Ah yes, what could be simpler than changing a wing tip nav light bulb? It was January 1967 and with TWA at MCI and most of my
job assignments consisted of preparing Constellations for ferry flights
to new owners or continually moving Connies around because the airport
big-wigs considered them "hazards to navigation".
Working outside in a heavy snowstorm with gusty winds
we would occasionally hear "Thunk!" off in the distance. We were surrounded by Constellations in various states of disrepair, some missing engines, some with weights on the engine mounts to keep them on their noses. The wings were all secured by cables attached to big aluminum needles with a screw type fitting on the bottom that we would screw into the frozen earth. When break time came I set out to see what the source of the noise could be and discovered that as a foot and a half of snow would accumulate on the horizontal stabilizers of the Connies they would fall one by one onto their tails, ergo the "Thunk!'.
Anyway, in a day or two the sun was out and although it was still miserably cold outside most of the snow had melted off the Connies. I was assigned to change the right wing tip lamp on a L1649A. Which brings up an easy way to remember which light is on which tip... the political term "left wing" meaning Communist or red is indeed
the left wing. The right wing tip is green, the tail light is white (clear), so it goes worldwide or at least here on Earth. The lamps are clear, the covers are heavy colored glass.
There was a fueling ladder up to the cockpit door and
I decided to change the lamp by entering the cabin, removing an overwing
exit and walking out to the right wing tip. Bad decision! Soon as I stepped
onto the root of this laminar flow wing I could tell that there was a
thin sheet of ice, very slippery even not considering the accumulation
of engine oil and exhaust further out. I was about fifteen feet outboard
of number four engine when I noticed that for every step I took the wing
would bounce about a foot at the tip. I tried moving more slowly, it still
bounced. I decided that if I crawled I would be safer. When I found myself on my belly at the wing tip I was scared stiff. The wing was very narrow and slippery, I seemed perplexed that the wing tip was solid lead, probably for some sort of dynamic balance. It was so cold and I was wearing two pairs of gloves, it was very difficult changing the lamp.
It seems like it took me a half hour to crawl back into
the cabin and replace the exit. Although there had been no heat in that
old Starliner for weeks it seemed quite warm compared to outside. When
I got home at midnight I checked my collection of airliner memorabilia and found that this was the same airplane I had flown on in 1960 at age 17 from Idlewild to Shannon and Orly. I had been with an old friend and didn't even know it. Now degraded to a freighter with no passenger
interior she was still graceful.
So my fear of heights had been confronted that day. I've often wondered how I could be afraid when 3 steps up a ladder and yet be a pilot.