The casino in Monte Carlo decided to boost their business by providing a week’s stay and free air transport to players who could flash five-thousand dollars. This must have seemed like a wonderful bargain to those bitten by the gambling bug; how could they lose – a week’s vacation in France mingling with the rich elite on the Med? After all, they didn’t have to spend the money, just show they’ve got it. Most went through the five, and then some, within the week. The owners of the casino made a sure bet – the suckers didn’t have a chance.
Overseas National provided the transport; it must have been a close-margin contract because we only flew the route in the dash-21 baby ‘8s. The two small DC-8s were something ONA had picked up from United Airlines; they were noisy, short range, almost run-out early models about ready for the scrapheap. United flew them in a 150-passenger configuration; we managed to increase the seating capacity to 180, making them sardine-cramped, hot, and totally miserable for the customers. (About like the way the flying public is normally treated today.) Overseas National figured they could get another couple of years more revenue out of them. The seats were worn, the carpet patched, the galleys constantly broke down. Naturally, junior pilots and flight attendants were assigned to fly them.
In order to fly from New York, our departure point, to Nice, France, the arrival airport, we had to fuel-stop at Gander, and Shannon. A maximum on-duty time of eighteen hours, pushed the flight-time to the limit of twelve hours. It was exhausting work for us in the cockpit, but the poor flight attendants had it even worse; they had to put up with 180 grumpy, angry, egomaniac, gold-chained, gamblers who never hesitated to remind them that they always flew first-class and this was the worst flight of their life.
The good news was the crew hotel was first-rate, right on the beach. There were excellent inexpensive restaurants in Nice, and the company gave us a twenty-four hour layover to recuperate.
One return trip stands out in my memory as being the epitome of How-Bad-It-Can-Get. It was the last run of the monthly bid; we were all looking forward to returning to New York and a few days off. The flight started out badly when Carole, the senior flight attendant, came forward to tell me a fight had broken out in the cabin between two passengers arguing over a seat. We were parked out on the ramp at Nice; still loading from the bus that transported the returning travelers from the terminal to the plane.
“Do you want me to go back and settle it?” Dennis, my copilot asked.
“No. Remember when Marshall went back to stop a fight in the cabin and one of the guys broke his nose? I don’t want to lose a copilot when we’re headed home.” Addressing Andre, our French ground representative I ask, “Andre, would you mind seeing if you can calm those passengers down?”
“Oui captain, no problem; I will take care of it,” he said as he handed me the manifest with the weight& balance information and excused himself to follow Carole to the back of the plane.
Handing Dennis the paperwork so he could get started on his part, I lightly commented, “See? Let him get the broken nose.”
“Those two assholes are pushing and punching Andre – they tore his shirt.”
Jesus Christ, what a way to start a flight. Picking up my mike I called, “Nice ground control, this is Ona 8-2-1 – we’d like the gendarmes to come out here to assist with a problem in the cabin.”
“Ona 8-2-1 what sort of problem do you have?”
“Nice ground, we have two passengers fighting in the cabin.”
“Fighting – boxing?”
“We will send security right away.”
Sure enough a van raced towards us with flashing lights, blah-blee/blah-bleeing of the horn, with a load of uniformed officers riding on the running board. It looked like a Pink Panther movie; I half expected Inspector Clouseau to hop out wearing his raincoat.
“You better go and show them in,” I said to Carole.
“What are you going to do?” Dennis asked.
“I don’t know – probably throw the boxers off the plane. Although, we’ll take a delay while we search for their bags.”
A few minutes later a disheveled Andre poked his head in the cockpit. “Captain it is all right. Everything is settled; they said they would behave if you take them home. Captain, I don’t want them to remain here; there will be much paperwork and problems if they don’t stay on the plane.”
I knew what he meant; you can’t take a passenger off a plane without creating an-almost international incident. And poor Andre, who wasn’t getting paid all that much, would be stuck with reams of reports. The company would probably have to pick up all their expenses, and airfare home on Air France. To throw them off the plane was not a good idea, no matter what my common sense said. “What was the fight about?” I asked.
