Sunday, August 30, 2015

Jim Worden Shares Stories of His Flying Career, and His Big Brother, Al - Part One

Al Worden's family waves goodbye to him prior to his launch to the Moon in July 1971. He is flanked by crewmembers Dave Scott (front) and Jim Irwin (behind Scott). Photo Credit: NASA
While you may have heard of his older brother, Jim Worden has, too, had a colorful life and career. Also a pilot, Jim has flown many celebrities around the world, and like his brother, has run into some very interesting characters. Here are some excerpts from Jim Worden's unpublished autobiography, where he discusses the genesis of his passion for aviation, his career, and, of course, stories about his brother's "camping trip" that happened to take him approximately 240,000 miles from Earth. Many thanks to author Francis French for making these excerpts available.

Childhood 

I was born in Jackson, Michigan, just before World War Two. Three older siblings, Sarah, Alfred and Carolyn, were there to greet me when I arrived. Jerry and Peter, my younger brothers, were still in the future.

My parents came from farming backgrounds so my earliest recollections are of feeding the chickens and playing with my goat Billy and my dog Tipi. I was usually in trouble for one thing or another in my younger days. I was the one that always pushed boundaries and was compelled to do exactly what I was told not to do. You know the type: many families have someone that disregards rules and marches to a different drumbeat. That was, and still is I think, me.  
Al Worden (second from left) with his family in September 1971; His mother and father are at far right. Photo Credit: francisfrench.net
My father, Merrill, was a dreamer and had an inquisitive mind. Everybody called Dad by his nickname, ‘Tiny.’ I have no idea where this name came from, especially since he was over six feet tall. I don’t believe Dad ever met a stranger; he was very outgoing and made friends easily. My family was far from rich but he would always be the first to pick up the check.  

Dad loved to tinker with things and always had some project or other going on. He made sure that his kids were introduced to the world of science at an early age. Dad actually built the first commercial radio station in Jackson. For most of his life he worked as a movie projectionist and stagehand. This of course meant that I could see all the movies I wanted for free and on occasion accompany him backstage when traveling shows were in town. As a youngster I met people such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, two of my heroes at the time. 

My mother was a no-nonsense, practical and down-to-earth person that could squeeze a penny until Abe Lincoln screamed for mercy. She worked a full time job and took in laundry and ironing on weekends. With six kids to feed and care for she worked hard to make ends meet. Not much got Mom excited except maybe times when Dad would spend a few bucks on some gizmo or drag yet another piece of electronic equipment (to anyone else, junk) home. There was a time when he brought a Norden bombsight home. It was full of all kinds of shafts, pulleys, gears and buckets of other parts. When he dragged it to the basement and set it up on his workbench, he stood back and admired this wonderful find. It was pretty much useless unless one happened to own a B-17 and maybe wanted to bomb Wisconsin or something. But he loved it.

During the summer we would spend a few weeks in East Jordan, Michigan on my grandfather and uncle’s farms. East Jordan is in Northern Michigan, just south of the Straits of Mackinaw. My grandparents worked hard to scratch out a meager living from the farm. So did my uncle and his family, who lived down the road. A little help from the grandkids to haul hay and care for the animals was always welcome, although I am not sure how much help I was. 

Jim and Al Worden in Las Vegas, 1977. Photo Credit: Jim Worden
At the end of summer and before we returned home to Jackson we would pick cherries to earn money for school clothes. There was a very large commercial cherry orchard just down the road from grandpa’s farm. I think we were paid twenty-five cents a lug. A lug is one heck of a lot of cherries.

When staying with our grandparents all of the kids slept in the attic of their small farmhouse. Access to the attic area was up a flight of stairs from the kitchen. The house was made of fieldstones and had four rooms. There was a three-hole outhouse just outside the kitchen that was equipped with the requisite Montgomery-Ward catalog. 

Grandma cooked on a huge Kalamazoo wood-burning range that also kept the little house warm. I have fond memories of waking up to the smell of the cedar kindling wood she used to start a fire very early every morning.  The snap, crackle and pop of the burning cedar, then the wonderful smell of breakfast would pull us out of bed and down the stairs. Mixed in with the odor of frying bacon, the little house had the unmistakable odor of wet boots, wood smoke, yeast, apple butter, leather, and a faint undercurrent of dry cow manure. It is the happiest scent I know.

I would sometimes get out of bed and head down the hill to the barn where grandpa would be milking the cows. I always enjoyed watching grandpa squirt milk from the cow’s udder into the face of the barn cats who would anxiously lap up the warm milk. The cats would line up and patiently wait for breakfast. 

Next to the barn was a small, stone-walled room that contained the separator. This was a hand-cranked machine that separated the heavier cream from the milk. The separated milk and cream would then be funneled into milk cans and placed in a cold-water bath until the milk truck picked them up. Grandpa would allow me to crank the separator but I would run out of gas in no time. It was really hard work. I remember he had a good singing voice and would sometimes sing or hum old hymns while working. 

