CHAPTER 10 TWO LIFETIME PASSIONS: TAY AND FLYING
Lowell Thomas Jr.’s interest in flying and becoming a pilot was ingrained in him at a young age. He gained the knowledge needed to become a pilot while serving in the Air Force during World War II. But once he was discharged from the service it was not readily apparent how he would be able to maintain his ability to fly. He did not own an airplane and he did not have a job working for an airline.
In the late 1940s Thomas was busy making films, going off to Tibet, working as an advance scout on films for his father, taking graduate courses at Princeton. But he hadn’t forgotten about flying. He was just looking for a way in to become a pilot.
Once, after Lowell and Tay were getting serious about their relationship, Lowell borrowed a small plane from a friend to fly it to Northampton, Massachusetts, where she was enrolled, just for a weekend visit. Most guys drive to their girlfriends’ colleges for short visits.
Lowell always sought opportunities to fly. He remained under the sway of his early-in-life impressions made by such great American pilots as Jimmy Doolittle and Eddie Rickenbacker. He could always recall the stories they told his father and their dramatic lives were part of the background whenever Thomas thought about a life’s work in aviation.
Just as youngsters growing up in the United States in the 1960s might have been motivated to become astronauts because of all the attention thrown on the nation’s space program, Thomas was born in the 1920s when aviation was just beginning to assert its grip on the American public. He grew up simultaneously with the expansion of aviation as an industry, and looked at through another lens, of aviation as a romantic pursuit.
LOWELL THOMAS JR.: Aviation was just one of those things that kids latched onto during that time period. Before that I suppose it was trains and railroads for another generation of kids. For me aviation was a big thing. My father had been involved with the first flight around the world that was made by our Army air service people and some of those pilots came to visit. That made a big impression on me. Jimmy Doolittle was a close friend of the family and my dad wrote an early biography of him. I was just captivated by the story of aviation. Before I joined the Air Force I did a little bit of flying with a friend who owned an airplane. I’d go with him and hold the wheel a little bit.
Mostly, I was a passenger, but once in a while I guided the plane. When I got into the Air Force and got my wings and commission and became an instructor, that’s when I really learned to fly. After the war I was interested in flying in a civilian capacity. Whenever I got the chance to borrow an airplane and take a flight I would do it. There was a little air coupe around that was designed to be a plane that you couldn’t spin. It didn’t have all of the full controls of most planes, but at least it got me up into the air.
I borrowed the air coupe for the flight to go visit Tay. It wasn’t too long after I got back from Tibet and Tay graduated that we got married. I was kind of committed after that short-wave radio proposal that went public. We got married in a church in Connecticut.
After my dad and I got back from Tibet I wrote the book about the trip and put together a film to give illustrated adventures. Once that was ready and after Tay and I were married in May of 1950, we went on the road together when I was speaking. We took the train most of the time, but we flew sometimes when it was possible.
It was then in the early fifties that I got my first airplane. It was a Stinson Voyager. It was a high-winged plane and I found it for sale at the airport near Greenwich, Connecticut. I went to take a look, flew it a little bit, and we decided to get it. It probably cost four thousand or five thousand dollars. It was a single-engine plane with four seats.
You had the pilot and the seat next to him and the back was a sling seat. You could fit a couple of more people in there or you could take the seat out and use it for baggage. It was not a plane that you could fly very fast. I think the maximum you could go was about ninety miles per hour.
We were living in Princeton, New Jersey. I had enrolled in the graduate school there, after all, still with the Foreign Service in the back of my mind, but I never did finish there, or try to join the Foreign Service. We had the plane with us and we used it quite often going from our home to a log cabin near my family’s property where I had grown up in Pawling, New York. We could fly there in an hour and fifteen minutes as opposed to a three-hour drive, when the weather was good. Bringing the plane in for a landing I don’t think it was going any faster than fifty or fifty-five miles an hour.
Other times we flew to Greenwich, Connecticut, to visit Tay’s family and just to use it for our own transportation instead of using another way to get somewhere. When the weather was good and we had time so that we knew we would get there in advance and not be delayed, we flew the plane to someplace where I was scheduled to give one of my illustrated lectures on Tibet. Sometimes we would go a day early just to spend time in the community. We didn’t do it very often because of the threat of bad weather forcing us down and wrecking our schedule. I knew that if I didn’t get there, there would be hell to pay.
