Enter the Artist,
Enter the Artist: At this point in my flying career I wasn’t making much progress with my attempt at completing my Famous Artists Course, a correspondence effort with the school in Westport, Connecticut. Lesson 10 is as far as I ever made it. The desire however never faltered and would haunt me for many years to come and I did not understand my pursuit or purpose. Our family had migrated from the Bay Area out to Vacaville primarily because our flying schedules required us to originate from both Navy Alameda and McClellan AFB, near Sacramento. The city located in the mid valley was halfway between them and was also near Travis AFB.
While living in Solano County, I discovered a junior college that had a commercial art course that could be attended at night a few days a week. I enrolled. It is here that I met Ray and Donnie Salmon who became lifelong friends. They both taught the classes. Donnie was a freelance book illustrator and Ray was a published cartoonist and former trumpet player. They both shepherded me through a couple of years of commercial art training and then later sent me on to the Academy of Art College in San Francisco.
During this period of time the airline industry became somewhat unstable. It began with the Arab Oil Embargo in October of 1973, which created the crisis that limited our nations energy supplies severely. All of this the direct result of Egypt and Syria attacking Israel on Yom Kippur, a war in which the US came to Israel’s aid by providing them arms. This era, from 1973 on, seems to me the beginning of a world awareness of the polarization in the region that remains today very complicated.
Competition for the Air Force Logair and the Navy Quick Trans contracts increased significantly and ONA chose not to compete for as many routes. The decision was made to sell their Electra aircraft fleet and to increase the DC-8 numbers plus adding 3 DC-10’s. I ended up transitioning to the right seat of the DC-8 passenger operation based in New York, and I chose to commute from California.
There were several incidents that contributed to the strategic long term plans of the airline. The first was the loss of one of our DC-9 aircraft in an accident that never should have happened. Little did I know that almost one year after I finished initial flight training in my first jet aircraft that the very same airframe would be laying on the bottom of the Caribbean Sea, just thirty-five miles short of St. Croix, where it remains today.
The flights Captain was a check airman (an instructor pilot), whom I’d had my own experience with a year earlier, was well known among fellow pilots to prefer flying the aircraft below performance capable altitudes. He liked to fly low using long range cruise airspeeds and unfortunately, it is also where fuel is exhausted more readily. One needs to keep in mind that this era of jet airliners was fairly young. Most older airline pilots, although well experienced, had graduated into swept wing jets from a totally different era.
The jet aircraft was a different animal, unlike the piston aircraft with straight wings, it had the capability to fly high and fast. The aircraft range (its distance capability) was determined by how high you could get it to climb. The limiting factor was the limitation on wing stall speeds (when the wing no longer is creating lift or stops flying). There are two of those: referred to as the low speed stall, and the high speed stall. As you climb higher the two speeds merge into what was ominously called the “coffin corner,” but the moniker really had no merit. The most efficient altitude for fuel burn rate was in an envelope where there was only a ten knot spread between the low and high speed stall of the wing. It isn’t at all scary if you have been doing it for twenty years. Without this long term background it is easy to understand why some early jet pilots were a bit wary. The Captain of Flight 980, the ONA flight I am referring to, was perhaps one of those. But, he was also known, by his own admission, as the Cherub-Faced-Assassin. He seemed to take pleasure in flunking his pilot victims. Plus, he operated the aircraft as a one man band preferring to do everything himself. CRM (Crew Resource Management), was still a few decades away which was made necessary, within the industry, by pilots such as himself.
My personal experience with the Captain of Flight 980 occurred during my initial qualification training with ONA. After my sessions with another flight instructor, I was given over to the cherub-faced-one for a final check-ride. I flunked! But, I have to give him some credit, he was correct in doing so. I learned a very valuable lesson that day. My problem, like so many that come from a pure piston, straight wing background, was my response during takeoff after an engine failure. During the unspooling of the engine, using a simulated engine failure technique (done by retarding the engine throttle to idle), you try to keep the airplane on the center line of the runway using only rudder controlled directional input. My mistake, besides using the rudder, was unconsciously applying a little control wheel steering which deflected the ailerons (and possibly flight spoilers) on the wing. This can be disastrous. A deflected spoiler can affect a wings lift, which they are designed to do, but it’s not something you want happening during a very critical time when trying to become airborne. The assassin, rightfully so, said he was sending me back to Moose, my original instructor pilot. I have to admit I was a bit teary eyed as I found my way back to a seat in the cabin, thinking I may have flunked out completely while the next guy in line jumped into the co-pilot seat for his date with the check captain. It was, in retrospect, a very valuable lesson for someone who had never flown a jet.
My friend, a fellow new-hire classmate, was the co-pilot on the ill-fated flight 980 that day, in May of 1970. I have heard the full story from his side of the cockpit. It was a very unusual assortment of circumstances that all came together at once, and for all concerned a sad day, especially the twenty-three people that lost their lives. Neither the captain nor the co-pilot ever flew for another airline again. Even today, in my opinion, the co-pilot was not treated fairly and given a raw deal. The captain took the bait not of his own making and decided it would be safe to continue instead of diverting. My guess, seven out of ten pilots in his position would have done the same. Unfortunately, he suffered the consequences of being pilot in command; that would be called responsibility.
It was twenty-five years later that I met up again with Harry, my fellow classmate from 1969 ONA. We crossed paths at the American Airlines Flight Academy in the late 1990’s. I was there for recurrent training, a semi-annual requirement for all line captains at US Government Certified Air Carriers. He was there doing a training regimen and was currently employed as a ground school instructor at the FedEx training center in Memphis. We made a date to have lunch the next afternoon to catch up on our lives since ONA.
I’d flown in and out of dark clouds and sparkling sunshine during the intervening period since I last saw Harry, some twenty-five years earlier, and I related to him the many airlines I’d flown for since. During this later portion of my aviation career I was heavy into my art and I shared this with him. Harry then mentioned the aviation art located at Simuflite which was located nearby and asked if I would like to go have a look after our lunch. I agreed.
Simuflite, now CAE Simuflite, is the world’s largest trainer of corporate pilots and crews. Each year they sponsor an aviation art contest called the “Horizons of Flight, Aviation Art Exhibition & Competition.” It was here that Harry introduced me to my next endeavor. I loved the art I saw and recognized some artists I was familiar with that enjoyed national recognition. I thought to myself then… “I can do this,” and so I did. All thanks go to Harry.
I was by then a signature-member of “The Pastel Society of America” whose annual show was held at the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park in New York. Considering the aviation art genre that Harry had introduced me to, I created a pastel painting of a “Curtiss JN-4” aircraft, commonly referred to as the Jenny. The title of the painting I called “Oh Jenny, Jenny.” It was accepted into their show and to my surprise won an award. I was off to the races.
The Epilogue to this short story is; that just a few short years after my encounter with my former friend Harry, the ill-fated copilot on flight 980 in 1970, was my first participation in the CAE Simuflite, 2002 “Horizons of Flight, Aviation Art Exhibition & Competition. It was a painting titled “Westbound, Direct Tucumcari” an image of an American Airlines MD-80.
The painting won “Best of Show.” Again, thanks to my friend Harry Evans.