When Don Janson helped set the world airplane flight endurance record in 1949, the plane nearly landed on his chest as he tried to fix its broken wheel.
Janson was 35 years old when he was one of three ground crew members who serviced the modified Aeronca Sedan that took off from Fullerton Airport on March 15, 1949, and didn't touch down until six weeks later.
The flight, which ended at Fullerton Airport before a crowd of 5,000 cheering spectators, had been the longest sustained flight to date.
Janson, now 75 and a retired sheet metal worker living in Arizona, is in his hometown of Fullerton to attend today's City Council meeting, where a film showing his exploits will be donated to the city. His brother-in-law, Robert Young of Fullerton, filmed one of the resupply efforts with an 8-millimeter camera.
Janson joined pilots Dick Riedel and Bill Barris at Fullerton Air Service in 1949 for the attempt after hearing they needed another hand on the ground crew, he said Monday at his sister-in-law's home in Huntington Beach.
He and the ground crew would race along the runway at 65 m.p.h. in a convertible Jeepster and hand three-gallon milk cans full of gasoline up to pilot Dick Riedel. Fellow pilot Bill Barris, a former Navy pilot with aircraft carrier experience, would swoop the plane down 10 feet over the resupply car.
For six weeks in 1949, Janson and two crew members followed the plane, Sunkist Lady, in a chase plane from Fullerton to Miami and back, passing up fuel, oil, food and other supplies to the Sunkist Lady at airports along the way.
As wind buffeted the airplane just feet from Janson's head, he would hand up the fuel just before the car ran out of runway and had to stop. The plane would circle the field and make another pass.
"We were having a lot of fun," Janson said.
It took more than 14 passes before the airplane's tanks were filled, Janson said. Supplying the plane three times a day went mostly without a hitch, he said.
But during one effort, the chase team noticed that rough weather had torn off the plane's tail landing wheel and left it dangling by two wires, Janson said. So he lay on his back on the car's hood, as the plane passed over at 60 m.p.h. for a midair repair.
But the car traveling underneath the airplane caused it to lose altitude.
"It nearly came down on top of us," Janson recalled. The ground crew decided the wheel didn't need fixing after all.
Bad weather over Tallahassee, Fla., kept the Sunkist Lady circling over Miami for two weeks, waiting for the skies to clear for the return trip to Fullerton, Janson said. During the long stay, regular nighttime resupplies at a small airfield outside Miami apparently made some FBI agents suspicious.
After the regular 9 p.m. fuel supply was passed up to the plane and the ground crew was driving back to the hotel, lights blazed and flashed as agents swarmed around them.
"This guy shoves a gun into my ribs," Janson said. "They thought we had just given them dope or something. . . . I think they thought they had something really good when they caught us."
None of the agents seemed to have heard of their attempt to set the world record, Janson said. "And here it was all in the papers in the Miami area," he said.
When the Sunkist Lady touched down in Fullerton on April 26, 1949, the city held a parade and local newspapers hailed the pilots and crew as aviation pioneers.
Fame flickered out quickly, though. Six months later, two former Navy pilots from Yuma, Ariz., broke the 1,008-hour record by staying aloft for 1,142 hours.
Janson said he wasn't disappointed.
"I expected it," he said.