Tag Archives: ONA

Air California

Air California

Following my nearly ten years of hopping between various airlines my closet was now filling up with underused uniforms. During this period I’d gained some great flying experience to various corners of the globe and decided it was now time to commit to a long-range employment strategy. Fortunately, in 1978, the Airline Deregulation Act came into being.

A few friends from my original class at ONA had found jobs at an interstate airline in California. I was alerted to the fact that the airline was planning to expand beyond the states borders, and would soon be in need of experienced pilots. My good friends sent me an application and helped arrange for an interview with the Director of Operations and Chief Pilot. To these friends I remain, even today, eternally grateful.

Air California hired me to be in their next pilot training class. I was back in New York where I had just finished my tour with Rosenbaum Aviation when the telegram arrived. It read, “Please confirm your attendance for Boeing 737 pilot training class commencing on May 29, 1978.” My new wife and I were ecstatic, we would be moving to Santa Ana in sunny Southern California.

What followed was ten years of full bliss. I became part of a group of employees so dedicated to the success of the airline it is almost beyond description. We were part of a gleeful competition with fellow intrastate airline PSA which was based not far away in San Diego.

The flying was rigorous, we could have as many as eight to ten take offs and landings in a single day shuttling between various destinations within the state. The strategy had an expeditious nature to it, with a challenge to still provide good service to our passengers. We prided ourselves on that. Whatever we could do to beat PSA at its game we tried and in most cases succeeded.

When the economy faltered slightly our management came up with ten minute turnarounds to better utilize our fleet of aircraft. Ten minutes, block in to block out, involved deplaning passengers through the front exit while cabin cleaners boarded through the back cleaning seats and seatbacks as passengers made their way out. Ten minutes later we were taxiing out for departure.

Within a very short while the airline deregulation act took hold. No longer did the CAB (Civil Aeronautics Board) control airline routes and pricing. It faded into what was referred as its sunset and the industry became a free for all. Air California grabbed a new image and emerged as AirCal and began major expansions in out of state destinations; like Reno, Las Vegas, Portland, Seattle, and even Chicago O’Hare.

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What we needed were more airplanes, more employees, which meant more pilots and the big change for me personally, more Captains. In less than two years I became a Captain again. I would remain in the left seat for the remainder of my flying career. Twenty-five years as a Captain, in a thirty-two year career, is almost virtually unheard of in the industry. I chalk it up to luck and the classic cliché; “being at the right place at the right time.”

I would never experience again the fun I had flying for this little airline. It had personality and style and a dedication of its employees that went beyond typical brand loyalties. Who would have guessed after a major industry shakeout, which had a lot to do with deregulation, some of the major airlines would no longer exist so soon afterwards. Pan Am and Eastern come to mind.

One that remained was American Airlines and in 1987 it chose to acquire our little home grown airline. Life changed again. The opportunity to fly long range wide body aircraft presented itself and I took advantage.

I would soon be flying the oceanic corridors across the North Atlantic again; Paris, London, Milan, Zurich, Stockholm, and Frankfurt, destinations where I took advantage of the layovers by visiting their Art Museums which were to me national treasures. I especially liked Paris. Later I would fly the Pacific enjoying the long haul to Tokyo. Having spent so much time in the finest of art museums one could imagine reignited my artistic interests and I began again educating myself in the craft. All thanks to American Airlines.

It was shortly before American took hold of my flying career that I discovered I had been adopted as a child. A situation I was totally unaware of; I was forty-five years old. That realization set in motion the fervor to find my biological parents. It didn’t take me long.

The Airline Years

The Airline years:

From the beginning

Let’s just begin with “I can’t believe what has just happened.” I have just been hired by an airline to fly a jet aircraft. I have a new life, a new wife and a brand new baby son. What part of cloud nine should I be requesting.

Euphoria has taken hold and to be standing on the training grounds of a real live airline was way beyond description, or my expectation in this period of my life, I had just turned twenty-eight years old. I began training on January 6th of 1969 at ONA’s Training Center, located at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, just off Rockaway Boulevard. We, a class of twelve pilots from all walks of the aviation industry, will be subjected to an orientation period, followed by aircraft systems training, and in an adjoining classroom sat a mockup of the DC-9 cockpit. It was called a Cockpit Procedures Trainer. A period of time would be dedicated in it to learn where all of the switches and controls were located within the cockpit. We will then be expected to go from this trainer, directly to flight training in the actual aircraft, skipping the usual flight simulator.

Company orientation involved learning the ONA company history and meeting some of the key personnel, while at the same time receiving our ID cards, which also established our seniority number in accordance with our birthdays. I was one of the younger hired so would be placed near the bottom of the seniority list. ALPA, the Airline Pilots Association, represented our pilot group at ONA. A pilot union was something new to me and we would be on probation for one year, which allowed the company to pay us a minimum wage of $700 dollars a month, plus a per-diem.

During orientation we were introduced to the Chief Pilot of the New York domicile for the DC-9 operation there. As a group we were taken to his office, he was a very busy man, and I was prompted to ask him what time it was. He responded by unzipping his fly and pulling out a pocket watch. This was one hilarious move on his part and it turns out he was a very hilarious pilot to fly with.

