Who was “Hickman” ? – Coming Full Circle on One of McKinnon’s Earliest Business Partners
By David H. Marion – For the decades prior to the development of the relatively more recent (circa 1987) “Magnum” conversion using two 350 hp Lycoming TIO-540-J2BD turbocharged engines, according to general consensus the “hottest” and best-performing Grumman Widgeon seaplanes were the “McKinnon” 270 hp Lycoming GO-480 powered “Super Widgeon” conversions of the G-44 series that were first built by the McKinnon-Hickman Company in Portland, OR starting in 1953 or so. McKinnon eventually went on to develop at least 14 FAA-approved supplemental type certificates (STC) for performance-enhancing modifications for Grumman Widgeon aircraft.
Angus G. “Mac” McKinnon later formed McKinnon Enterprises Inc. in Sandy, OR and developed a whole host of significant modifications for and conversions of the Grumman G-21A Goose as well. It is relatively well known already that McKinnon was born August 2, 1904 and died November 14, 1991, and that before he started “hot-rodding” first Grumman Widgeons and then Gooses, he was a commercial construction contractor who specialized in building highway bridges. The story goes that he used an original, 200 hp Ranger-powered Grumman Widgeon to commute to construction projects around the Pacific Northwest, but found himself wanting more power and better performance in order to more easily and safely get in and out of the high mountain lakes and rivers – and the next thing he knew he had a whole new career and business.
But who was “Hickman”, the at-least-to-me still as of yet unknown early business partner of Angus McKinnon? That much of his name was all that I have known about him during all of the years that I have been involved with Antilles Seaplanes and the McKinnon Goose type designs associated with FAA Type Certificate no. 4A24. That is, up until just about two years ago when on a lark I started a new search of the Internet for information about and clues pertaining to the mysterious and otherwise previously unknown “Mr. Hickman.”
The key that finally unlocked a virtual flood of new data for me came from a couple of never before seen Google “hits” using the same old search parameter of “McKinnon-Hickman.” They were actually two different copies of the same syndicated newspaper story in the Petersburg (VA) Progress-Index from March 31, 1954 and the Albuquerque (NM) Journal on April 9, 1954. Interpolating as best I could from typically poor OCR scans of the newspapers, the story was basically as follows:
LONG DISTANCE SPECIALIST – Plane Improver Starts Business
A West Coast Scot Begins New Industry Re-designing Amphibious Aircraft
PORTLAND, Ore. (INS) — A Scotchman’s dissatisfaction with his amphibious seaplane led to the establishment of one of Portland’s newest industries, and its largest aircraft factory.
Two years ago the Scotchman, Angus McKinnon, bought the war-surplus plane to fly between his home and office at nearby Sandy and his scattered jobs. He is an industrial and bridge (building) contractor.
He found that the plane saved many hours. But it lacked power enough for safe, easy take-offs from high lakes and in still air. So McKinnon went to Vernon Hickman, then chief mechanic at a suburban airport, and together they developed the “Super Widgeon.”
The development involves a conversion job for the Grumman Widgeon. That means new and higher-powered engines, constant speed propellers, cowlings, cooling systems and sound-proofing.
There are only 250 Widgeon owners In the United States, according to McKinnon, but he is negotiating with others in Australia, South America, Greece, Canada, France, Sweden and the Philippine Islands.
He reported: “I answered a letter from the French government, and the next thing. I knew they rushed a representative over here by air.” The French have 20 of the twin-engine planes.
The firm hires 22 mechanics in its peak season, and McKinnon says his aircraft conversion job has pushed building (bridges) away into the background.
Besides taking off faster and flying faster and higher, the converted plane is safer, McKinnon claims. One engine will hold it in steady flight at 4,000 feet, whereas the old model could do little more than stretch its glide.
