The Flying Circus

The Flying Circus

Egos run rampant in most airline cockpits, no matter what airline. It came with the territory. While attending a recurrent training period, which all Captains are required to accomplish each six months, a psychologist addressed a group of us in an auditorium one day. There were about two hundred pilots in the session and it was being done under the guise of CRM (Crew Resource Management). How to work as a team to solve problems without exerting your Captains authority as the rule; extracting the best of fellow crew members and how best to manage egos in close quarters (a tall order under any circumstance)?

The Psychologist posed this question to the group; “Those of you in the room that are first born in your family please raise your hand.” I was shocked when we all looked around the auditorium to see that most of our hands were raised. It was more than ninety percent of us that were firstborn. Our speaker reflected; this should tell you a lot about what is going on in your cockpits. It answered a lot for me.

Some Characters I have known

A circus is known for its variety of characters; a show with feats of skill, some animal acts and always a few clowns. The Ringmaster keeps the show moving; that would be a chief pilot’s job. It might have a menagerie, a display of exotic creatures, a few musicians and jugglers of course. Then there are the daredevils, shot from canons perhaps. Yes, we had all of those in our pilot groups at one time or another; entertainers all… for certain.

Flash Gordon

There was Flash Gordon; I don’t recall his first name because we called him Flash. While flying he liked to say “watch this” while he flew an approach with his feet on opposite rudder pedals. His right foot on the left pedal and his left foot on the right. He called it his polish landing maneuver. Flash was fired from the airline early in his career.

The Sleeper

Another Captain I used to fly with had some serious problems with staying awake. He was observed to be sound asleep for the better half of any flight I ever flew with him. He was also known to have slept through ground training sessions and when asked a question by the instructor would always have the correct answer. He was amazing. I remember one flight, after I made the landing, I needed to wake him up because the nose-wheel steering control was on his side of the cockpit and we needed to steer the aircraft off the runway. This was during the era when you could still smoke in the cockpit and it was his custom to keep a cigarette continually lit so that when it burned down to his finger-tips it would wake him up. He often complained about having a sinus condition that didn’t allow him to sleep while lying down, so he got used to sleeping when sitting up straight. Captain “Sleeping Straight Up” I have to admit, was a really good pilot even when asleep.

Captain Paranoid

Then there was Captain Paranoid; any conversation occurring within the cockpit that was sensitive in nature to our airlines management or the FAA (our federal aviation authorities), he would place his hand over the cockpit voice recorder microphone located at the top of the overhead panel; a significant stretch. Or, he would pull the recorder circuit breaker so it wouldn’t record the conversation. He was fixated on that mic for most of the time he occupied his cockpit seat. It was nut-so. After this particular airline went out of business the Captain just quietly disappeared, he could have gone to work for the CIA?

Shamu meets Captain Aerobat

At Overseas National Airways, (ONA) I flew frequently with a Captain that was a former Air Force fighter pilot; a retired colonel, that used to fly the F-100, and probably had logged more time flying upside down than I had right side up. I referred to him as Captain Aerobat and he told some really good stories; he always threatened he was going to roll the transport category airplane during flight. He preferred doing a snap roll, he would say, and he would then describe how he was going to accomplish it. I thought the airline might frown on that.

An unusually exotic passenger: During 1969 we were contracted to fly Shamu the Killer Whale (Orca) from Seattle to San Diego to her new residence at SeaWorld. The aircraft was one of our DC-9 freighters with one large cargo door located at the front of the fuselage. Shamu, by whale standards, was provided a first class seat. She arrived at the aircraft suspended in a sling attached to the sides of a huge half cylinder. The cylinder contained seawater that was being pumped up, through a series of hoses, connected to spray units on top that would keep her moist though out the flight. Shamu would not require a seat belt for this trip, I hoped.