Dad didn’t have much interest in aviation. His interest was in electronics and trains. He loved working on our HO model railroad layout we built in the basement of our home in Jackson. Trains seemed to be in his blood, especially steam locomotives. I remember that he would stop talking in mid-sentence if he heard a steam whistle from a distant train. 

As a youngster I built and flew model airplanes constantly. Most of these models either flew away all by themselves or were carried back home in a basket. For the most part, they flew away. I would spend weeks building a model from a kit I had purchased with my paper route money. All that work would be wasted in just a few minutes of flight followed by a terrible crash or I would stand in the middle of the field, helpless, as another of my creations disappeared over the horizon. 

I should have learned right then that aviation could be extremely painful. I was fascinated with flying and only saw the romance of the air. Those days as a young boy, playing with models, set the course for my future. 

I attended the first two or three years of school in a one-room country school, just outside of Jackson. My schoolteacher, Glenna Zantop, was the wife of none other than the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) Lloyd Zantop. Everyone in aviation knows, or knows of, the Zantops. They went on to run a global airline company.

Although Glenna never talked about airplanes or her family involvement in aviation, I knew her husband was a pilot. On weekends, I would sometimes ride my bike to the local airport just to watch the proceedings and smell the fumes of aviation fuel at Zantop Flying Service, located at Jackson’s Reynolds Field. Lloyd and his brothers operated the company. From those humble beginnings the Zantops grew to rule the world of airfreight.  

The Zantop brothers made for an interesting family. I remember one day, I was maybe eight or nine at the time, I pedaled my bike to the airport to just hang out. The Zantop hangar was located on the west end of the Jackson airport. I sometimes would take a sandwich and have a little picnic while I watched the activities. This particular day I arrived just in time to see the Zantops roll a bright yellow Piper Cub fuselage out of the hangar and park it in the grass. They had been working on the little airplane for several weeks, rebuilding and recovering it. As I watched, they carried the wing out of the hangar, apparently to put it on the fuselage. 

There were four brothers carrying the wing, two on each end. When they approached the fuselage, an argument started about something. This grew into a serious shouting match. All four of them were soon involved in a round of name-calling and threats as to what they were going to do to each other the very instant they had the chance. Well, one thing led to another and before long the wing was dropped to the ground and one of the brothers walked right across it to get to his antagonist. 

The other men, watching in horror as the wing was destroyed, jumped on the wing-walking brother and furiously started to beat the crap out of him. All four of them rolled around in the dirt and continued to smack each other for several minutes.  

They were laughing through bloody lips and brushing themselves off when they finally stood up. After a little more laughter and viewing the damage to the wing, they climbed into a car and drove away, still slapping each other on the back and laughing. There was a bar down the street that the Zantops frequented on such occasions: I'm sure that's where they headed.

My Brother’s Flight to the Moon 

As stated earlier, there were six kids in my family. My older brother, Al, made a huge entry in his own book of life. You may or may not know of Al. He is a pilot, but his career was monumental and is recorded in many history books. I seldom talk about Al because he is a very private person and I respect that. But I believe he would not object if I told you a little about his life.  

After several years of study, earning multiple degrees and becoming a test pilot, Al was selected by NASA for astronaut training. He ultimately went to the moon. You read that correctly, he went to the moon. Of course this was a big deal for the family. The word ‘pride’ does not begin to describe how we felt. Mixed in were feelings of apprehension and real fear. 

Al Worden preparing for his Apollo 15 mission, 1971 photo. Photo Credit: The Project Apollo Archive (http://www.apolloarchive.com/apollo_archive.html)
After selection by NASA, it required several years of Al’s life to prepare for his moon mission. When the day came for his launch aboard Apollo 15, we were all there to cheer him on. It was July 26, 1971. Everybody in the family traveled to Florida for the launch.  We were there a few days early but were disappointed we could not visit with Al. He was in quarantine. NASA was not taking any chances that the crew might pick up an illness. We did chat with Al for a few minutes but he was behind glass, and we had to communicate using microphones.

I remember that very early the morning of the launch my brother Peter, sister Carolyn and I went with Dad to see Al as he exited the building to get into the crew transport van for the ride out to the launch pad. When the doors opened and Al walked out with the other crewmembers, they were wearing pressure suits and carried a life support unit hooked up to provide oxygen. Dad was standing between Pete and me, next to the railing. Dad couldn’t stand it and he reached out to his son. Al extended his gloved hand and for just a moment Dad touched Al’s hand. As they boarded the van and drove away, Dad stood there, speechless. I firmly believe that he was thinking this could well be the last time he would ever see his eldest son. Looking at Dad I could see fear, pain, stress, sadness, joy and a lot of other emotions play across his face. 

An hour or so before launch everyone in our group was escorted to a special viewing area reserved just for family. This was a tent-like shelter and was very close to the launch site. My sisters and brothers, spouses, cousins and several other family members were there along with Mom and Dad. We nervously milled around as we waited for the moment my brother left this earth. Dad could not take his eyes off of the huge Saturn rocket before us. He said little as he watched the rocket vent vapors and gleam in the morning sun. It was a beautiful yet scary sight. Dad was lost in his own deep and personal thoughts. Pete and I stayed close to his side while our sisters did the same with Mom. 

