All those Wonderful Stories

Cold Cash

By Joseph Stachon, Captain

During January 1950 my crew and I made several flights hauling gold bullion from Tokyo to Oakland by way of Shemya and Anchorage. I notice in my log book a notation after the date for a flight on January 6, 1950:   "6-1/2 million dollars in gold bullion on board Cockpit heater failed."  That was more than forty-four years ago, but in spite of my failing memory, I don't think I'll ever forget that flight. The crew members whose names I remember were Dutch Haaskamp, flight engineer; Johnny Hay, navigator; and I believe the co-pilot was Norm Johnson.        

 

We departed Shemya, climbed to our cruising altitude which was probably 9 or 1I thousand feet.  Throughout the flight thus far we were on instruments almost constantly, in heavy snow. The temperature was very cold, about minus 50 degrees C. Suddenly, the cockpit heater failed. We were unable to restart it by the usual emergency procedures.  Very soon the cockpit was like the inside of a freezer.  I remember Johnny Hay trying to hold a pencil steady with two hands while he tried to plot our course. He had joined our crew in Tokyo and had come from Hawaii so he didn't have any warm clothes with him. He even took off his trousers and wrapped his legs with newspapers in an effort to keep warm.

There was no way to avoid the instrument flight conditions due to traffic and the mountainous islands below us, so all we could do was shiver and keep flying.  Next I noticed that the co-pilot's flight instruments were beginning to give erratic indications and then tumbled completely.  Suddenly I remembered from long ago when I first took instrument flight training I was told that the gyros in the flight instruments can't stand

extreme cold because the oil in the bearings of the gyros congeals and the gyros will fail. I knew we had to keep at least one set of flight instruments warm somehow, and soon, or we would be in big trouble.

All of our DC4s were converted Air Force C54s and fortunately they all had a signaling light called an Aldis Lamp.  This was a very powerful spotlight with a pistol grip and a trigger which the military used to send morse code signals visually to the tower or anyone on the ground or sea in an emergency. The bulb in this lamp was of such high wattage, it put out a lot of heat. We found that pointing this light at the captain's flight instruments kept them somewhat warmer and they continued to operate.

The cabin heaters were separate and independent of the nose heater and there was one small port that fed warm air into the rear of the cockpit, but very little heat appeared to be coming out of that port.  Something had to be done to get the cockpit warm, and quickly, because we didn't know how long the makeshift set-up with the Aldis Lamp would continue to work.  So Dutch Haaskamp came up with the suggestion that he rip into the cabin overhead lining, cut into the cabin main distribution pipe, stuff it with blankets and force most of the flow out of the cabin heater through the small opening in the rear of the cockpit.  We agreed it was worth a try so Dutch, a giant of a man, proceeded back to the cabin with "crash axe" in hand.


Picture this scene:  A DC4 loaded with several tons of gold bullion roaring along through the frigid Arctic skies under solid instrument conditions; I'm sitting in the pilot's seat, my eyes glued to the last remaining operative flight instrument, the co-pilot is pointing the Aldis Lamp at that instrument to keep it warm and Dutch Hasskamp is chopping his way through the cabin ceiling to get at the main heater duct -- just a routine Transocean Air Lines flight.


   In a few minutes hot air in large volume was whistling through the small port in the back of the cockpit. The gold was cold but the cockpit was cozy and the flight instruments were soon back to normal. I wonder what the maintenance people back in Oakland had to say when they saw Dutch's "hatchet job."