An Exotic Airline
My wife Christine reflected recently about how much fun it was to fly for Overseas National Airways. After working for other major airlines, both before and after ONA, and how exotic it was to travel all over the world; to the extent that she would have paid to work for them. I had to agree with her.
There are many stories that float around the airline industry. Some you believe and some you don’t. Many are too preposterous to even imagine happening let alone finding oneself in the middle of the action. How is it on later reflection you can still wonder… did this really happen; even though you were there as witness.
This is about an all-night freight operation, in a jet aircraft, flying around boxes in the form of military cargo. The aircraft in question is a DC-9 -32 series and the scene begins in the east bay of San Francisco, at a military airport known as the Alameda Naval Air Station. The flight schedule for this trip was from Alameda to Navy Dallas with two stops in between. We were to arrive is the Dallas area at daybreak.
The cockpit of our DC-9 was configured to carry 2 couriers, when necessary, to accompany military cargo that was deemed sensitive or in some cases dangerous. Those two seats were directly behind the copilot, below the circuit breaker panels, and were very cramped and uncomfortable. There was also a jumpseat that folded down between the two pilot seats, the Captain on the left and the copilot on the right. I would be the co-pilot.
The loading of freight on the aircraft was nearly completed and we were within a few minutes of departure when we received a request for permission to have a jumpseat rider in the cockpit go along with us. The jumpseater would continue with the aircraft past Navy Dallas and on to the Naval Air Station at Jacksonville, Florida. The Captain approved the request. It was customary in that era (the late nineteen sixties and early seventies) to allow other airline crew members to ride in our jumpseats for a variety of reasons.
The other airline crew member that showed up at our door was a flight attendant that worked for a competitor of ours and was based in the Bay Area as were we, and… she was a looker. She was deadheading to Jacksonville to meet up with her boyfriend and his boat, as best I can recall. She settled into the jumpseat and we departed for Lemoore NAS, a Naval Air Station in the central San Joaquin valley, about midway between the Bay and San Diego our next stop. After a few hours of the freight exchange we were again on our way to the North Island Naval Air Station at San Diego.
It can be very boring sitting around freight operations in the middle of the night, waiting for an offload and the upload, so we always carried a deck of cards with us to help pass the time… to entertain ourselves in a game of hearts or whatever. What you didn’t want to do that late was take a nap. It’s tougher having to wake up and be fully alert again.
After our stop in San Diego we were on our way again heading east for the morning sun toward Navy Dallas. After leveling off at cruise altitude, settling in for the final few hours it would take to get there, someone jokingly suggested a game of poker in the cockpit. We had nothing else to do so why not? The game evolved into a game of strip poker (we didn’t carry poker chips) and we all three participated. This is the part of the story that I still have trouble thinking really happened. Over El Paso, Texas (ELP) at 35,000 feet, we were all buck naked in the cockpit. It was about this time that our air traffic controller, at Fort Worth Center, crackled to life on the radio… “Overseas 932, you are cleared to descend to 24,000 feet, they are landing south at Navy Dallas!” Can you just imagine the mad scramble to re-suit ourselves, while we pilots were straddling the control columns? It was, if I may say so, very awkward. I can only imagine how the accident report might have read.
ONA was indeed a fun airline to work for in an era when flying was both exotic and fun, both as a pilot and passenger. Passengers weren’t treated then as cows, herd them in and herd them out. There are many other stories of course but this one should have a place of its own somewhere in an airline pilots flying Hall of Shame. If there were such a place, I would be happy to be in it.