As told to Bill and Celeste Boyd
Kelly Lake, Minnesota, was a wonderful place to grow up. As children we went swimming and fishing all summer, and ice skating all winter. I remember sliding down the school house hill onto the frozen lake and hanging out with my friends on the main street of the village.
I was born to Mary Ann and Clarence Olsen in Kelly Lake, Minnesota in 1929. I had a very normal childhood with my stay-at-home mom and a dad who worked for the railroad. When I was in kindergarten the school tested the eyes of all the students. As a result I got my first of many pairs of glasses worn full time clear through high school and into college.
When I was a high school sophomore, my dad took another job with the railroad so we moved to Superior, Wisconsin and that’s where I finished high school. I had my first airplane experience when I was 16 and took a flight at a local airport over the surrounding countryside. I fell in love with flying, but lessons were something my family couldn’t afford and I recall saying, “That was fun and I’d like to learn more but it’s too expensive,” and moving on. Besides, I wore glasses at the time and assumed that I couldn’t qualify as a pilot. However, after my freshman year in college, I found out that I really didn’t need glasses when an Armed Forces recruiter came into Duluth, gave me a few tests and then a complete physical which showed my eyesight good enough to fly.
I had a very good friend and mentor in Superior who was the vice president of the local bank, a leader with the Senior Boy Scouts, and a pilot in WWII. He encouraged me to think about joining the service so I could learn to fly. I followed his advice after my first year in college and in December of 1949, at the age of 20, I joined the United States Naval Air Corps.
I was sent to boot camp in Pensacola, Florida, where I spent January through December 1950 in preflight school and then some flight school in a Link Trainer.
In early 1951 I started flying about three times a day with a flight school instructor in a North American Aviation SNJ trainer, a low-wing single engine prop plane. Later I graduated to F6F prop fighter planes with an engine that had 2800 horsepower.
In November 1951 I learned how to take off and land on an aircraft carrier anchored in Mobile Bay, Florida. In December 1951 I was moved to Corpus Christi, Texas to learn instrument flying in a twin engine Beechcraft SNB. In February 1952 at Kingsville, Texas, I trained in a single engine jet fighter for four months. Feeling that power was a thrill.
In May 1952 I was assigned to a Corsair squadron in Alameda, California where we trained for bombing and rocket attacks at nearby Fallon Air Base in Nevada which had just opened (meaning there were no barracks, so we lived in the hangar).
The Corsair was the most capable carrier-based fighter-bomber in World War II and served as such throughout the Korean War. These marvelous planes were, compared to land-based planes, overbuilt to withstand the structural stress of landing on a wooden carrier deck.
In July 1952 I began to fly back and forth from Alameda to Nellis AFB near Las Vegas and was trained in night flying and air-to-air combat. While I was still stationed in Alameda in the fall of 1952, I met Doris Larron, my future wife as it turned out, at a local dance. I fell for her right away and I guess she liked me too because I asked her out and she accepted.
Doris had grown up in Alameda so her home was close to the air base. We dated until October 1953, when my squadron was assigned to Miramar Naval Air Base in San Diego, and trained in gunnery practice at El Centro through December of 1952.
In January 1953 we boarded the carrier U.S.S. Valley Forge CVA 45 along with some jet fighters for the trip to Barber’s Point, Hawaii. As we sailed I made 33 practice carrier take offs and landings in the Chance Vought Corsair F4U.
Late January 1953 brought our first air strikes on North Korea from the carrier U.S.S. Philippine Sea stationed in the Sea of Japan. This particular carrier was an older model with a straight deck instead of a canted one like the carriers built later. The flights were all about four hours long and conducted in daytime … no night flights were sent over North Korea. Our assignment was to attack enemy supply lines, including truck convoys and trains with weapons such as cannons, napalm tanks and various bombs and unguided rockets.
Our Air Intelligence Officer, Lyman P. Van Slyk, a Stanford graduate, was a real expert on China and he did our day to day briefings aboard the carrier. His job was LSO, Landing Signal Officer, who guided the planes onto the carrier deck with colored flags when they returned from a mission. Despite the difficulty of being based on a carrier, I had practiced so much that I never had any close calls either taking off or landing.
In January 1954 we returned to combat based on a carrier off the coast of South Korea. We were supposed to help the French in French Indo-China but never did. We were stationed north on the Philippine Sea close to the island of Formosa. We had 75 planes on the carrier including the Corsairs and jet planes and lost only one plane to antiaircraft fire, that of my good friend, Bill Crandall. Fortunately a helicopter was able to rescue him in that incident. Several other planes had engine failure or ran out of fuel as they attempted to land on the carrier but in those cases the pilots were also picked up from the ocean by helicopters. In early June my plane was badly damaged by ground fire and, on a wing and a prayer, I flew to an emergency landing field on one of the islands.