Of the dozen of us beginning training, three were retired military, two were former airline pilots who were rated and had previously flown the DC-9. Six had worked for commuter airlines and then there was me. I was the sole general aviation, corporate pilot candidate, without an ounce of turbine experience, how was I to fare. Only nine of the twelve survived the training to become line pilots which, thankfully, included me. And, it wasn’t an easy transition. Thanks go to my flight instructor, known as Moose Adams; who coached me through and taught me how to fly a jet. I will be forever indebted to this kind and gentle man. Yet another Navy transport pilot, much the same as Bill Holbrook did at Kelley, came to my rescue.

After training ended our group went three different directions, a few stayed in New York and the rest of us were divided between Oklahoma City and Dayton Ohio. We would be flying freighters in support of the US Air Force at Tinker AFB, located in Oklahoma, and Wright-Patterson Field at Dayton. ONA had signed a military contract to fly Logair, a scheduled military cargo network that covered all of their bases in the country. I was fortunate to get assigned to Tinker AFB, near Oklahoma City, which wasn’t all that far from Little Rock, where my wife and infant son were staying with her parents while I finished training. ONA operated both its Electra’s and DC-9 aircraft on the military circuits.

Where was I when? I baked my first cake when our son Ronnie celebrated his first Birthday living in a Delwood City apartment; where just a month earlier we witnessed Neil Armstrong do his moonwalk after landing the lunar module Eagle there on its surface. Cast in the same light, it is also the period when our little one began walking on earth. For obvious reasons there are some things you can never forget.

On the road again

Our stay in Oklahoma didn’t last long. Our airline had picked up another military contract for their DC-9 fleet. This time it was for the Navy’s Quick-Trans Cargo operation. Much the same as the Air Forces Logair network, this was the Navy version. We would transfer to Navy Alameda, located in the San Francisco Bay Area, our newest crew domicile. So we packed up and headed west… it was “California or Bust,” we had ten days to get there and settle in. We would remain in California for the remainder of my career with ONA, which would be another seven years.

There were approximately 15 aircraft, both DC-9 and Lockheed Electras, devoted to cargo operations covering the commercial and military markets. Auto Air, at Detroit’s Willow Run Airport, was a freight forwarder for the auto industry shipping massive amounts of car parts overnight to various factories around the country. It was a lucrative contract but you never knew where your next destination might be, as the shipping was responsive to the industry’s needs. Most of this flying was done at night and when showing up at the airport you had no idea where you might be the next morning.

As a supplemental airline, often referred to as a Non-Sked, the majority of revenue for the airline came from its international passenger service. ITC’s (Inclusive Tour Charters) provided the bulk of flying for the airlines New York Base. With a fleet of Douglas DC-8s the airline flew group charters to destinations all over Europe. With its increase in business more aircraft were added to the fleet, including new DC-10’s. This in turn necessitated an increase in pilot hiring. This by no stretch of one’s imagination made me a Captain prospect, in just a few years’ time, much earlier than I would have expected. Therefore at the ripe old age of thirty years I became an Electra captain. Life is good.

Now securely settled on the west coast I began commuting to my new crew domicile at Dayton, Ohio and the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. From there I would fly the Logair routes and on occasion fly out of Willow Run on the Auto Air contract. One of my favorite destinations was from Detroit to Mexico City. That trip required a fuel stop at Houston before heading south of the border.

Just some Cut-Flowers here!

One subsequent trip on a commercial contract involved a trip from Miami to Bogota, Colombia, carrying Motorola TV cabinets. We were live freight going down and scheduled to ferry back to Miami empty. The long trip, made longer because of an inoperative pressurization system, would also require a fuel stop at Barranquilla on the gulf coast. After a long night navigating through the mountains using non-directional beacons, instead of the usual VOR’s because of our low altitude, we arrived safely at Bogota the next morning; elevation 8,360 feet above sea level.

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After a good sleep and an evening in the city, we happily made our way out to the airport the next morning for our return ferry flight back to Miami. We were happy to be in more familiar territory especially after passing the many military tanks parked on street corners that were manned by machine-gun toting soldiers. While fueling and preparing a flight plan to be filed, I was approached by a gentleman in uniform, also with a machine gun, who posed an interesting question. In broken English he says, “Captain, you take flowers Miami yes?” Of course I had no authority to approve such a request. My reply would be the obvious… “I’m sorry, but no, we can’t do that.” The man looks me in the eye and repeats, “Captain, you take flowers Miami yes?” Again I repeat, “I’m sorry, no.” The gentleman with the gun then turns and walks away.

So now we are ready to depart and climb aboard and while the flight engineer pulls up the ladder and closes the big cargo door, we call for a start cart. Because we don’t have an APU (an Auxiliary Power Unit) we will need the start cart to provide a pneumatic source of air to rotate the turbine engines. We have four of them, but we only need to start one and can then provide the air ourselves to start the others; a simple, normal, turbine operation.

After several minutes, say about fifteen, we have not seen a cart heading our way and we call again for the cart. Finally, we get a reply, “Sorry, no cart for you today.” Naturally we ask why no cart today? An instant reply comes back to us in the form of, “You take flowers Miami yes?” Well, they for sure have us now; the handwriting is on the wall, we are going to take flowers to Miami, Yes.

What I wasn’t sure of was, what else might be in with the fresh-cut flowers. It was well known there were many drug smuggling operations from South America and especially out of regions in Colombia. We had no way of knowing until U.S. Customs gave us the once over when we arrived back in Miami. After a couple of hours of loading boxes of flowers an air start cart mysteriously appeared beside our aircraft so we cranked and were on our way. Our bill of lading showed “Cut Flowers” and thankfully, according to the inspection team in Miami, that is all they found. But, on second thought, it could easily have been an inside job. In the ever growing trade and even today, it’s going on somewhere.

