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Historic car helped refuel record-breaking flight
This story originally appeared in the Yuma Sun in 2009.
- Click here to see how the 'City of Yuma' made history and its long road back to Yuma
The 1948 Super Buick is a classy car that helped Yuma accelerate a classic moment in history: the City of Yuma endurance flight. But the flight could have missed a critical turn if not for the efforts of a dedicated group of residents.
It was the '48 Super Buick that served as the refueling car for the history-making flight, according to Shirley Murdock, author of “The Longest Flight: Yuma's Quest for the Future,” chronicling Yuma's watershed moment.
Shirley is the sister of Bob Woodhouse, one of the pilots of the City of Yuma, the aircraft that flew 47 days nonstop to show the world Yuma had perfect flying weather.
“The city had gotten down to 9,000 population and was dwindling because the military was all gone,” she said.
That's when Ray Smucker, KYUM radio station manager and Yuma Jaycees president, and Buick dealership owner Horace Griffen put their heads together and came up with the idea for the endurance flight. At the time, Shirley was away at college in Denver but her brother, Bob, was parts manager of Griffen, and her future husband, George Murdock, was service manager.
“I took care of the baby and made sure it was ready every morning and evening,” George said of the car.
The Buick Super had a 263-cubic-inch engine, put out 115 horsepower and could achieve 90 mph relatively quickly. It also had all independent suspension and was noted for its gunsight hood ornament and the “smiling” front grill.
The only modifications were safety rails. They also removed the rear seat and added a platform so the crew could stand while handing up fuel. The car cost $2,800 and modifications were done by Bert's Welding Works, according to Griffen, who was the morning driver.
Wind was a critical factor, he said. If it began to gust, they had to meet the plane by driving into the wind. The car had to drive at least 65 mph to keep pace with the plane as it descended with its landing wheels level with the hood of the Buick.
The car had a chrome searchlight mounted next to the driver's side window and frequently the plane's landing wheel hubcap would scrape against it, even tearing it off once, Griffen said.
And just as the City of Yuma was closing in on its nonstop record, the crew had to install a new engine, George Murdock recalled. “We finished just a half-hour before the morning crew was ready and we worked all night to finish.”
The car also went through several sets of tires. Tires had a road life of 10,000 miles under normal conditions, he noted.
“But our conditions were anything but normal. There were lots of fast starts and stops. We estimated 1,500.”
There were two shifts of crews. The morning team consisted of driver Horace Griffen, Bernie Pensky, Chuck Mabery, Keith Smith and Howard Jongeward. The afternoon team had driver Charlie Gilpin, Bob Hodge, Norm Bann, Louie Mueller and Ralph Michaels.
Phil Neese was on standby, and the pilots' wives, Betty Jongeward and Berta Woodhouse, never missed a refueling despite the fact they both had full-time jobs.
Despite the obstacles and risks, the Buick crew members say they always kept their top goal in sight.
“You know, there was never any concern during the whole operation. Nobody had any reservations about doing what had to be done. We just wanted to get the airbase opened again,” Griffen said.
And when it reopened in 1951, “we knew we struck a chord with the military,” Griffen said.
“They brought in a lot of people right away. I don't know how many but we were thankful it paid off. For sure, it was the base that helped spur growth.”
George sold the original car to Griffen, but in 1959 he got another '48 Super Buick and outfitted it just like the original, right down to the red leather seats, he said.
“It's fun to have the car. People stop us whenever they see us driving into town to have lunch.”