I could get the money together, back in 1938. 1 finally got into the Civil and Pilot Training Program before I had obtained my private pilot's license in September of 1940. 1 decided to visit my brother in the Canal Zone and to travel by ship from New York. A good friend, Vernon Muse, went with me to New York to see the World's Fair and see me off. After the war he worked for Pratt & Whitney in Hartford, Connecticut as a production engineer on jet engines until his recent retirement. Although not a pilot, he is an authority in his area on antique aircraft. He lives in Manchester, Connecticut.

From the log: After seeing the World's Fair, we rented an Aeronca Chief at Flushing Airport and flew all over New York City, Central Park, Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and the World's Fair.

In Panama I soon found Paitilla Airport and rented a 1939 Tayloreraft with a 50 h.p. Franklin, every chance, and started getting acquainted with Panama from the air. I flew to the end of civilization (Chepo) southeastward before getting around to taking my Panama flight test. When the Taylorcraft wasn't available I rented other light planes.

On March 2, 1941, 1 rented a 1941 Taylorcraft and took a friend, Dick Marsh, to check on the feasibility of making a surface trip into the almost unexplored Darien country between Chepo and Columbia. His father had explored the region for Firestone in the early 1920s and had written a book about it called, The White Indians of the Darien. We encountered broken clouds over the mountains, so made the almost fatal mistake of climbing above them - without instruments or radiolnav. Not maintaining a log of headings and time after the clouds closed in below us, we milled around for hours, lost, not knowing whether we were over the Caribbean, land or Pacific at 10,000 feet. Ultimately, we found a very small hole through which we spiraled down quickly with very little fuel to spare. We were near Chame! I wrote this up as "I learned about flying from that" and it was published in Flying.

I took all my friends on joy rides as you can see in the log. Santa Clara Beach was a popular place to go on weekends. On July 13, 1941, I took a good friend, Jim Cravens, with me in the rented 1941 Taylorcraft, R-10E, to Costa Rica. We stayed a week and had a wonderful time. I have visited Costa Rica many times since then and presently own a 157 acre farm in the Guanacaste Province. I am planting Maranon cashew trees on it, although it is used for cattle in dry seasons and other crops in rainy season.

As you can see from the log I took another trip to Costa Rica in the Funk after the war, taking a girl friend name "Papoose" Pickering. She had a private license and worked in Censorship. Her father was a colonel. I also dated Jeanie Andrews when she came to Panama on spring break from Hollins College (Roanoke, Virginia) in 1941. Her father, Lt. Gen. Andrews at Albrook Field, would not permit me to take her flying in a lightplane! He was Caribbean Command Commander then, but was transferred to be head of 8th Air Force in England. The B-24 in which he was flying crashed into a mountain in Iceland and he was killed. Andrews AFB near Washing, D.C. was named after him.

On Thanksgiving weekend. November 20, 1941, I took my brother, Kim, with me in the R4E Tavlorcraft which I had bought jointly with three others on October 21, 1941. We spent the time exploring the area between Aguadulce and the mountains and landed on a remote mesa where we found a crystal clear lake and stream feeding it from the mountains. We landed in a school yard at Aguadulce to hunt for a place to eat. Needless-to-say we attracted a lot of kids to the plane.

During the war, there was no private flying in Panama. Our R4E Taylorcraft and all of the other civilian planes were bought by the Army Air Corps and made into military utility aircraft.

As I told Lou Chapo, I was able to buy the 75 h.p. Lycoming Funk when it was sold as war surplus.

I joined some others and we started a bush airline using a couple of old Stinson Reliants, a surplus UC-78 and two Canadian Avro-Ansons and a Fairchild 24. 1 could have bought an almost new DC-3 (C-47 passenger version) for $25,000 and a cargo C-47 for $20,000 war surplus, but the president of the company, Dr. Perez, a dentist, listened to his brother-in-law and bought the Canadian planes. Needless-to-say, we eventually went bankrupt for lack of management. I relieved our pilot, pastor, and flew the Fairchild from David to Puerto Armuellos (landing on a golf course as the airfield) several times per day carrying passengers. I later delivered the Fairchild 24 to Guatemala City to the Mexican buyers of the plane after we had closed .down operations.

When I went to Florida on vacation in 1945 gasoline for cars was still rationed, but for airplanes it was not. So I bought a 1935 Aeronca C-3, with 2 cylinder, single ignition; 40 h.p. Aeronca engine to use for transportation around Florida. I kept it at Peter O. Knight Airport on Davis Island, Tampa's main airport at that time. Drew AFB (now Tampa International) and McDill AFB were still active military bases. McDill still is. The C-3 was like a kite/glider, but could outrun a Piper J-3, cruising at 90 mph with two aboard. It had no brakes, but a steerable tail wheel had been installed.

I bought the C-3 for $500 and sold it for $500! A C-2, which looks like my C-3 except for the tires, is in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington.

As you see in the log, I had fun with the C-3. I once landed in a field at Passa Grille, Florida and couldn't get out due to the high grass and trees at the end of the field, so I pushed it down the highway, "elbowing" and tilting the wings around trees and poles, until I got it to the beach where I had plenty of room to take off.

During the war years - December 7, 1941 - April 15, 1945, 1 enjoyed flying military aircraft. I was a civilian electronics technician at Panama Air Depot and was a "Combat Crew Member, rank - Civilian". I flew almost daily on B-24 test flights as radio operator. I flew on most of the military aircraft which carried a crew. I worked with test flight crews, taxied aircraft (P-39, P-40, P-38, B-24, C-45, etc.) and occasionally got to sit in the co-pilots seat on test flights.

My most recent flying was in the 1970's. I bought a 1946 antique/classic restored Cessna 120 with an 85 h.p. Continental. I kept it about 4 years at Melbourne, Florida Airport. I went to a few air shows in Florida and flew it mainly to Tampa and back to visit my mother. I have flown some on a 1985 Cessna 172 last year, but my physical has lapsed, so I am not really active right now.

Late in 1945 I was asked to ferry a J-3 Piper from Lockhaven, Pennsylvania to Panama in a group. Menzies Turner was the negotiator, arranger. We would be reimbursed for our transportation costs. Originally 9 aircraft would be picked up and delivered throughout Central America. After I left Panama for the States (by boat) I learned that only 4 aircraft would be ferried - the others couldn't be dropped off because the State Department considered them war material and Guatemala and other countries were not considered "stable". So I flew a J-3 along with two other J-3s and a Super Cruiser. Retired Col. J. C. L. Adams flew the Cruiser. I could write a whole book about that trip. It was a comedy of errors all the way. However, my J-3 (RX-46) and RX-45 made it all the way without a scratch. RX-47 had one prop broken in West Virginia and one landing gear damaged when Masters ran into an ant hill in Panama. Col. Adams tore the tail off of the Cruiser when he hit the fence, landing short at Huntingdon, West Virginia. The same day Masters nosed over in a short hayfield near Birch River, West Virginia. As I said, that trip was too much to cover in this already long letter.

L. W. Powell
Indialantic, FL