November 55 King Sugar

November 55 King Sugar

Kelly-Springfield Tire Company

Cumberland, Maryland calling:

My decision to move on from Holiday Inns flying was motivated primarily by our family necessity, I didn’t want to be away from home as much, because my new wife and I were expecting a child in late summer. I had recently, using my GI Bill benefits, acquired an Airline Transport Pilot rating and so began in earnest our hunt for a serious job. Hopefully, one that provided for a young family’s needs and the potential for long term employment. So, once more, Mr. Luck knocked on our door.

I answered a classified ad in an aviation magazine, much the same as they remain today; it could have been either Flying or the AOPA Pilot. “Pilot Wanted”, is how the ad began; Commercial, Instrument, Multi-engine ratings… ATP preferred. Major Benefits – Contact Tom.

I contacted Tom. Tom was the owner of a pilot employment agency in Cumberland, Maryland. He was also a pilot working for the same company that was in need of another pilot; that being the Kelly-Springfield Tire Company. They arranged to fly me from Little Rock to Washington D.C’s National Airport, where they would pick me up to fly with them back to Cumberland, where I would be interviewed.

Bill Holbrook, the company Chief Pilot, a former Navy veteran of WW II and his co-pilot, met me on the appointed date and time at the D.C. airport. They appeared in another handsome airplane that I would be eager to fly. The Lockheed Lodestar (L-18), was a converted former airliner whose type had also been used in the military during the war. The aircraft, N55KS (November Five-Five King Sugar), was old for its day but looked brand new to me. It was a bigger airplane than I had ever flown. Originally designed as a bomber prior to World War II, its type served in Europe as both a transport and bomber. N55KS specifically began its war service in New Zealand in 1943, and afterwards, entered service as an airliner with Union Airways in 1945. It eventually ended up with New Zealand National Airways in 1947. In the early fifties the aircraft was ferried to the US and purchased by the Kelly-Springfield Tire Company becoming N55K.

The Kelly-Springfield Tire Company, founded in 1894 by Edwin Kelly, in Springfield, Ohio, was acquired by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in 1935, and continued operating as a subsidiary. During the interview I was introduced to the nicest group of people I was ever to meet, which included the company chairman. Then later, experiencing it myself, I discovered all the employees at Kelly were treated as family. But then, unfortunately there was Tom, he would be different.

Following the interview I was offered the job. How could they resist, I had eager and earnest written all over my face. After I returned to Little Rock, we, a very brave pregnant wife and myself, packed up our belongings in a U-Haul and towed everything we owned to Cumberland, Maryland. We didn’t suspect it then but we wouldn’t be there very long.

The nature of the flying at Kelly was focused on bringing sales and marketing people in and out of its home office. There were two aircraft (both Lockheed Lodestars), that ran shuttle flights, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. One would leave Cumberland in the early morning making a round robin trip that included stops at then Washington National Airport(now Reagan National), and on to Baltimore and occasionally include Philadelphia, returning back to Cumberland by late morning. The afternoon shuttles would go to Pittsburgh and Akron, the home of its mother company Goodyear, then returning to Cumberland by early evening. Home every night and I really liked that idea a lot.

The Goodyear flight department, based in Akron, also sported their Blimp Operation which has become, and remains, a national icon at sporting events all over the country. The Kelly and Goodyear flight operations were closely related, as they also flew the Lodestars. Additionally they flew a business jet, a North American Sabreliner and a Grumman Gulfstream I, a turboprop. I was fortunate to conveniently hitch a ride in one of the blimps one day, during one of our shuttle flights into Akron; something I would never have imagined happening in my lifetime. As we were landing, I had visions of the Hindenburg’s fateful arrival at Naval Air Station Lakehurst, in 1937, which didn’t turn out so well.

I learned later that none other than American Airlines (my future employer), had contracted to fly the arriving passengers from Lakehurst, New Jersey to Newark to join up with their connecting flights.

Bill Holbrook, World Record

Bill Holbrook, my chief pilot at Kelly, was a very warm and exceedingly pleasant man to fly with. He would also later become the world record holder for distance flown in a glider. That event would take place on May 5, 1973, long after I had departed for what I thought were sunnier skies. Bill, in his Libelle sailplane, did an “out and return” from the Cumberland Airport(CBE), a distance of 783 miles, flying as far north as Lockhaven, Pennsylvania, to as far south as Hansonville, Virginia. The Knobley Mountain Range, lying to the west, provided the initial lift necessary to send him on his way. Bill would add many more trophy’s to his collection of gliding achievements during his lifetime. I was always proud to have worked for him during the early era of my career in aviation.

Flying in and out of the mountainous region surrounding Cumberland, provided some hair-raising experiences. Practices and procedures followed by one pilot in particular, I would find uncomfortable and unacceptable. Most airports surrounded by mountains don’t have what are categorized as precision approaches to their runways. In other words, having an instrument glide path to guide you to the end of the runway you are to land on. Non-precision approaches are the norm, which don’t allow a descent to altitudes that might involve an aircraft coming into contact with the terrain. Which, could be hazardous to ones long term life expectancy.

