Submitted by Karl Breckenridge
Well, here we go, together again! I’ve not written for a couple days while I was benched for my poor behavior, but now I’m on the loose again – my neighbors Hank Philcox and Don Hartman have planned an adventure today, to ride our bikes out to Hubbard Field, the airport east of Reno.
Mrs. Philcox – Corrine, we sometimes call her — is a really good cook and packed some sandwiches, cookies, fruit and stuff for our trip. That new girl up the street, Judy Metzker, wanted to go too but she’s a gurrrllll, and would just slow us down. Yecch.
So, off we go, down to the river and across the bridge at Belmont, then ride out toward South Virginia by that new lake with the island in it. We get to Airport Road and there’s hardly any traffic this Saturday morning, so we cross both lanes of Virginia Street and head east. Going further out Airport Road we can smell the swamp to the south of the road where Mr. Biltz and Mr. Dant have their game farm, and can see Mr. Chrisman’s trout farm out further south in the swamp.
We’re starting to get close to Hubbard Field, because we’re riding alongside the cross-runway and there’s a lot of old planes, most of them salvage from the war that was over a couple years ago.
Hubbard Field has been around for about 15 years [from 1950 when this was written!]. It was named for engineer Eddie Hubbard, a friend of Mr. Boeing’s who built the airport. Boeing sold it to United Air Lines, three words in 1936. Not too much has happened since. (United would sell it to the City of Reno in 1955.)
The main airport is a great big Quonset hut turned into a hangar, and a little control tower set on top of it. Painted on the control tower is, “Reno, Nev. Elev. 4,415 ft.” The man who runs the airport, Mr. Hopper, saw us and motioned us to come over to the fence. “What are you men up to?” he said. His real name was Claude (!) and he was a retired Navy pilot. Navy pilots all get nicknames. His was “Grass.” We just called him Mr. Hopper.
We told him we were just trying to see what happened at the airport, and he told us to park our bikes. We followed him up some rickety stairs and into the control tower’s “cab.” One controller was working.
He showed us how they handled airplanes in 1950: If a plane was approaching Reno, the tower would call it, “Plane over Reno Hot Springs approaching Reno; if you can copy this, show your landing light.” If the landing light blinked, the tower operator knew that the plane could hear the radio. (If the plane could also transmit a message, the tower would already know, because the plane would have called tower first!)
If the lights didn’t blink, tower would know that he was “NARDO” – no radio, which wasn’t uncommon in 1950. If the plane could hear, the tower would clear him, and give him the wind direction, barometer reading and what other planes were around.
But, if the plane was NARDO, the tower would take one of the big spotlights hung from the ceiling and give that pilot a green light (he had other triggers also, for a red flash or a white flash}.
The pilot would continue his approach and land. When he got on the ground, he wouldn’t cross a runway or taxiway until he got another green light from the tower. Or if he was taking off, he’d wait for a green signal.
The system worked pretty well. He let us play with the lights hanging from the ceiling. We didn’t know it then, but those lights are still hanging in control towers today, for NARDO emergencies.
He let us listen to what the pilots who were equipped with visual omni-range, mostly in the larger airliner types, heard. A steady tone, [for grownups reading this, middle C on the piano, 256 cycles/second!] interrupted every 30 seconds by “dah-dit, dah-dit-dit-dah, dah-dah-dah” – R – N – O in Morse code. This told the pilot riding the VOR that he was locked on to RNO – Reno Municipal Airport. If he had all the equipment, he could also tell where he was. There was a big bright beacon on top of the mountain north of Virginia City that we could see from all over town.
Hank and Don and I looked at each other – we’d really hit the jackpot by meeting Mr. Hopper!
There was one big main runway at RNO – it was numbered three-four if you were landing south-to-north, or one-six if north-to-south. He told us that that was because your compass would be reading 340 degrees from the south, or 160° from the north.
The cross-runway was shorter, and 90° off the main runway at seven and two-five. We could see also the “diagonal” runway that in 1950 ran from the south end of the main runway to the east end of the cross-runway. It was used mostly for parking airplanes now.
The Nevada Air National Guard was in the process of moving from the Reno Air Base north of Reno to Hubbard Field and the City of Reno was buying Hubbard Field from United. A Nevada ANG pilot named Croston Stead was taking off from Reno Air Base in a P-51 Mustang, and neglected to lock his blower switch on “high.” The engine petered out, the pilot was too low to parachute, and died in the wreckage. The Reno Air Base was being renamed “Stead” in his honor.
There’s a picture around somewhere but I can’t find it, of 17 Lockheed Constellation airliners parked on that diagonal runway. Mr. Hughes, who owned Trans World Airlines, bought them from Lockheed and took delivery of them in Nevada, because Nevada has no sales tax. Somebody in the state raised hell, whoops, sorry Mom, raised the roof, and some say that this triggered the enactment of sales tax in Nevada. (And Dad said I better write that these were Lockheed 1049s, not the later “Super Constellation” 1649s. I hate it when he looks over my shoulder when I type this stuff.)
A plane is landing now, a big one, and we’re going to go down and watch it taxi up. It’s a United Air Lines DC-3, the pride of the fleet. Mr. Hopper says that most all airlines’ DC-3s are really military C-47s that Douglas Aircraft took back after WWII and “civilized,” getting rid of the double cargo doors and military stuff so the airlines could fly people in them.
And a local restaurant, Eugene’s, way out on South Virginia Street, got a contract to provide snacks for the flight to Mills Field in San Francisco, and dinners to the passengers going east to Salt Lake City. He didn’t know it then, but by 1955 Eugene’s would be providing meals for 28 flights a day!
We watch the DC-3 taxi up to the Quonset hut and the stair placed against the hull of the plane. It’s pretty impressive. And, leave it to Mr. Hopper, he got us a guided tour through the airplane and we all three got to sit in the pilots’ seats. Pretty cool.
We’ll, it’s getting late so we better shove off for Ralston Street. We thanked Mr. Hopper and he said to come back any time! And we will….
That’s about it for now – come back in a day or so and we’ll see where the trusty Schwinn takes us about the city.
Were I a grownup now living in May of 2020 and writing a yarn for This is Reno, I’d write right here, enjoy your weekend, and, be safe, huh?
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Karl Breckenridge is slowly going nuts. So he decided to help out This is Reno by writing a daily out-of-his-mind column for the duration of the coronavirus shutdown. Karl grew up in the valley and has stories from the area going back to 1945. He’s been writing for 32 years locally and loves to yak it up with friends…now sitting six feet apart.
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