Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Coincidence or Destiny

by Bill Holmes

It always amazes me how one thing leads to another. One memory leads to another and another. How you can now do a Google search and wind up going on 100 tangents then wonder what the hell were you originally looking for? Something like that happened again in the last few days.

It started over a week ago when somebody posted a picture of the old Imeson Airport on a Jacksonville Florida Facebook page. That got me thinking. Then a few days later a nostalgic Jacksonville website, Vintage Jacksonville, posted a different picture of the Imeson terminal/adminiit'setion building. That got me thinking some more.
Imeson Airport Terminal

I took my first two ever flights from Imeson Airport in Jacksonville. I remember my first two flights but I don't remember which one was first and which was second. They happened about the same time but were completely different experiences. For the purposes of the story flow I'll report my initial scheduled commercial flight first although it may have been second. This flight was from Jacksonville to Newark, New Jersey one summer when I was around 12 years old. I was flying to New Jersey to spend an extended stay with my Northern relatives in NJ and Pennsylvania. Somehow my parents were going to wind up in NJ later in the summer and we would all drive back to Florida. My dad typically had to run conferences and travel several times a year so I suspect he had to be somewhere close to NJ that summer and he and Mom drove together to his conference location then she continued on to where I was. Dad would then fly in or hitch a ride with someone to NJ when the conference was over. There were a ton of people who transferred from New Jersey to Jacksonville with the Prudential. People were always combining business and family travel/vacations with other families. One other summer my Mom and I drove to NJ with another Prudential mom and her two kids. The two dads met us after their business conference. I digress, but it was a cooperative effort in the days when travel was more difficult and flying was expensive. As it turned out, someone from the Prudential was flying to Newark the same day as I was. My dad was the manager of the Conference and Travel department for the Prudential's Jacksonville office. They were essentially the in-house travel bureau for the company. They booked all the plane (and train), car rental and hotel reservations for the employees so of course dad knew who was travelling when I was. So, although I was technically flying as an unaccompanied minor I had an adult chaperon. Dad made sure we were sitting together. I don't remember having any fear of flying or trepidation about flying alone. I suspect my Mom was way more nervous than I was. I was actually excited and probably thinking I was kind of a big shot. Flying wasn't that common in the 1950's and a minor flying alone was really rare. I'm pretty sure dad got a deal on the ticket.

Eastern Prop Plane
I know it was a prop plane and the seats were two by two with one narrow aisle. It was either Eastern or National Airlines, both out of business now. I think I might have gotten some wings from the stewardess, there were no flight attendants back then. I'm not sure about the wings, because dad used to bring those home sometimes along with other airline souvenirs. I seem to remember at least part of the flight was at night. One of my aunts met me at the Newark airport, a big ugly hanger looking terminal. Back then there was no security and no unaccompanied minor paperwork. The stewardesses checked in on me during the flight, but I think that was probably because they knew my dad and knew who I was. I may have been the only kid on the plane too, certainly the only unaccompanied one. It was an uneventful flight and after checking out the plane I probably mostly looked out the window and maybe read a little. I know I didn't nap. A non-stop flight now is about 2:30 so back then it was surely over three hours.

Eastern Airlines L-188
My second flight, or maybe my first, was a public relations new product introduction by Eastern Airlines. In late 1958 Eastern bought their first Lockheed L-188 Electra planes. They were put into service in early 1959. Somewhere around that time and before the planes were put into service at Imeson, Eastern held some take a look junket flights. Since my dad worked in the travel field and funneled a lot of Prudential dollars to the airlines, he was one of the invited guests. He also had enough pull to get his young son on board too. The big deal about the L-188 was that it had turboprop engines rather than the usual piston engines of the time. It's basically a jet engine with a propeller. The L-188 was the biggest turboprop commercial plane of it's time. Not big by today's standards, the plane seated between 60 and 100 depending on the interior configuration. I remember the plane being shiny new. Before the flight people were standing in the aisles with drinks and snacks. I don't remember any other kids on the plane. The actual flight was probably about 45 minutes or less. We flew east out over the ocean and I seem to remember heading south and then circling back to Jacksonville. That is the only time on a commercial flight I took off and landed at the same airport. I've had flights cancelled and a couple of times didn't make it to the intended destination but never had to circle back to the start. Of course we were treated like royalty before during and after the flight. There were Eastern executives and pilots mingling among the Jacksonville politicians and businessmen. There were several stewardess and others keeping the glasses full. My dad had to do some schmoozing too. I was just there for the plane ride. It was very cool and a pretty big deal.

US Navy P-3
Now to the strange part. The L-188 was never a big commercial success. There were a couple of early crashes and a major design change and retrofit. That kind of dampened the demand. Only 170 were built. Also, while a turboprop has some advantages over true jets there are also some disadvantages. Jets were the future of aviation. So, what became of the L-188? With some modifications it became the Lockheed P-3 Orion. A Navy anti-submarine and surveillance aircraft. Over forty years after my PR junket flight my son, a career Navy aviator, found himself in a P-3 squadron. He's logged far more hours in that airframe than I ever did. It's amazing that those model planes are still in service and it's even more amazing that my son would be flying in them. I'm probably one of a small number of civilians who ever flew in an L-188. I'm glad I could check out the air worthiness of the plane those many years ago for my son. The P-3 military version has been much more successful. Over 750 have been built. They have been in service for the US Navy and Japanese, Australian and Brazilian armed forces. The over 50 year old design is finally being replaced by the Navy. The Boeing P-8 Poseidon began testing this year.
US Navy P-8

I never realized the L-188 and P-3 was basically the same plane until I began digging into my first, or maybe second, flight from the old Imeson Airport in Jacksonville. What will trigger the next search and revelation?


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