From that one little new detail, the first name “Vernon”, Google produced leads to 3 or 4 such people having connections to the Portland, OR area. Only one however had a record of having any formal connection to the aviation industry and a search of the FAA Airman Certificates database revealed even more relevant data – and in the absolutely perfect time frame too:
Vernon Socratius Hickman
Private Pilot ASEL certificate issued 7/31/1951
A&P Mechanic certificate issued 3/14/1952
3rd Class Medical certificate last issued 3/2003
Further Google searches produced the following personal information about Vernon S. Hickman from various genealogical research sites:
Born: March 15, 1913
Died: November 5, 2004 in Vancouver, WA
But from where did Mr. Hickman come professionally speaking before partnering with Angus McKinnon in Portland, OR in 1953 and where did he go after presumably parting ways with him by 1958 when McKinnon moved his entire operation up to Sandy, OR to be reformed as McKinnon Enterprises Inc.?
Answers to the first part of that question came from way out in a virtual right field. One of my subsequent Google “hits” was the unit’s official history page for the Civil Air Patrol’s Coastal Patrol Base 8 on James Island, just south of Charleston, SC during World War II. It notes that the unit was commanded by one Maj. Jack R. Moore who originally hailed from Portland, OR. It also noted that a man named Vernon S. Hickman was specifically invited by Dexter Martin, the commander of the whole SC CAP Wing, to come down from Charlotte, NC where he had been operating an FBO (Fixed Base Operation) in order to serve as the new CAP unit’s engineering (i.e. aircraft maintenance) officer. Apparently, after the war and their service commitment ended, Vernon S. Hickman followed Jack R. Moore back to Portland, OR with the promise of further employment and new opportunities in the aviation field.
To backtrack just a bit more, Google also produced two other viable clues about the mystery man, Mr. Vernon Hickman. A copy of the 1939 Charlotte, NC city phone directory showed a listing for a Charlotte Airplane & Engine Service (i.e. a Fixed-Base Operation or FBO) located on Tuckaseegee Road adjacent to the airport and run by partners Bruce C. Brocklehurst and Vernon S. Hickman.
Google also revealed a copy of a record from the 1940 United States Census in which one Vernon S. Hickman was listed as a 29 year-old white male who had been born in Florida, presumably in 1911 or so, and then living at 1325 Harding Place in Charlotte, NC. The Census report also showed that he was married to one Catherine W. Hickman, a white female of the same age. Genealogical research Web sites later showed that Catherine Wearn Hickman was actually born September 5, 1909 and died March 13, 1996.
The address at which the Hickmans were listed as living was noted to be the residence of her mother and his mother-in-law, Mrs. Nettie E. Wearn, a 56 year-old white female who had been born in North Carolina, as had been her daughter, and that their residence was rented, not owned, by them. Nettie Wearn was listed as being a teacher and public school principal and her daughter Catherine was listed as being a teacher as well. Vernon S. Hickman was listed as an “aeronautical engineer” (probably more likely intended in the British sense of meaning “aircraft mechanic”) in the “aviation” industry.
So, apparently after the war, Vernon S. Hickman and his immediate family moved to Portland, OR and he went to work in a new business started by his former commanding officer in the CAP. In July 1944, records show that Jack Moore leased property on the Troutdale, OR airport and opened Western Skyways Services in 1945. It was reported to be the first civilian flight school setup to train ex-servicemen under the new GI Bill after the war and by September 1947, it had 33 training aircraft and 88 employees, including 15 flight instructors.
By 1950, court records available online show that Vernon S. Hickman was the service manager for Western Skyways Services, in which capacity he was called in to provide an estimate of repairs on a war-surplus North American AT-6 trainer, registration number NC63091*, that was owned by the River Terminals Company in Oregon. The airplane had been kept in a hangar at The Dalles (OR) city airport leased by S&M Flying Service and sublet to the aircraft owner. The airport itself was actually located on the other side of the Columbia River in Klickitat County in the state of Washington.
According to the court record, on January 20, 1950, due to alleged negligence on the part of The Dalles city airport authority and S&M Flying Service, the weight of accumulated snow on the roof of the hangar caused it to collapse onto the AT-6 aircraft, causing extensive damage estimated to be in excess of $3,500 (more than the value of the aircraft at that time) and rendering it un-airworthy.
