Sunday, April 08, 2012

Cape May County, New Jeresy: Grandson Remembers Local Aviator

Cox with daughter Maureen.

United States Overseas Airlines plane

ERMA – It would be a shame if the life of aviation pioneer and local resident Dr. Ralph Cox isn’t someday made into a movie. He passed away March 1 at the age of 97.

Picture this: Scene one: Cox is discharged from the Navy where he flew anti-submarine missions along the U.S. east coast and Europe. He is a licensed dentist but decides to buy government surplus planes to start an airline based at the Cape May County Airport. He starts United States Overseas Airlines specializing in transporting military personnel around the world and employs 1,000 persons making it the largest employer in the county.

Scene two: Cox and his planes spray insecticide over Iran in 1952 for a huge infestation of locusts. Harry Truman sends Cox a thank you letter.

Scene three: It’s 1962. Cox has built a safe, reliable air carrier with 12 DC4’s and six DC6’s operating from the county airport. The planes are grounded and the air carrier is bankrupt because military air transport contracts were suddenly cancelled and given to a smaller air carrier: Southern Air Transport (SAT). Cox suspects the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was responsible since it operated SAT and other airlines that received contracts had secret intelligence connections.

Scene four: The Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) tries to suppress the small independent airlines to the benefit of the major carriers. United States Overseas Airlines shuts down.

There is much more worthy of a movie in the life of Cox, a man who knew Howard Hughes and collected a museum’s worth of antique cars, fire engines, player pianos, streetcars and even a steam locomotive that ran at Allaire State Park in New Jersey for many years. Cox was able to load items for his collection on his cargo planes and fly them home.

His grandson Ian Harris recalls working with Cox restoring his car collection right up until the end of his life.

Harris said his grandfather found standing in a cubicle all day practicing dentistry boring, so he enlisted in the Navy and became a pilot. He said his grandfather’s airline began with one plane, a DC4.

Besides transporting military personnel and gear, Cox offered low cost flights to the general public to Hawaii, Miami and other vacation destinations.

In 1947, the nation of Israel “stole” one of Cox’s planes and put it into use to shuttle dignitaries into the newly formed nation, according to Harris. The story gets complicated and includes Al Schwimmer who was involved with Iran Contra Affair many years later.
Schwimmer leased one of Cox’s plane and reportedly ferried both diplomats and arms to Israel. The U.S government threatened to shoot the plane out of the sky, so it was repainted with El Air markings. Eventually, Israel retuned the airplane to Cox.

Schwimmer has been called the father of Israel’s Air Force. During the complications with Israel, Cox would check into hotels under assumed names for his own safety, said Harris.

Harris said Cox did not take the loss of his business lightly in the 60s. He spent a lot of money suing the federal government. The safety record of United States Overseas Airlines was flawless, he said.

The company was staffed by ex-military pilots and mechanics. Cox’s airline was the only air carrier with its own engine shop. The other airlines sent their work out to contractors.

“When he started the airline, he had a lot of people tell him that it couldn’t be done,” said Harris. “He still held onto that dream, he still pursued it.”

Cox’s aviation dreams started when he watching barnstorming pilots as a child.

After the air carrier business ceased operation, Cox bought the Wildwood Canadian Campground in Erma.

For years it was rumored Cox had purchased one or two of Adolph Hitler’s cars. Harris said Cox sold one to Ritchie Klein, owner of the Imperial Palace in Las Vegas. The second car is in the Rockefeller Museum in Arkansas, said Harris.

He said Jay Leno inquired about one of the cars.

Cox met Howard Hughes when he asked him to carry passengers he could not accumulate on his airline, TWA.

“With overbooked airlines, he (Cox) would swoop in and cut a deal with them to fly the passengers,” said Harris.

Cox sold the City of Cape May its gaslights, he said. Cox purchased them when the City of Philadelphia was scrapping the lights, he said.

Harris called his grandfather a “walking encyclopedia who was fun to be around.” An accurate account of Cox’s days exists. He kept a diary from the age of six.

Cox was friends with Dr. Joseph Salvatore, founder of Naval Air Station Wildwood at the county airport. The hangar the museum occupies once house Cox’s airline.

Harris said an airplane wing remains at the museum at the top of the hangar which is currently inaccessible. He said Salvatore told him when the wind blows, check stubs from United States Overseas Airlines come out of the rafters.

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