In a bow to 1940s history and modern-day fundraising, the 1943 C-47 “Gooney Bird” plane with 19 passengers aboard lumbered briefly under the fogbank, making a perfect landing on the 4,400-foot-long paved airstrip on the Hearst Ranch in San Simeon.
The passengers, some in costumes from the 1920s-1940s, had taken the short, historic ride Saturday afternoon from Paso Robles to the Friends of Hearst Castle’s 12th annual “Enchanted Evening” event at the former estate of powerful, enigmatic media magnate William Randolph Hearst.
The original plan had been for the World War II-era aircraft to circle the towers of the historical monument’s 115-room La Casa Grande in a flashback photo op.
But Mother Nature took hold of the controls: Dense, drippy fog made that scenario impossible from a safety standpoint. Besides, the assembled media wouldn’t have been able to see the plane, anyway.
Nevertheless, the promotional flight still was history making in its own right, based on what the plane is and was.It had been almost 65 years earlier that a flight presumed to have been in a sister plane — Hearst’s own modified DC-3c, a civilian model of the Gooney Bird — departed from that same field, carrying “the chief” away for the last time from the San Simeon “ranch” he loved so much.
Author David Nasaw wrote in his nearly 700-page book about Hearst, “The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst,” that on May 2, 1947, as Hearst and his mistress, Marion Davies, “were driven down the winding, 5-mile roadway from San Simeon’s hilltop to the landing strip below for their flight to Los Angeles” and her house in Beverly Hills, “Marion noticed that tears were streaming down the Chief’s face.”
She leaned over to wipe away the tears. “ ‘We’ll come back, W.R., you’ll see,’ ” she said.
“They never did,” Nasaw noted in the book. Hearst died in Beverly Hills at the age of 88 on Aug. 14, 1951.
According to research by Hoyt Fields, the Castle’s museum director, and Mike Weakley, retired pilot and Friends of Hearst Castle board member, chances are 99 out of 100 that Hearst’s departure plane was indeed the DC-3c he’d bought a year earlier for $200,000 and spent another $70,000 modifying, including putting in a taller cargo door.
The tall, stout-but-stylish Hearst reportedly said, “This is the only plane I’ve ever entered without having to remove my hat.”
Weakley said the DC-3 was Hearst’s third and final plane. The others were a tri-motor Stinson he bought in 1935 and a Vultee.
It’s not known whether the aircraft purchases were triggered solely by necessity and the expediency of flight — the planes were used to bring Hearst papers to the publisher daily from Glendale and San Francisco and to transport Hearst and his guests — or at the behest of some high-flying guests at the San Simeon “ranch” perhaps pilots Howard Hughes, Amelia Earhardt and Charles Lindbergh, to name a few.
According to Castle records and anecdotal memories, only one other DC-3 has landed at the Hearst strip since Hearst’s departure. In 1996, a DC-3 was used during filming of the large-format movie “Hearst Castle: Building a Dream.” The movie is shown at Hearst Castle Theater; most tour tickets include the film.
Some aboard Saturday’s flight, including some world travelers, said they could sense the historic links during the flight.
Cambria travel agent John O’Regan said he enjoyed the trip, but was most awed by the Gooney Bird’s landing on Hearst’s airport.
“Landing on that strip was on my bucket list,” he said. “I couldn’t help thinking of all those celebrities who had landed there before.”
World-class channel swimmer David Yudovin and wife Beth, also Cambrians, said that throughout the flight, they had the sense of the young warriors who had been transported in the aircraft in wartime.
“It had been a working warplane. You sit along the side, facing in, just as the soldiers did,” he said. Even the parachute cord is still in place. “You felt the link of the history of the plane to the history of this place, Hearst Castle. It was amazing.”
Doyle and Cindy Souders, who live in Cupertino but have a second home in Cambria, were among the flight’s passengers and fundraiser’s guests dressed in period costume, including his pin-striped suit and spats.
She’s a former flight attendant who had first been a little antsy about flying in the aging craft, but she said, “the flight was very smooth. I’m looking forward to the flight back to Paso (Robles) on Sunday.”
Getting off the plane was the tricky part for the women wearing long dresses, high heels and mink stoles, Cindy Souders said with a laugh.
“The guys wound up having to wear our minks while we backed out” of the plane.
Dick Clark of Atascadero, former president of Friends of Hearst Castle, said he had thought the ultimate arrival to the monument was as a docent, being able to drive his own vehicle up the winding road to the hilltop.
“I never dreamed I’d be able to fly in,” he said, let alone on a historic aircraft.