Hello and welcome to the Round Table. Tonight we’ll be talking to author and journalist Tim Lake about his book, Hang on and Fly. A veteran of newspapers, radio and television reporting, Tim is co-anchor for the ABC affiliate in Albany, NY (News10.com).
Welcome, Mr. Lake!
Thank you, please call me Tim.
Alright, Tim. Your book, Hang on and Fly, talks about the early days of air travel, before all the
safety regulations we have today. There were the beginnings of regular
airlines, but there were also a lot of “unscheduled” flights. Were
these like Uber drivers with airplanes?
The non-scheduled (non-skeds) airlines of North America, which I write about in my book, Hang on and Fly, were regulated similarly to the major airlines but they did not have to follow such strict rules for aviation as did the majors. Like Uber drivers of today, they were independent businesses which grabbed some of the passenger fares from the major airlines while not being required the follow all of the detailed rules and regulations of the majors.
When Congress passed the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 and imposed a large set of safety rules and regulations on passenger airlines, certain members of Congress inserted provisions to protect small independent operators, mainly bush pilots in Alaska, cargo and fruit haulers in the Caribbean, and sight-seeing and tourist airlines of Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, and the Caribbean. It was believed that if these small aviation operators had to suddenly follow all of the rules in the new Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938, it would put them out of business. Therefore, the Act said that if these small aviation companies did not post a regular schedule of flights, they could continue flying as they had in the past and not adhere to many of the regulations in the Act. I have outlined some of these in the book. Congress also used this provision as a method of instigating the start-up of small passenger aviation companies which would fly the less popular routes between smaller cities in America. These were routes the majors did not want to pursue because they did not provide enough profit. The majors, at this time, were focused on routes such as Chicago to New York, Miami to New York and Chicago, San Francisco to Chicago and New York, Washington to Chicago, etc.
However, the irregular or nonscheduled airlines (the names were used interchangeably) took advantage of these lax regulations and began flying routes and promoting their “irregular” schedules as if they flew on a regular basis. By 1951, the apex of profitability for these airlines that I’ve described in my book, the non-skeds were mostly operating as if they were major airlines with regular flights at highly reduced rates, in poorly maintained airplanes, with inadequately trained pilots, and taking chances and risk every step of the way. The result was the incredible repetition of crashes that I’ve outlined in Hang on and Fly. It was a very emotional period in our history as Americans were literally scared to death of flying because of all the crashes. But, they did it anyway because it was so convenient over slower rail travel and because it was so prestigious.
You focus in on one particular flight, a plane that crashed near your
family’s farm. There were survivors, stranded in the forest for days.
Was this an unsked flight? Is that why no one knew where to look for
Continental Charters Flight 44-2 was a nonsked flight from a small nonscheduled airline based in Miami. It was the epitome of the nonskeds of the day. The company operated with only a handful of surplus airplanes and skimped on most every measure needed to operate because of a tight budget. For example, some of its pilots were also the mechanics who worked on the aircraft. Pilots and Stewardesses were mostly part-time on-call employees for when flights filled up with passengers. Many of them, but not all, were inadequately trained or had little experience with the aircraft. The airline did not fly on a regular schedule and offered none of the luxuries of the major airlines.
The C-46 airplane flying as Flight 44-2 crashed because of a series of poor decisions made by the pilots and their inability to understand the conditions and terrain into which they were flying. I explain in the book why the pilots did not realize there were mountains along their path.
The primary reason why the wreckage was never discovered by rescue planes searching for them was because of an unusual three-day episode of fog that covered the region during and immediately following the crash. I explain the nature of the fog that enveloped a large region in the days after the crash. Airports had only rudimentary radar systems. There was no GPS, and ground teams did not realize the flight had deviated from its intended route between Pittsburgh and Buffalo. Additionally, residents of Pennsylvania and New York State continually flooded police with false and inaccurate reports of the crash location. Search and rescue methods were still evolving in this era and it became evident soon afterward when it was revealed that no one considered the fact that the northern-most reports of people hearing a low flying plane stopped in the woods near Salamanca, NY.
