Interviewee: William Edward "Mac" McEachern
Interviewer: Michael D. Rowland
Date of Interview: 30 September 2003
R: My name is Mike Rowland, I'm a student at the University of Florida, and this is
Tuesday, 30 September 2003. I'm meeting with Mac McEachern at his home to
do an oral history interview. Mac, what has been your personal involvement with
aviation in Gainesville?
M: It's been pretty wide and varied. Actually, I think it was about 1944-45, [the] first
time that I flew here from Stengel Field. Then [I flew] from the Gainesville
Regional Airport and [served] in the military. [I served] on the city commission
[and] I got pretty heavily involved with the airport because at that time the airport
was a department of the city. Later on, whenever the state legislature created an
authority for the airport, I served on that authority for six years. [I] had monitored
it pretty closely, their actions and so forth, before and since that time. I still do a
little for the Gainesville Pilots' Association in the form of representing them to the
Authority and working with our law firm. After I was on the commission, I worked
with a law firm that specializes in aviation litigation and aircraft accident
reconstruction and that sort of thing.
R: What were some important events in the early years of aviation in Gainesville?
M: I think the early, early days, probably as I look back on it, it was just more fun
than anything else. The fun of learning to fly.
R: You said you learned to fly ir '44-45?
M: I don't have my log books from those days, I lost them some where along the
line, but if I remember right, it was, I think, 1945 when I started flying a 65-
horsepower yellow Piper Cub, with a little Continental engine on it and a great
R: You learned to fly from Carl Stengel or one of his instructors?
M: No, I did not learn to fly from Carl Stengel. I knew Carl Stengel but that was just
knowing him in passing was about it. He's passed away now. The last time I
saw him, I think, was at the dedication of Gainesville's Automated Flight Service
Station, which I was a very instrumental part in having located in Gainesville.
R: Do you think local leaders and aviators made a good choice of location for what
is today Gainesville Regional Airport?
M: No. It was just available. Back in 1930-31 the effort started to get a regional
airport for Gainesville. They probably, if they could have had the vision in the
future, they'd probably would have constructed the airport so that it would have
included the Ocala area or a little further south, in a geographic location a little
more related to that. That is, for air carrier service, but for general aviation, it
doesn't make any difference because mostly it's going to cater to the local
aviators. Probably in closer proximity to the University of Florida, such as where
Stengel Field was, would have been a better location for a general aviation
R: What did city and county government do to aid aviation during that period?
M: You're talking about the early period?
R: The early period, yes.
M: That was before my time. In reading the history books, the chamber of
commerce was putting pressure on the city commission to develop a municipal
airport and, of course, the commission, like all commissions, [said], we don't
have the funds for that, we'll have to expand our budget. Then along came
President [Franklin D. Roosevelt, U.S. President, 1933-1945] and his Works
Projects Administration [New Deal agency], it became more feasible because
they could get some government aid and they started construction of grass
runways where the present Gainesville Regional Airport is now. By the way, the
pictures. I asked Dashwood [about them]. [Dashwood Hicks, president of the
Gainesville Pilots' Association] was going out to California today and I asked him
if he got to that museum in Sacramento to try and get a better picture from them
of the grass runways, because there is a picture of it when it was a grass runway
in a museum in Sacramento, California.
R: A picture of?
M: Gainesville Regional.
R: There were several other airfields in the Gainesville area in the 1930s. There
was Jarvis Field and Chambers Field. I've read a little bit about those. Do you
know anything about those fields?
M: One of them was out in northwest Gainesville, a little short strip out there. It was
kind of wet in that area. I knew where that was. I don't know about Chambers. I
think it was Jarvis out there. I remember seeing it, I never flew off of it. I
remember going out there looking at it, flying over it.
R: So, in the mid-40s that was still there?
M: Yes, that had to be in abouN5-46. It was there until they actually started
developing the residential [areas] out there. I don't think it was used very much
because Stengel [Field] became the place where all the private aviation was.
R: World War II was an important period for the expansion of the Municipal Airport.
What can you tell me about that period?
M: Right after the airport got started, the University [of Florida] had been doing
some flight training and so forth. The military came in and they took over the
airport, and took it as a government property. They did a lot of paving and
development and made a bigger airport out of it and used it during World War II.
They had B-25s and I think they had some P-51s out there. [They had] P-47s
and I remember seeing a B-24 out there. Then, after the war was over, they
deeded it [the airfield] back to the city of Gainesville and, of course, the city
benefitted from the improvements that were there at the time. Then it kind of lay
fallow. There wasn't much activity out there for a long time.
R: Right after the war?
M: Right after the war, yes.
R: When did activity start up again?