Turning the page

The hair-raising flight that helped turn the page for me occurred with, none other than, pilot Tom. At the end of a late morning shuttle flight on a return leg from Pittsburg back to Cumberland, with the weather marginal, it was customary to radio ahead to the hangar to get a read on the local weather. One of the mechanics, or a pilot if they were there, would answer and run outside and have a look. He would then advise how high he thought the cloud-bases were, often referred to in aviation terms as the ceiling. It is that distance from the airport elevation (ground level) to the bottom of the cloud layer which allows an aircraft, once beneath, to navigate to the airport for landing. It is what you do in a non-precision approach.

Approaching Cumberland, and well into our descent for landing, we could see ahead the ridges of the mountains peeking through the layer of fog that swamped the valleys between them. Though it has been forty-eight years, I vaguely recall there being an NDB (non-directional-beacon) approach into runway 23 which is to the southwest. The beacon itself, the ground station, was located north and east of the airport. In the aircraft, the navigation instrument used for this approach is an ADF (Automatic Direction Finder), that when tuned to the correct frequency points towards the NDB on the ground. Shooting an ADF approach is one of the more difficult tasks one faces as a pilot. Let alone doing it into mountainous terrain. It’s the time when you really pay attention and earn your keep as a commercial pilot. By today’s standards of GPS this, and GPS that, the NDB approach was, and remains today, a primitive endeavor.

We were descending into a non-radar environment, with no control tower at the airport. Once the enroute air traffic controller cleared you for the approach, you were on your own. The weather report from the guys in the hangar, on their guess at the cloud bases that morning, wasn’t exactly comforting to me. Shooting the approach, when you suspect you aren’t going to see anything was doubly troubling. My Captain, the pilot in command, this would be Tom, seemed anxious and I was aware of his tensely chewing on his unlit cigar, of which he was always very fond. As we continued to descend, and approaching the final approach fix, the aircraft was configured for landing; flaps and landing gear were extended. The friction lock on the throttles was loosened to allow for their easier movement, prop controls were pushed to high RPM and the mixture controls were now on full rich. So down we go.

There is no decision height (DH) on non-precision approaches, where upon reaching with no runway in sight, you fly away. There is instead a minimum descent altitude where once level you continue flying along until time runs out. The time element is calculated ahead of time by estimating the aircraft ground speed. If the number is based on 90 mph that equates to a mile and a half a minute, or, if it is 120 mph it is two miles a minute. If the distance from the final approach fix is one mile at 90 mph you allow 45 seconds to the missed approach point referred to as the MAP.

The field elevation at Cumberland is 775 feet above sea level. As we descend into the cloud I could see the many towers on the ridge-lines to the northwest and southwest, some reaching as high as three or four thousand feet. There were more than twenty of them. Because it has been so many years I’m guessing today our MDA, or minimum descent altitude, would have been in the area of 1500 feet and the time to missed approach at a little over a minute beyond the final approach fix. I’m also going to guess the minimum safe altitude is in the vicinity of five thousand feet within the twenty-five miles surrounding the Cumberland airport.

We have descended now to our published minimum altitude, cruising along, looking out for the airport ahead and have just run the limit of our timed approach. There was no airport, only fog. At this point I say to Tom, in the form of a question, “Missed Approach Tom?” Captain Tom doesn’t reply and I glance at him and watch as he continues gnawing on his cigar. I then look at the altimeter and become alarmingly aghast as I see we are continuing our descent. We are now just a few hundred feet above the airport elevation and Tom hasn’t said a word. What does one do at this point? I feel trapped and somewhat terrified. Busting minimums is not something I am accustomed to doing, nor has Tom let me in on his plan. Fortunately, within a few seconds, we break out of the clouds and dead ahead sits the runway. I got the feeling that Tom has done this before, I just wished he had let me in on his plan. At least then I might have had a vote.

Afterwards, I let Tom know how unhappy I was with his procedure. He was a gruff character to begin with, and my questioning his piloting decision didn’t sooth him to any new degree. Tom and I didn’t get along well after that event. I was to learn later, what goes around comes around and continuing with bad habits have a way of biting you in the butt.

Nearly ten years after our incident, Tom was involved in an aircraft accident at the Cumberland Airport in a Kelly airplane. Fortunately, there were no injuries to the eight passengers aboard. The aircraft, an MU2, suffered substantial damage. At the time of the accident there were low ceilings in the area, the visibility, restricted by snow was less than 2 miles. The NTSB lists the probable cause of the hard landing as: “Aircraft not aligned with the runways intended landing area, improper level off, and failure to initiate a go-around.” The aircraft, a small turboprop, ended up in a snow bank. The winds were listed as calm.

I was to continue working for Kelly through the end of the year in 1968. We were happy living in the area and loved our neighbors. Our apartment was on a hilltop overlooking the North fork of the Potomac River. We were settling in for the long haul and so I signed up once again with the Famous Artist Course in Westport, Connecticut; my second attempt. And why did I suffer this continuous urge to also be an artist, it would take another generation before I was to discover the why of that.

A blessed event occurred on August 23rd of 1968; our son Ronnie Jr. was born in Cumberland. Doctor Leland Ransom, a self-described glider pilot himself, of the soon to be Cumberland Soaring Group, delivered our prize possession.