I have described the crash of Flight 44-2 as the longest stranding of a large group of airplane crash survivors without rescue in North America. I use the description “without rescue” because, in reality, they were not rescued. They had to save themselves.
When you write about this crash, there’s a strong feeling of being
there, an up-to-the-minute unraveling of the timeline that’s detailed
and visual. It’s clear that you researched this thoroughly, but
there’s more than research in the telling. I wonder, do you think your
career in broadcast journalism has influenced your writing style?
Yes, my career in Broadcast Television influenced my style for writing Hang on and Fly. I’ve worked for TV stations in South Carolina, Texas, Pennsylvania, and New York for more than 30 years. For TV News we have to write and present stories in a brief and concise, but descriptive style, while continually looking for emotional elements to attract viewers. I routinely hammer out anywhere from two thousand to eight thousand words a day while writing or re-writing for television newscasts. It has been great training for writing long form narrative nonfiction.
Additionally, working in television, with a background in photography and newspaper journalism, certainly helped me with research and presenting the descriptive detail in Hang on and Fly. In television, you learn to focus on topics and subjects that are emotional for viewers. While researching and writing Hang on and Fly, I continually asked myself if each segment would draw the reader emotionally closer to the subject matter, much like we have to do in television. Also, in preparing a television report, the pictures and sound typically present the best elements of a story. Without these luxuries for the book, I naturally went into much more descriptive detail. Furthermore, I drew upon my personal experiences of being in the woods of the Allegheny Mountains, on the farms of Cattaraugus County, inside the C-46 airplane, and nearly inside the minds of the reporters who covered the scene. I wrote as if I was one of them because I’ve been there, many times.
Some of the material in Hang on and Fly is taken from personal diaries which, naturally, are written from deep within the characters’ most personal thoughts. This material, with approval from the people who contributed the diaries, I used extensively to paint a dramatic personal picture of the characters. In some cases, the diaries were compared with first-person accounts written or dictated by the plane crash survivors. I was able to compare and contrast the separate accounts to come up with a more complete description of the events and the crash scenes.
How did all this research make you feel about flying? Are you paranoid now? Do you sit in the back?
Even after researching and writing Hang on and Fly, which included many, many detailed reports of plane crashes and their causes, I feel perfectly safe when flying. Over many years working as a news reporter, I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to fly in vintage World War I and II fighter and cargo airplanes, small privately-owned aircraft, modern military jets, helicopters while covering TV News, a charter jet flight into Mexico to cover news, and even piloting a mock dogfight in a Marchetti SF-260 propeller plane with Air Combat USA. However, I am not a licensed pilot. The most comfortable plane on which I’ve ever flown, was, by far, the old Braniff Airlines BAC-111 or the 727-200 aircraft that used to fly around Texas and into Mexico. With their wide luxurious plush leather seats and Braniff’s first-class service philosophy for the whole plane, I remember the Braniff flights as a pleasure unmatched by any other flight (except for those Continental freebies).
Finally, I’ll end with an amusing story about modern passenger aviation and first class. When I worked at a TV station in Houston, a friend who worked for Continental Airlines, asked me to narrate some training videos that he was preparing for airlines employees to fulfill their continuing flight safety training requirements. I narrated the videos and performed several on-camera segments while walking around various sections of a Continental Airlines passenger plane. For many years afterward, nearly every time I took a flight on Continental Airlines, the flight attendants would recognize me from their training videos, approach my coach class seat and move me to first class where they would shower me with excellent service, including fine wine. I met many, many great airlines employees through those training videos. It gave me a great appreciation of the difficult but important jobs they perform and how they are critical to passenger safety during all flight events.
And they recognized you as someone who knew how difficult the job was. Nice way to travel. (glances at clock) Well, we’re out of time. Thanks for stopping by, Tim.
For more about Tim’s book, see this page: Hang on and Fly.