And Then There Was One
Ten airplanes that are the last still flying.
- By Stephen Joiner
- Air & Space magazine, March 2007
© Philip Makanna/Ghosts
(Page 2 of 3)
All-metal, low-wing, and streamlined, the 247 was the world’s first modern airliner. The 10-passenger 247, with reclining seats, soundproofed cabin, and a 20-hour coast-to-coast timetable, launched air travel’s golden era in 1933. Three decades later, NC13347 languished at a cropdusting airstrip in Taft, California, ingloriously deteriorating from insecticide exposure. In 1980 Seattle’s Museum of Flight began a 14-year restoration. “We tore it apart and rebuilt it from the ground up,” says Frank Leathley, a former Boeing engineer and a volunteer on the Boeing-supported project (see “One Good Year,” Feb./Mar. 1997). Featuring vintage United Airlines “Mainliner” colors and a 1939 interior (“More legroom than you get today,” says Leathley), the last 247 is flown by another volunteer, Boeing 787 chief project pilot Mike Carriker. “It’s an appreciation of what it was once like to really fly,” he says of the low, slow experience. When Carriker test-flies the 787 this year, he’ll be captain of Boeing’s newest and oldest airliners.
Known on Pan Am’s island-hopping routes as “Baby Clippers,” only two were privately owned: Harold Vanderbilt’s opulent air yacht, and the stripped-down, flush-riveted N440, which was delivered to Howard Hughes in 1937. N440 was Hughes’ pet plane; he used it to practice water landings in Nevada’s Lake Mead and to give unlogged flight training to Hollywood starlets. He kept it ready 24/7 in a guarded hangar in Houston until he died. The late Ron Van Kregten, an aircraft collector, acquired the S-43 in 1977, and veteran pilot Jesse Bootenhoff began providing rare glimpses at fly-ins. The mystique of Hughes’ amphibian captivated even seen-it-all Oshkosh crowds. “They were lining up so fast to get in, I couldn’t get out,” says Bootenhoff. Baby Clippers star in Art Deco travel posters, but the only one still flying maintains a low profile at Brazoria County Airport in Texas. “Most people have no idea one still exists,” says Bootenhoff.
Cinema II Glider
For idle youth during the Great Depression, a 20:1 glide ratio was a positive economic indicator. Works Progress Administration vocational classes distributed kit versions of the Frankfort Sailplane Company’s popular Cinema glider to unemployed teenagers across the country. After assembly, students got a paycheck—and flight time with an instructor. Only Dean Kramer’s two-seat Cinema (made during the WPA era) still flies. NC24185 was grounded for 40 years before a revamp; it’s now “as original and authentic as we can get it,” says Kramer. When it came time to paint the glider, he followed the original color scheme of burgundy and silver. “It draws a good deal of attention in a lineup of basic-white modern gliders,” he notes. Though his restoration of the sole surviving Cinema has earned international recognition, Kramer considers himself a temporary caretaker: “For me, bringing it back to life for the next generation is what it’s about.”
“That thing saved my life,” Vietnam veterans occasionally tell Mark DiCiero. The first chopper in the helicopter war, CH-21B assault helicopters were sent to Vietnam as early as December 1961. Its stretched, bent fuselage inspired the nickname “Flying Banana.” Bell UH-1 “Hueys” soon replaced Flying Bananas in the assault role, but H-21s continued to fly troop transport and medical evacuation missions. “It pulled a lot of people out of bad situations,” says DiCiero. N64606 had already been written off by one major museum when DiCiero found it in 1989 in Chino, California. “They pretty much assured us there was no way we would ever get it flying, nor keep it flying,” recalls DiCiero. Ten thousand restoration hours later, it became the first of a vintage fleet at Classic Rotors Museum in Ramona, California—and is still the last Banana flying.