From the archives: long distance pilot Max Conrad
In this trip through the archives, we’re republishing an article from the November 1965 edition of Air Facts. Here, regular contributor Neil Armstrong profiles “the Maestro of Flight—Max Conrad.” If the name sounds familiar it’s because he set numerous flying records in the 1950s and 1960s, most of them in general aviation airplanes.
Eating a big meal on Christmas Day is, for North Americans, traditional. To eat nothing and spend the day over the south Atlantic is most unusual. Last December 25th found a lean, brushcut pilot doing just that. We refer to the Maestro of Flight — Max Conrad.
Leaving Capetown, South Africa on December 24th in a Twin Comanche he landed 56.8 hours later on Boxing Day at St. Petersburg, Florida. Nourishment throughout the flight had consisted of four thermoses of hot water only — no turkey, no plum pudding.
Distance covered over the holiday was 7868 miles. The record he broke was his own non-stop distance record set in 1959 when he flew a Piper Comanche from Casablanca, Morocco, to Los Angeles, California.
In this era of supersonic bombers, guided missiles and cold wars it is refreshing to know a light plane champion who still flies for purposes of peace and pleasure. Carrying on in the tradition of such long distance solo greats as Charles Lindbergh and Wiley Post, this “Flying Grandfather” is said to know the Atlantic ocean almost as well as his own bathtub. His 45,000 hours aloft provided the unbroken links of a chain which stretches back to the days when pilots flew as much for fun and adventure as for profit.
Born in Winona, Minnesota, 62 years ago, Max, in his early years, had a keen interest in athletics, a fondness for music and entertained the idea of studying engineering at college. Time spent tinkering with his father’s car instilled in him a love of mechanics. Then the flying bug struck. It bit him on his first flight in an Eaglerock and from then on flying was in his blood.
High on enthusiasm but low on cash, it took time to save and borrow the money required as a down payment on a few flying lessons and his first airplane, which was a blue and gold Swallow. Taking delivery with less than two hours solo time to his credit, he nearly lost it at his first point of intended landing when he had trouble finding the Des Moines airport. His first aerobatics were done two days later with the book of instructions on his lap. His first student, Stan Templeton, soloed when Max had but 38 flying hours. This life of barnstorming and student instruction continued in Minnesota until his first major setback occurred.
This took the form of personal injury. One of his lady passengers, upon leaving the aircraft, chose to go out over the front of the wing rather that the customary rearward route. Max gave a cry of warning, shut off the switches and leaped to prevent her from being hit by the propeller. In a final convulsive revolution it struck Max on the left side of the head. “For right-handed people,” says Conrad, “this part of the brain is speech and memory.”
When he regained consciousness days later he had lost both. Then came convalescence and the long road back to health. He took courses in memory and speech improvement at the University of Notre Dame. Since he now flew by instinct, memory was not a requisite. He taught his students by motions rather than words. This type of instruction proved to be so effective he continued to use it even after his speech had been regained.
With time, patience and perseverance, his speech improved and his memory sharpened. His flying hours mounted and his business increased. Then misfortune struck again, this time through fire. It destroyed the hangar, his Link trainers and twenty training planes for which he had worked so hard.
“Since I was a poor business man,” says Max, “there was no insurance. It looked like the end. Then as I walked around the ashes the thought struck me that the fire had left me with nothing so I had nothing to worry about. I never slept as well as I did that night.”
It has been Max’s experience that most of his misfortunes have, in reality, been blessings in disguise. He now views the fire in this light. It drove him to other endeavors and new accomplishments.
Probably, too, these set-backs and the constant struggle which have been his lot are the stones that have honed the mettle of his character to the fine edge it has now attained.
Max’s career as a trans-oceanic light plane pilot was launched in the late forties. His wife Betty and he were living in Minnesota and were the parents of eight children. To feed, clothe and educate them was a major task. They solved the problem with typical Conrad ingenuity. The cost of living was high in America, substantially less in Europe. So why not move there? Betty and the children went to Switzerland while Max continued with his work as executive pilot of a company in Minneapolis.
He remembers the months his family were in Switzerland as being exceedingly lonely ones for him. As his holidays approached he made the decision to visit them in Europe. He thought of going airlines and the reasoned, “Why should I pay for some airline pilot to get experience that I need myself. Why don’t I fly my own plane across?”
A number of his friends, familiar with the perils of the North Atlantic, felt the flight was too hazardous for a small plane. The challenge, however, was irrepressible. “I felt I could make the flight,” he says, “and a man can’t desert his convictions without doing something destructive to himself.”