“One passenger said he had made reservations for the window seat and the other fellow took it.”
“We don’t have reserved seating.”
“I know I tried to tell him that and he said sitting on the aisle made him airsick. He was very aggressive.”
“Where is he now?”
“On the aisle, his wife is in the middle.”
“What do you say, Carole?”
“If he’ll behave, I won’t mind; I’ll try to get him seating in No Smoking after we get airborne. Maybe somebody will be willing to exchange their seat.”
“Okay, things have settled down in the cabin; let’s take him home. Boy, what a way to start a trip.”
I thanked Andre and the chief of security. The rest of the travelers were boarded, we received our clearance, lifting-off for the first fuel stop at Shannon. I hoped that would be the end of any more silliness, but I should have known better. We’d been at cruise altitude less than thirty minutes when Carole marched into the cockpit and asked if she could sit in the jumpseat for a minute to smoke a cigarette. Turning to look at her I saw her hands were shaking as she lit her cigarette, tears were streaming down her face; she looked completely stressed out.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“That motherfucker in twenty-nine-D, I’m gonna pop him!”
Carole was one of the females ONA recruited from the Inner City as part of a jobs program the government offered to disadvantaged youth. She was attractive, street-wise, and a tough, no nonsense black girl who recognized this was her chance to rise above the ghetto. Uncle Sam had paid ONA to train her, guaranteeing her salary for six months – it was a good deal for both parties. If she blew-up on a passenger her opportunity would be cancelled – she’d be immediately terminated. We both knew this as she struggled to get her emotions under control.
“What the hell happened back there?”
“He’s the asshole that picked a fight back at Nice. You shoulda thrown his sorry ass off the plane when you had a chance.” She took a deep drag on her cigarette before continuing; “Anyway, he and his fat old lady have been complaining ever since we took-off: ‘It’s too hot. It’s too cold. The seat won’t go back far enough. We need a blanket and a pillow. Did you get our request for kosher meals?’ Stuff like that. I tried to get some passengers to swap seats; I even made a P.A. announcement – he’s such an obnoxious jerk the other passengers don’t want to help him. ”
“So, what have you done?”
“Nobody else was too hot or cold. The seat went back as far as it should. We’d already given away all the blankets and pillows. I checked the meal manifest and we don’t have any kosher meals on board. Then, when I’m pushing the damn drink cart back up the aisle the sonovabitch whacks me on the ass and says he’s gonna report me and make sure I get fired for not showing him respect – that’s when I came up here.”
Jesus, I thought, do other guys have these problems or is it just me? “I’ll see what I can do. Tell him the captain wants a word with him when we land in Shannon. Then, I want you to stay away from him – you work the forward part of the plane; Let one of the juniors work aft.”
“You can throw his ass off the plane – that’s what you can do.”
“And you can take it easy and settle down. You’ve got a good job, and in ten hours this will all be a bad memory. Hang in there and don’t lose your cool in front of the other passengers – okay?”
She finished her cigarette in silence, used the mirror behind the door to straighten her hair and wipe her face before leaving the cockpit.
“Jeezus, she was really pissed,” Dennis said. “What if she decides to belt him?”
“For Christ’s sake Dennis, she ain’t gonna belt him. She’s a smart girl and won’t do anything to jeopardize her chance to be somebody.”
“I don’t know; she’s part Puerto Rican and they’ve got fiery tempers. What are you gonna do about the guy?”
“I don’t know until I talk to him.”
Two and a half hours later I was shutting down the engines in front of the terminal at Shannon. The airport had a duty-free store where the passengers had one last chance spend their money while we refueled for the Atlantic crossing. I asked Dennis to file and get the weather, something we normally did together, while the engineer did a fast walk-around inspection of the plane before he started refueling. I remained in my seat as the passengers deplaned wondering what this monster looked like? Could I control him? Would he get physical? Why me? At last there came a timid knock on the cockpit door, “Excuse me. Captain may I come in – did you want to see me? The problem had arrived.