The flight from Seattle to San Diego went without incident I am pleased to report. After the whale was unloaded, we were to position the aircraft back to Sacramento for its next cargo flight at McClellan AFB. During the preflight briefing Captain Aerobat says to me… “It’s about time we do this snap roll – what do you think?” “Geez Captain, I don’t think it’s a great idea,” I recall thinking or saying? We lined up on the runway and poured the coal to it. The aircraft was very light, empty as a matter of fact as we weren’t going far, so the DC-9 just leaped off the runway. Once off the ground, at about 500 feet, Captain Aerobat honked the aircraft into a 90 degree bank left turn and pulled back hard. It was exactly what you do if you are about to execute a snap roll. The “g” forces were so great I could feel the blood draining from my head and thought I might pass out. The aircraft’s wing shuddered slightly and the Captain relieved some of the back pressure and rolled the aircraft back to wings level. He then looks over at me and says… “Scared the shit out of you didn’t I?” It turns out he was kidding with me all along. I don’t believe he ever accomplished his snap roll in a transport category aircraft, but he really wanted too.

Captain Hunk

Captain Hunk, as you might expect, was a chick magnet of the first order. No matter where he went or when he went there, girls always showed up and at times in numbers. He had a winsome personality and wasn’t what you would consider classically handsome, in that Cary Grant sort of way, he just had -it, whatever -it was?

On one trip in particular we arrived at our hotel late one evening, approaching midnight, after a grueling transcontinental cargo trip; with an airplane full of boxes. The clerk behind the desk is surly and not pleasant as he tells us the hotel bar is closed. Captain Hunk and myself, turning around, grabbed our bags and headed for the hotels elevator. At which point the Hunk whispers to me… “God, I’m as horny as a goat.” We push the button for the elevator to come fetch us. The doors open, we climb in and the doors begin to close behind us. Suddenly, there is a ding ding ding and the doors begin to open again. Standing there in the doorway is a looker, and I mean a looker, she stepped in and pushes the button for her floor. The elevator begins its climb and we wait… she is getting off first. The elevator stops and the doors open. Mind you, not a word has been spoken between them. At which point they both step out of the elevator, and Captain Hunk and the Looker proceed down the hallway together. All it took was for him to look horny as they exchanged glances; it isn’t a language most people speak.

Captain Checkmate

When flying the North Atlantic back in the day when we occasionally still had navigators on board as cockpit crew, because not all of our aircraft were equipped with the new Litton Inertial Navigation Systems. There was plenty of time between navigation fixes that we had time to pass a magnetic chessboard back and forth, as the navigator passed us heading changes while waiting to report our positions via HF radio, to our company and Air Traffic Control at Gander or Shanwick; about every ten degrees of longitude or fifty minutes.

Captain Checkmate was an avid chess player and a very aggressive one at that. I had been playing chess from a very young age so felt competent when playing the Captain. Not many co-pilots enjoyed flying with him because of his gruff nature. I didn’t mind and got along with him because he allowed the distraction while flying the airplane. Having a good chess match that lasted the entire trip took away the boring elements of flying the North Atlantic; especially at night. Captain Checkmate had a problem… he dabbled in the stock market. Confucius say “A pilot and his money are soon parted.”

The difference in our ages was considerable, he was near retirement age and I wasn’t. I was able to continue after our airline went out of business and he wasn’t. With huge swings in the stock market he found himself short as he approached the end of an aviation career that spanned many decades. He took a huge gamble and lost. Captain Checkmate was offered an opportunity to haul a load of drugs out of South America and got caught and went to prison. I found him and continued to play chess with him by mail for a period until he no longer answered my moves. He had died in prison, end of story… Checkmate!

And then, in a circus, there are the clowns; you need clowns for a good flying circus. You need pilot clown friends, that paint your car pink while you are away on your honeymoon, then place it back in the airline employee parking lot to await the return with your bride. The kicker, after finally finding their car, the newly married pilot and his bride are stopped by the police as they exit the parking lot. It appears the car had been under surveillance because of its unusual appearance. Or, could it have been the stuffed parrot hanging from the rear view mirror; maybe it was their names emblazoned on the rear bumper?

