Guest Editor Dave Nichols
Spring Break with Lake Central
Ah, Spring; better yet, Spring Break. College freshman year, spit and vinegar, time to take it easy for a week in 1965. I couldn’t afford to traipse off to Florida but a break in any form was good and it would give me plenty of time to hang around my local Cessna dealer. I would kick it off with a flight home since I loved big piston twins and would attempt to talk Dad into paying for a ticket. He was a tough sell and a non-aviation aficionado. The bus or train was good enough for me, he said, often. Oh, I forgot to mention that my college was only 110 miles from home. Dad figured it was almost close enough to walk.
College was near Cleveland, Ohio and home was Erie, Pennsylvania: that meant Allegheny Airlines territory. Their Martin 202s and Convair 440s were plying the Newark – Cleveland and Washington (National) – Cleveland runs which made mandatory stops at ERI. The 202s both intrigued and terrified me at the same time, with their flame belching out the stack or the intake (each engine would take turns). Oil would constantly drool out of every crevice on the nacelle. But I was hooked on the airline biz and had already planned to go into it after graduation.
CLE-ERI was a whopping 40 minute flight and I was looking for a way to increase the time and experience. I envied my classmates who actually flew somewhere beyond a half-hour. I discovered that I could fly from Cleveland to Akron on a Lake Central Airlines DC-3, then change planes and continue on a Lake Central Convair 340 through Youngstown and on to Erie. Allegheny’s fare was $10 but Lake Central said they would take me for $12.75. What a deal! I would get 1:20 in the air plus a plane change and two stops in the middle for only $2.75 more! Lake Central didn’t comprehend my aviation excessiveness but was happy to collect the $12.75 and I probably became the first person to fly CLE-ERI through the triangle of CAK and YNG. My parents would never understand so I just told them I was coming in on Lake Central – they didn’t keep up with which airlines flew where and probably wouldn’t ask.
Copyright Photo: Christian Volpati Collection. Lake Central Airlines operated a total of 23 venerable Douglas DC-3s including the former military variants, including the pictured DC-3A-363 N41831 (msn 3275) painted in the 1960 color scheme.
The departure evening was at hand and I just knew this would be a memorable experience. The DC-3s were about gone from airline service so this made the first leg important to me. I still remember that night like it happened five years ago; even one of the N numbers is still tattooed on the aviation side of my brain. Stationary front which meant low ceiling, drizzle and fog. Lots of fog. My 6:00 p.m. departure to Akron was way behind. The DC-3 was slogging through the crud and was still somewhere in Indiana. Every airline’s schedules were in tatters. It was getting dark, now. After two hours of delay, Lake Central had a Convair 340 flight make it in to Cleveland. They added a flag stop to Akron and took us on. I was deflated to lose the DC-3 ride but happy that at least we were moving.
July 1965 Lake Central Route Map.
The inside of the Convair-Liner was damp, overly warm, and completely full of 44 worried travelers. Our takeoff from CLE was uneventful and we entered the clouds just after the gear hit the wells. The air was smooth and the twenty-five minute segment to CAK was routine. We never got above the solid overcast. The approach took us to minimums and the captain had just started to apply power for a go-around when he saw the strobe lights and plunked in for a landing. The ramp was sprinkled with Viscounts, DC-6s and Convairs. I deplaned.
Lake Central Schedules from Akron-Canton:
The Akron-Canton terminal was a sea of college students and businessmen. Collegians from at least six universities were camped out all over the gate areas. A few large transistor radios echoed out the latest Beatles hits, especially “I Feel Fine”. I’ll never forget the irony. Many had been there for five hours and the sad stories were growing. Some passengers were diverted into CAK and were waiting to see what their carriers were going to do. My LC connection was the epic voyage, flight 37, which began in Indianapolis and stopped at Dayton, Columbus, Akron, Youngstown and Erie enroute to Buffalo. This flight was impossible to keep on schedule in instrument weather.
Still an aviation novice but resourceful enough to call the control tower, I found that CAK was a temporary landable oasis as all airports north were now completely fogged in. Erie was up and down, so there was hope. My spirits were not buoyed when I saw my usual Erie-bound Allegheny Convair 440 taxi in. Allegheny didn’t even fly to Akron! Erie was too foggy and Cleveland socked in behind them, so they diverted to CAK and would bus the passengers on to ERI. I was deeply concerned but still hoping for my $12.75 worth of flying.
