All those Wonderful Stories
Colonel Soriano & the Trip Around the World
From the Journal of Captain Frank Kennedy
Do you think that anyone has ever been sent around the world by mistake? Ferdinand Magellan? No. Phineas Fogg? Not him either. Francis V. Kennedy? He’s the one – it’s absolutely true.
In the early days of Transocean our most influential customer was a wealthy Philippine businessman named Colonel Soriano who had been on Douglas Macarthur’s staff after he waded ashore on his return.
Soriano was reputably the 11th richest man in the world. He owned the San Miguel Brewery in Manila, the Lone Star Brewery in Texas, the Lonestar brewery in Kansas City and many other businesses throughout the world. He had other business as well, including gold mines. He also owned Philippine Air Lines, which is where
Transocean’s part came in. Soriano wanted to have his own private airplane to go around the world, taking care of different interests. Since Transocean started PAL (Philippine Air Lines) and was operating it between SFO (San Francisco Airport) and Manila, he turned the project over to Transocean Air Lines.
We found a surplus B17 bomber from WWII and plushed it all up inside to his specifications and were to furnish a flight crew from our regular pilots who had flown the B17 in WWII. This was such an important customer that no other than the president of our company himself, Orvis Nelson, was scheduled to take it on the first trip which would go completely around the world – east to west. Sam Wilson, who I knew on a first name basis, was vice president and he would head a back up crew when Orvis could not be away from his office. Sam had flown B17’s in the Air Force. They needed a copilot.
Our second daughter, Jeane, was born about two weeks before and I did not want to go off on a long trip. But I also wanted to keep my job and that meant to do what you’re told and not rock the boat. Everyone wanted a chance to fly this plane so when I got a call that Sam wanted me as copilot, I packed up for a month long trip. It didn’t bother me that I hadn’t flown the B17. We were to take it empty to Manila, pick up Soriano’s party, then go on to Paris. I assumed Sam would give me some landings and check me out as we crossed the Pacific.
Sam hadn’t flown the plane in a long time, however, and he wanted to use every opportunity for his own practice. I didn’t get a single take-off or landing all the way to Paris. We crossed the Pacific, stopping at Honolulu, Wake Island, and Guam and were the envy of all the crews laying-over at these bases.
After a few days layover in Manila, we continued with the Soriano party, then aboard, stopping at Bangkok, New Delhi, Karachi, Cairo, Rome, and Bordeaux. We stayed overnight in Karachi and Cairo. At each stop, Soriano had short business meetings with local managers of his businesses. At Bordeaux, Soriano told us he wanted to spend some time in Spain. Since Bordeaux was not a very interesting place for a long layover, he would take a train to Spain and we were to take the plane to Paris and check in at a hotel and wait in a “more interesting” environment. We were in Paris one month before he was ready to proceed to New York. Orvis wanted himself or Sam to be in Oakland at all times, so when Sam left me in charge and went back Orvis could then come to France and take the plane on around to New York. I asked Sam to send a flight engineer familiar with the B17 to be with us when the flight continued. He either forgot or thought it was not necessary. Orvis showed up with only Eedi, his wife.
Orvis met with me as soon as he got to Paris and began asking questions about the plane. When he began to get too many “I don’t know”s he said, “I thought you were supposed to know all about this plane.” When I reminded him that I came to the company from the Navy were they don’t have B17s he shrugged it off as if I was overstating my ignorance.
We took a ride out to Orly Field on the day before we planned to leave and he made a couple takeoffs and landings with me in the right seat starting engines and handling gear, flaps and engine controls as Sam had directed me on the trip from Manila.
We took off early next morning to pick up Soriano and his group at Bordeaux and took off for Shannon Ireland. This was a relatively short trip and we didn’t have to use our extended range fuel tanks.
