Whatever Happened To...?

My how things have changed in only 50 years

March 1, 2008

The general aviation industry of 50 years ago was quaint, amusing, and lacking today’s clear vision and superior knowledge—which is exactly the approach an AOPA Pilot writer will take 50 years from now to make us all look quaint and amusing. But tossing caution aside, here is that quaint little world of 1958.

An idea that wouldn’t fly

The huge Hertz rental car company was certain that its rent-a-plane concept would set a trend for the industry and “change the way people travel.” In The AOPA Pilot’s first issue, Hertz purchased a full-page ad promising that later in the year it would announce the new service nationally, and late in 1958 it kept that promise. The service began with 56 airports enrolled, soon to become 100, the company promised. The cost was $1.50 an hour for a 12-hour airplane rental plus 13 cents a mile for customers who had a pilot certificate, or $2.50 an hour plus 18 cents a mile for those needing a pilot. For a 300-mile round trip, that amounts to $57 for pilots and $84 for nonpilots—for the entire day. The next year? No mention of it ever again in Pilot or any other publication. A Hertz spokeswoman said recently she had never heard of the program.

Autolite Annie ain’t your granny

Any company symbol that looks like nose art found on World War II airplanes must be at least 50 years old, right? A review of the facts concerning Autolite Annie is inconclusive, as a football referee might say. “Someone” at Unison Industries, the current owner of the brand, “thinks” there was an Autolite (sparkplug) Annie 50 years ago, a company spokesman said. But exhaustive research—OK, extensive Googling—indicates an ad agency got an award for creating her, or recreating her, in 2002.

Autolite did make aviation sparkplugs, not only during World War II, but even while the company changed hands from Ford to Bendix to Unison. In the 1940s and ’50s when the Fostoria, Ohio, company was still independent, Autolite sponsored radio shows such as “Suspense” and used a talking car named “Oscar the Loquacious Limousine” as its spokesperson. Annie is either a well-preserved 60-year-old or a very advanced five-year-old.

Nancy Narco’s shocking past

She was no Britney Spears, but Nancy Narco collected her share of attention for more years than Spears has been alive and helped sell a lot of avionics equipment. A Narco salesman named Gil Quimby created the character. He wrote the column under her name until he grew tired of it, and until Nancy lost her charm.

The first issue of The AOPA Pilot carried this advice from Nancy/Gil: “Nine frequencies will get you anywhere. Talk to the tower on 122.5, and in busy terminals and airports also guard 122.6 and 122.7 MHz. Ground control is 121.7 or 121.9 MHz. Call a CAA [Civil Aeronautics Administration] station [the equivalent of a flight service station] on 122.1 MHz. The CAA can also communicate on 126.7 MHz. Unicom is 122.8 or use the new 123.0 MHz. The emergency frequency is 121.5 MHz.” (Nice to know some things haven’t changed.)

Roscoe the Amazing

Who said Roscoe Turner was amazing? Why, Turner, of course.

Time magazine referred to the Indianapolis-based self-promoter as “gaudy.” Perhaps the reference was to his self-designed military-style uniform based on an honorary promotion to colonel, or the pet lion he carried onboard, or his waxed handlebar mustache stiff enough to punch holes in aluminum. He won major air races six times.

In the first issue of The AOPA Pilot, the Roscoe Turner Aeronautical Corporation advertised the Turner-Wright 230c radio, an 11-pound transceiver that covered 180 channels from 118 to 135.9 MHz. Someone named Buford Cadle offered this entirely unsolicited endorsement: “I am writing this testimonial entirely unsolicited,” he said. “After four years of experimental work we now have a trouble-free piece of equipment that will satisfy the most discriminate users.” And, folks, that was entirely unsolicited.

The Roscoe Turner Aeronautical Corporation was better known for the formation of an airline and the offering of aviation services than for avionics, and the Combs Gates chain of FBOs purchased it in the late 1960s on the recommendation of Harry Combs. Combs was still independent in 1958 when he advertised in the first issue of The AOPA Pilot under “Combs Aircraft” as being willing to “pay top dollar for a clean, well-maintained airplane.”

Fire in the hole!

Aerojet General Corp. (the General Tire company) offered in 1958 the Aerojet 15NS 250 (250 pounds of thrust) Junior JATO aircraft rocket engine. Two of these supplementary booster rockets were mounted to the airframe to rescue you from a variety of predicaments.

Need to escape wind shift on takeoff? Fire the rockets. Got a nasty downdraft while en route? Fire in the hole! Need to abort a landing? Light up those bad boys. By the time production stopped in the early 1960s, 790 had been sold, but by then more powerful aircraft engines were available and rockets were unnecessary, an Aerojet engineer said. Good thing, because pilots were not trained to adjust for the center of thrust shift caused after the rockets fired. Once the switch was thrown, the pilot became a test pilot.

Ancient bureaucrats

There were bureaucrats in 1958, just like now. But there were no Department of Transportation (DOT) officials, because there was no DOT until 1967. There were no FAA officials because the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) still ruled the skies. The Federal Aviation Act was passed later in 1958 and created the FAA, but the CAA remained in place until 1959.

The acronym FAA stood for Federal Aviation Agency, not Federal Aviation Administration. A photo showing removal of the former Civil Aeronautics Administration sign and replacement with the Federal Aviation Agency sign (new agency, but in the same building with nearly the same people) appeared in The AOPA Pilot in 1959.

If you think the former age-60 retirement rule for airline pilots was as old as the FAA, you are correct. The former head of the CAA, James T. Pyle, brought the idea with him as the first deputy administrator of the FAA and enacted it soon after assuming his position. The FAA was formed under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a certificated pilot, after three midair collisions shook the public’s faith in the CAA.

E-mail the author at alton.marsh@aopa.org.

Al Marsh

Alton K. Marsh | AOPA Pilot Senior Editor, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.