Yet another Big Surprise

Sometime in early November, of the same year, I received a letter from a friend that had attended, along with me, the same Electra Flight Engineer Course at American Flyers in Ardmore, Oklahoma. His name was Bill Sieg. He went on to inform me that Overseas National Airways was hiring both pilots and flight engineers for their Lockheed Electra cargo operation. Without hesitation I sent them a request for an application and received one back in a few weeks. I hadn’t decided that I wanted to leave Kelly just yet, I still had major issues with Tom, but I was able to work around them. Bill Holbrook made it worthwhile, but I sent in the application anyhow.

Within a week or so I received a telegram informing me I have an interview scheduled at the ONA Headquarters, at the JFK Airport in New York, during the second week in December and to please confirm your attendance. They outlined my interview would involve taking a written Stanine exam, a medical, a psychiatric exam, and to expect a lie detector test. Whoa I thought, am I ready for this, so I showed up anyhow.

Their forewarning was correct; I experienced all of the above as it applied to the exam process. I returned home to Cumberland slightly disillusioned, because the number of pilots appearing for interviews that day owned flying experience that far outweighed mine. There were former military pilots, furloughed pilots from other airlines and active pilots from local feeder carriers. I didn’t expect to hear back from ONA other than a thank you for attending and we’ll be in touch when we have something. This was a standard reply for most all airlines. I had a drawer full of them. Well, maybe not a drawer full, but I had a few.

Shortly before my 28th birthday, which is the 15th of December, I received a telegram asking me if I could start ground school training on January 6th, 1969 at the ONA Training Center in New York. But, here is the biggest surprise of all; I was to be trained not to fly the Lockheed Electra, but to fly the Douglas DC-9, a pure jet. I had never flown a jet aircraft in my life. Where had I gone wrong?

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It was a difficult decision to leave Kelly because I liked my boss so well. What I find most interesting is when Bill, asked me, if I had a recommendation for someone to take my place. I informed him I knew of one such person that he might like. His name was John David Bingham, my friend, former roommate and fellow pilot at Arkansas Aviation, in Little Rock. Much the same as he did for me Bill arranged for his interview and David got the job. I am proud to say David stayed with Kelly for the remainder of his flying career and became the new Bill Holbrook, Kelly’s next Chief Pilot. David always had an eye for a good deal. He retired and still lives in the area nearby Cumberland. He and his wife Helen, settled in West Virginia on the other side of the river, where they watch Nascar racing, morning, noon and night.

My wife, with our new baby, moved back to Arkansas to live with her mother while I went to training in New York.

The next thirty-two years of my career involved flying for airlines of one sort or another, until finally settling in with American Airlines where I was forcibly retired at mandatory age sixty. I call this period “My Long Range Cruise” era. But, I also maintained a dream I would one day finish my “Famous Artists Course,” which I never did. I did though get as far as Lesson 10.

Fly Holiday Inns

Fly Holiday Inns

How I survived the foolishness of youth I don’t know. Truly someone was looking out for me, perhaps the higher power we hope is there, the one we pray to when thankful or in times of need.  There is also the chance it is just luck working in my favor. I may never know; we may never know… especially if it all just goes dark one day and surely it will. I have been grateful though for the help from whoever or whatever for a very long time.

How I got the flying job with Holiday Inns went like this: I was standing in the reception area of Arkansas Aviation at the Little Rock Airport when the phone rang. The secretary working behind the counter answered it, then looking over at me asked if I would take the call; she went on to say, “it’s someone looking for a pilot.” I picked up the extension and the man on the other end asked me if I was an instructor and did I have a multi-engine and instrument rating. And, if so, would I be interested in doing a test flight for him. He had an airplane that had just had both engines replaced and it needed to be test hopped. “And by the way,” he asked, “Have you ever flown an Aero Commander?” I, of course, had never flown one and I (of course) said, “Yes I had.” It’s what you do when you are young and stupid and want to fly an airplane you have never flown before. He asked me to show up down at the Benton, Arkansas airport the next morning and we would fly the thing together. Benton was about a thirty minute drive south, in the direction of Hot Springs.

On arrival at the Benton airport the next morning I asked to see the Aircraft Flight Manual and I reviewed a few things I needed to know. Especially if I am to maneuver the aircraft into the air and get it safely back on the ground again. Using the checklist I completed a preflight making myself aware of where everything was located; the necessities, the usual suspects as in throttles, ignition switches, fuel valves, major engine and flight instruments, flight controls, flaps, etc.

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What about those flaps?

I really love the looks of this airplane so I’m of course anxious to climb into the seat and fire it up. I hadn’t flown a cabin class multi-engine aircraft before, so it was a thrill to enter from ground level through the cabin door on the left side located just under the wing. The man in charge of this operation followed me in and I asked him to lock the cabin door in behind us. It was a necessary decision on my part as I had no idea how exactly to do it. I’m sure I would have figured it out, aircraft doors can be complicated and it might have proved embarrassing if I should fumble thru the procedure.

The stupid pilot, me, climbs into the left seat and the other stupid guy climbs into the right. He is only stupid for one simple reason, the mistake of letting me have a go at it without questioning more of my background. I’d figured out where all of the important switches were located during my flight manual review, and then followed it up using the aircraft preflight checklist; all the while thinking… this is kindergarten stuff.

Me and my humble co-pilot managed, working together with the checklist, to get the engines started; although even today I am not sure he was a pilot. He did own the maintenance operation that had installed the new engines, so I assumed he knew more about the aircraft than I did.

