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Tue, Jul 20, 2010

Gone West: Captain Clyde 'Frank' Lang

Long-Time Commercial Pilot Also Flew Covert Ops For The U.S. Government

Considered by some to be one of aviation's most colorful pilots, Captain Clyde "Frank" Lang, passed away July 10 in Houston, Texas, after a brief illness. Lang, who grew up in west central Illinois and had a home in Tucson, Arizona, was 87.

Lockheed Super Constellation File Photo

After a long career as a commercial pilot during the era when propeller-driven passenger planes ruled the skies, Lang refused to give up his love for flying. Instead, he started a new life in his 50s as a pilot willing to take on dangerous flights for the federal government.
He was one of the first pilots certified by the FAA to use the four-engine prop DC-6 to fight forest fires. In dozens of situations, he flew his plane low over blazes to drop water, foams, gels and fire retardants for the United States Forest Service and the Land Management Bureau.

When he was in his 60s and 70s, Captain Lang performed undercover work for the Drug Enforcement Agency, U.S. Customs and the U.S. State Department by flying planes for suspected drug lords and illegal international arms dealers. His covert job required him to land planes in the dead of night on secret landing strips lighted by burning oil barrels in the plains of Mexico, the jungles of Colombia and the mountains of Peru. His undercover work helped dismantle or disrupt several drug cartels and illicit arms ventures.

Because he was certified to pilot many of the old propeller-driven passenger planes, he was sought after by Hollywood producers who hired him to fly in certain scenes of their films. He flew in such hit movies as Air America, American Graffiti and King Kong.

Captain Lang was also a favorite pilot of celebrities who chartered planes for all-night parties to Las Vegas and other hot spots. Among the stars who called on him to fly them at the last minute to out-of-town bashes were members of the infamous Rat Pack-Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford. Through his Tinsel Town connections, Captain Lang became the personal pilot for Ronald Reagan during Reagan's successful campaigns for governor of California in 1966 and 1970.

In the early 1990s, when he was in his 70s, Captain Lang flew mercy missions for the United Nations in Africa. At various times, he piloted either a supply-laden DC-6 or DC-7 from Kenya to remote villages in Sudan in an effort to stave off hunger in the drought-stricken region. He also helped Alaskan fishermen get their catches to market quickly after he became the first pilot to be certified to land a DC-6 onto the sandy beaches of the Aleutian Islands. Fishermen whose boats were loaded with freshly-netted salmon would transfer their catches to his plane which he flew to Anchorage.

When he wasn't posing as a pilot for criminals or flying planes for government agencies and Hollywood, Captain Lang became the aviation world's most famous pilot of the Lockheed Constellation. Often called the Connie, the four-engine passenger plane was distinguished by a triple-tail design and dolphin-shaped fuselage. More than 850 were built between 1943 and 1958 for use as civilian airliners and military transports, most notably during the Berlin Airlift in 1948 and 1949.

Upon the age of jet travel, almost all the Constellations were mothballed or cut up and melted down. In 1984 actor John Travolta purchased one of the few remaining Connies to save it from destruction. He later sold it to entrepreneur Vern Raburn, who hired Captain Lang to oversee a one-million-dollar restoration of the plane, which in its heyday flew VIPs for the Military Air Transport Service (MATS).

MATS Constellation Final Takeoff

When he was in his 70s, Captain Lang was named chief pilot of the restored MATS Constellation, which was based in Avra Valley Airport near Tucson. He was also director of operations for The Constellation Group, which owned the aircraft. For more than 10 years, he piloted the plane at various air shows throughout the country. In 1998, when he was 75, he flew the Connie overseas on a three-month barnstorming tour, showing off the plane at air shows throughout Europe where aviation enthusiasts hailed him as a superstar.

He flew for the last time in 2005 when at the age of 82 he ferried the MATS Constellation to South Korea for permanent display at the Korean Air Museum at Jeju Island. He and his crew, which included his nephews Steve and Greg Arnold, departed Avra Valley and flew the northern route via Alaska. The trip wasn't without its problems. The heater broke shortly after departure, forcing him to fly with cockpit temperatures reaching minus 20 degrees. He and the crew stayed warm by bundling up in Arctic gear and using 150 little hand warmers bought in Anchorage. When approaching Cold Bay, Alaska, he discovered that the nose landing gear wouldn't lock. Undeterred, he made a perfect soft-field landing. He also had to deal with balky engines and malfunctioning instruments before landing the plane safely in South Korea on the final flight of his lengthy and storied career.

Few, if any, pilots had flown more in the Connie than Captain Lang. Of the more than 40,000 hours he logged in the sky in various aircraft, nearly 10,000 were in the Constellation.

Clyde Frank Lang was born in Roseville, Illinois, on April 13, 1923, and grew up on the family farm. He served in the Marine Corps during World War II. As a sergeant, he received the Purple Heart after sustaining a serious combat wound during the infamous Battle of Peleliu in 1944 on the South Pacific island of what is now Palau. But he made a full recovery and went on to fight in Okinawa. At the end of the war, he was with the Third Marine Regiment that went into China to aid in the disarming of Japanese units and to assist the Nationalist government's efforts to deny land to the communists.

After his tour of duty, Captain Lang learned to fly and became a commercial pilot for such airlines as Pacific Southwest (PSA), Transcontinental, Cathay Pacific and Eastern. Among the jets he flew were the Boeing 707, Boeing 727 and Convair 880, the world's fastest commercial jetliner. It was after his retirement from commercial aviation that he launched into the second, and most dangerous, phase of his livelihood.

FMI: www.dea.gov, www.cbp.gov, www.state.gov



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