Turning in my seat I saw a little Jewish guy about forty-five years old, maybe five-foot six and 140 pounds, well dressed with the standard gold Rolex and gold pinky ring. He was nothing like I expected. “I’m Captain Case, what is your name, please?”
“Mister Kaplan apparently we have a problem in the cabin. Suppose you tell me your side of the story.” I said in my most-stern commander’s voice.
“Well, yes sir. My wife, Edie, and I always travel First Class on either Pan Am or TWA; we’re not used to flying coach on charter airlines.”
Right off the bat he unknowingly pissed me off by inferring our airline was something less than acceptable.
He continued, “Captain, Edie and I, with our two friends, have tried to cooperate with the hostesses but they have refused to help us. I repeatedly asked for seats for my wife and two friends in the No Smoking section of the plane where we could all sit together. The hostesses chose to ignore my simple request.” Mister Kaplan went on-and-on about how the snacks with the drinks were not what Pan Am served and how the plane smelled, and how the overhead racks were full and they had to make-do by crowding their carry-on luggage around their feet.
When it looked like he had finally run out of steam I asked, “Is there anything else?’
“No captain. You can judge for yourself we have been victimized. We are not to blame for this unfortunate incident. And I think the stewardess should be reprimanded.”
I looked at him for a moment, the picture of innocence; could this man so gentle and articulate possibly be the ass-grabbing tyrant that Carole described? “Mr. Kaplan I’ve heard both sides of the issue, and I believe my senior stewardess. My gut feeling says to have you taken off the plane by Shannon Security, and charge you with interfering with an international flight.”
His jaw dropped and his eyes got big; he backed away from me. “However,” I continued, “I’ll bet you’ve already had a bad experience with the casino, have lost your flash money, and maybe more.” His eyes told me I’d hit a nerve. “If you’ll promise me you will make no more trouble, I will take you back to New York. If on the other hand, you give me your word, and change your mind once we are airborne, you can be certain I will call ahead to have the FBI arrest you on landing. You will be handcuffed and taken off to a jail called, The Tombs. Your cellmate will probably be a big black man that will take delight in exploring the various orifices of your tender body with his twelve-inch ebony woodie. You’ll lose your job, and go broke paying for attorneys; your wife will divorce you, and generally your life won’t be worth living.”
He hesitated before answering, “You have my word captain.”
“Good. I know you’re going to write a letter to the company about your terrible treatment; so please spell my name right, It’s Case, C-A-S-E, not Chase, Kays, or Katz. Now, if you hurry you can buy some duty-free booze before we start boarding. Goodbye.”
The rest of the flight went smoothly; Carole said he was the model passenger, and asked what I had said to him? I told her I just requested his cooperation.
A couple of months later I was walking down the hall of ONA’s headquarters at Kennedy, when Bill Burks spied me as I walked by his office. “Case, get in here – I want a word with you.” When I walked in I suspected what he wanted; he asked me to close the door. “What the hell happened on that flight from Nice? I got a letter six pages long!”
I briefly went over the incident, figuring I’d have to respond in writing to the passenger’s correspondence. When I was finished Bill said, “Did you really say some black guy was gonna butt-hump him?”
“Well, sort of – do you want me to write an answer to him?”
“Oh, hell no! That was a nice touch though – telling him a black guy was gonna ream him silly – did he behave after that?”
“Yeah, we had no further problems with him all the way back. What are you gonna do with the letter?”
Dumping the letter in the trashcan he said, “Do? I’m gonna file it of course. Come on, let’s go get lunch. Do you have a credit card? I left my wallet on the dresser.” He never carried any money – he was an equal-opportunity moocher. Nevertheless, he was a great chief pilot; one we all loved and admired.