By John Oyler
Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2015, 9:00 p.m.
In a column last summer I reported that my son-in-law, Michael Finke, was a private pilot who owned a 65-year-old Piper Pacer in which he, our daughter Elizabeth, and our granddaughter Rachael had flown from Champaign, Ill., to Meadville for a weekend visit with us at our cottage at Conneaut Lake.
Some of the readers of this column are aware of my hobby doing pen-and-ink sketches of simple subjects. This summer I decided to try to sketch Mike's Pacer, FAA number N7330K. Since none of the photographs I took of the plane seemed suitable for sketching, I decided to look on the web for a better picture of that particular model.
At some point I remembered Mike telling me this specific aircraft had participated in a famous flight by a well-known aviator, Max Conrad. That initiated additional research, which turned up a remarkable story. Conrad was born in Winona, Minn., in 1903 and grew up during the birth pangs of aviation. Infatuated with flying, he earned his license in 1928; by the time he died in 1979 he had logged more than 50,000 hours in the air, far more than any other pilot in the history of aviation.
His involvement with the N7330K, which he lovingly dubbed “Thirty Three Okay,” began with a chance encounter with Piper Aircraft Co. President William Piper. The company had recently released the PA-20 Pacer, a successor to their popular Piper Cub line, and was looking for a way to promote its new product. Conrad's wife Betty and their nine children were living in Geneva, Switzerland, and he was looking for an affordable way to go to Europe and visit them.
Conrad and Piper worked out a deal. Piper would provide a brand new Pacer and Max would fly it to Europe and back. This was a significant challenge for such a tiny plane. Weighing less than 1,000 pounds and driven by a 125-horsepower engine, it had a range of 500 miles. In contrast, Lindbergh's “Spirit of St. Louis” had a 223-horsepower engine and a range of 4,000 miles. Undaunted, Conrad took delivery of “Thirty Three Okay” at Lock Haven, added auxiliary fuel tanks, and flew to Teterboro, N.J., to begin his memorable flight.
The first stop on his “great circle” route from Teterboro to Geneva was an airfield in Massachusetts. From there he flew to Goose Bay, Labrador, Canada, a military airfield frequently used by transatlantic airliners for refueling. Next came Greenland, another military airbase, and from there to Iceland.
As was true from Goose Bay to Greenland, his flight from Greenland to Iceland was accompanied by Air Force B-17s, to help with his navigation. Next stop was Prestwick, Scotland, then Tousssus near Paris, and finally Geneva, where he was met by his happy family.
This was the first of many long distance solo flights, all in Piper Aircraft models, including a non-stop flight of 7,668 miles from Casablanca to Los Angeles in a Piper Comanche 250. He eventually set nine official light plane world records, three of which still stand. When he died, in 1979, his home airfield in Winona was renamed Max Conrad Field in his honor.
Although Conrad never achieved the fame of his contemporaries Lindbergh, Rickenbacker and Doolittle, he is still revered by private pilots all over North America.
One wonders if his travels in the 1930s and 1940s ever brought him to the old Mayer Field in Bridgeville. I am sure he would have felt right at home there. Reading about his career brought back many memories of Sunday afternoons with the sky seemingly filled with “Mayer crates,” the nickname we gave to the Piper Cubs of that era.
When I remarked to my daughter Beth about the fact that Mike's 65-year-old plane was still completely serviceable, she replied, “Well, don't forget George Washington's hatchet!”
She was, of course, referring to a popular legend that claims the original hatchet Washington used to chop down the cherry tree is still at Mount Vernon and has been used continuously every day for two-and-a-half centuries. Of course, during that time the head was replaced seven times and the handle 15.
I'm sure all the replaceable parts on Mike's plane have been replaced many times and the fabric on the wings and fuselage as well, but the original frame and the famous number N7330K can attest to having fond memories of the 1950 transatlantic flight.
Like most early aviators, Max Conrad was an expert mechanic, navigator, and weather prognosticator, as well as a skilled pilot. He well deserves an important spot in history.