John L. Sorenson
the digital document vault
website launched » 10.11.12
[ this is a work in progress ]
copyright © 2013 
early memories aviation experiences high school my missions houses my work transport marrying helen retreats my father church service early experiences 1 my health early experiences 2 music transoceanic voyaging biography      art portfolio reminiscing random events

Aviation Experiences

Cache Valley was hardly a hotbed of flying machines when I was growing up. There was a small airport on the northwest side of Logan, but I imagine there were fewer than half a dozen planes that used it at all during the 1930s. Hearing an airplane in the sky at that time demanded that we curious kids watch it, at whatever distance. A few were biplanes (two winged). Occasionally a Ford trimotor plane showed up. But I never visited the airport let alone thought of my ever taking flights. So when World War II came, how come I joined the U.S. Army Air Corps (predecessor of the Air Force)? I was 17 years of age and in my first year of school in December at the Utah State Agricultural College in Logan when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Sunday, the 7th, 1941. (I remember soberly attending the special school assembly when President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the nation by radio on Monday morning to announce that we were formally at war with both Japan and Nazi Germany and Italy.) The entire nation was profoundly shocked by the sudden turn of events; the Sorenson family was especially concerned because my brother Randall was employed as a civilian worker at Pearl Harbor. (He had graduated at the USAC the previous May as a “radio engineer” and had accepted the Hawaii civil service job soon after; his long-time girl friend, Brenda Van Orden of Smithfield had sailed to the islands in August where they were married. It was a week after the attack before we learned that he was okay.) A manpower draft was of course set in motion within weeks. It was obvious that along with my friends we would all become involved in the military. The question was in what capacity? Along about September 1942 (I had turned 18 in April and so had registered with my draft board) word began circulating in departments like physics and engineering (including my “radio engineering” department) that the Army Air Corps was recruiting students with a physics/mathematics background to train as meteorologists (weather forecasters). There were other options also. Along with my buddy Grant Athay, we weighed them and decided weather school was the best we could do. In November we enlisted in the Army Reserve and were told we would soon be called up, which happened in March, at the rank of private (but with the promise that after our first six months of training, we would become Aviation Cadets and would eventually be commissioned as Second Lieutenants.) That indeed followed, six months at Albuquerque at UNM and then nine months in Pasadena at Cal Tech. Upon graduating I was assigned to a stint as a forecaster at Tonopah NV. It was there that I took my first flight. One day a pilot with little to do asked a few of us in the weather station if we wanted to accompany him on a flight to Hamilton Field in the bay area. We went in a “B-19” bomber, which was an aircraft that had been superseded by the B-17 before it was ever used operationally (our craft was the only one of its type I ever laid eyes on). My assigned seat was in the glass-nosed bombardier’s post out in front. I was a bit uncomfortable with only plexiglass between me and the Sierra Nevadas as we flew west at what seemed to me not far enough above the mountains! Shortly after I was assigned to Air Corps world weather headquarters at Asheville NC designated to become a “Weather Communications Officer” (the fact was that they had trained too many forecasters and needed to get rid of some; since I had a ham radio license I was “qualified” for the new designation. We were intended to facilitate the transmission of weather data to stations in the field by radioteletype means through bird-dogging apparent glitches in the communication system). On my way to Asheville, I made my first airline trip (United Airlines), from Utah (where I was on leave briefly) to Chicago, but then, in utter contrast, by train south and east to North Carolina (on a train with cars of Civil War vintage, I swear; they actually contained round, wood-burning stoves in the middle of the cars to heat them in winter!) During several months of haphazard training in Asheville one day Colonel Howard, the commander of the Weather Service and very experienced pilot, asked if any of us half dozen trainees wanted to ride along with him on a flight to Norfolk VA in a small four-person plane. I was game. I sat in the co-pilot’s seat, and half way there the Colonel asked if I wanted to fly the plane for a bit. OK! He gave me two minutes of instruction then turned the “wheel” over to me. I didn’t try anything he hadn’t told me about. No