Benton, Arkansas had a small airport; I believe it was then known as Watts Field and has since closed. There was no control tower so on our own we made our way out to the end of the runway. Once there, making use of the aircraft published checklists, we did our standard engine run ups and mag checks. The runway length was a tad shy of 4000 feet, a little less than a mile long. It was a cool morning and the wind was calm.

Before taxiing out onto the runway, the “Before Takeoff Checklist” goes something like this:

1  Parking Brake – SET,
2  Fuel Quantity – CHECK,
3  Throttles – IDLE,
4  Propellers – HIGH RPM,
5  Mixture – FULL RICH,
6  Elevator Trim – SET for takeoff,
7 Flaps – set 10 degrees… It is here that communications somehow breakdown. The flaps didn’t get set to the takeoff position, which is a “must have” in most airplanes including this one, and even more so on a short runway. The final nine items on the list are accomplished which end with:

15  Fuel Boost Pumps – ON,
16  Transponder – ON.

We believe the checklist has been completed and we lineup for take-off in a southerly direction on runway 17.

The takeoff procedure goes like this:

1  Smoothly Apply Full Throttle,
2  Release Brakes,
3  Accelerate to V1 speed 85 MPH,
4  Pitch – 10 degrees Nose up,
5  V2 speed 95 MPH (flying speed) at positive rate of climb raise Landing Gear.

Well, here’s the problem: at our 95 MPH of indicated airspeed we are not anywhere near flying just yet. Seems we may be in need of some flaps for added lift. Problem is, the flaps are not extended. We are accelerating of course as we approach the end of the runway but not yet flying. It was at about this time the flap position indicator caught my eye… it was pegged at zero, as in Nada. Just as the end of the runway is disappearing under the nose I slip the flap handle down to 10 degrees and we suddenly leap off the end of the runway into the air. Feeling we weren’t quite there yet, a comfortable flying speed, I eased the nose over to pick it up a little, while at the same time raising the landing gear to lessen the drag and clean us up some.

I didn’t exactly need it at the time, but I should have been wearing a diaper. This was a close call. We can call it a learning experience on many fronts, beginning with not being honest and second, being careless in judgment. I could have been more inquisitive about the someone else I am flying with along with asking about who owned the airplane and why there were new engines to begin with. These are the experiences one picks up in the early stages of a flying career. You learn from it, or you die early having not taken the lesson seriously.

Not too many years distant from this event, in my early stages of an airline career, it would be common practice to be doing no-flap takeoffs out of necessity. For example, when departing a high altitude airport on a hot summer day, even with a runway over two miles long sometimes, to reach flying speed, the zero flap take-off was the ticket to accommodate the weight we were carrying. For added safety, the jet aircraft we were using had an unusual aircraft feature, a system designed specifically for the purpose of carrying extra weight. Our ONA (Overseas National Airways) Douglas DC-9 had JATO (Jet Assisted Take-Off) bottles (four of them), mounted at the fuselage wing root, standing in reserve in case of an engine failure. Those were very scary takeoffs; hurling down the runway at a hundred an eighty miles an hour hoping the tires wouldn’t come apart… some did.

The Job Offer

I don’t recall the exact sequence of events following the no-flap takeoff that nearly sealed my fate as a commercial pilot, not to mention just plain remaining alive and still breathing. We flew the airplane around for a while doing some air work and returned to the airport for a few takeoffs and landings; this time using the correct flap settings where appropriate.

Following the test flight came a surprise question. I was asked if I would be interested in a job flying this aircraft for Charles Bland, the Vice-President of the construction division of Holiday Inns of America, based in Memphis. Whoa, had I known this bit of information in advance, I feel certain I wouldn’t have been so cavalier about taking on the test flight the way that I did.

Sign me up, or some form of reply in that vein was made, and I agreed to fly around the following week with a gentleman familiar with their type of operations. The job was offered and I took it. For the next year I flew upwards of 100 to 120 hours a month to destinations all over the US, the Caribbean and Mexico. It was a great job working for a fine bunch of people and it provided me with great confidence in my abilities, not to mention the experienced gained flying single pilot IFR. In other words, I became a really good instrument pilot and it would serve me well in my future as an airline pilot.

A Sad Day in our History

I’m sorry to say my most memorable flight with Holiday Inns, and it was near the end of my time there, occurred on the evening of April 4th, 1968. During a return flight to Memphis, our having begun what became a very long day in St Louis, then flying to Oklahoma City and Baton Rouge, and on our last leg home as we approached Memphis, I got a call from Air Traffic Control at Memphis Center announcing that a few minutes ago Martin Luther King had been shot. The police were expecting riots in the streets and the question to us was… “Did we want to continue to Memphis?”

We did continue, landing just a few hours after the shooting incident. I was to witness first hand a sad day in the history of our country.

Back to whoever or whatever has been looking after me.. I don’t believe anyone actually has the answer… and I wish I knew. People think they know for various reasons, perhaps because mother said it was so or, it is deeply rooted in their faith. Believing what mommy said was not a problem I owned. Being grateful though for the help from whoever or whatever is me; I do own that, both then and now.

An Exotic Airline

An Exotic Airline

ONA 932

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.

My Great Escape

My Great Escape

leaving the” Wind, Sand and Stars” behind

I was sitting in the airliner cockpit when the armed security policeman stuck his head inside the door. He looked us all over carefully, nodded and then backed his way out of the cramped quarters. It was only then that I could exhale, he hadn’t recognized me. The aircraft was a stretched DC-8 belonging to Overseas National Airways (ONA), one of the many airlines contracted each year to fly Hajj pilgrims visiting Mecca, from (and back to) their native countries. How I came to be there, sitting in the jump seat behind the Captain, is the story of my Great Escape.