It was going to take some time to fix the plane so my co-pilot and I were flown to a ship where a Marine Colonel named Heiner had a cooler full of ingredients for every kind of cocktail. It took three days to repair the plane before I could return to the carrier, so all of us relaxed by sitting around drinking and telling stories. After that we continued our flights over North Korea through the withering ground fire but I was never hit again.
In July 1954 we returned to Moffett Field in Northern California where I was assigned to a F9F2 jet plane. We spent several months training on these jets which were excellent airplanes, easy to fly, and very quiet. We flew in September and October out of Alameda south to Miramar, near San Diego, where the squadron was based, and we had gunnery practice over El Centro. We were also doing some practice on carrier landings with the F9F2’s on the carrier U.S.S. Philippine Sea out of San Diego.
Doris and I dated through 1954 and when I knew I’d be shipped out again I asked her mother if I could marry her and if I should give her a ring before I left. She said she couldn’t answer and suggested I ask Doris myself. Doris’ response was that I could leave and she’d date others while I was gone or, I could give her a ring. Of course, not wanting to lose her to some other guy, I opted to purchase the ring and I left the Bay Area as an engaged man. We were married on November 27, 1954, in a military wedding on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay with the wedding reception in the Officer’s Club.
My last Naval Air Corps flight was February 21, 1955, and I had to decide whether to take an assignment in the Chicago area or leave the service. I decided to become a civilian again and return to my education. I enrolled in U.C. Berkeley where I found out that most of my prior units from Wisconsin were not accepted. Meanwhile, I applied to United Air Lines where part of the application and interview was a series of tests to decide whether I was fit for the job. That night when I returned home I thought I’d failed so I was feeling pretty sorry for myself and took out my disappointment at the local tavern. However, several days later I got the call saying I was hired so I guess I must have passed well enough to fly.
Thus began a career of 37 years with United Airlines where I flew a wide variety of both propeller and jet planes. For the first six months I was a Flight Engineer and then promoted to Co-Pilot and by the end of 1956 I was moved up to the status of Pilot. I started out flying a DC-3 and the Convair on a “milk run” from Los Angeles to Fresno, then to San Francisco and Seattle. I continued to fly the DC-3, and later the DC-6 and DC-7 when they came out. But the highlight of these years was learning to fly the Boeing 707 and the Douglas DC-8, a narrow-bodied airliner in 1958.
During the 1960s I also flew the Caravel jet from Chicago to New York and back. United had a program to encourage business men to fly with them called the “Executive Flight.” The all male passengers were given small gifts, free liquor, could smoke cigars during the flight and had very cute stewardesses. I can’t imagine this happening today but it was a popular flight then.
My favorite flights were when a sports team, like the Yankees or the Mets, chartered a plane to carry the team from one city to another.
The Boeing 727, which used less fuel per mile, soon became the new “workhorse” for the airlines. Some of those planes are still flying. Next came the DC-10 a wide-bodied plane which had three engines, two on the wings and a third on the vertical stabilizer. We flew that plane to Honolulu frequently. I could take Doris with me to enjoy the waving palm trees, the tropical breezes and delicious food together.
With the airlines looking for an even more economical plane, Boeing designed the 767. The last plane I flew as a Captain was the Boeing 747 which had a spiral staircase to an upper deck First Class Lounge where you could go to have a drink and relax with other passengers.
I had a wonderful time flying all these planes to exotic places and across the United States, the Far East, and the Pacific. Hong Kong, Beijing, Singapore, Tokyo, Bangkok and Manila were all on my flight plans.
For about one year after I joined United, Doris worked as an airline hostess for American Airlines. She loved the work but when she and I started a family she quit and became a full-time wife and mom. Doris and I have three children, Gary, who lives in Reno, Nevada; Karen, who lives in Taos, New Mexico; and Roger, who lives in Sonora.
My last flight as Captain, prior to retirement in 1989, was in a United 747 to Tai Pei, Taiwan, and both Doris and our daughter Karen came along. After that I retired from United at age 60 in 1989. Since then I have helped Doris build a career in watercolor painting, enjoyed our home and pool, creating and maintaining a beautiful rose garden, and enjoying fun times with our grandchildren.
Looking back, my career in the Air Force taught me the flying skills and the personal qualities that made my future airline pilot career so successful. I think it also made me a better husband and father despite being gone so frequently.
We truly treasured the times together at home and on those occasional times when a family member was able to join me on a flight.