The appeal made to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit dated June 29, 1954 is available online and it includes the full testimony on behalf of the plaintiff of one Vernon S. Hickman (often improperly transcribed as “Heckman” but eventually corrected in the official record.) In his testimony he identifies himself using the past tense as the former service manager of Western Skyways Service (i.e. at the time of the damage to the airplane in January 1950, his subsequent inspection of the damage in March 1950, and his estimation of repairs provided to the plaintiff in June 1950.) He also testified to the fact that he had been in the airplane repair business for 20 years.
Of course by the time of that Court of Appeals ruling in June 1954, Hickman was known to have partnered with Angus McKinnon and had started building “Super Widgeon” amphibians in Portland. Once again, it is already well-known what happened to Angus McKinnon from that time on, but what became of Vernon Hickman after he apparently parted company with McKinnon by 1958? In matters like this, it’s often just a matter of finding one little thread and then starting to pull on it.
It appears that after he parted company with Angus McKinnon, Vern Hickman went right back to his former employer, Western Skyways Service in Troutdale, OR. Although Jack R. Moore may have been the initial financial backer of the company, there is evidence online that another former CAP member who served with Moore and Hickman also followed the two of them back to Portland, OR after the war – and his name was Ernest G. (Gerald) “Ernie” Helms, Sr.
According to his obituary after his somewhat more recent death on January 30, 2013, Ernie Helms was the former co-founder & owner, first president of, and chief pilot for Western Skyways Service in Troutdale, OR – and an almost life-long friend of Vern Hickman, whom he apparently first met during their service together in the CAP during World War II. Ernie Helms had been born in Reading, PA on October 17, 1913, married his wife Catherine (aka “Nan”) in 1934, and had a “love of flying” that led him to the CAP after the war started. Afterward, they moved together to Portland, OR where their only son, Jerry Jr. was born on July 8, 1945.
Ernie Helms spent almost his entire professional career at Western Skyways and finally retired from there in 1980. After that, he and his close friend Vern Hickman entered into another business venture** together, about which I am still awaiting further details from Ernie’s grandson, Chris, who currently lives in Coeur d’Alene, ID, and with whom I am already in contact.
**Transnational Investment Corp.;
Oregon Company no. 148239-18;
Domestic Business Corporation filed on October 28, 1980
Vernon S. Hickman, president
Ernest G. Helms, secretary
9585 SW Brentwood Pl 15121 NE Clackamas St
(Tigard) Portland, OR 97224 Portland, OR 97230
Admittedly, Ernie’s obituary did not say that Vern Hickman also retired from Western Skyways in 1980, but it suggested that maybe that was the case and that Ernie and Vern had been very close ever since first meeting one another in the early 1940’s.
One of the things that “bothered” me about what I had so far was that Ernie’s grandson had talked about Ernie and Vern flying with CAP and instructing in Texas for a little while after the war ended, but the only association that they had with CAP that I had seen up until just recently mentioned only the Coastal Patrol Base 8 on James Island just south of Charleston, SC in connection with both Vern and Jack.
The next thread of inquiry that produced results was centered on “Jack R. Moore” since he seemed to be the primary factor in explaining how Vern Hickman got from Charlotte, NC before the war to Portland, OR afterward.
I found out that “Jack” was not a nickname for “John” but rather just a shortened version of “Jackson” and that he was self-employed. His primary business, the “Jack R. Moore Company” was a regional distributor of coin-operated machines such as Bally pinball tables and arcade games and the company had offices in Portland, Seattle, Spokane, and San Francisco. I also found out that he died young from a heart attack at about age 43 on November 15, 1947; he was listed in the newspaper articles as having been age 45 but most of the other records I found that seemed to tie to him said that he was born in 1904 – and that he got married in 1921 at the age of 17.
I also found out that just before he died, he was given a medal by the War Department for his service during WW2. The citation included much more detail of his service with CAP:
“Dateline: Portland, OR Sept. 13, 1947 –
Jack R. Moore, owner of Jack R. Moore Company here, was honored recently by the War Department when he was awarded the Exceptional Service Medal for outstanding achievement in World War II.