M: It just started up gradually. There were old buildings out there and so forth. The
first airport manager for the city of Gainesville lived out there in one of the
buildings. [His name is] Jay Liddon. He's still around, by the way, you might
want to talk to him a little bit about that.
R: How do you spell his name? I can get that from you afterwards.
M: Well, I'll tell you what, let's get it later on. I've got it in a file here somewhere.
When he retired, he went into doing landscaping work and I ran into him not long
ago and he gave me his phone number.
R: Why do you think the Army Air Force(decided to build up a base in Gainesville?
VM: Well they did training all over Florida. Florida has pretty good flying weather,
there [are] not any granite clouds around here like there [are] in some other
places, and Florida's flat. It's kind of hard to get lost in Florida because if you go
east or west, you're going to come to a coast pretty quick.
R: When you say granite in the air, what do you mean?
R: How did the community feel about the air base?
M: I think in general that the community welcomed it as an economic development,
xJa source of money being brought into Gainesville and.so4- because there
was a lot of military training. I know the Thomas Hotel had a special officer's
club down in the basement there. I was close friends with one of the Thomas
girls and we were forbidden to go there because we were kids and they sold
R: How old were you during World War II?
M: I was 16, I guess, in45 or (6.
R: Did you ever go out to the airbase to the see the planes and the activity out
there? The military base?
M: No, I don't remember making any trips out there because when that base was
built, I lived in Montbrook, Florida, down in Levy County. I remember seeing the
airplanes in the air a lot. Then, there was the Montbrook Airport, which is now
the Williston Airport, and I lived there until my family moved here in 1944. My
mother was teaching in the PK Yonge [school] and later on in the [University of
Florida's] College of Education.
R: Have you heard any stories from people about the Army Air Field, the activities
going on there?
M: Sure. Lots of them. In fact, I had a name that I wanted and it's buried
somewhere right here now that I got from Johnny Brasington, the Cadillac dealer
here, about a young lieutenant that got killed out there. He was in a jeep and the
driver backed into a spinning propellor or something. He was an attorney, a local
attorney, and I want to get his name and try to look him up. I was going to try
and contact Jim Clayton, he was probably active [at that time] or may have
remembered the guy's full name.
R: Do you remember when that accident happened?
M: No, I don't. I was told about it, I don't remember when it happened. Johnny was
telling me about it. He's told me about it a couple of times and we just traded
cards the other day. I was in there talking to him and he didn't know how the guy
spelled his last name, but I did a phonetic spelling and a little bit of information
on a piece of paper about it. [I] was going to try to follow up on it, but I haven't
followed up on it.
R: Any other stories you've heard? That's a tragic one.
M: Yeah, oh, well, you know I guess there were a lot of tragedies came out of World
War II. World War II was a tragedy. You know, while I was in the Air Force, I
never really cared much about military aviation. I think that's the worst thing in
the world to do, for aviators to fight each other. It's kind of a passion that
crosses all international boundaries.
R: Aviation you mean?
M: Yes. To just pick one out of the air is kind of hard, there [have] been all kinds of
tales about things that occurred out here.
R: Do you think the Army Air Forces presence during World War II had any lasting
effect on Gainesville and the airport?
M: Oh, sure.
R: Why do you say that?
M: Well, it probably moved it years ahead in its advancement into aviation, because
Gainesville's not a large passenger generator. That's the conflicts that they have
right now, that everybody goes to Orlando and Jacksonville because there are
better options for destinations and flights and cost of tickets. That's something
that they try to do here. [There] has been a constant effort to try to bring in
cheaper flights, but since you don't have a lot of people going to the same
destination, it's kind of hard to do.
R: Do you think it would have been good for the city if the Army Air Forces, and
then later the Air Force, had stayed at the base?
M: Not necessarily. The same thing happened here that happened all around the
state. They turned the bases over to local governments and, in some cases,
some of them have never been developed. There's one over toward
Jacksonville [and] one at New Smyrna. It turned into a flying development, but
that's only been in recent years, the last 15 to 20 years that it really developed.
It just sat there fallow for a long, long time. In many cases, where they were
there they provided the infrastructure for cities to have airports that wouldn't
ordinarily have invested their money in them.
R: Who are some important figures in local aviation history?
M: Curtis Pitts [and] Carl Stengel. John Alison [University of Florida graduate, WWII
fighter ace in the China-Burma-India Theater, Assistant Secretary of Commerce
for Aviationrln 1942, the Gainesville Municipal Airport was named for John
Alison. When Alison Airport became Gainesville Regional Airport, the terminal
building was named for Alison] has got a lot written about him. He was a local
man. They say he flew with Chiang Kai-shek in China, but actually, if you study
the history real closely, he was in the American Air Force. I don't think he was
ever discharged and actually became a soldier of fortune.
