Douglas B-18A Bolo

Tucson, AZ 1971

This was the last flight of a Douglas B-18 Bolo. One of the pilots, Gary Plomp,  stands beside the aircraft after delivery to Tucson in 1971.

Final Flight of the B-18 Bolo
Gary V. Plomp

As my Schwinn five-speed rounded Airport Blvd my eyes caught sight of an unusual aircraft parked at the airport. Of course, I was curious as I had an affinity for big propliners. I quickly parked my bike.

"Who's DC-3 is that?" I asked Del Richardson, the airport attendent at Watsonville Airport. "What DC-3 ? I don't see a DC-3" he replied gruffly. "What I see is a Douglas B-18!", as he gustered to the large twin engined aircraft out on the ramp.

"GO out and look at it!...but leave your bike here, no riding on the tarmac", he retorted.

It was April 10, 1971 and at 16 years of age, I had already possessed a good knowledge of various types of aircraft and how could I have mistaken this one? By gosh the wings and tail looked like a three. (The B-18 was actually a military version of the DC-2 with the wings and tail, however a different fuselage.)

As I walked out through the wet, green grass toward this old airplane, the difference became readily apparent.

Unlike the airliner DC-3, this machine had the fuselage of a bomber, a potbelly of sorts under a mid wing sporting two Curtis-Wright R-1820 radial engines. It looked sort of whimsical with its' peculiar nose.

Upon a closer look, I could see that this was one elderly, tired airplane. Its' white paint was faded and chalky. The blue cowlings were corroded and beat up and oil dripped from the engines and covered the landing gear. As a testament to its' airworthiness, someone spray painted the undignified words "B-18 Bummer" on the side of its' fuselage.

As a budding aviation artist, I always carried a sketch pad with me and as I proceeded to draw this unique relic, a white '67 Caddy convertible pulled up along side the airplane. Out stepped a gentleman who walked over, curious about my artwork. He introduced himself: "Hello, I'm Keith Larkin." and shook my hand.

Keith Larkin was an icon at Watsonville Airport back then who restored (fixed up) and flew (entertained) the legendary aircraft such as the Curtis P-40, Vought F-4U, Consolidated PBY and other classic WWII types before selling them. He was also an inventor, creating the radio hands free headset, and boom mic. Always a man in a hurry, he quickly walked to the B-18 and opened the door.

"Wanna have a look inside:" he said. He didn't have to ask twice! Cautiously, I stepped aboard and the wonderful aroma of 100/130 octane "green" avgas that permeates vintage aircraft, filed the cabin. The floor was littered with aircraft parts, a spare wheel and lots of dried shrimp shells! Keith explained that this particular B-18 had previously hauled seafood in Mexico. One can only imagine what this can do to an airframe over time! And XB-LAJ had lots of it in the log book! Climbing into the cockpit was a journey back in time with the "bakelite" control yokes and large metal throttle levers with red colored spherical knobs at the end. The large, round radium dial instruments stared at me as a breeze stirred up old ghosts inside the creaking fuselage.

Euphoria surrounded me just sitting in this beast as Keith jumped around the aircraft, checking hydraulics and other important stuff.

We exited the old bomber and before he rushed off, remarked: "I'm ferrying this old thing to Tucson, AZ next Saturday...wanna come along?" "Of course!" I replied as I picked my jaw up off the ground.

It had been raining on and off for most of the week preceding our flight, and I began to seriously doubt if we would go at all! On Friday the day before our scheduled departure, the last of a series of Pacific storm fronts passed through the Monterey Bay Area and the skies cleared by Saturday.

At 9:00 a.m. I was ready out at Watsonville Airport and there sat the B-18, dripping wet and not looking too anxious to fly. A little steam aroze as the morning sun warmed its' damp, battered skin. Oil mixed with water making the cement quite slippery around the aircraft.