Copyright Photo: Christian Volpati. Sister aircraft and former United Airlines Convair 340-31 N73149 (msn 163) rests between flights at Baltimore (Friendship International Airport). LC acquired the airliner on February 27, 1961.
At nine-thirty, Lake Central 37 pulled up to the gate. It was N73123 (msn 42). The continuation of the flight was a “go”. However, the agent told us Erie didn’t look good at the moment but Youngstown had landing minimums. We boarded, about 10 of us, the remainder of the Convair was filled with through passengers.
Something was not right when I entered the cabin. The air was stuffy with a whiff of body odor. The passengers looked ashen. I asked around and was peppered with stories of weather delays at each stop and mechanical problems. The left engine had begun throwing sparks out the exhaust port enroute to Columbus. Since the exhaust outlet is over ten feet away from the engine on a CV340, that’s some powerful sparks. The engine was worked on but a volley of sparks reoccurred on the approach to CAK. Eyeballs along the left side had been pressed against the windows. I’m not an ultra brave soul but since no mechanic examined the bowels of the engine at Akron, I figured it was just an overly rich mixture and carbon flakes were being created and blown out. I dutifully took a window seat on the right side. Sitting next to me was a female co-ed about my age taking her first flight, very quiet but I figured she would be good conversation as the flight unfolded. Besides, I could teach her all the great stuff about Convairs…
Our aircraft was in the pre-takeoff area a long time. Each engine was run up twice. We were the only airplane out there. Flight 37 finally headed down the center stripe and the engines roared. Water spray from the fog being chewed up whipped off the propeller tips. The visibility was very short, quite dark and drizzly. It was a verrry long, extended take-off run. Passengers on the left side suddenly gasped as orange and red sparklies streamed by their windows. I didn’t know the exact length of Akron’s runway but I was aware the asphalt was modest and a sheer drop-off awaited any luckless aircraft at the end. Relief, the nose wheel raised. At that precise moment, just like every simulator check ride you ever heard of, one of the engines started to miss. It was the right engine, the good engine! The #2 radial was stuttering badly. I could see out of the corner of the window the red runway end lights zipping toward us. N73123 wallowed into the air. The Convair sagged like one of Jimmy Doolittle’s B-25s taking off from a carrier deck. The end of the runway flashed under us. All I could see in the white blaze of the landing lights were trees. Tall trees of every specie tried to duck from our assault. We were below the tops of some of them. I swear I could hear the peaks of pines brushing against our main gear tires. At this juncture, most everyone screamed. The young woman next to me fainted. I can still hear the air escaping from her mouth as she slumped in her seat. My colon begged to be emptied.
The beleaguered Convair stabilized after the gear came up. The right engine was not shut down. I’m convinced if it had been, we would have discovered why tree trunks win against aluminum. Once the power was reduced to climb configuration, the right engine smoothed out, much to everyone’s prayers. We were now bolstered from “sure death” mode to “maybe we can walk away with only injuries.” The CV340 climbed slowly through the black murk, the left engine still vomiting sparks but down to a shower a minute instead of continuous. No PA announcement was ever made.
The aircraft made four turns in a holding pattern above Youngstown. The first ILS approach resulted in a missed approach. Everyone bit their nails when the engines were pushed to full power. I was an emotional wreck, now. My face was flushed; I could no longer be a symbol of strength for my neighbor who awakened briefly. I was wickedly reminded of the old pilot psalm that reads: “It is better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than to be flying and wishing you were on the ground.” To our astonishment, the engines behaved this time and climbed us back to approach altitude.
We landed on the second attempt. There were no movie-like cheers from the passengers. Everyone was wrung out. We sat like zombies until the airstair door opened. The pilots certainly had enough. Lake Central bused us and I arrived home at 2:00 a.m. Even Disney couldn’t give you an experience like that for $12.75.
Epilogue: Every time I came across N73123 in the field I would always smile a half smile and just shake my head. This airplane went on to a full and very productive life. Converted to a 580 by Lake Central in 1967, absorbed into Allegheny in 1968 as N5843, then to Mountainwest Airlines, Nor-Fly (Norway) as a freighter, and to Canada with Kelowna Flightcraft. She was finally exported to New Zealand in 1997 where she was current with Air Freight NZ as ZK-KFH. That airframe logbook is very thick.
Write Dave Nichols at email@example.com
Read Dave previous articles:
What Allegheny Meant To Me: CLICK HERE
A Day with Southern Airways: CLICK HERE
Mohawk’s Incredible Weekends Unlimited: CLICK HERE
All timetables, maps and logos kindly suppled by Airline Timetables.