First to Fly: Packers Provide Aerial Milestone for NFL

The story of the Green Bay Packers is one known throughout not only the National Football League but also the world of professional sports. Founded in 1919, the Packers quickly became one of the premier teams in the NFL during the league’s formative years. Helping the league rise in popularity, the Packers’ historic importance to the NFL can’t be overstated. A century after its founding, the team’s status as an icon in American professional sports — because of its success on the field, its popularity among fans, and its influence on the game and business of football — is unquestioned.

Pioneering Packers founder, coach, and player Earl “Curly” Lambeau, in addition to winning six NFL championships with the Packers between 1929 and 1944, was influential in many other ways. He helped institute the forward pass, an inextricable part of today’s game. He created the first self-contained training facility in pro football, which is now standard for every NFL team. And, interestingly enough, in 1940 he was involved in arranging the first airplane flight to a game by an NFL team.

Nearing the end of their schedule, Lambeau and the Packers capped the 1940 campaign with a grueling stretch in which they played five straight games on the road. Right in the middle of that was a November 17 game against the New York Giants in upper Manhattan. While the outcome of the game, a 7-3 Giants victory, was of little consequence in a 6-4-1 season for Green Bay, the Packers made history prior to the contest.

On Thursday, November 14, the Packers left Green Bay on the 7 a.m. Milwaukee Road train and headed for Chicago, where they were transported via limousine from the train depot to the airport. Waiting for them were two United Airlines Douglas DC-3s.

The DC-3, introduced just four years prior in 1936, revolutionized air transport during the 1930s and 1940s. It was reliable and easy to maintain, had good range, and could operate from short runways. Prior to the United States getting involved in World War II, the model pioneered many air travel routes. It’s only fitting that it was the airplane that made history in yet another fashion.

That afternoon, the Packers became the first NFL team to fly to a road game. But it didn’t go exactly as planned.

Set to depart Chicago at 12:30 p.m. local time and arrive at the New York Municipal Airport (now LaGuardia) at 4:25 p.m., the Packers were slightly delayed when a group of photographers showed up on the ramp. The team posed for photos, including a pose in which quarterback Cecil Isbell lifted stewardess Roberta Schilbach off the ground and pretended to throw her to star wide receiver Don Hutson. United Airlines even added a bit of flare to the event, painting its airplanes with the words “Green Bay Packer Football Special” and serving a special menu with the printed greeting “United Air Lines Welcomes the Packers and Enjoys This Privilege of Giving Them a Flying Start.” Once the airplanes got into the air and climbed above the clouds to 9,000 feet, things went smoothly.

When the pair of airplanes landed in Cleveland to refuel, the Packers’ historic flight was cut short. With New York City sitting under a heavy fog at the time, United Airlines officials conferred with Lambeau, and the decision was made to cancel the rest of the flight. The team took taxis into downtown Cleveland, had dinner, and waited in a hotel lobby until a New York Central train arrived.

Lambeau and company finally made it to New York at about 8:30 a.m. on Friday morning, November 15, and headed to Central Park for practice. After the game on Sunday, the Packers returned to Wisconsin without incident, taking off from New York Municipal Airport early Monday morning and landing in Chicago later in the day.

Former Packers center and current Packers radio broadcaster Larry McCarren has been involved with the organization since he was drafted in the 12th round by the green and gold in 1973. While he wasn’t around in 1940 when the Packers’ historic flight occurred, if there’s someone associated with the Packers who can speak to the significance of the organization within the NFL and the development of the league, it’s Larry.

“The Packers are part of the NFL getting established,” Larry said. “We’re like the Original Six in hockey. We’re one of the bedrock, foundation franchises, and … this conglomerate today, it relies on air travel and teams being where they’re supposed to be and when they’re supposed to be there. To think that the Green Bay Packers … helped lay the groundwork for flight is another milestone. Not a lot of people would realize that, but it’s part of the Green Bay Packers story of being one of the founders, one of the foundations that the NFL was built on.”

