I was in Florida traveling for business (thank you Scotts Miracle-gro) and came upon this wonderful relic sitting pretty (or ugly) at the Orlando-Apopka Airport and just had to make a few snaps before moving on.
Pilot behind vintage airliner saves memories of air travel’s golden age
LeRoy Brown, 92, had a flying career spanning almost 60 years
April 12, 2013 | By Stephen Hudak, Orlando Sentinel
The 44-passenger vintage airliner, a blue Pan Am logo tattooed on its tail, has proven to be every bit the attention-getter that LeRoy H. Brown envisioned when he parked it at Orlando-Apopka Airport about four years ago.
Almost daily, someone calls to ask about the 1940s-era plane after seeing it from U.S. Highway 441, he said. Who owns that old plane? Why is it sitting out there? Can we go inside?
“It’s a museum piece, just like I am,” said Brown, 92, whose flying career began at age 14 in the seat of a crop-duster and spanned almost 60 years. From a seat in the cockpit, the former Pan Am captain witnessed the nation’s transition from propeller-driven planes to turbine-powered jets that streak across the skies.
As co-founder, president and chief curator of the Apopka-based U.S. Airline Industry Museum, a pie-in-the-sky operation that, he acknowledged, needs “an angel with money” to survive, Brown brought the refurbished airliner to a spot along 441 that thousands of motorists pass every day.
He estimated that the Convair 240 has cost the not-for-profit museum foundation about $60,000 to acquire, disassemble, transport and reassemble at the Apopka airport. It will never take flight again, but Brown hopes it will stand as a symbol of flying days gone by.
Like Brown, the plane, which was delivered to American Airlines on Feb. 27, 1949, recalls a time when air travelers were served an in-flight meal of filet mignon in bordelaise sauce instead of a Coke and a bag of peanuts.
“We’re trying to save some of this stuff,” Brown explained, gesturing to personal photos and flight menus, pilot wings, and other aviation memorabilia in a small display case at the airport. “We’re trying to keep the past alive.”
Despite the Pan American World Airways logo painted on its tail, the airplane was never part of Pan Am’s fleet, though it did log thousands of hours in the sky for other carriers. It ferried passengers for American Airlines from 1949 until 1959 and later for Mohawk Airlines. The buckles of the plane’s seat belts still bear Mohawk’s insignia.
Brown found the airliner in 2007 in Daytona Beach, where it had been grounded for more than a decade.
The plane is not open routinely for tours. But on occasions such as last weekend’s “Pigs & Planes” barbecue at the Apopka airport, Brown snaps into his Pan Am uniform — which still fits him neatly 32 years after his last commercial flight — and sits in its cockpit, answering questions. He speaks precisely, as if addressing passengers and, without notes, recites dates, aircraft specifications and details of events from decades ago.
“He spans the full breadth of Florida aviation history,” said Leo Murphy, a retired U.S. Navy commander and a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University who helped Brown pen a new biography, “From Cropduster to Airline Captain.”
Murphy said Brown began flying in Florida when planes traveled no faster than a car on today’s interstates and closed his professional career as a pilot of an airliner carrying 300 passengers from Miami to San Francisco at 600 mph.
“It’s an amazing life worth every honor he’s received,” Murphy said.
Brown, who has owned and flown dozens of planes, from experimental models to a pair of B17 bombers, received the “Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award” last year from the Federal Aviation Administration, recognizing at least 50 years of flight without an accident or violation.
He never got formal flight training, instead learning on the fly in the 1930s from crop-dusting pilots.
Although he once scoffed at the prospect of becoming an airline captain because “it was nothing but a glorified bus driver,” Brown flew planes for nearly 30 years for National Airlines and Pan Am, retiring in 1981 when he reached age 60 — then the mandatory retirement age for commercial pilots.
He estimated that he logged more than 35,000 hours as an airline captain, crop-duster and recreational pilot. Brown often commuted to work by air, piloting a small plane from Central Florida to National Airlines’ Miami base. In his spare time, he flew crop-dusters over bean fields, Dr. Phillips’ citrus groves and Apopka potato farms.
Born in New York, where a great-uncle entertained county-fair crowds by parachuting from a hot-air balloon, he was first smitten with flight when he saw a U.S. Navy dirigible pass over his grandmother’s house. His romance with flight grew deeper after his family moved to Florida.
At 14, he picked beans — for 7 cents a box — to save up $2 for a ticket to ride with a barnstorming pilot in Fort Lauderdale, his first airplane ride. He said he nagged crop-dusters until they let him go up with them and dispense the bug-killing powder.
“If my mother had known, she’d have killed us all,” he said.
Brown claimed that, over the years, he ingested so much DDT, a now-banned insecticide, that “when a mosquito bites me now, it dies.”
He met his wife of 56 years, Wanda, while he was a captain for National and she was working in the airline’s New York radio room. Until his last flight in 1993, they frequently traveled to see friends and family in open-cockpit bi-planes.
Flying low let them enjoy blossoming orange groves, barbecue and other smells from below. He said he once put the plane down in Georgia next to a rural restaurant, drawn by the smoky scent of chicken and ribs on the grill.
“He’s a pilot’s pilot. He’s been there, done that,” said Bill Bradshaw, 64, an Air Force veteran and Connecticut-based pilot who helped restore and reassemble the Convair 240.
But Brown said he worries about the museum pieces — the Convair and an estimated $300,000 in other memorabilia that sits in a hangar, boxed and catalogued.
“It’s old history now,” he said. “But I don’t give up easily. I want to give back something to the industry that has meant so much to me and our nation.”