“Experimental” DC-4 expedited for UNRRA war relief flights

…the continuation of Jack Stettner’s story and the Veterans Air Express UNRRA contract.

Met Opera Diva Jarmila Novotná christens Veterans Air DC-4 in 1946
Jarmila Novotná, actress & star soprano of the Metropolitan Opera was born in Prague, the first destination of Veterans Air Express DC-4 she is christening here.

The United Nations Relief & Rehabilitation Administration awarded a Veterans Air Express UNRRA contract as part of the UN’s World War II war relief effort.  In so doing, Veterans became the first civilian air cargo service to fly behind the “Iron Curtain.”

Jack Stettner flew copilot with Captain William Jakeman on the company’s first flight to Warsaw, 7 May thru 17 May, 1946. They flew NX58003, Veterans’ first DC-4, named GLOBE TROTTER. (The United States Immigration Manifest for this flight is missing, so far, from official U.S. documentation. Fortunately for this research, the dates were garnered from Jack’s log book!)

NX58003. Experimental DC-4 flew Veterans Air Express UNRRA contract flights.
Pushing the point, I know, but this really is NX58003. VAL’s Experimental DC-4.

This same aircraft had just been christened on 16 April 1946 in preparation for two back-to-back UNRRA cargo trips to Prague, delivering tons (literally) of hatching eggs.  Jarmila Novotná, a celebrated Czech soprano and Metropolitan Opera star, did the splashing honors.

[Please notice, I now know her name…courtesy of a Santa Fe Public Library InterLibraryLoan Librarian, one of my highly valued Veterans Air “network.” Gaye Lyn]

“Experimental” aircraft.  Really?

For you aviation buffs wondering about the “X” in the “NX” designation, an explanation. During the entire period of the company’s start-up phase [and perhaps short history], time was of the essence. According to Jack Stettner and other sources, the DC-4 needed major overhaul, modifications and re-certification from military to civilian life. And, in what later proved to be highly uncustomary cooperation from “the powers that be,” this DC-4 was given “Experimental” designation in order to expedite the UNRRA war relief flights.  Thus the “NX” tail.  (Perhaps a story for future coverage.)

7 May to 17 May, 1946.  Warsaw.  55,000 hatching eggs.

For this first Warsaw flight, Jack describes the crew’s concern with and attention to vital temperatures in the DC-4. As in the two previous UNRRA flights to Prague, the DC-4 temperature had to be closely regulated. “The hatching eggs had to be kept warm (within certain limits)…on the ground as well as in the air. If the temperature was too low, the eggs would no longer hatch. If too high, they would hatch prematurely (and die of starvation). So timing became important.”

A different matter of life-and-death was flying over Russian-controlled Germany and needing Russian approval to do so. (While the war had been over nearly a year, the jittery Russians had quite recently shot down a U.S. C-47 (known in civilian terms as a DC-3). “Russian communications with their own anti-aircraft batteries was very poor and we would be shot down if we deviated in any way” was how Jack explained the criticality of their designated flight corridor.

In his film footage here, which I hope you’ve watched, John Noll recalls a Russian fighter escort “sitting on our wing” just to be sure Veterans did not deviate from the flight “plan” as they flew through that corridor. Jack Stettner remembers the Russian approvals for sure, but doesn’t recall the escort. (Another rubrics cube uncertainty to investigate.)

And, just like that, the company began to thrive.

The Veterans Air Expres ex-servicemen get their act togehter, to build the cargo buiness & make expansion plans.
The Vets Line Up. Garnering attention, experience & business. PHOTO SOURCE: AIR TRANSPORTATION, May 1946, Page 36.

But Jack Stettner did more than fly for Veterans. As one of those self-described “bunch of cocky kids,” it became evident that to be successful they had to get their act together. They had to do more than fly from Point A to Point B. Prompted by a “hard” lesson having to do with 30 barrels of lobsters (subject for another story), the Veterans founders/crew members decided to self-select areas they liked or suited their talents.

Jack volunteered for Operations ‘cause he could organize things. And someone who said “I-like-buying-things” volunteered to become Purchasing Agent. And the high-flight-time guy stepped up to become Chief Pilot. Just like that. (Since I’m still searching for who did what and when, I’m missing some names here.)  Plus the photos leave a lot of clarity to be desired.  But I’m using what I have to show just a portion of media attention Veterans Air was garnering.  National news magazines.  National and daily newspapers.  Aviation news publications.  All with their imaginations captured, they supplied readers with coverage — from 3-line entries to full features with photos.

Harvey G. Stevenson and Saunie Gravely in May 1946
GUIDING LIGHTS of Veterans Air Express Company according to feature article. PHOTO SOURCE: AIR TRANSPORTATION, May 1946, Page 36.

And what was Saunie, the President, doing all this while?  I know he wasn’t flying, because my Dad didn’t become a pilot until after his Veterans Air endeavor. I do know Saunie dealt with the company attorney, Harvey G. Stevenson. No doubt.  The caption calls the two men “Guiding Lights.”  Harvey was the attorney for Brenner Produce Company and brought into Veterans business by Arthur and Nellie Brenner. Nellie had become Vice President Finance for Veterans. I’ve seen her signature and corporate title — on company stock certificates and warrants that Jack Stettner gifted to me. Thank you, Jack!  Hugs. (Excuse us, folks, while we have a private moment!!)

My Dad also made arrangements in Sebring, FL., (where I also visited one week ago today – last Monday!) for an aircraft maintenance & refurbishment hangar and for refrigerated storage capacity for fresh produce cargo flights. (The rest of that Florida story is coming up: Breakfast with Marilyn Gries!  Hours with Allen Altvater at Sebring Airport and the Sebring Historical Society.  And, even longer ago, cocktails with Paul Eason in Santa Fe!

And…and…and…as soon as I catch up with myself!

My apologies, Dear Reader. This Post was originally drafted on 8/18/2015…and I’ve just gotten back to edit and add photos (9/8/2015).  So references like “visited (Sebring) one week ago today” are terribly outdated! Gaye Lyn

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top