As I Recall: Part I
I save all my back issues of aviation magazines—literally, over 3000 pounds worth in the last 50 years. My wife calls me a “pack rat” — a “hoarder” — I tell her it is for “research”.
In reality, I do use them for research — if people want to know anything about an aircraft they are considering, I can usually find them a pilot report. Business use aside — the old magazines are just fun to look through!
If my own collection of magazines were not enough, people have given me a number of even older magazines — going back to 1950. Looking through the old magazines, I find advertisements for planes, products, and pilot accessories covering the last 60 years. In many cases, I can find the original introduction of many of the planes that we continue to fly today. In other cases, the ads turned out to be for a “flash in the pan” — a plane or product that was THOUGHT to be revolutionary, but just didn’t work out. Reading these archived advertisements is much like reading the old Sears catalogue from the beginning of the last century — we marvel at the dated technology and the price before inflation. While most of us can’t look into the future, it’s fun to look back at what was thought to be the “next big thing.”
I’ll try to introduce readers to the old printed pages — and make my own snark-filled commentary on them as well. DISCLAIMER: These ads do not depict current products or services available for purchase today. The material referenced is only for discussion and commentary. Nothing in this article should be construed as being applicable to the product or services as sold today.
The first magazine chosen is the December, 1962 edition of AOPA Pilot magazine, provided by Iowa reader Phil Carson. It featured a tip-tanked Cavalier P-51 Mustang on the cover. A later advertisement said “for the man who wants to go places in a hurry — cruise speed of 325 mph, with range up to 1720 miles (this was in the era of statute miles). Two-place, with lots of room for baggage, and full instrumentation.” No price was given — but the Cavlier was a reminder that business aviation in the 1950s and 60s often used converted WW II airplanes.
Inside the front cover — the new Bendix ADF featured a “tuning meter” to allow the pilot to get the best signal, rather than simply listening.
The Dornier DO-28 was featured — a 7-8 passenger twin-engine STOL aircraft from Germany. The aircraft was unique in that it mounted the engines on stub lower wings. I saw one in Oshkosh a few years ago. They never found a market in the U.S.
A perennial advertiser was Narco — and the “spokesperson” they invented was the fictional Nancy Narco (perhaps as well known to old-time aviators as “Betty Crocker” is to cooks!) “Nancy” wrote a monthly column extolling the virtues of the new crystal-controlled (as opposed to tunable) tranceivers—she introduced the “affordable” DME to GA. In this issue, she extolled the virtues of getting an instrument rating — differentiating the experience of flying with modern radios with that of many of the old-time pilots “who have had a bad taste of instruments with the old crackling, confusing four-course LF ranges, and needle/ball/airspeed.” She correctly predicted that “good airplanes with lots of range, good communications, static-free Omni navigation, DME, and lightweight navigation and safety make IFR just as easy as filing for VFR flight.”
Scott-Air advertised a pocket flare gun for pilots to signal aid in case of a forced landing. That’s carrying “be prepared” perhaps a little too far!
Piper advertised the Apache 235 — trying to fill a perceived need for an aircraft between the 160 hp Apache and the 250 hp Aztec. I checked the dealer book — only 110 were ever produced.
Avi-Master was trying to sell a kneeboard that allowed the pilot to cut up a sectional chart and install it on a scrolling kneeboard — as the trip progressed, the pilot would continue to turn the scroll to see what was ahead. Nobody mentioned what would happen if you had to deviate around weather and found yourself off from the cut-up chart.
For IFR pilots, the Avigator was mounted on a control wheel. It advertised as a “poor man’s DME” — calculating ground speed by radial and relative bearing from two VORs — then extrapolating that derived speed when matched by distance to go to calculate an ETA at the next point. Evidently, pilots preferred to do the calculations themselves.
According to a Cessna press release, the company made its largest international sale — “In excess of a million dollars”—to aircraft distributors in Australia and New Zealand. The aircraft sold included 23 model 172s, 3 150s, 17 model 205s, 7 185s, and 10 182s. I couldn’t help but think that this 60-aircraft order would be almost the entire annual production of single-engine aircraft for many manufacturers today!
Prolific aircraft designer and modifier Ed Swearingen announced his Excalibur conversion on the Twin Bonanza — substituting 8 cylinder 400 horsepower Lycomings for the original geared engines. The conversion made the aircraft faster, longer range, and much more reliable. The conversion would later be applied to most Beech Queen Airs. Swearingen would go on to design the Twin Comanche — and the prototype King Air for Beech. When Mrs. Beech rejected the airplane in favor of building a Queen-Air based aircraft, Swearingen started building his design — the Merlin — in San Antonio.