Moore, who during the war years was a major in the Civil Air Patrol, was awarded the medal at Camp Lewis, Wash. by Colonel Lewis L. Scott*, author of God Is My Co-Pilot, and himself the recipient of numerous awards for combat flying in the China-Burma-India (CBI) theatre of war.
Citation, signed by Robert Patterson, Secretary of War, as read by Lieutenant Colonel John H. Chick before the massed officers and cadets from the Oregon-Washington training wings follows:
“For exceptionally meritorious achievement as Commander of Civil Air Patrol No. 1, Laredo, Tex., from 1 October 1942 to 28 February 1943; Coastal Patrol No. 8, Charleston, S. C., from 1 March 1943 to 15 October 1943, and Liaison Patrol No. 2, El Paso, Tex., from 1 November 1943 to 15 March 1944, and for repeatedly exhibiting marked courage in the face of danger while performing regular wartime flying missions. By devoting his efforts loyally and patriotically under difficult conditions in time of national need to the leadership, training, and supervision of civilian volunteers engaged in the performance of such wartime flying missions, he rendered a service to the United States deserving high recognition.”
(*note: It was actually Col. Robert L. Scott, Jr. who served with the Flying Tigers and wrote God Is My Co-Pilot – I think that maybe the editor accidentally mixed his name up with the name of Ft. Lewis in the article.)
Another article mentioned that Jack R. Moore commanded a CAP squadron based at The Dalles city airport, northeast of Portland, OR in the time frame prior to going to Texas for the first time in late 1942. (It’s a small world – haven’t we already been there?) Via Google I also found excerpts from a book called Wings over the Mexican Border: Pioneer Military Aviation in the Big Bend posted online.
Chapter 16 of that book discusses how Gen. Walter Krueger of the US Army Southern Defense Command initiated a project to replace Army squadrons needed elsewhere with civilian CAP aircraft to protect the Mexican border. (It seems that nothing much has changed in 65 years!) The project was implemented by Col. Harry H. Blee, CAP operations officer and assigned to Maj. Harry K. Coffey, from Portland, OR, to be the coordinating officer responsible for actually establishing the new CAP units in question.
“Coffey established two administrative command centers, with Patrol No. 1 based at the Laredo Flexible Gunnery School, Laredo, Texas, and Patrol No. 2 based at Biggs Field, El Paso, Texas. He further cited Del Rio, Texas, a sub-base and Marfa, Texas, a reconnaissance base and recommend that refueling facilities be established at Brownsville, Texas, and Douglas, Arizona, for aircraft serving those areas.”
“With all the operational framework approved, all Major Coffey needed was pilots, airplanes, and ground support personnel. Most of these would come from the West Coast, where civilian flying had been restricted along a 150-mile Pacific Coast defense corridor. Coffey appointed Maj. Jack R. Moore, a Portland, Oregon, wholesale distributor, to be commander of the Laredo base, and he, in turn, recruited most of his staff from that state.”
So I’m assuming at this point that Vern Hickman followed Jack R. Moore from Charleston, SC to Portland, OR via El Paso, TX and was himself at some point assigned to the “Southern Frontier Liaison” Patrol Base No. 2 since I was told previously that he and Ernie Helms were together in Texas before moving to Oregon.
Later, I found additional information online about a guy named Steve Patti who started off with CAP during the war as a mechanic. He has an extensive career-long photo archive on the CAP’s own Web here:
Steve Patti‘s CAP photo archive was a gold mine of additional information – and photos. After transferring from Marfa, TX to El Paso and CAP Patrol Base No. 2 headquarters (Marfa was just an aux. field) Patti noted that he went from Vern Hickman‘s command to the overall unit commander’s – Maj. Jack R. Moore.
The thing is that I probably now know more about Hickman than I do about McKinnon himself. That will be another project for another time.
Dave Marion is the Technical Content Editor at Seaplanemagazine.com. As A&P and IA with 29 years of experience in aircraft maintenance, he is also a Commercial Pilot with Airplane, Single & Multi-Engine, and Instrument ratings. He has a BA from Colgate University in 1984 and also graduated cum laude from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (DAB) with a BS in Aviation Technology in 1990. He can be reached along with all of the editors via E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org