From Broadcast Booth to Cockpit

In addition to his role as one of the primary public voices of the Packers, Larry is also an active general aviation pilot. He’s attended EAA AirVenture Oshkosh numerous times, despite it occurring in the midst of NFL training camp, and as a radio commentator he would occasionally fly himself to road Packers games in his personal airplane rather than traveling on the team airplane for free.

After his wife bought him an introductory flying lesson a few years after his retirement from the NFL, Larry earned his pilot certificate in 1988, and has since picked up instrument, multiengine, and commercial ratings. He currently flies a Beechcraft King Air and previously owned a Piper Navajo Chieftain. Although it wasn’t until after his football playing career was over that he got seriously involved in aviation, Larry had an interest in becoming a pilot even as a high school student.

“I actually got recruited by the Air Force Academy in 1969,” Larry said. “I thought about [flying]. But I told the guy, Maj. Moses — I can still remember the guy’s name — he said at least come for the visit and take the physical, see if you’re qualified for flight training. I took the physical and took their test, and everything was cool, but I told the guy, I said, ‘This may sound really stupid, but I want to play pro football.’ Back then, the rules were pretty rigid. They’re very flexible now, the military academies. Back then, when you graduated, before you went off and did whatever, you owed them five years. I told him I wanted to play professional football. I said, ‘You may think that will never work out, but that’s why I’m not coming.’ Then it kind of got put on the backburner, but I had an interest in it.”

Larry said it took time and effort to develop into the professional football player he was. In the 30 years since he became a pilot, he said he’s started to see some similarities between what he did on the football field and what he now does in the cockpit, including the ability to multitask and the practice needed to hone skills.

“There is some comparison there,” he said. “Like balancing some balls. How many balls can you balance? VFR flying, add the clouds, add the traffic, and add ATC. The biggest thing I can relate to is if you want to do this well, spend some time on it. Be engaged in it. … Just your attitude about learning a new skill is that you’ve got to be engaged, you’ve got to commit, and you’ve got to spend some time on it. It takes effort to do this well. That’s what I’ve learned.”

Because of Larry’s football career, he wasn’t able to take flying lessons until he was well into his 30s. With that in mind, he said he knows that it’s never too late to start a new hobby. His advice: If you have an interest in flying, try it out.

“Kids, grown-ups, I always tell them, if you have the hankering, if there’s something about it, give it a try,” Larry said. “Go take the introductory lesson. Give it a try. It’s not for everybody. If it’s not for you, fine, no problem. If it is for you, you discovered a great hobby, and you’re going to have experiences of a lifetime. You’re going to meet some terrific people. You don’t know where it’s going to go. If you have a little part of you that says, ‘I’ve always thought about it,’ give it a try.”

Packers Celebrating 100th Anniversary at AirVenture

As part of the Green Bay Packers’ 100 Seasons celebration beginning this year and lasting through August 2019, the team is hitting the road in Wisconsin with a traveling exhibit and will be making a stop at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2018.

The exhibit, Lambeau Field Live, presented by Associated Bank, will include a number of attractions for visitors and fans. NFL Play 60 activities, alumni meet-and-greets, a satellite Packers Pro Shop and Packers Hall of Fame, a Lambeau Leap wall, and a one-of-a-kind virtual-reality display presented by Patrick Cudahy will be among the attractions. Visitors will also have the chance to win great prizes, including tickets and autographed merchandise, by registering for Packers Pass at or through the Packers app.

“We’re excited to be bringing the Lambeau Field experience to fans all over Wisconsin with Lambeau Field Live this summer,” said Packers President and CEO Mark Murphy. “Our historic home is a special place, and we’re looking forward to sharing it, as well as the history of the Green Bay Packers, with fans throughout the state as part of our 100 Seasons celebration.”

This story appears in the Official Commemorative Souvenir Program for EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2018. Purchase your copy of the program at the event from July 23-29.

Photos courtesy of the Green Bay Packers/Green Bay Press-Gazette

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