harm. Once “trained” I was ordered to Natal, Brazil. From Miami I flew on a C- 54, the Air Corps’ two-engined work-horse larger passenger aircraft, 3000 miles to the hump of Brazil with one stop in Georgetown, British Guiana. Almost immediately I was ordered on to Ascension Island, the British possession in the middle of the Atlantic, half way to West Africa (Google it for pix). The U.S. had a base there, which served as a way-station for small bombers (B-25s and A-12s) headed to Egypt and on to the China-Burma-India theater. (The 1200 mile flights via tiny Ascension were the only way those small planes could cross the ocean. About forty of them arrived every day, overnighted, and went on to Lagos, Nigeria, the next day.) My flight to the island was on a C-24, the transport version of the B-24 bomber. (Only recently, upon reading the remarkable best seller Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, did I realize what dangerous planes those were.) Six months later, I returned on a similar craft to Natal where I was assigned anew. (I learned on those long flights to welcome the cigarette smoke of some of the other passengers; somehow it eased the air-sickness nausea I felt.) My last assignment was at little-used Fortaleza field, a couple of hundred miles northwest of Natal. From there, when (in May 1946) I had enough “points” to qualify for discharge I flew to Florida and then back to Utah by commercial air. Shortly after my civilian life was moving ahead, naturally enough, a certain restlessness set in. I decided I wanted to see m sister Lavell in Delta. Of course I had no car (I had learned to drive a few months before in my own jeep, at night on the dark, deserted runway at Fortaleza), so I flew there on newly established Challenger Airline (to Cedar City and St. George; it didn’t last long). On my mission I traveled about 25,000 miles, rarely by rail, mostly by sea (including that unforgettable 44-day journey by freighter from Wellington NZ to Vancouver on my way home!) The first leg of my trip home was on a New Zealand airline flight (one flight departed every two weeks!) from Rarotonga to Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, (Australia’s) Norfolk Island to New Zealand. My next trip was to Mexico City in early 1953. I went on by train to participate in a five-month project in the state of Tabasco with the newly formed New World Archaeological Foundation. My flying days were over for awhile, to begin again with a vengeance only when (1964) I went to work at Defense (later General) Research Corp. in Santa Barbara. In that position I flew every few weeks to a month to technical conferences or to pursue new contract leads (over and over to Washington) or to talk with consultants—to Boston (repeatedly), Columbus, San Francisco, Seattle, Salt Lake, Albuquerque, and so on. Mostly that involved driving to or from LAX (Los Angeles International) but a few fortunate times just to the Santa Barbara airport. I count it a blessing that I have never flown to New York (I am a NYC-phobe) and hope to finish my life so. In my last year or so at General Research I flew twice to Thailand (by way of Japan) each time for a two-week stay while working on a company research project. My career at BYU gave far fewer chances for flights, but usually once or twice per year I made it to a conference (I was on a downtown street in San Francisco when I heard on a radio that President Kennedy had been killed). While working (part-time) on a Navy project on Venezuela in 1963 I was called upon to make a trip to Panama (Canal Zone) to examine intelligence files on parts of South/Central America (a complete waste of time; they were filled with insubstantial garbage). Later (1974?) I accompanied my guru and Dean, Martin Hickman, on a visitation to the work sites of the BYU New World Archaeological Foundation in the state of Chiapas, southern Mexico, over which he had supervision; much of that travel was by air. In the winter of 1988 I accompanied a party of tourists on a privately arranged “Book of Mormon tour” of sites in southern Mexico and Guatemala. Traveling by then in my life was getting arduous, nevertheless the company was superb and the sites were mainly those I had chosen, so it went off well enough. Kathryn and I made a trip to Toronto to see Jeff and family in about 1988 (?). And Helen and I, with teen-aged Sage, flew in 1995 to Cancun where we boarded a cruise ship (our adult passages were paid because I was a “lecturer”) to go to Maya sites along the coast of Yucatan, Belize and Honduras. Our only cruise experience, and once was enough. Eventually travel by air became a thorough bore. Every airport terminal came to seem like every other one, something like visiting multiple Target stores. I am glad it is over for me. Readers of this little screed may not be thrilled by my account, but then I did not write it to thrill anyone. It just reports the way it was, as a means to show how things have been for me.
Reminiscenses by John L. Sorenson