Also, the kind of clown friends that while flying over the Rockies, in the middle of the night while you doze a bit, they run the fuel gauges to zero then pull the circuit breaker to lock the pointers on empty then lean back, as if asleep, while reaching up to press the fire warning test switch. The kind of sound that results, both from the warning bells and the dozing pilot are not pleasant to see or hear. But, what is the purpose of being a clown if not to stir up a few emotions?

Early Inspirations

Early Inspirations:

A Series of three


“Defiants Enroute to Dunkirk”

Appreciating a work of art with an aviation theme, by way of an inspiration for both art and aviation itself, can’t go without comment. I can recall coming across this image when I was very young. The emotions provoked by the work of this artist probably had a great effect on my choices concerning my career as both artist and aviator. Much like my reading the work of Ernest K. Gann when I was a young adult specifically, “Fate is the Hunter.” Ernie had also written “The High and The Mighty” which became a popular movie starring John Wayne in the early 1950’s.

My appreciation below of the Frank Wootton painting is more of a critique on why, from my perspective, as an artist and an aviator it is such a fine work of art… in my humble opinion.

defiantsEnroute500x“Defiants Enroute to Dunkirk”

Painting by Frank Wootton

Art Appreciation by Ron Hart:

“in-spire” verb: 1. To fill with noble or reverent emotion; exalt. 2. To stimulate to creativity or action. 3. To elicit or create in another.

One cannot ask more of a work of art and its artist than to have the ability to incorporate the word definition of “inspired” onto a two dimensioned flat surface. It’s the definition taken from a standard dictionary.

For me personally, a painting executed during the early stages of World War II by artist Frank Wootton fits this definition handsomely. The painting’s title, “Defiants Enroute to Dunkirk,” says little about the power of this work. You would need to be at the scene in that moment to fully understand its relevance. This is after all I believe the duty of an artist.

It has taken me a lifetime of flying experience and years of pursuing an art education to just qualify myself to reflect. What is it about this work of art, that I encountered at an early age, that continues to fill me with noble and/or reverent emotion? It was the vehicle that propelled me into my life’s work, as an aviator and artist. Thank you, Frank Wootton.

The painting is certainly qualified as aviation art, but it is not about airplanes. It is about the toil of man, a historical moment in time on more than one front. But its secret, and the not so obvious power of the painting, is in its composition.

As I see the elements of composition reflected in this painting, I can’t help but comment on some basics. When judging this work of art, what comes to mind are the Greek standard terms: idealization, refinement, and simplicity, accordingly all marks of beauty. These terms also reflect nicely on fine art standards: beauty for the sake of beauty … dictated by; one light source, the cushioning of values, repose, and its universal subject matter. He brought into focus the opposites in technology, two horse power pulling man through the earth with his primitive plow, while in the distance above several thousand horsepower pulling men through the skies. The artist has managed to marry two eras, with the never ending struggles of man. Yes, definitely original.


“Fifty Years a Lady”

Craig Kodera has participated in the lure of aviation from boyhood, to private pilot, to Strategic Air Command pilot, to airline pilot. Aviation-the catalyst in shrinking our world-is also the career field of a relatively small number and it has become a truism that aviators compose a close-knit, though extended, family. Yet, it still comes as a bit of a serendipitous surprise that Ron Hart and Craig Kodera shared the same American Airlines’ cockpits. This said, it can’t be too much of a surprise that Craig’s uncle flew with the Doolittle Raiders.