As he relates it, “The trip over was rugged. The more I learned from Search and Rescue crews the less I wanted to go. They sent an escort in the belief that I probably wouldn’t make it and it would give them a chance to improve their boat-dropping technique. No one told me about the clearances I needed along the way. My airplane was impounded at nearly every stop. I was arrested at one. The water below me was 29° Fahrenheit and ice on the aircraft forced me close to the water at times. Just the thought of having to make the return flight all but ruined my month over there. To leave my loved ones and fly back across Iceland, Greenland, and Labrador took all the courage I could muster. But I made it and the terrors of the trip dimmed with the passing months.”
In 1952 he repeated the flight in the same single-engine Pacer. The die was cast. The rising cost of living in North America was making a trans-oceanic light plane pilot out of family man Conrad.
His financial circumstances were still acute when, in 1954, he received a cablegram and substantial cheque from his good friend Bob Goemans in Paris. “Max,” Bob asked, “will you fly my new Apache over to me?”
Max’s instinctive reaction was to cable, “No.”
He looked at the cheque again. Should or shouldn’t he? Then his unpaid bill caught his eye. They did it. His collect cablegram to Goemans read, “Glad to, Bob.”
He had many problems enroute. Recently during a speech in Calgary, Alberta, he summed up the trip as follows. “I had never been in an Apache before so it was a new experience for me. For 13 hours I flew in darkness — seven of those were in continuous heavy snow. The aircraft was charged with static electricity. I lost my trailing antennae when my clumsy cold hands let go of the reel handle. The seven-pound weight, hauling the antennae behind it, streaked 11,000 feet to the ocean below.”
Despite his troubles, Max not only completed the flight non-stop New York to Paris in the twin-engine aircraft but arrived on the day initially requested. Goemans had said, “Max, when you make the flight, please arrange to arrive in Paris on a Sunday afternoon. It will help sales.”
His career as a trans-oceanic ferry pilot got off to a flying start with this trip. He learned to enjoy the flights east, but for some reason, he was not so happy about the return journeys. “To show how aviation minded I was,” Max said, “I made the return crossings on the Queen Mary.”
More Apache trips followed. Then Piper introduced the single-engine Comanche to the world market. Conrad started ferrying them to Europe. His 50th trans-oceanic crossing was in one, non-stop to Rome. Without any special effort these trips were approaching the records held by Pat Boling and the late Bill Odom. “Why not try for the long one?”
The results of this decision are now history. In June, 1959, Max flew a Comanche to Casablanca, Africa. Refueling, he headed west across the South Atlantic. When he landed in Los Angeles 58 hours and 38 minutes later, after covering 7,683 non-stop miles, the Class Four record was his.
This flight, like most, was not without excitement. Prior to take-off from Morocco, there were a host of unusual things to be remembered and done. Tired and under great tension he placed his navigational charts in a brown envelope, his personal papers in another. A few minutes later, handing what he thought was the latter to a U.S. Consular official, he took off.
Once on course, he reached for the envelope containing the navigational charts. What he found were his personal papers; the U.S. Consular official had his charts. With the adrenalin surging through his system came the need for a decision; should he dump the fuel and return, or continue? He continued. “It was a case of navigating by memory, dead reckoning and prayer,” says Conrad, “most important of all one must have faith.”
Faith Max Conrad has, and he wears it proudly.
Now the Class Three record beckoned. Returning to Casablanca in November with the same airplane but powered by a 180 h.p. engine, which placed him in a lighter weight class, he again set out for America. This flight, which ended in El Paso, Texas, was accomplished in 56 hours and 26 minutes. His non-stop distance of 6,959 miles bettered the existing mark by over 2,000 miles.
Forgotten in the success of these flights is the fact that to start from Casablanca he first flew east across the Atlantic. To anyone but Conrad these eastward flights in themselves are sizable accomplishments. Usually, too, he is working to a tight schedule.
By way of example, a month before undertaking his Class Three flight he announced his hope of completing it on Thanksgiving Day. Intervening delivery flights tightened his schedule. On Friday, November 20th, he took off from Miami, refueling at Bermuda, and then flew 3,500 miles non-stop to Casablanca, arriving there on Sunday the 22nd. Although suffering from dysentery, he worked all day Monday preparing for the flight. Official weighing-in was completed by 11 p.m. He then slept five hours, went back to the airport and was airborne by 8 a.m. He was in the air for more than two days reaching El Paso on Thanksgiving Day as planned.