Keith soon roared up in his Cadillac to the dilapidated, wooden terminal building, a holdover from WWII. He had a younger fellow with him this time, the impetuous Pete Bell. Pete, who had just aquired his multi-engined certificate would fly left seat. (In time, he would expertly pilot vintage airtankers fighting fires around the country).

But now, all he wanted to do was get the B-18 to Tucson. Keith was his mentor and would teach him the finer points of flying large, radial engined airplanes.

This B-18 had no functioning radios and Keith had to borrow a portible VHF receiver from United Flight Service, a local FBO on the field. Meanwhile Pete and I "preflighted" and fueled the bird with 100/130 avgas.

Our route of flight would be Watsonville, Palm Springs, Tucson. The whole trip was flown VFR, each leg approximately two hours long.

Keith soon returned with the radio and we three intrepid aviators climbed aboard. A lot of things didn't work, including the engine primer as we attempted to start the cranky cyclones. Priming the cold engines meant someone getting out on the slippery wing and dashing a coffee can full of avgas down the airscoop of the Stromberg carburetor...while motoring the starter!!! Yes, you heard that Wright!

The starboard engine reluctantly coughed to life, belching a lot of smoke. The same procedure was applied to the port engine but it wasn't so coorperative. Keith was impatient and he fiddled with the throttle and mixture until it too, lit off like a shaking wet dog! If I recall, the field went IFR until the smoke cleared.

We sat on the ramp while oil pressures rose and cylinder head temps warmed. Those engines, if I remember correctly after 31 years, were running rough.

Pete shoved the throttles forward and with brakes leakin' and squeakin', we taxied to the active. RPM's were increased and mags checked. The flaps were set for takeoff.

Seagulls, many of them dotted runway 19 as the old "Bolo" was lined up on the displaced threshold at Watsonville and given power one more time. Tail wheel locked, hold the brakes, RPM's, and manifold pressures up as the old gal shuttered and vibrated against the stops. Brakes released and the R-1820's roared to BMEP, 2000hp, crescendo down the runway.

After a moment, the wings gave lift and the ground parted, Pete called for gear-up and the massive wheels slowly folded, first one then the other into their greasy wells. Flaps were retracted, again slowly as the strawberry fields passed below us and the airspeed climbed.

The B-18 began a protracted climb to 9,000 ft. tracking a radial off the Salinas VOR. It was cold, loud and drafty as scattered cumulous clouds below led a path across the valley, OAT 52 degrees. Our chase plane was Keith's Cessna 310 which would accompany us to Tucson. He flew a loose formation off our left wing.

After crossing the Tehachapi Mountains and skirting the restricted area around Edwards AFB, we landed at Palm Springs airport without a hitch, or so we thought.

Once we shut the aircraft down, an inspection revealed that some of the tattered, worn and rotten fabric had parted company from the elevator. The 150 knot slipstream had ripped it away. Not a good thing!

Ah....but a remedy was found in the form of American Airlines baggage tape! Larkin obtained some from the airline terminal and patched the affected areas! "That should get us to Tucson", he declared as oil and fuel was taken on.

Soon after takeoff from Palm Springs, I was given an opportunity to fly the B-18 somewhere over Blythe, CA.

From what I remember, the Bolo was heavy on the controls, and it was slow and sluggish in a bank. I recall chasing the ball, as we slogged our way to Tucson. After a while, Pete resumed command of the ship.

Suaro Cacti reached for the wings as we lined up for our final approach at Tucson Int'l and the pucker factor diminished when the flaps dropped and the gear locked.

The landing was a greaser, however on roll out the right engine failed and we taxied to Roberts Aircraft on one engine. The B-18 was then turned and parked next to an ex-Delta Airlines DC-6.

We bid the old "Bolo" farewell as we climbed aboard the Cessna 310 and chased the sunset back to Watsonville.

The sun had indeed set on the old B-18 "Bolo" for this was its' final flight.

Today, that very same B-18 "Bolo", can be seen on display at the McChord AFB museum in Seattle, WA where someone may ask: "What kind of a DC-3 is that?"