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