Four hours after landing at El Paso he flew to Las Vegas, where his airplane was scheduled to go on display at a dealers’ “Open House”. Acquiring another Comanche, he flew to San Fransisco to visit two of his children over the weekend. Returning to Las Vegas on Sunday evening, November 29th, he flew his own airplane non-stop to Savannah, Georgia, to attend a meeting there Monday evening. Tuesday noon he was guest speaker as a luncheon in New York.
Conrad is a man in motion. When I think of the schedule he keeps, a line in the poem “If” comes to mind. “If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds of distance run.”
Kipling must have written this poem with a man like Max in mind.
In July of 1960 Max was airborne again. This time his course was a closed one between Minneapolis, Chicago, Des Moines and Minneapolis. Nine times he made the circuit without landing. Covering 6,921 miles in 60 hours and 10 minutes, he more than doubled the existing closed-course record held by Czechoslovakian pilot Jire Kunc.
The registration of the Comanche he used to fly on these flights was N110LF. LF stands for “Let’s Fly!”, a song Max wrote and dedicated to his “Aviation for Youth” program. By coincidence it is also the abbreviation for “Long Flight”.
Max is a firm believer in both aviation and the youth of the nation. Young people, he believes, develop their later life interests through the years 5 to 15. Interest them in aviation in those years or they are, for the greater majority, lost to some other vocation. Children, he feels, are competitive by nature. By setting records he gets their attention. These records then serve to promote his “Winona Experiment”.
This is a program under the direction of the Winona Aviation Foundation designed to interest the youth of America in aviation. Max feels that every municipal airport in America should set aside a few acres of land as an aviation and physical fitness center for local boys and girls. Interest the children in aviation and their parents will become interested too, he feels. During his years as an instructor her has taught some 3,000 students to fly in the Winona area alone. Today more than 45 airline captains recall Max’s final instructions to them before their first solo. In recognition of his service to the community the Winona airport is now called Max Conrad Field.
Years of training, physical spiritual and mental have provided the ingredients that have made Max the man he is today.
Athletics are to him an important part of any aviation training program. Through sports one develops the spirit of competition, the coordination, keenness of eye and muscle tone that mean so much to any pilot. Max himself favors hand ball. In his earlier life he went out for track and field. In 1932 he was a candidate for the Olympic team. His high jump mark of 6 feet eight inches placed him up with the best. On the day he was to take his Olympic tests, however, his flying interfered and the high jump team was chosen while he was away.
Max Conrad is a devout Catholic who attends mass regularly, wherever he may be. Following his non-stop flight, Chicago to Rome, he was granted an audience with Pope John XXIII. Although a man of deep religious convictions, Max is not a preacher. His rules are for himself alone. He knows what has worked for him. In his quiet way he says what he thinks. You can take it or leave it.
One ingredient in his recipe for success became apparent to me in Ireland at the conclusion of a trans-Atlantic flight I made with him. “Can’t,” I learned, is an unknown word in the Max Conrad dictionary. We had ordered from the menu at a restaurant in Dublin. Due to the lateness of the hour the waiter said, “I am sorry but you can’t have a hot dinner.”
It was an unfortunate choice of words. Normally even tempered, Max was close to anger that evening. He wasn’t upset at the waiter. It was the word “can’t” that irritated him. He refused to recognize it. We got the hot food we ordered.
A thread running throughout Max’s life has been his ability to cope with the difficult and the unusual. The key to his many accomplishments seems to be moderation, determination and flexibility. Moderation in his personal habits gives him the physical and mental health his profession demands. Determination gives him the incentive and endurance to stay with a problem. The flexible nature he has developed gives him the invaluable knack of always having an alternate route—a second airport— another approach, to any flight or project he undertakes. To quote him, “There are two ways of doing everything, even to flying around the world.”
A man of great self discipline, he has learned to travel light, eat right and sleep tight. He leaves for Europe with less fuss than most men display going to their office. He made his 82nd trans-oceanic crossing in May of 1961. I was with him on that particular flight. It started for us with Max picking up his life raft with one hand, his map case with the other hand and saying to me, “The weather looks good so we might as well get started.”
We left downtown New York on the subway, then walked the last mile to the airport. A few minutes later we were in the air and on our way. With him that day Max had a toothbrush, toothpaste, brushless shaving cream and a razor with one blade — his brushcut eliminates the need for a comb. These he carried in his raincoat pocket — a lightweight raincoat at that. When I remarked on this he said, “As I grow older I find my material needs are becoming fewer and fewer. More and more to me simplification is the answer.
