Sunday, April 24, 2016

Fred Kelly hit with tragedy, then glory once again late in life

Starting an airline was no easy matter. There was little past experience to learn from and they were dealing with new technology — the “airoplane” — that was very unreliable and even dangerous. But there’s always been something about aviation that captures the heart of adventurous people. Fred Warren Kelly was one of them.

After winning the 110-meter high hurdles at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, followed by a track meet where the distraction of seeing his first airplane cost him the race against Jim Thorpe, Fred was hooked.

But it wasn’t just pilots. Mechanics and other ground personnel also fell in love with the flying business. To them it wasn’t just a job — it was a calling. They put their hearts and souls into building a huge new industry. The world would never be the same — and America led the charge.

Flying in the early days was a freewheeling enterprise. Western’s first route between L.A. and Salt Lake City with a stop in Vegas generally followed the snaking Union Pacific railroad tracks. “The gleam of the rails were the early day radio beams that guided the flyers,” Fred said. “In bad weather, the pilots even made it a strict rule to follow the right-hand side of the track to avoid collisions with the opposite bound airplane.

“Arrangements were made with ranchers, railroad clerks and others to phone in weather information. The Union Pacific Railroad cooperatively offered the use of its phone boxes along the track.”

Landing in the desert to use those phones was no big deal. On one flight, Kelly and another pilot spotted a sheepherder with his flock in a field near Milford, Utah. “I could see his stove burning,” Fred continued, “and I knew those guys were famous for their sourdough biscuits, so we just set down in the field and had lunch with him.”

On another occasion, his passenger was Bebe Daniels — a top movie star of those times. During the flight, he saw Jimmy James flying in the opposite direction, and he knew that Jimmy always wanted to meet Bebe, so he signaled for them to land.

They did, and out in the open desert the two pilots and Bebe had a nice half-hour chat, jumped back into their planes and took off in opposite directions — both arriving a half-hour late.

Both pilots reported “headwinds!”

During those early open-cockpit years, Western “only” had 13 forced landings due to mechanical problems — but “a lot more” due to weather. “We couldn’t get any medals for forced landings,” Fred said, “because the mechanics were too good.” — They even worked on the Spirit of St. Louis when Charles Lindbergh visited Western’s home base Vail Field in 1927, while on an aviation publicity tour of America after his historic solo flight across the Atlantic.

Lindy also visited Boise.

Despite the mishaps, Western was doing well and turning a profit. By 1930, they were flying bigger and better planes, though on some routes they were still flying mail in open-cockpit planes — and carrying the occasional brave passenger.

But for the L.A. to San Francisco route, they introduced the big canvas-covered Fokker F-32 — a spectacular new passenger aircraft that carried 32 passengers. It was the most luxurious plane in the world at that time — but it didn’t last.

Four engines were mounted under the wing — two on each side, aligned front and back in single pods. The engines turned out to be under-powered and the front engines overheated the back ones. The F-32 was a colossal failure and scrapped after only two years. One of the planes ended up as a gas station on Wilshire Boulevard in L.A.

The F-32 was quickly followed by the all-metal Boeing 247D 10-passenger aircraft. Western’s open-cockpit days were over.

As the Great Depression grew worse, Western almost went under. Pressure from the U.S. Post Office forced them to merge with Transcontinental Air Transport to form Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA). It was an unholy alliance and soon fell apart. TWA continued flying — taking most of Western best routes — leaving Western with only its original L.A. to Salt Lake run plus San Diego.

Many Western employees joined TWA — but not Fred Kelly. He wasn’t about to leave the company he helped put on the map.

Fred was a top-notch pilot and an excellent instructor and they made him chief pilot. He loved night flying and instrument flying — which at that time was still rudimentary. When certain instrument flying techniques hadn’t been devised yet, he devised them — including the “race track” holding pattern. (Pilots will know what that is.)

Fred admitted that he didn’t know if he was first with that idea or not, but “I never heard of it before,” he said.

He took his job seriously but remained ever the prankster. Once he led a group of Salt Lake pilots on a familiarization trip to Ketchum in Sun Valley that turned out to be a romp. “I was sitting in the back with some of the boys and we were razzing the boys in the cockpit. I guess they got a little tired of it, so they locked the cockpit door.”

The pilots in the cabin pulled the pins out of the door hinges and then told them on the intercom that there was a problem in the back. As soon as they came to check it out, the door fell of the hinges. “We really gave them a horselaugh!”

Throughout the ’30s, the company continued to grow their route system by acquiring other small carriers. One of them was National Parks Airways in 1937, which extended Western’s Salt Lake service north to Great Falls, with stops at Pocatello, Idaho Falls, Butte and Helena.

NPA originally flew single-engine Fokker Super Universal aircraft that carried six passengers in a cabin while the pilot sat in an open cockpit. Later, they switched to 247s — which joined Western fleet of newer model 247Ds, Douglas DC-2s and DC-3s after the buyout.

The merger virtually doubled Western’s route system, and linked Idaho and Montana with single-carrier service to Los Angeles and other major cities, making commercial aviation an everyday part of life in the region.

When World War II broke out, Western was assigned to fly men and material to Alaska, using the company’s DC-3s — designated C-47s by the Army Air Corps. It was called “Operation Sourdough,” and Fred was in charge. It was tough duty.

“Airports were still dirt strips,” he said. “There were no radio navigation facilities. Sleeping bags aboard the planes gave pilots slim hope of catching up on sleep… Gasoline hoses snapped like glass. Altimeters would be off a thousand feet either way.” The cold would cause the compass fluid to seal the instruments “as though encased in a Jell-O pudding.”

After the war, Fred suffered a slight heart pain. He flew for a short while, and then asked to be grounded. “I didn’t want to fly with a heart condition,” he said. “Doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with me but my heart still hurt.” He was assigned public relations duty, talking before civic groups and even appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show.

In 1950, he took a leave of absence and tried several other jobs but returned to Western the following year and was assigned security work. Becoming increasingly discouraged, Fred submitted his resignation only to face harder times ahead:

His only son Fred Jr. was killed in a car accident, then his wife Marie died of smoke inhalation when their home in Glendale, Calif., caught fire. And his dog was hit by a car. He retired before airlines offered pensions and Fred had to sell his house and ended up living in Shady Acres Trailer Park in Long Beach, Calif., and sold shoes, sox and ladies hosiery for a living.

In 1964, his old company found him and invited him to come and visit. He was 74 and still standing erect and proud. There was a warm twinkle in his eye and a boyish, almost shy smile lighting up his face when he talked about the old days.

Western gave him a modest pension and for two years he toured America from Washington, D.C., to Hawaii on a paid publicity assignment. In Honolulu, he met Nadine, widow of his Olympics teammate Duke Kahanamoku.

Fred Kelly died in Applegate, Ore., near his old flying buddy Al DeGarmo in Florence on May 7, 1974. He was 82. His funeral was held at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, Calif., and the Church of the Wee Heather was packed with airline people.

Fred was very proud when his biography appeared in two parts in the Journal of the American Aviation Historical Society. “When you gonna write Part Three?” he’d ask with a twinkle in his eye.

Part Three is a never-ending story written around the world by those in aviation who follow in the footsteps of flyers like Fred Kelly and the thousands of other early birds who led the way.

Original article can be found here:

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