Call me a Taxi..... OK man, like your a taxi.....
It appears that 'Charlene' was the one and only aircraft taxi service to
existence. We have got the real story, pictures, gossip from stories that
lingered but we don't have closure. Does anybody know what end she came to?
Dave, This afternoon I received the following message from an old OAE- Jim Waldron, re his R4D "Charlene" BuNo 17274. Jim thinks the Dakota finished up as a 'taxi" in the Antarctic, I am very interested, I know some background material on #17274- but would like more. I was wondering if you could contact-that massive list of OAE's, you have been contacting re the OAEs ballot, seeking any information ?, re the taxi idea, any photos of #17274 in her later days? how did she really finish up?, the last person to see her in the Antarctic? etc etc, they could contact me at email@example.com. my new address is 74a Norwood Street, Christchurch 2 New Zealand. [PO Box 10 268 Christchurch 2, New Zealand.
Date: Monday, November 15, 1999 1:32 PM
Subject: Charlene the taxi machine
In the last few days I have received several messages concerning "Charlene", the one and only two engine ice taxi in the world. There is a bit of curiosity about this aircraft and perhaps I can shed a bit of light as to what happened to that very dependable machine.
I first flew "Charlene" (Bureau No. 17274) on August 11, 1956, with Lcdr Frankiewicz as Aircraft Commander. It was my first experience in an R4D cockpit since my primary flying experience since I left fighters in 1951 was in helicopters. My first two R4D flights were quite memorable since on one we were forced to land with the skis frozen in a down position and NAS Quonset Point had to lay down foam on the grass to soften our landing. My second flight in "Charlene" we took off with 18 JATOs firing. Our climb to 1000 feet was extremely steep, much like driving a rocket.
"Charlene" was basically the same as the other three VX-6 R4Ds, however, it was the only one with Teflon covered skis. Teflon had a lower coefficient of friction than the plastic coating on the skis of the other three R4Ds. When we got to the Ice Lcdr. Frankiewicz tried to get his aircraft scheduled to make the first South Pole landing, thinking that this lowered coefficient of friction might spell the difference between a successful mission to the Pole and one that might be a failure. His suggestion was ignored so there is no proof that it would have gone better if his aircraft had been selected instead of "Que Sera, Sera."
I flew the entire summer of 1956 in "Charlene" and it proved to be a very dependable aircraft in many ways and extremely sturdy. Of course we had a great Maintenance Chief and that certainly made a difference.
At the end of the 1956 summer, when further flights were curtailed, preparations were made to winterize and store all four R4Ds. One of the jobs to be done was to dump the fuel loads on the aircraft. There was a dump valve on the R4Ds that allowed dumping of all cabin loaded fuel. By opening a switch in the cockpit the valve opened and the fuel from the two 400 gallon tanks and the one 250 gallon tanks would fun out a pipe on the underside of the aircraft in quick order. This dump valve system was installed in case one engine failed in flight and the Aircraft Commander needed to reduce the weight of the aircraft in order to continue in flight.
There is no answer as to what happened to "Charlene" when the fuel in the cabin tanks was emptied during winterization. The maintenance man who did the dumping stated he closed the valve when he was finished dumping.
In any case when the summer of 1957 rolled around and the aircraft were being readied for the second Antarctic summer, maintenance personnel discovered that the dump valve was left open and the blowing snow during the winter had entered the dump pipe under the fuselage and in time the 400 gallon fuel tanks were filled with snow.
A week long effort was made to warm the internal fuel cells, letting the melted snow run out on the surface of the snow. The engines were run for many hours hoping all of the water had been removed from the fuel system, however, some water had remained in the system causing several engine failures.
Two R4Ds departed Little America for McMurdo on September 3, 1957 to start setting up the Beardmore facility for summer operations. The other squadron aircraft didn't arrive from New Zealand for almost a month so these two R4Ds were the only two operating aircraft on our half of the continent at that time.
On September 11, 1957 Lcdr Harvey Speed took off in "Charlene" and Lcdr Bob Anderson, with me as copilot, took off in Bureau No. 17246 on a flight to the Beardmore Glacier. About an hour after leaving McMurdo the port engine on "Charlene" suddenly quit. Lcdr Speed effected a single engine landing on the Ross Sea Ice Shelf. Bob Anderson landed alongside Harvey Speed's aircraft and it was decided that Anderson should go back to get heaters to get "Charlene" back in the air, so we flew back to McMurdo.
There we unloaded our cargo and loaded the heaters Harvey Speed's crew needed. We then flew back to the downed aircraft and offloaded the needed engine heaters. We took on some of the cargo in Harvey Speed's aircraft so as to lighten his load.
After some time on the surface of the ice they got the port engine of "Charlene" running again so without delay we both took off again headed for McMurdo. A short time later the port engine on "Charlene" failed again and Harvey had to make another single engine landing.
Again the engine heaters were put to work and within a short while both engines were running. Both aircraft took off again and the flight to McMurdo was routine.
Back at McMurdo the maintenance crew worked overtime trying to dry out any water remaining in fuel tanks and fuel lines. Everything possible was done and when it appeared that the aircraft were both ready we put both aircraft back on the flight schedule.
