Fall 2011 Michigan Tech Magazine

Look! Up in the Sky!

By Erik Nordberg

Searching for the plane truth

We get all kinds of requests for information at the Michigan Tech Archives. Although we’re not in a position to undertake detailed research, some catch the fancy of your intrepid archivist and send him off on the hunt for unusual and arcane aspects of University history.

Archivist and sleuth Erik Nordberg tracks down the real story behind the only airplane Michigan Tech ever owned . . . sort of.

Such was the case when two messages arrived in my email inbox a few months ago. The first was from an alumnus who had seen photos of John MacInnes at the door of a Convair 440 aircraft and wanted to know if Michigan Tech owned the plane. The second was from a Nevada author writing about a DC-3 aircraft that he believed the University owned in the late 1960s.

Lacking any memory shards of Tech running some Air Yooper service, my interest was piqued. Digging through campus records—and throwing my query out to readers of the electronic Tech Alum Newsletter—I was overwhelmed with information.

First, I took a crash course in airplane design. For those who may not know, a DC-3 is referred to as a “tail-dragger,” as it has two wheels in the front and one underneath the tail, giving it a sloped angle when it is parked at the airport. The Convair has a wheel under the front nose and remains upright at all times (and don’t ever make the mistake of mixing up Convairs with Corvairs). But this did help to identify the planes in many of our photos.

I also heard a lot about early commercial air carriers such as the North Central “Blue Goose” and successor planes flown by Republic Airlines. These airlines owned and operated many Convairs through the years, so I suspect that any photo of these planes probably documents a Tech employee travelling on a public commercial flight. Although these planes delivered more power than the DC-3, alums such as Glenn Buskirk ’84 recall that the “vibration and noise were always headache-inducing.”

It was also interesting to hear of numerous smaller planes in the area. Mario Fontana had started the Fontana School of Aeronautics to train Army Air Corps cadets on the Tech campus during World War II. Denis Hayner ’61 remembers that Tech professor Gilbert “Gilly” Boyd owned a T-6 trainer that he flew around the area. Paul Gauthier ’62 recalled a later de Havilland Beaver plane the ROTC detachment used in the late 1950s for travel between Houghton and K. I. Sawyer Air Force Base, near Marquette.

Al Ayotte, the instructor for the Tech flying club, maintained a Cessna 150 and helped several students obtain their pilots’ licenses, according to Mike Giannini ’73. The flying club used a number of different planes over the years, some operating from the Isle Royale sands east of campus and others from the Houghton County Memorial Airport, which was renovated in the early 1970s.

Joseph Fontana (a relative of Mario’s?) continued the Fontana connection with Upper Peninsula aviation. Rob Aho ’74 remembers a Beechcraft Twin Bonanza that was kept in the Fontana Aviation hangar at Ford Airport near Iron Mountain and used by Michigan Tech employees. It is not clear that Tech actually owned this plane; more likely, the University had some arrangement with Fontana for chartered use.

And Tech needed charter air service, particularly in transporting the hockey team to games in Colorado (and to post-season playoff games around the country). Historical photographs and reminiscences of many alumni document the DC-3 charter service owned by Purdue University and operated by students in their aviation program.

Despite all this wonderful information, I was still coming up blank concerning planes actually owned by the University. I called Kelly Dube in the Michigan Tech property office, but neither she nor her predecessor, Ray Lasanen, had ever heard of an airplane on the official institutional inventory.

Finally, an email from Michael Reblin ’68 began to tease out the real story.

It turns out that there are a folks who study the lineage of airplanes, as some follow train locomotives, or genealogists search their family tree. Reblin had passed along my query to Chuck Boie, an aviation historian in Milwaukee. He had record of a DC-3 registered to Michigan Tech with the official aviation tail number N-51071.

The plane was originally built in 1941 as a passenger-configured military plane for the US Army Air Forces. It moved into private ownership and was eventually sold to General Motors. Boie’s files indicated that GM transferred ownership of the plane to the Michigan Tech Development Fund in 1967. According to his records, Tech owned it from 1967 to 1970.

It may seem a small detail, but the information tying the plane to the Tech Fund made all the difference. As an entity separate from the University, the Fund can hold property that won’t turn up on official institutional inventories. A call to Mary Jane Lowney ’79 (and help from Virginia Schaller) at the Michigan Tech Fund helped clear up the mystery.

Minutes for the October 1965 meeting of the Fund’s Board of Trustees indicate that the University’s Board of Trustees was encouraging the “purchase of a twin motored airplane” that might be operated on a contract basis with Fontana Aviation. The proposal suggested that a plane would “enhance the effectiveness of executive staff.” Fund documents confirmed that General Motors donated the plane in May 1967.

By April 1968, however, the Tech Fund Trustees were already looking to unload the vehicle: “Principally because of the relatively small amount of usage that has thus far been of the DC-3 plane . . . operating expenses were substantially in excess of collected revenues.” The trustees’ executive committee was authorized to dispose of the plane and, although details are sketchy, the plane was sold sometime in 1970.

So what about that author from Nevada? It turns out that after its sale by the Michigan Tech Fund, the DC-3 moved through several owners for use as a charter plane. These included some of the charter services used to transport the hockey team to out-of-state games.

Sadly, the story of this particular DC-3 ended tragically. By 1976, the plane was being operated by Air Indiana and crashed on December 13, 1977, while attempting to take off in thick rain and fog at the Evansville airport. Twenty-nine people perished in the crash, including the coach and fourteen members of the University of Evansville basketball team, who were heading to a game in Nashville, Tennessee.

Kyle Keiderling, the Nevada-based freelance author and member of the United States Basketball Writers Association who contacted me, is working on a book about the Evansville disaster.

Although marred by this connection to a collegiate tragedy, the story of N-51071 is yet another piece in the jigsaw puzzle of Michigan Tech’s long and varied history.