My dream job had ended in the mid 1970’s along with my marriage. I decided, by way of encouragement from a dear friend, to finish my art education by attending the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. But, my formal education in the art world came to a screeching halt in early 1977. I should have seen the head-on collision coming. My GI Bill and unemployment benefits had dried up. I had alimony and child support obligations to uphold; all without hope of making a wage in my alter ego’s fantasy world. Fortunately, I had more than one fantasy… be it Airline Pilot or Artist; one, left brain driven and the other right. I came to the fork in the road and as Yogi Berra instructed us to do; I took it. I needed a paycheck. Dreams don’t have a time stamp on them so I set the right brained idea aside.

The ad in the help wanted section of the San Francisco Chronicle read; Airline Pilots Wanted, Career Opportunity with fast growing international flag carrier. Call Ahmed.

I needed a job and had international flying experience. I myself spent seven years previously employed with Overseas National Airways, prior to being furloughed in 1976. I called Ahmed and was hired on the spot to fly the Boeing 707 for Saudia, the national airline, the flag carrier of The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I would be based in Jeddah on the eastern shore of the Red Sea.

The meager belongings from my studio apartment on Stockton Street in San Francisco were packed up and stored and promised to be shipped to Jeddah, once I arrived there. I then flew to Kansas City where I was trained by Trans World Airlines (TWA) to fly the Boeing 707. The training was good but uneventful; I was looking forward to having a paying job once again.

I arrived in Jeddah in the spring of 1977, an eight hour flight from London. The trips I flew in the 707 were mostly to Europe; London, Paris, and occasionally to Rome, Italy. Cairo was big on the schedule as well. There were day trips to Amman, Damascus, Baghdad, Riyadh, Khartoum, Sanaa in Yemen, and to the east as far as Karachi and Bombay. I did them all.

As you might expect it was a hot summer in the desert. My household effects shipment hadn’t arrived and our promised accommodations didn’t materialize. It wasn’t a deceit on the airlines part as much as it was a factor of their growing pains and inability to construct the housing needed in a timely manner; not to mention the difficulty in my acclimating to the culture. It wasn’t unusual to fly a scheduled trip to Rome for example and return to the airport the next morning to find members of the Royal Family had acquired the airplane for their personal use. We would then fly them to Morocco, Paris or wherever they desired; a fine way to run a scheduled airline. The saving grace… the royal family members were always generous with tipping… it was called baksheesh.

I soon realized there wasn’t a desired future for me in Saudi Arabia and began communicating with fellow pilot friends back in the United States. It wasn’t long before I learned of a cargo airline starting up in Miami using Lockheed Electra’s, a popular four engine turboprop well suited for the purpose. I had been an Electra Captain at ONA and was rated in the aircraft and was offered the job. But, the kicker was, I needed to get there soon. I had signed an employment contract with Saudia but they hadn’t delivered on their housing promise and the prospect of getting it anytime soon wasn’t looking good. So I wasn’t feeling any guilt and the planning for My Great Escape began in earnest.

An escape was necessary because, upon arrival in the Kingdom, your passport is confiscated until leaving for your next trip. Getting my passport back could be problematic if I wanted to leave on my schedule and not theirs. It was fortunate for me to need to leave during the season of the Hajj. There were many international carriers contracted to fly Hajj pilgrims in and out of Saudi Arabia. The remnants of my former airline ONA, was one of the carriers contracted for the 1977 Hajj. They had a few airplanes and crew still operating across North Africa.

The Hajj

theHajj_5x2The gathering during Hajj is considered the largest annual gathering of people in the world. An annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, is a mandatory religious duty for Muslims that must be carried out at least once in their lifetime by all adult Muslims who are physically and financially capable of undertaking the journey. The numbers of people making the pilgrimage each year has grown substantially, especially since the advent of air travel. For example in 1920 there were slightly over 58,000 making the journey mostly arriving by steamship. In 2013 there were over 3 million. In recent years, because of the numbers of deaths due to stampedes, the number allowed on the pilgrimage has been reduced to nearer 2 million. Even with the restrictions in place in 2015 there were 769 deaths attributed to the Hajji stampedes. They’re working on it.

The Plan

I was able to locate and make contact with old friends, the ONA crews I used to work with that were still employed working the Hajj and now laying over in Jeddah. They were operating trips to and from Dakar, the capital of Senegal located on the west coast of Africa. One crew was leaving again the next morning and I asked if I could ride in their cockpit jump seat to Dakar. I needed to be placed on the manifest as an ONA crew member and they agreed to do it. Fortunately, I still possessed my old ONA ID card and had it with me in Jeddah. I also borrowed a pair of ONA uniform epaulettes to change into once on board the aircraft. On a fairly regular basis there would be ferry flights positioning back to New York’s Kennedy Airport, the airlines home base. I was going try and make that connection once I got to Dakar.