On September 13, 1957 we warmed up both aircraft together, however, Harvey Speed left the flight line first and taxied "Charlene" to the end of the snow runway. I watched as he started his takeoff run and when he got airborne and about ten feet in the air the port engine quit. His port wing dropped quickly and the wingtip started dragging in the snow. Harvey Speed quickly cut his starboard engine so he could get the aircraft level again. When he did this the port engine came back to life suddenly and the starboard wingtip struck the surface and dragged in the snow.
Harvey got both engines going with full power again and he staggered out with the 6 foot port wingtip straight up in the air like a separate rudder. He had to climb ahead because he had run out of runway. Harvey was unable to use his ailerons because they had been frozen when the right wing struck the snow surface, so he flew around the field using rudder only for directional control. Being the outstanding pilot that he was, Harvey brought the damaged aircraft back around to the snow runway and executed an excellent landing. I don't know this to be a fact, but I believe that this was the last time "Charlene", or BuNo 17274 ever flew.
There is one more episode in the "Charlene" odyssey. A few evenings later, after the evening movie, a wind and snow storm came up around NAF McMurdo.
One of the ground crew in checking the two R4D found that they had broken free from their tiedowns and had moved somewhat from where they had been parked. He got a small crew together and they retied both aircraft. They noted that "Charlene's" wingtip, which was broken had come untied and was flapping back and forth. Since they couldn't get it tied again in the strong wind they reported the fact to Harvey Speed.
He located me and told me that the flapping wingtip was getting violent and that he thought we (he and I) should go out with a stepladder and a hacksaw to cut the wingtip free from the aircraft. He said it was too dangerous to ask the maintenance crew to do the job and that we, as officers, should do it instead. I agreed.
So with the ladder and hacksaw in hand we started out to the aircraft. The blowing wind and snow was so blinding we had to walk to the aircraft with only our internal sense of direction telling us the way. We spent much time zigzagging back and forth until we practically walked into the side of the R4D, not seeing it until the last second.
Harvey had me climb the tall stepladder and hold the wingtip down with the weight of my body while he sawed away with the hacksaw. After a long period of sawing, Harvey told me that he was almost finished cutting and that I should hold on tightly as possible to the wingtip. Well, when the cutting was done the 50 knots of wind that was blowing jerked the wingtip from my hands as though I had not been holding it at all. The entire wingtip (6 ft. x 5 ft approx.) disappeared downwind and we never saw it again.
Well, getting back to camp was a lot easier than finding the two aircraft had been. All we had to do was walk with the wind to our backs and in a short while we were back to the hill leading up to our quarters. Later, we flew back to Little America in BuNo 17246 and picked up a replacement R4D and returned to McMurdo to continue setting up Beardmore Camp for the summer ahead.
And that is all I know about "Charlene", however, I was told she later became a taxi.
Did NAVAIR know about it and who would they let drive it?
Any NFOs of crewmen ever get the wheel? Joe Hawkins
Yes,Joe, we really had that wonderful thing.. It was the plane (old R4D) that had been scratched from the records. No instruments, no radios everything that could be taken out was taken out! Wings taken off at the joint out board of the engines. She even ran on contaminated fuel!!!
In the cruise book for DF-60 in the section called "more R4D's"there is a picture of "Charlene" in all her glory. I drove her on her maiden run with Capt Munson, our skipper. I am the third figure from the left and Capt Munson is the fourth.
Hope this helps clear up the question!! She was a good source of transportation. Took about four or five minutes from Mac to Willy Field
The BUNO of Charlene was 17274 and she was no longer on the books as a
aircraft. The avgas had been written off also.
We just got in and loaded it up with Pax and firewalled the go handles. When the tail came up and I had rudder control we were off and running! Slowing down and stopping was more trouble but we managed. We drove through the snow about twenty feet off the roadway from Mac to Willy. Lots of fun to say the least.
'Charlene' was not the first or only wingless bus. I told this group
yesterday that the Ausseys had been there, done that already.
Here are the facts: This plane was a Vickers with a 45 foot wingspan and was sent to Antarctica without wings for the purpose of being used as an air tractor. What happened is that it was wrecked in Australia prior to the deployment of Mawson's 1912 Antarctic expedition to Commonwealth Bay. Mawson loaded it on the supply ship without wings to use for hauling supplies and field parties. He figured that if Shackleton had a motor and Scott had motorized sledges, so why not an air tractor. This flightless Bird was not as successful as the one at McMurdo, possibly because of the rougher terrain and worst weather conditions at commonwealth bay--really windy. The air tractor broke down on a field party while towing four loaded sledges. The station mechanic tinkered with the wingless aircraft for almost all of 1912.
The flightless bird stayed at Commonwealth Bay until it achieved it only real flight in Antarctica--it was finally blown away by the katabatic winds.
The morale of this story is that Mawson only had a plane in the first place for publicity purposes. He wanted to draw attention to his expedition in order to raise funds. Aviation was almost an unknown in Australia at that time and the plane was sure to gather crowds on the demonstration flights around the country. However, the weather conditions at Commonwealth Bay would have made flying a very risky, if not impossible business.