Although it was chilly in the airplane cabin he did not use the heater until we were approaching the Irish coast. The heater burned aviation gas. Max remarked, “I would rather arrive in Ireland cold than run out of gas before I reached there.”
I was happy to shiver under such circumstances.
Our food supply for the trip, Gander to Shannon, consisted of some brown toast, a thermos of weak tea with honey added, a carton of milk plus one coke and one gingerale.
On his long flights Max quite often provides himself with the ingredients for a “Conrad Cocktail”. Required is a thermos of black coffee, some honey, a spoon and a small lid-equipped jar. Once each hour he pours a small amount of coffee into the jar, adds about a teaspoon of honey and then shakes the mixture vigorously. This diversion provides a certain amount of mild exercise, rations the coffee and furnishes some nourishment.
Max has some interesting comments to make on the subject of eating. The first has to do with the evening meal. “Late in the day, your muscles and your mind tire. Isn’t it logical your stomach should tire too? Why burden it with a big meal to digest before retiring? Go to bed a little hungry and notice how refreshed you feel the next morning.”
A second observation while tying in with his theories on moderation reflects also his faith in his fellow man. “More people,” he says, “die from a fork in the mouth than a knife in the back.”
Referred to by some as the sleepless wonder of the airways, he has amazed the medical and aeronautical worlds by his ability to stay awake and alert for long periods. In March, 1961, he set a new around-the-world speed record for piston powered airplanes. In doing so he was airborne 160 hours and on the ground 50 hours. Staying awake aloft 60 hours at a stretch seems effortless to him. Being a little hungry while flying is part of his formula; keeping active is another. “Comfort can be a sleep-inducer,” he says.
To keep in good physical condition he walks a lot. He shuns the use of tobacco and alcohol. In travelling with him I find again that these are his rules; you may do as you like. His ability to sleep anywhere has probably been developed through determination and necessity. He seems to find as much rest on a settee in some busy airline terminal as on the softest hotel bed. Time lost in seeking out better accommodation can be turned into profitable sleep by curling up immediately wherever he is. Man, he contends, is a creature of habit. With money one tends towards the comforts of life. The lack of it tests your ingenuity. Weathered in at Goose Bay, Labrador and short of cash, he learned the only hotel available charged $26.00 per night. Putting his religion to practical use, he curled up on the carpet at the foot of the alter in nearby St. Michael’s chapel.
For this man of many facets, long hours in the air have given rise to many articles, songs and verse. The sky is his inspiration. Sitting through the long flight, watching the night, the stars, the sunrise and the many cloud forms gives him the opportunity to marvel at creation, resolve his doubts and pen his thoughts. “One thing for sure, when you are out there alone, over the ocean on a long flight,” says Max, “you become terribly honest with yourself. Suddenly you want to believe all those things that life tries to make you doubt.”
An entry from his log written in the air west of Goose Bay, Labrador and later included in a story he wrote, reflects his philosophical thinking.
“18:15 following the river just to see scenery. This is exciting country — some day I’d like to come up here and do a week of fishing and hunting. River pretty, winding, narrow, with rapids and falls 70 miles or so SW of Goose then slows to a peaceful stream, not many turns, shallow and wide — kind of like life — not so anxious to get to the ocean anymore.”
Most of his music, too, is composed while flying. A harmonica is his constant cabin companion. Written in the solitude that he enjoys on long flights his songs reflect the moods of the many countries he has visited and the people he has met. I think of his “Hills of Sicily”, “My Cabin Window”, “The Endless Sea”, “My Emerald Isle”, “Let’s Fly!”, Land of Happiness”; they all tell a story of a flight made — a sight seen — a person met — a crisis past.
Typical of Max’s philosophy is the fact that he has donated all proceeds from his long play records to the Winona Aviation Foundation to be used to further the aviation for youth program throughout America.
Somewhere in print I have seen Max referred to as America’s flying ambassador of good will. A few minutes after landing with him at Shannon proved to me that this statement is fact. He knew most of the employees about the terminal. They in turn knew and were genuinely pleased to see him. “Max, we have missed you. Where have you been for the past six weeks?” was the sincere, repeated greeting he encountered as we checked with customs, refueled the aircraft and ordered a late snack.
Max in turn has unlimited admiration for the people of Erin’s Isle. It is their excellent public relations which impresses him most. In return for his respect he receives from the land of the shamrock the true “Luck of the Irish”. Let me prove this through illustration.
