Tag Archives: ONA

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.