Once the Tibet film was ready I was very busy with lectures. Everyone wanted to hear it. Right after we were married it was very popular and we went all over the country and to Canada, too.
TAY: That was a working honeymoon. We did that all winter long. We flew to Hawaii and that was more of a honeymoon. Then we flew all around the western part of the country while Lowell was an advance man for Cinerama. I particularly remember going down into the Grand Canyon at five o’clock in the morning, zooming down in this little plane. Of course, they don’t allow you do to that anymore. But it was a great thrill because I had never seen the Grand Canyon. Then we went to Zion and Bryce Canyons in Utah and they are beautiful, beautiful canyons. That was a wonderful summer.
LOWELL, JR.: We were flying all of the time. Those trips in the west, but also all of these little trips, to the cabin, to Tay’s family home, to cities where I lectured, gave me flight time and experience in the cockpit. I certainly didn’t need all of the information I learned in the Air Force since I was only flying a single-engine plane. I was pretty good with instruments, too, and we did a little bit of instrument flying, even in a single-engine plane in fairly good weather, just to practice. I kept up the flying as much as possible.
TAY: We got to go to Rio de Janeiro when Lowell was an advance man for Cinerama, although that was flying commercial. We got to go to a lot of places and that’s when we got to thinking, “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun if we could just do it without landing in the cities and going commercially?” We started talking about flying everywhere in a little plane of our own and that’s what built up to our 1954 trip, the flight to adventure.
LOWELL, Jr.: After a while of doing all this flying to places where we were supposed to be for business at certain times we got to the stage of our lives that we wanted to go off and see faraway places and do it in our own way and do it in our own airplane.
Tay and I were young and we weren’t tied down and we didn’t have any children at the time. This was a kind of second honeymoon trip. It was a big responsibility in the sense that I would have to do all of the flying, and it was a big undertaking planning a trip where we could fly around the world. We weren’t scared by it. We were excited by the idea. With the amount of flying I had done and the amount of time Tay spent in the air with me, it wasn’t a leap of faith.
TAY: I said I would love to go on such a trip around the world, but I won’t fly across the Atlantic in a small plane. That’s how we ended up starting from Paris. We went and talked to Charles Lindbergh about flying the Atlantic since, of course, he was the first one to do it in 1927, and he kept saying, “I think that you really should avoid flying over a large amount of water in a single-engine plane.”
LOWELL JR.: I didn’t really want to fly across the Atlantic in a small plane either. What we were aware of from the start was being sharp on the logistical planning. We wanted to go to places where almost no one went. Certainly there was no tourism industry in the places we were hoping to visit. Not in the early 1950s, right after World War II. I wasn’t concerned about flying. I was worried about the hassles of red tape in arriving in these out-of-the-way countries that didn’t expect visitors.
During that time period maybe Americans wanted to hop on a jet and fly across the Atlantic Ocean and visit London or Paris, but Tay and I had bigger plans than that. We wanted to take our own plane where other planes did not generally fly.
It was unusual for anyone to show up in many countries in their own private airplane. It would make a hubbub and when you are thousands of miles from home you want things to go smoothly. We had to work through our State Department and foreign embassies to set our arrivals in advance. We had to work very carefully to make sure we had paperwork that was in order so preferably when we landed somewhere everything would be OK. We couldn’t just take off suddenly and go someplace without anybody knowing where we were going or why, even if we would have liked to do that. It definitely took a little bit of diplomacy to get that all worked out.
Another critical aspect of the advance planning was having an understanding of the fuel situation everywhere we were going and where we would be able to obtain it. It doesn’t do you any good to try to fly around the world if you can’t get enough gas to fly around the world. Contemplating the trip led us to decide we needed a bigger and faster plane than the Stinson Voyager. We kept thinking about Africa and the Middle East and what the conditions would be. We needed a plane with better take-off performance, more carrying capacity and range.
I made a trip to the manufacturing plant in Wichita, Kansas, where they made the Cessna 180. The idea was to eventually turn it over to the Cessna Company of Australia. We were delivering it, with a few stops in-between. I got the plane on a letter of credit. When we got to Australia they were supposed to take the plane off our hands and it wouldn’t have cost us anything except the insurance and the transportation costs of getting it across the ocean. It was a pretty good deal. That was the original plan, only we never made it to Australia and we decided to keep the plane. All of these years later it is still flying, even if I am not. We brought the plane home. The tail number is 2343C (I promptly named it Charlie for that reason) and it’s still around, still going. That says something for the workmanship. I don’t know how many automobiles are still on the road from 1954. Not many, I’ll bet. The Cessna 180 was a great plane and I loved it.
