I was number #73 on the pilot’s seniority list when I hired on in January 1968; only Jimmy Hamilton was lower than I. Almost ten years later I had moved up twenty numbers due to attrition. Plus, there were 135 pilots behind me. Starting out as a copilot on the DC-9, I advanced to captain, then captain on the international, long range DC-8.
Overseas National was a mostly smooth running progressive company that carved had out a niche, allowing it to grow rapidly. There was a healthy balance of civilian and military contracts, in both cargo and passenger traffic. We flew domestic and worldwide. For the most-part the management and employees worked as a growing family. Insurance covered both DC-10 mishaps. Therefore, what could have gone so wrong that I suddenly found myself a copilot seventeen numbers removed from flying captain?
Perhaps it had something to do with a government edict called “Deregulation,” which threw the whole industry into a turmoil. With deregulation there were no more protected routes; scheduled carriers could bid on the supplemental business, and vice-versa. Except, most scheduled routes were operated by recognized airlines, the little guys didn’t have much chance competing against them. Our Logair freight business suddenly went to Hawaiian Airlines; the Honolulu based carrier began flying Air Force cargo runs. A Hawaiian airline flying night-freight based out of a little town in Georgia – it was crazy.
In my new position as a copilot I made up my mind to be the best I could. I’d flown with copilots who thought they were captains and it drove me nuts; I wasn’t going to be one of those. I’d help and support the captain anyway I could by following, not leading. Obviously, I knew the routes, the equipment, and the procedures so there wouldn’t be any problem flying the right seat. In a way I was looking forward to the experience; I could learn some tricks from those senior to me. I had no responsibility except to show-up on time.
Most of the captains were a joy to work with, going out of their way to make me feel comfortable. They recognized my past experience, and shared left-seat time leg-for-leg. I must admit I didn’t expect the kindness and cordiality, it was flattering.
“Dave, if we keep losing business I could be in the right seat bidding lines against you.”
“I hope we don’t lose anymore work, the Hajj still looks good.”
“Yeah, but I heard World is gonna try and underbid us next year – they’re down to four aircraft.”
“Jeez, I’ve got a buddy at T.I.A. that says they may go under if things don’t pick up.”
“They’re owned by Trans-America, who has more money than the U.S. mint; I don’t see how they could go under.”
“You never know…”
“You know what they say; be nice to your copilot, because he’ll be ahead of you on the next seniority list. Do you want the steak?”
“I like chicken.”
“Hey, have you been to that bar about two blocks from the hotel down by the river?”
I also learned firsthand about some of the other captains my copilots had been complaining about for years. I’d always brushed aside their negative comments with easy humor, feeling they couldn’t possibly be as bad as some said. Woefully I found out they were right, and I was wrong – sometimes very wrong. While in a minority, they definitely stood-out in their outside-the-box behavior. Some were incompetent; others liars and cheaters, some I felt were psychologically unfit to fly. It was stressful and exhausting when I was assigned to spend a month with one of these individuals.
One fellow always insisted on making a full instrument approach; not due to the weather, but because he was on overtime and wanted to make his paycheck as big as possible, to hell with the fact it cost the company over one-hundred dollars a minute to operate the plane. This same person would pick-up, or switch, the tips the crews left on the table when dining together.
Another was an absolute gentleman on the ground and a screaming tyrant in the air. He seemed to take delight in humiliating the stewardesses. On one flight I excused myself to go to the restroom and found the stew in the forward galley in tears: “That sonovabitch – what’s wrong with him? I made his coffee just like he asked, with two sugars and one cream.”
“I don’t know he’s probably having a bad day; maybe his old lady sent him out without giving him any.”
“Well, he ain’t gonna get any on this trip either – that asshole.”
“Chill out, it’ll get better. I gotta go…”
“You want me to make you a chicken salad like last time for dinner?”
“Love it – thanks. I gotta go.”
One time I was making a low minimum approach into Detroit. The ceiling was 200 feet, ice on the runway, braking action fair-to-poor, (read, poor), with a fifteen knot crosswind and blowing snow. I wouldn’t have given the landing any of my copilots, but Frank said it was my leg and moved over to the right seat before we left Las Vegas.
We were on final approach; the gear was down, flaps, full – the checklist was complete. “Standard callouts, Frank, make sure you give me a call one-hundred feet above minimums.”
“No sweat, Dave; you just get us on the ground, okay?”
“Okay.” From my peripheral vision I noticed Frank was fooling with the HF (High Frequency) radios on the overhead panel. I wondered what in hell he was doing with those; they were primarily for long-range over-water use. But my priority was keeping the plane on the glidepath, and on speed. Just before we got to the outer marker, which was a mandatory call to the tower, Frank exclaimed; “Hey Dave, I got my wife at home!”
“What?” I didn’t know what he was talking about. The locater light began flashing, a beeping horn announced we were over the outer marker. Frank was somewhere else.
“I got my…” Frank was holding his mike and smiling.
There wasn’t time to bring him back; I picked up my mike, “Detroit, Overseas National 8-6-8 marker inbound.”
“Rog Overseas National 8-6-8 you’re cleared to land.”
“Yeah, it’s great. Now can you give me standard calls; we’re marker inbound.”
“Oh yeah – sure – you’re out of a thousand, on profile – WOW, it was just like she was here.”
The engineer leaned over to whisper to me; “Don’t worry Dave, I’ll back you up.”
The thing that kept these guys on the payroll was the union. Whenever it was mentioned we ought to get rid of them the union representative would chime-in with, “we’ve got to show solidarity; we’ve got to protect everyone, or else the company will start deciding who they want to keep or fire. Do you want to be fired with no union to protect you?”
“Besides, they’re not that bad.”
Yes they were; there’s an old saying, “God protects the drunks and idiots.” These guys had double indemnity; although, amazingly enough, none of them to my knowledge were ever involved in a major accident.