Getting past immigration in Jeddah while purloining my passport could possibly get tricky. The plan was to suit up in my Saudia pilot uniform and go through customs and immigration, picking up my passport and proceed as usual to a ramp shuttle bus just like I was heading for Saudia’s flight operations. However, I would remain on the shuttle and get off at the ONA airplane parked further out on the ramp. The tricky part would be when the loading agent presented the passenger count to the cockpit and got a glimpse of me in the jump seat. He may, and hopefully wouldn’t, recognize me as a Saudia pilot and create a little foo-faa there in the cockpit. A foo-faa in Saudi isn’t a pretty sight; it could involve gnashing of teeth and very sharp blades being tossed about. The last hurdle of the three, as I saw it, would be the final check by the security police. That would be the guy with the gun.

A good bit of luck is involved here; I am happy to report all went as planned and off into the sunset I rode to live happily ever after back to the culture of which I was born. All of the faces in the picture below, as far as I know, are alive and well and still smiling. It is a picture of me (on the far right) with an ONA cabin crew dressed in their Hajj adapted work uniforms, taken some weeks before my escape. The smart looking blonde girl standing to the right of me is Christine whom I married the following year. We took our vows standing in Harrah’s parking lot, on the California side; at State line South Lake Tahoe. We have been together now for 38 years. On the right is another picture of Christine(circa 1976) in her everyday ONA Flight Attendant uniform. I was, and still remain, a lucky man… wouldn’t you say?

jeddahCrew_1

A Heavenly Story

A Heavenly Story

The Here and There

I died yesterday. Though it could have been the day before… I seem to have lost track of time. I’m not sure whether I am here or there? Passing thru maybe? I needed to make a choice and wasn’t sure where I was supposed to be. No one briefed me on choices.

The neon signage at the gate explained (and there was a lot of neon going on); all earthly matters are to remain here and all spirit matters are to go there. This is beginning to make sense I thought, although barely. The dust you left behind will be ingested by creatures unknown hopefully to regenerate into some newer life form, TBD. If unlucky enough you may become a bug, eaten by a chicken which ends up in the Krispy tray at KFC. Use your imagination on the protein cycle coming down the road.

The Accommodations

Where I’m staying now is very nice in an off-white sort of way. The building has no name with floors ad infinite m, and an elevator that will take you where you need to go. There is but one button to press and it is labeled “Yes.” Once inside yet again, only one button, it says “Home.” Everything seems to know the question… the elevator, sporting an Apple Logo, just knows and it lifts you to there. The exit points you in only one direction and when nearby your Home door, it opens as if on command. No fighting with the damn magnetic keycard. Once inside, a pleasant sounding murmur begins, and pretty soon you begin to hover… I like this part a lot. I notice there are no beds or bath and no entertainment distractions. As I am now (a non-life form) I assume correctly the old conveniences won’t be necessary. I rather enjoy this floating about the room; it reminds me of my joyful years spent aloft.

Finding Friends

Going back to the Krispy tray at KFC… with my newly found energy, the source unknown, maybe it is time we explore this there place. So, in search of the elevator that parked me at level Home, off I go. Reappearing, the elevator button says “Friends,” which again answers the question without my asking. I know who I am looking for and the lift takes me to where I need to be. It is several years up and the button is labeled “J.” J is for Jimmy Jet.

My friend Jimmy made the transition from here to there several years earlier so enjoys some seniority on me in this new environment. Jimmy and I, airline pilots of long ago, became intimate in our time with buckets of KFC. We were pilots of airliners that had no inflight food service so were left to our own devices. Flying long haul transcontinental freight runs we had an issue with long haul nutrition. It was our practice to wager on who would pay for the bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken at our first fuel stop, wherever that happened to be. Generally, on our westbound trip, it would be Indianapolis. We were flying a military chartered freight run from Navy Norfolk, Virginia to the Alameda Naval Air Station in the Bay Area in Northern California. Frequently, it involved our flying explosive ordinance in support of the Viet Nam war effort.

Our Aircraft was the Douglas DC-9, and our airline was Overseas National Airways (ONA) and the time was early in 1970. The challenge for our wager was hand flying the jet airliner at cruise altitude. Leveling off at 35 thousand feet we then disengaged the autopilot and off to the races we went. It was much like letting a bull out of the chute at a bull riding event at the Rodeo. What most passengers don’t realize is the necessity of having a functioning autopilot for their safety and survival. Hand flying a jetliner at cruise altitude can be troublesome to say the least. Flying at as high an altitude as the jet will climb is a matter of economics. The jet engine performs much more economically in rarified air but the aircraft’s wing doesn’t do quite so well. The wing of an aircraft can quit flying by either going to fast or going to slow. That margin is very wide at lower altitude and extremely narrow at typical cruise altitudes for jet engines. We refer to that area, where the margin can be a mere 10 knots, as coffin corner. If you are flying ten knots too fast the wing stalls and the same happens when ten knots too slow. The wing literally quits flying. If, as a passenger, you are quietly sipping on your cocktail prior to being served your inflight meal, and you notice a slight rumble from outside your window, that is probably the result of either a high speed or low speed buffet, the precursor of the wing actually stalling. You are not to worry if the autopilot and auto throttles are functioning properly as they will right the matter.

It was always fun competing with my friend Jimmy Jet. He always won of course… even if he lost. He was that kind of competitor. If you skunked him playing ping pong for example, he would still claim to have beaten you to a pulp.

I am still in a search of my friend Jim and I will find him one day. There are many stories yet to come of our adventures in the realm of the High and the Mighty. As for the buckets of chicken we consumed in that era I am hopeful that Colonel Sanders was as appreciative of our contribution to his success as he was to ours.