The launch that rocked Worden's family: Apollo 15 builds up thrust before lifting off. Photo Credit: The Project Apollo Archive
Then the launch happened at 9:34 AM. None of us were prepared for this event; we had no idea what to expect. It was amazing. First was the huge plume of smoke and fire emitted from the bottom of the Saturn.  For just a second there was no sound, then came the deafening roar. Those mighty engines produced unbelievable noise that was actually felt as well.  

Immediately, the ground started to shake and move. Huge flames and billowing clouds of smoke and vapor spread very quickly around the launch site. Dad quietly uttered an “Oh …shit.” The alarming thing was that the Saturn did not appear to move right away. It sat there belching fire and smoke for what seemed a long time. All kinds of thoughts went through my mind that maybe it was not going to fly. Then, very slowly, it began to rise. Pete and I simultaneously grabbed Dad, as it appeared he was headed for the ground. Dad said nothing but the expression on his face spoke a thousand things. 

We watched as Apollo 15 cleared the launch tower on a huge column of fire and smoke. The shock waves, deafening noise and the ground moving only made the moment more intense. Within a short time all we could see was a white line where the rocket had passed through the atmosphere. There was a speaker set up and it blared out each event during the launch. We all stood there like a bunch of statues. Mom was next to my sisters and was in her stone face mode. Damn, that woman was tough. 

Then, things started to get quiet. None of us had much to say as we stood and stared into the now empty sky. The smoke dissipated and a sea gull was seen heading down the beach. After a time, we all headed for the bus that was to take us back to the motel. Dad stayed quiet that whole day and I am sure his head was in that capsule with my brother. I am also very sure that he was doing a little praying, asking for his son’s safety. 

Soon after - the next day, if I remember right - Mom and Dad headed for Houston. They were going to stay in Al’s apartment during the flight. I took some additional time off and joined them.  My parents went to the mission control center every day to witness the flight. Mom continued to be stoic and reserved while Dad, although chatty, seemed to be far off most of the time. 

At the Johnson Space Center there was a glassed-in viewing area that looked down on the floor of the mission control room. We had access to this viewing area along with the other crewmember families and NASA officials. I do believe Dad would have camped out there if he could have. Mom would get fidgety and want to leave soon after they took their seats. Just what she wanted to do was a mystery.  

At Al’s apartment NASA had rigged up a speaker that allowed us to listen to the communications between Houston and the Apollo 15 crew. If Dad was not at mission control he was glued to that speaker and watching television reports all at the same time. Mom would dither around appearing to be busy doing nothing. 

One morning I was up early. Mom and Dad were still asleep so I headed over to the control center alone. There was not a soul in the viewing room so I had the run of the place. Not much was happening on the floor because my brother and the flight crew were getting some sleep themselves. It was quiet as most of the controllers leaned back in their chairs, watching the monitors in front of them. Then the viewing room door opened and five or six guys walked in. They were all in business suits and filed down to the front row where I was sitting. They quietly took seats and scanned the floor below us. I assumed they worked for NASA as they had employee badges on. 

Several minutes went by as I studied the huge television monitors on the front wall of the control center. Each monitor displayed a lot of information and I could not figure out what much of it meant. I turned to the nearest newcomer thinking he might be able to help me understand what I was looking at. I asked him if he knew and could he explain what it all meant. He turned and with a big smile started to explain each monitors’ displayed data. He spoke softly and had some kind of accent. 

After some conversation he asked my name and what I did. I told him I was Al’s brother, a pilot and lived in Michigan. I found out he was a board member of the Flight Safety Foundation and so we talked of airplanes and how quickly aviation was changing.  
I finally asked his name. “Wernher von Braun” came the answer as he stuck his hand out to me. I was dumbfounded. This person next to me was the father of the space program, but he appeared very normal. I then asked a million questions that he answered very patiently.  Anyway, Dr. von Braun turned out to be a very nice person and I enjoyed our time together that morning. It was a huge honor to meet him.  

I stayed in Houston for a few more days then had to return to work. Mom and Dad headed home to Jackson after Al’s return from the moon on August 7th. In the weeks to follow there was a homecoming for Al and several other events that Mom and Dad attended. Mom loosened up a little and seemed to enjoy the attention. Dad strutted like a peacock. There were interviews and dinners to go to, filling their life with excitement. Life eventually settled down and Dad returned to his normal, amiable self. Mom maintained her rigid and tough demeanor through the whole time.  

It is interesting that my thoughts at the time were that Dad was deathly afraid for Al during Apollo 15. Many years later, it turns out that Mom was the one who worried most. She told me one day several years later that she was absolutely certain she would never see her son again. She said she literally shut down to block the fear. And all the time I had been worried about Dad.

Years later after Al's Moon voyage, he and Jim are seen here clowning around at Al's 50th birthday party in 1982. Note that Jim had his older brother "wheeled in" to a senior center. Photo Credit: Jim Worden

Part two will be published later this week.