R: He was never a Flying Tigerner"-.
M: No, but they still referred to them as Flying Tigers after the US Air Force took
over over there.
R: Right, but he wasn't AVG [American Volunteer Group].
M: He was probably better known for his demonstrations of the P-40 and getting the
maximum ability out of it that convinced Chiang Kai-shek to buy the Curtis
products from the United States.
R: Did you ever know John Alison?
R: You mentioned Curtis Pitts. Did you ever meet Curtis?
M: Yes, I met Curtis Pitts. Curtis Pitts built the Pitts Special. The first one that was
built was laid out with chalk on the hangar floor at Stengel Field. He laid out the
wings. Although he was looking for a real responsive, quick airplane, he
probably contributed [more to] a wing design. Maybe more [important] than the
design was the visibility between the wings.
R: What were his other contributions to aviation history?
M: Curtis Pitts, he was just a pilot, mechanic, designer sort of guy. I can't answer
that question. He was just around. There was another guy, Phil Quigley, [who]
did the test flights for him [and] flew the first one.
R: I read that Curtis Pitts actually lived here in Gainesville from about 1945 through
M: Yes, and I think he did some commuting to St. Augustine. Some of the
historians call that Jacksonville.
v/: I've read that too. Now as far as Carl Stengel, what were his contributions to
M: Well, he developed an airport. I think he was a motorcycle policeman.
R: Yes, he was. He was the first one here in Gainesville.
M: And then later on Roland Stewart was a motorcycle policeman and flew off of
the Gainesville Airport. His son is the proprietor of a motorcycle shop here now.
Roland was a small sort of guy and an enthusiastic pilot. He did instruction [and]
flew forestry. His nephew, Henry Miller, lives in Atlanta right now. I e-mail with
him pretty regularly, and he recalls flying forestry patrol with him. I guess Henry
learned to fly there. I kind of remember him telling about Carl flying the airplane
when he was just a kid on forestry patrol.
Carl, he struggled along with that airport. It was a nip and tuck financial
sort of thing. They had some hangars out there and a concrete ramp [and] the
rest of it was grass. Then eventually, with the competition from Gainesville
Regional, it became just not economical any more and it's Butler Plaza now. But
I remember it. I had a farm right across the street from it and I remember going
out there at night and shining the pickup truck lights on the runway for somebody
to land. The east end of the runway [had] some street lights and so forth so you
could judge about where it was. The west end was just pitch dark out there, so
I'd drive the pickup truck down there and shine the lights so somebody could
land, if they were coming in after dark.
R: How long was the field?
M: It was probably a little over 2000 feet, probably about 3000 feet. Maybe not, I
doubt it was over 3000, but the west approach was fairly good except there were
some trees down there.
R: Someone was telling me, and I can't remember if it was about Jarvis or if it was
Stengel Field, but he said some pilots didn't like to fly into Stengel Field because
of the trees. Were there power lines or any other obstacles?
M: Not that I recall. Back in those you didn't have [flaps]. A Piper Cub didn't have
any flaps on [it], so you had to do a forward slip and use the fuselage for an
R: And what was flying training like at Stengel Field?
M: It was independent, there was no organization there. It was more or less
itinerant instructors. You went out there and hung around, found an instructor,
and made an arrangement with him.
R: How much did your training cost?
M: If I remember right, I think I paid $3 an hour for the airplane, or maybe $3 for the
instructor, and $4 or $5 for the airplane. I don't remember which. My
Granddaughter is taking lessons in 1945 Piper Cub right now and it's a $101 and
,/something cents an hour. I had an after school job that paid me about $8 a
week and it took the major part of that to get an hour of flying in. Of course, I
would only fly a half hour at a time.
R: When you got your [pilot's] license, how many hours of flying time did you have?
M: I probably had 500 or a thousand when I got a license. I know a lot of the kids
around here that flew usually would wind up with a student permit and then they
would taxi down behind the trees and pick up a passenger where nobody could
see them. There was nobody enforcing laws very strictly in aviation back then.
R: Can you think of any other experiences about your training that you'd like to
share? Any memorable experiences?
M: I remember one of the instructors coming out where I lived, out there one day,
and looking around. Somebody had shot a .22 [caliber rifle] at the Piper Cub
and punctured the gas tank and drained all his gas tank out.
R: When he was flying?
M: No, I wasn't in the airplane. He was out there looking for who was shooting, but I
didn't know who it was. Somebody shot a .22 at him and it went up through the
gas tank. The gas tank's in front of the instrument panel on the Piper Cub.
[When] you get fumes and gasoline pouring out, it's kind of spooky up there.