The incident in mind took place on St. Patrick’s Day, 1964. Max flying a low wing, single engine, retractable-gear Procaer Picchio built in Milan, Italy was on the Keflavik — Goose Bay leg of a Geneva, Switzerland to California ferry flight. Weather conditions as he passed Greenland’s southern tip were unusual. It was CAVU. Despite the long flight ahead of him, Max decided to take advantage of the excellent visibility to do some ice cap sightseeing. He turned right and flew along the west coast.
Close to Narsarssuak he turned southwest again and started out across the water. Three minutes later his oil pressure gauge signalled trouble. Oil began to splatter on the windscreen. An immediate 180 degree turn got him the seven miles back to the ice cap before the engine packed up. He bellied the aircraft in on the snow and was picked up before dark on the same day. Only a man with a direct line to St. Patrick and the love of every leprechaun in the land could enjoy luck of such magnitude.
Despite the handicaps imposed upon his speech by his accident, he had since, through voice therapy and sheer will power, developed into an excellent speaker. This fact, combined with his genuine humility and the many experiences he has had, makes him much in demand as a public speaker throughout North America and Europe. To hear him is to experience seat-edge listening all the way. Still as wide eyed about flying as ever he radiates confidence in the future of aviation. He leaves one with the impression, too, that he feels his own flying career is just beginning.
Max has earned many honours to date. He is a tremendous competitor. His two Atlantic crossings in his Pacer won for him a lifetime membership in the Civil Air Patrol. On April 30, 1952, he captured the Class C-1b Record for flying nonstop 2,462 miles. In 1953, he was the pilot chosen to fly to the capitals of all 48 states to greet the Governor of each on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of Powered Flight. Only one other man has had the honour of making a similar tour — Charles Lindbergh. In 1959, at the National Pilots Association annual meeting, Max Conrad received the “Pilot of the Year” award.
Recently he was made a Colonel in the United States Air Force Reserve. France had honoured him with one of her medals. July 7, 1960, was set aside by Governor Orville Freeman of Minnesota as Max Conrad Day for that state. When the Arthur M. Godfrey Foundation purchased a new Aztec from Mr. William Piper’s organization and presented it to the African Research Foundation, Max Conrad was the pilot selected to make the 7,500 mile ferry flight to Nairobi.
During a visit to his trophy room I noticed that he: has been honoured by the National T. B. Association, has been made an Arkansas Traveller, is a Commodore of the Oklahoma Navy, has the Key to the Old Kentucky Home as well as to the City of Cleveland. These are only a few of his awards — there are many more, and he is one of the 1965 Harmon Trophy winners.
Even more significant perhaps than his long flight records are the 45,000 hours he has in the air — thought by many in aviation to be the most flying time amassed by any airman. Residing now in Prescott, Arizona, he stubbornly refuses to accept a desk as his way of life. He still flies about 140 hours per month ferrying aircraft and visiting his ten children and fifteen grandchildren.
These honours he wears lightly and for all his accomplishments he remains a humble and considerate man. Just how considerate he is was proven to me when we were landing at Shannon. We had been in the air about 11 hours out of Gander when I developed a headache and took two aspirin tablets to relieve it. I was unaware Max had noticed my action. Two hours later at 1:00 a.m. we broke through an 800 foot cloud-deck right over Shannon airport. We were going downwind. We made a quick 180 degree turn. The tower called to say we were high. Max replied that he could make it. Down went the wheels and flaps, off came the power. Then he reached back and removed the cap from the cabin gas tanks — otherwise they might collapse because of the rapid descent. It was an exciting few seconds — he was very busy. Not too busy, to ask me, however, “Is this fast descent aggravating your headache? If so, I will go around again.
After a long flight with little heat and no sleep it takes a BIG man to think of his fellow traveller’s comfort in a tense situation like that.
Max Conrad’s life is a study in stamina, perseverance, courage and humility. A veteran of more than 120 Atlantic and close to 20 Pacific crossings, he has sustained setbacks and overcome odds which would have crushed men of lesser resiliency. Life for him has always been a struggle. Consistently he strives for improvement in everything he undertakes. Not for himself does he seek acclaim but for his family, for aviation and for the youth of the nation. Over the years he has attained great depth and a zest for life. His keen “radar mind” is forever searching the horizons ahead. He is happiest in the sky — a medium in which he excels — and in the articulate expression of his thoughts through prose and song. His simplicity of manner, his soft spoken voice and quiet smile are accompanied by an outstanding intellect integrated with a stubborn tenacity.
During his many hours in the air he has known much solitude. His long flights have taken him to many lands. It was Goethe who said, “Talent is built in solitude, character in the stream of the world.”
Small wonder then that Max Conrad has developed so much of both.