Though Narco Radio was producing crystal controlled radios (with 90 channels!) it still hadn’t forgotten the low end of the market. They produced the Narco Mark IV Superhomer—the last gasp of their Mark II Omnigator. It came with 9 channels for $595, or 27 channels for $695. A pilot could navigate, or could communicate — but you couldn’t do both at the same time. I made a quick check on the relative cost -- $595 in 1962 is the same as $4613 today. Look how relatively cheap avionics are today!
The Navion Rangemaster was being produced in Harlingen, Texas (Today, the type certificate is held by Sierra Hotel, Inc.—located right here in South St. Paul, MN.) The advertisement featured the pilot and passengers seats bolted onto the one-piece wing — touting the superior ride and safety. It also mentioned the handling — the SIZE of the aircraft, the 1500 mile range, and the comfort for 5 adults.
Beechcraft introduced the new Musketeer. The ads touted the “135 mph cruising speed”—the size of the cabin relative to the competition, the fact that it was “built like a fighter with new metal-bonded honeycomb construction”, and the 792 mile range. The ad was one of the few times that I’ve seen Beechcraft advertise lower prices than the competition (“$200 to $400 less than competitive aircraft similarly equipped”) I went to my dealer book — the average Musketeer went out the door at $13,300. A check of the inflation calculator shows that to be $103, 118 in today’s dollars. In an effort to relate the Musketeer to jet fighters, the ad was “tagged” by explaining that Beechcraft was building the ailerons and aft fuselage for the F-105 fighter using the same bonding process. Many of the F-105 (“Thuds”) would be lost in Vietnam in later years.
In the articles section of the magazine, ALCOR founder Al Hundere explained how to use his new “mixture monitor” to lean the mixture. Though the “rich of peak/lean of peak” debate hadn’t started yet — it clearly showed up in his graphs — produced over 50 years ago. He also warned about uneven fuel distribution between cylinders (the foundation for GAMIjector matched fuel injectors), and cautioned about running at peak EGT at high power settings.
Also in the article section — AOPA used to provide a monthly weather forecast map “for flight planning”, with nationwide prog charts by week, plus selected nationwide flight routes. Given the long lead time for production of the magazine, the accuracy of the charts was doubtful — though they did say that the charts proved out to be “78% accurate” — not specifying in what period that accuracy was achieved. Reading the “fine print” produced the following statement “These dates are not the only ones that will experience IFR and VFR weather, obviously, but confidence is highest at these particular times.” Kind of like the TV weatherman saying “The weather will be nice — unless it is raining.” The “Weathercast” is not seen in the magazine today.
A feature of both AOPA and Flying magazine for decades has been “I learned about flying from that”—or as I call them—“Stupid pilot stories.” They usually involve a pilot doing something stupid — and surviving—either by exceptional airmanship or sheer luck. This issue was about a pilot scud-running in 200’ ceilings in a Culver Cadet. True to form, he followed roads, reservoirs, rivers, and finally a railroad to his destination.
Mitchell Autopilots sold their 6000th autopilot. Buried within the ad was the statement “Piper Aircraft Corporation installs more than 1,000 units annually as original equipment.” ONE THOUSAND UNITS EVERY YEAR — by ONE MANUFACTURER!
Kane Aero was selling their E-6B computers for the introductory price of $8.85 ($65.82 today) as well as their plotters. Some things never change.
AOPA was fighting a rear-guard action protesting the removal of aerial code numbers identifying Coast Guard stations. The numbers were subsequently removed, and nobody noticed.
Western Laboratories was advocating their Pilot’s Pocket DF (Direction Finding) transistor radio. It worked on AM broadcast radio stations and Low Frequency ranges. It featured a direction-finding aid — “Turn the set until you hear the Beep — Stop — you’re pointing to the station.” The $49.95 price equals $387.28 today.
APR featured their line of IFR hoods, kneeboards, and pilot aids — all of which can still be purchased today. Their IFR hood was $17.95 -- $139.17 today.
The 110 volt RoboTow power towbar was advertised for $189.50 ($1,469.25 in today’s dollars) — the 12 volt cordless version of the same unit seen today is $1199.
