Wednesday, January 19, 2005

An aviation 'pioneer' without fame

Commentary by Pat Murphy


Pat Murphy

Truman William Cummings, an aviation pioneer of sorts who never received proper accolades, recently died at 87 in Florida with scant notice.

Not an aircraft designer nor daring test pilot.

A long-legged, high-pockets World War II bomber pilot turned Pan American World Airways captain known as "Slim" around Coral Gables tennis courts where we met 40 years ago, Cummings created "Freedom From Fear of Flying" classes that freed uncounted thousands from their dread of air travel.

It's been mimicked worldwide. But basics remain—psychological ground school climaxed by graduation flights on airliners.

Slim was part of that glamorous South Florida aviation culture that dazzled my generation.

Pan American began shrinking the world in the 1930s with classic Sikorsky S-series and Consolidated flying boats called Clippers. Elegant passengers in summer finery boarded and deplaned at Biscayne Bay's Dinner Key terminal with its huge revolving globe (my father, an electrician, helped install it).

Amelia Earhart touched down in Miami in 1937 on her doomed global flight. The Miami Air Races were historic.

In World War II, B-24 bombers rolled out of Consolidated Vultee hangars at Miami International Airport. Squadrons of B-17 and Lockheed Hudson bombers took off from Miami for African and Asian war fronts via South America. Miami Beach hotels were commandeered for Air Corps officer candidates (actor Clark Gable included). Royal Air Force pilots attended classes at the University of Miami.

One of my real summer jobs was stripping paint from Eastern Airlines' then-new twin-engine Douglas DC-3s. EAL president and World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker was a frequent hangar visitor.

Early Boeing 707 jet flights emanated in Miami.

Childhood chums—Buddy Holley, Jack Miller, Tommy Blakey, Donald Ray, all now gone—became Boeing 747 and Lockheed 1011 captains. (I abandoned an impulse to apply for a pilot's job at Eastern after obtaining my commercial pilot license from my FAA instructor, world women's aerobatic champ Mary Gaffaney, another Florida aviation celeb.)

Basil Rowe, who charted Pan Am Latin America routes with Charles Lindbergh at his side in an old twin-engine Sikorsky S-38, spun tales of those adventures well into his 80s—between tennis sets.

Curtis Pitts designed his world-renowned Pitts Special aerobatic bi-plane in nearby Homestead.

John Paul Riddle founded Riddle Airlines (later Airlift International) and Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. (Full disclosure: I received an honorary PhD in Aeronautical Studies from Embry Riddle.)

Miami was home to now-defunct Eastern and National airlines.

And just north was Cape Kennedy and the first gateway to space.

How lucky to have those memories.

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