It really is something that the Cessna is still out there and it’s never been wrecked. My daughter Anne and a buddy of hers who got into it with her still have it. He’s flying it more than she does. She’s busy with other things. I think Tay and I would have been a pretty good endorsement for Cessna after our trip. The fact the Cessna flew a good portion of the way around the world between 1954 and 1955 and that it’s still flying is a pretty impressive thing. It says something about their workmanship. I’d bet Cessna would be interested in tracing the lifespan of that plane. They should call me.
It was our aim to fly far from the beaten path wherever that was possible. We hoped to meet and spend a good deal of time among some of the world’s more remote peoples. We wanted to learn what we could about them, and having done so, to make some kind of a report of our findings in the belief that the more knowledge there is of other peoples and other lands, the less misunderstanding there will be and the greater chance for international cooperation and world peace.
To avoid flying across the Atlantic Ocean in a small plane, though, this is what we did: We had the Cessna disassembled and taken to Paris. The wings were removed and it was shipped ahead of us. Since we didn’t want to fly Charlie across the ocean this was the fallback plan to get the plane to Europe and have it ready and waiting for us. Tay and I left from New York on the ship the S.S. America on February 22, 1954, to rendezvous with the plane.
Once we left New York we were essentially on our own, Tay, me, and Charlie, the plane. We were freelance writers and photographers and we certainly planned to record the trip in one way or another. We had a deal with a publisher already, Doubleday Books.
We had our own plane flying out of Paris, as the expression goes, to parts unknown. But really, we knew where we were going. Some of the parts we were going to were lesser known to other Americans and we planned to soak them in and tell everyone about those places in Africa and the Middle East.
Our Cessna was reassembled and ready to go from the Toussus-le-Noble Airfield outside of Versailles, where King Louis XIV’s palace is, in March of 1954. Cessna had people in France and they took care of it for us. Tay and I had been looking for the right plane and we thought we could make a good story for a company that helped us out. The first airplane manufacturer we approached for support said that they didn’t want to have anything to do with us because it would be bad publicity if we crashed and died. Cessna had a lot better attitude about our trip.
We took a test flight immediately. Off to the north were the crowded rooftops of Paris, with the Eiffel Tower standing tall and slender against the horizon some eight or nine miles away, and with the Seine River looping back and forth through the city and across the countryside. But when it was time to go our course lay in the opposite direction, to Spain and on to Africa.
Before we could depart, however, there was one minor obstacle. We had brought thirty pieces of luggage with us for our planned year away from home and there was not nearly enough room to accommodate them inside Charlie. We decided to send home all of our dress clothing. Tay shipped home her golden slippers and admitted, “A little more emergency water will be worth far more over the Sahara Desert.”
TAY: Actually, when we were talking to Charles Lindbergh, he gave us a very good tip. He said, “I would suggest that when you fly over desert areas if you carry water bottles, they should be hot water bags.” That’s what he called them. Not canteens. They were rubber. They were very unusual. I’d never heard of anybody talk about water bottles like that before. He said, “Carry six hot water bags and keep them empty when you’re flying over places where you will always find water.” But when you go over the desert you can fill them up and keep them on the bottom of the plane. His thought was that hot water bottles were not as breakable as glass.
LOWELL JR.: Out went a thermos jug and a spare flashlight, a carton of books, too, and even Mae West life vests. It is surprising how many absolutely essential belongings aren’t essential at all when one has to get rid of them. Larger and larger grew our pile of discards. Smaller and smaller grew the load we hoped to make Charlie carry. Finally our total load amounted to 525 pounds, which was 250 pounds more than the civilian aviation authorities had licensed the plane to carry. We decided not an ounce more could go.
That was especially true of the one-ounce piece of paper that Tay pasted on the instrument panel. We never did find out who wrote the poem, but we carried it throughout every mile of the aerial journey. It read,
“Peace be in thy home,
And in thy heart,
Or if thou roam Earth’s highways wide,
The Lord be at thy side To bless and guide.”
Months and months of preparation and really, years of thought wrestling with the idea had passed, but the day finally arrived when we taxied down the runaway outside of Paris, headed for a year of adventure, the plane pointed to Gibraltar.