R: So he came down, landed right away...
M: Oh, I guess he did, I don't know. In later years, when I went in the Air Force, the
Air Force sent me to Parks College of Aeronautical Technology in east St. Louis.
A friend and I rented an Aeronca Chief and would go over to Columbia, Missouri
to Ste hens College. There was a girl there from here, one of the Thomas girls
was going to school over there and we'd go visit her. Somebody had put an
extra gas tank in that thing, and when you kept it in a nose-down attitude for a
minute or two, you had to switch gas tanks. You couldn't run off of the auxiliary
tank that they had in it, and we flew in there and there was some girl [who] came
up in an airplane on our wingtip, waved at us, and got us all flustered and we
started a descent feeding off that back tank and started flushing fuel all over the
R: So it was just blowing it out?
M: What happened is, the auxiliary tank fed into the main tank and then the main
tank overfilled. Normally, what you'd do is use out all the fuel in the higher
elevated tank before you started using the other tank. As long as you were in
level flight, it wouldn't bleed into that tank. Fuel mismanagement is probably one
of the biggest causes of accidents in civilian aviation.
I did some more civilian flying when I was in the Air Force in Sacramento,
California off a little grass strip out there. I think it was in Carmichael, California,
R: When did you go into the Air Force?
R: And what did you in the Air Force?
M: I was a mechanic. Crew chief of the B-50, after kicking around for about a year
through different schools. I guess I was fortunate that the government sent me
to the Parks College of Aeronautical Technology because they had an influx of
personnel at the time and they didn't have room for them to give them training.
That was an opportunity that was worth quite a bit to me.
R: How long were you in the Air Force?
M: Four years.
R: Where did you serve?
M: Stateside. I didn't re-enlist because that was one of the things that discouraged
me about re-enlisting. I could see that before the ink dried, I was going
overseas. Of course, Korea [Korean War 1950-53], was going hot and strong
then. I remember seeing a lot of hospital ships [planes] coming into Sacramento
there. When San Francisco would be closed in, they'd make it over to
Sacramento, just a little further. A lot of times they'd be having engine trouble
and stuff like that, where they over-reciprocate the engines. [They would be]
flying this way and coming in low on fuel. Normally their alternate [landing site]
would be Reno [Nevada]. There was a mountain range there to climb over. Now-/ -
days we don't think much about mountains. We get up over them.
R: Do you have any memorable experiences from your Air Force service?
M: Not particularly. It was just more or less uneventful, maintaining B-50s day to
day, borrowing parts from one or the either.
R: That still happens.
M: We had 45 [planes]. We actually had 46. One of them somebody scraped on
the runway pretty bad without the landing gear down. We never could have got
them all in the air one time because they had to borrow parts from one to the
R: Is there anything else you'd like to tell me?
M: No, you're interested in the aviation in Gainesville. Roland Stewart, the guy at
the motorcycle shop, if you can get him [he would be good to talk to]. He's
probably pretty clammed up [and] he probably won't talk to you much, but if you
could get him to talk some, [he could give you some information]. His dad was
Stewart, the motorcycle policeman that flew out there from Stengel, and he could
probably tell you about some of the guys that decided they'd start airlines around
here. One of them was the Chrysler dealer, P Powers. He told me one time
that he knew there was a lot of money at that airport because he left it out there.
They decided they'd go into the airplane business. They were going to sell
airplanes, and they went over to Palatka to demonstrate one of them and landed
the [plane] gear up while they were demonstrating it or something like that. [That]
got them out of the airplane business. Then they started trying to do an airline to
R: From Gainesville?
M: From Gainesville. Roland's daddy flew one of the old airplanes that they started
trying to do an airline. It would stop and start, too. They had a little grass strip
R: When were they working on that?
M: That would have had to have been in '45, '46, '47, in that area, right after World
R: Besides the names you've mentioned, are there any other folks in the local area
who'd be good to talk to about local aviation history?
M: There probably is, but I can't think of them. There have been a lot of them
around from time to time. Carl Stengel's deceased. Curtis Pitts would really be
interesting. I imagine he's been interviewed to death. I mentioned the engineer...
R: Ed Walsh? There's a professor Walsh in the [University of Florida] Aerospace
M: Oh, yes. He was asking me did I know how they got that hangar built that they
use out at the JMiversity. It was a hangar instead of [a regular building].
Somebody or another, I think, finally gave him the information about it. Bill
Kessler [local engineer with Kessler and Gehman; Bill hosted a reunion of
Stengel pilots in the early 1990s], I think, probably told him. And Bill is getting
along in years, but you sure need to talk to him some.
R: Wel with that, I want to thank you for your time. We'll conclude the interview.