The tanks, called “Tokyo tips” were in the outer wing panels and had the simple design of just draining down hill into the four main fuel tanks. Each wing had a tip tank that drained into the 2 tanks on that side but in plushing up the plane with fancy lining and adding carpet and washroom they had covered up many labels, pipes, cables, etc. I didn’t know where the turn on valves for these tip tanks were when we landed at Shannon. We would need them on the Shannon to New York leg. I was desperate. Oh yes… these valves could only be turned on in flight, not off, and you must wait until the fuel in the main tanks was used for several hours so that there was space for this gas to run into.
As soon as we had landed I began to inquire of the ground crew if there was any mechanic among them with B17 time. I fortunately ran into a former flight engineer from Oakland, Lou Silva, who had been in Oakland when the San Miguel was remodeled. He showed me where the valves were – in the enclosure under the wash bowl of the toilet. Two handles, when pulled would turn on the valves by cable. I was greatly relieved.
Orvis had been busy and hadn’t gotten much sleep for several nights. After we took off from Shannon, in late evening, he left the cockpit for the lounge and slept for most of the flight. The valves worked – Chris Angelos, our radio operator, held the controls while I went back and pulled the handles. We had no auto pilot. Before the night was over I knew how sleepy Lindberg must have been while crossing the same ocean – in the other direction.
I could only fly as copilot at that time because of my seniority and lack of hour experience. Any of the copilots would give anything to get a trip with the company president or director of operations and here I was, off on a round the world flight with both of them.
When we reached New York, Orvis informed me the following day that Soriano had business there and would not be continuing on to the west coast for a week. I had been away from home for six weeks. And just before that I had been off on a trip when my daughter Jeane was born. In my disappointment, all I could answer was “oh ----!”(Expletive) Orvis didn’t say anything to me but turned to the station manager and told him to get me a ticket to Oakland on United Air Lines. I thought I was in the dog house, but I was going home!
United only had a seat for me in 1st class and my seat mate happened to be the Irish consul to San Francisco. He wanted to talk and I wanted to sleep. I was only listening with one ear until I found what an interesting old fellow he was. When he found out that I had just been through Shannon Airport, he wanted to get my impression on everything about it. I gave him my opinion – good & bad. I didn’t like warm milk for my breakfast cereal, etc. He made notes. I also told him of the pleasant things and one of these was the musical voice of the women on the public address system throughout the terminal. I was surprised when he told me that it was not happenstance. Competition had been held throughout the country to find the girls with the most pleasant voices.
After a couple weeks off at home and having a regular Pacific trip, I was surprised to get a call from dispatch telling me to get ready to go to New York. Soriano had ended his stay in New York and was now ready to continue on and Orvis wanted ME as copilot.
Bill Kennedy, a senior United Air Lines pilot, was one of the early backers of Transocean. His son, also Bill, had come out of the Air Force, where he had flown B17s, and just started to work for Transocean a short time before this San Miguel around the world flight. Years later - in 1972 - I was instructing for JAL on the Boeing 727s at Moses Lake, Washington. Bill Kennedy Jr. came for some transition training and was in town for a couple weeks. He told an amazing story of his part in this drama.
Because of his experience in B17s, he had been scheduled for that trip around the world, not me. I could see then what had happened. I had been with the company since it started. The first year I was assistant maintenance manager and Sam and Orvis knew me, or who I was. Probably when Sam was told that “Kennedy” had B17 time, he said, “That’s great, it will be nice to have Frank with me.” I knew Ray Foster, the chief dispatcher, very well and when “Kennedy” was mentioned, I would have been the one he thought of. Bill was preparing for the trip and when he didn’t get a call at the expected departure time, assumed that there had been a delay. Departure time had not been definitely set. When he did call, he was told that the plane was on its way to Manila.
“What!?” He said, “I’m supposed to be on it. Who’s the copilot?”
“Let’s see…Kennedy is.”
“Oooooh…I think there’s been a big mistake”, he moaned and hung up.
Anyway, I was definitely sent around the world by mistake. I may have the distinction of being the only one in history this has happened to. I wonder if the Guinness Book of Records has a category to cover this. I’d better check.