The Sanderson Company (it had yet to be acquired by Jeppeson) advertised its ground schools. It featured a filmstrip projector and vinyl record. The annoying “beep” to advance the filmstrip would be vexing to thousands of ground school attendees — but it kept them awake!
Some things never change — the PDQ traffic pattern computer gave the heading to enter the traffic pattern and the heading on the downwind and base legs. It’s still available today. I’ve always thought it far easier and safer to simply look out of the window at the runway.
A number of radios were offered that allowed pilots to tune in a Low Frequency continuous weather broadcast. Before cell phones and computers, pilots would copy weather from the LF broadcast to get an idea of surrounding local weather. Pilots quickly became adept at copying “sequence reports” (complete with aviation weather symbols).
Met-Co-Aire and Nyack both featured Apache and Aztec modifications—new wing tips, longer noses, extra gas tanks.
The Meyers 200 (later the Aero Commander 200) was advertised as a “Bonanza Beater” with cruise of 204 statute miles per hour and a range of 1380 miles. They WERE fast — but they also lacked the interior room of the Bonanza.
Mooney advertised its fixed-gear aircraft — the Mooney Master. Essentially a fixed-gear version of the Mark 21 for sale to new Private pilots, the aircraft sold for $13,995 with fixed gear. After the purchaser learned to fly, he could take the aircraft back to the factory in Kerrville, Texas, where retractable landing gear could be installed at a cost of $1600 — converting it to a Mark 21. A check of my dealer book shows that Mooney eventually produced 260 Masters in the three years of production.
Pacific Plantronics was riding high with their lightweight (1 ounce) in-ear headset. It could be worn with a headband — clipped to eyeglasses, or used with a hearing-aid-like custom molded earpiece. The headsets would become a pilot “must-have” with the advent of the televised Mercury space shots — the Astronauts and the flight controllers wore them. At $67 ($519 today) they were not cheap, but they WERE good — and the “Cool factor” was high.
I was struck by the number of advertisements in the magazine. A number of hotels and resorts advertised — as well as a number of non-aviation products for sale to pilots. There were 4 full pages of classified advertisements (remember those in the newspapers—something else that has quietly disappeared). It is interesting that a high percentage of the classified advertisers from 50 years ago are names that are still in business. One of the advertisements in the AOPA Pilot magazine reads:
ATTENTION FORMER MINNESOTANS: Keep up with all the aviation news in your home state. Read the Minnesota Flyer, monthly newspaper. For sample, write Minnesota Flyer, Box 6400, Richfield.
Of course, that was the address for Minnesota Flyer founder and publisher Sherm Booen. Oddly, no state was given—and of course, zip codes were yet to be invented.
It’s interesting to look at the ads—the products—the prices—the articles—what was going on 50 years ago. Many of the issues (like regulation and airspace issues) are still being fought today. Pilots complained about prices back then, just as they do now — but in the case of many aircraft and pilot accessories, the prices are lower today than they were then when adjusted for inflation. It was interesting to see how flying was done — using pilotage, sectional charts, 4-course ranges, ADF, “Omni”, and a few crystals and a tunable receiver for communications in an era before modern radios — perhaps it added to the aura that pilots really WERE supermen! Especially interesting are the aircraft — in most cases, we are flying those very same aircraft today. It is interesting to see how they were advertised when first introduced. Reading between the lines, I was struck by the change in tenor of the articles — manufacturers were building aircraft at a record pace — new products (especially electronics) were being introduced — the goal of so many people was learning to fly. It was a time of a national “can-do” optimism — and perhaps near the end of a national “swagger” of confidence in our ability to do almost anything. Vietnam and the era of big government were still in our future — laws and regulation were not so all-pervasive in our collective lives — we were free to innovate and do “whatever you’re man enough to do.”
Old issues of magazines are usually available for sale at Oshkosh — either from the EAA library, or from vendors. Pick up a copy and enjoy it!
Jim Hanson is the long-time FBO at the Albert Lea, MN. airport. Jim has been flying for 50 years — but with this article, he officially becomes a “geezer” — he likes to look back and reflect on the airplanes and events of the time that he has been flying—back when these products were new! Jim disputes the “geezer” mantle — he still looks forward to every flight. If you’d like to bring him back to current events, you can contact him at his airport office at 507 373 0608, or firstname.lastname@example.org Just be prepared for a rant on “the way it used to be.”