This is the “stuff ‘ that makes aviation the unique joy that it is. It is undeniably thrilling to “…slip the surly bonds of earth,” but it is equally stimulating to witness the extraordinary influence and impact that aviators make upon one another and each one of us in turn. This is the human element that adds so greatly to our love of flying.
-Ann L. Cooper, aviation author (1934-)

FiftyYears_500x“Fifty Years a Lady” (1986)

Painting by Craig Kodera

It was a gift. It has been on my studio wall for the better part of twenty years-as my secret inspiration. The painting “Fifty Years A Lady” measures eighteen by twenty-eight inches. I say painting, but what I mean is that I have a print, a limited edition print of an American Airlines DC-3. The airplane is sitting right squarely in the middle of the canvas, portrait style, a tough task for any artist but this artist carries it off well because of the painting’s solid structure. Squint your eyes only slightly and you can clearly detect a cool quadrant in the lower left. The quadrant is surrounded by a warm L shape (the horizontal bands of alternating light and dark clouds) with creative use of soft edges-wonderfully done. Squint your eyes one more time and notice that the subject disappears. This is called, “the motif being transparent to its structure,” or rather the motif is part of the structure. It is a technique first used by the artist Rembrandt. We know his name well.

The atmosphere created for this subject is perfect. American Airlines introduced the first “sleeper” category aircraft in the early days of air travel. The painting’s subject aircraft is back-lit with a low angle light source (a rising or setting sun… your choice) that creates a subtle high­ light on the top of the forward fuselage; the light continues catching the left wing tip. I can almost hear the passengers snoring and I’m still watching for a little reading light to become visible in one of the cabin windows. Because of the paintings great composition and the technique of the artist, this piece of art sings for me. It has been singing to me ever so softly from the wall in my studio while I pursue the task of trying to be an artist.

I mentioned earlier that the print was a gift. It was a gift from my co-pilot of many years ago. That co-pilot’s name was Craig Kodera. Craig was a friend and also the well-known aviation artist who created, “Fifty Years A Lady.” With his gift, he kept me in touch with my roots and I want to thank him for sharing with me a fine piece of his art.

CraigKodera_300xCraig Kodera



A few years ago, shortly after I completed a painting with an aviation theme, I asked a friend of mine for a critique of the work. His response was to send me a book titled Aviation: “A History through Art.” Along with the book, he suggested I should get in touch with the ASAA. I asked, the AS… what? I had no clue.

My friend and critic, a fellow aviator and artist that I’ve known for some years was none other than Craig Kodera, the renowned aviation artist I used to fly with.

The book, (printed in 1992) is the first compilation of aviation art by the American Society of Aviation Artists, introduced me to a large cross section of artists that paint almost entirely aviation themes; most of their names were unfamiliar to me. When I first scanned the book, there was one painting that caught my eye, and I remembered spending some time over it. My first fascination about the work was from a pilot’s point of view. “Precarious” is the word that came to mind as I studied this work of art by Paul Rendel, which is aptly titled “Morning in the Rockies.” Critical, delicate, slippery, on thin ice, hanging on a thread, trembling in the balance, all these words and phrases contribute to my feeling about this painting. I believe I picked the right word!


“Morning in the Rockies”

by Paul Rendel

As a pilot, I have difficulty imagining being in the cockpit of the subject glider and having a warm and fuzzy feeling. First, I know how high he is and second, I know how cold he must be. If the pilot has a warm and fuzzy feeling, it is more than likely from a lack of oxygen. I also know something about the fragility of the aircraft, so I needn’t even mention the thought of turbulence to raise the hair on the back of my neck. Taking all of this into account, it is my humble opinion the artist Paul Rendel has managed to include all of the grueling suspense and wonder that makes aviation in itself so intriguing for those of us that love to fly and love to paint airplanes.

Now about the painting; this is the most important part. Wow! A true serenade of opposing forces, alternating warms against cools, parallels holding diagonals, full light to full dark and all contribute to give the painting its depth. It holds together well. Every force expertly interlaced to bring the viewers eye back to the subject. One can’t ask for more in a piece of art. Well done!

Did I mention that Paul Rendel, besides being a first rate aviation artist, is a first rate glider pilot? He is that. Let me explain. When I solicited Paul for his approval for my doing this appreciation on his painting, it was discovered that my former boss (chief pilot), Bill Holbrook, also taught Paul about flying gliders. It was just before I began my airline career many years ago… a lifetime. It is a small world after all and of special note, Paul and I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, we are nearly the same age, and I refuse to admit at this point who is the oldest.