Maverick pilot

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Hong Kong had changed dramatically during the minuscule time we’d been gone; Chairman Mao had decided to show the world who really controlled the colony; he cut-off the water supply allowing it to flow only twice a week for six hours a day. People filled their bathtubs and every available container; the hotel asked the patrons to please refrain from taking baths – I bathed in the sink using a washcloth and hand towel. The phrase, “If it’s yellow, it’s mellow – brown is down,” was the guide to using the toilet.

Then the riots began; organized crowds waving little red books containing the thoughts of Chairman Mao began shouting slogans, terrorizing the peace-loving majority. The police worked overtime trying to maintain a semblance of order. The mini-riots were followed by marchers who paraded up and down the main boulevards carrying banners proclaiming Hong Kong belonged to China.

The Chinese I knew were worried; they understood Britain could not defend Hong Kong if Mao really wanted to take the colony back. Real Estate prices plummeted – everybody that had the means wanted out. The American dollar bought fantastic buys as the merchants tired to convert their inventories into hard cash.

Dumas told me Vickie’s father was a general in the Chinese Nationalist army before he was killed, and her family history could make her a target for the Communists. We decided to marry as soon as possible; if something major happened, I did not want to leave her, or her mother and two sisters behind. It was indeed tense times.

Bruce ordered the plane fueled and ready at all times in case we had to evacuate on short notice. There was enough space on the aircraft we could take all of the Delong Dock employees and their families. (Naturally, I’d make sure Vickie and her family would be included in any emergency.) Dumas told me Alitalia Airlines would provide escape-transport for him and his family; that was a load off my mind.

Deciding on June 26th as the date for our marriage, Vickie invited about twenty-five close friends. I sent invitations to the pilots; nobody except the Lynches responded. The civil ceremony took place at the City Hall as required by British law. A reception followed at the top floor restaurant of the new Mandarin Hotel on the island side. Vickie was the most beautiful bride in the world and I, a very nervous groom, as toasts were lifted in our honor. (Later, I learned many of Vickie’s friends questioned her marriage to a pilot; confiding we’d be divorced in a year. Several of my friends echoed a similar sentiment. Chinese? What do you know about her – you’ll be divorced in a year. Interestingly, most of our friends have been married and divorced. We will be celebrating our forty-third anniversary in June, 2010.)

A week later, Vickie’s mother arranged a huge reception using the grand ballroom of the Mira Mar Hotel on the Kowloon side. She invited 350 people; I was overwhelmed. I’d managed to locate six pilots and their wives to show I wasn’t completely friendless. It was a tuxedo-formal affair with many-many toasts. I sent Bruce an invitation but he didn’t respond except to schedule me for a trip south the following morning at six o’clock.

“What are you going to do,” Vickie asked.

“I’m going to show for the trip,” I replied.

“But the reception…”

“Of course we’ll attend. And we’ll dine, and dance, and toast – except I’ll only put the glass to my lips or drink water where I can. Bruce is doing this to force me to miss a flight so he can fire me, and I’m not going to give him the chance.” Poor Vickie was being broken into being a pilot’s wife the hard way. And, that’s what we did; greeting the guests, shaking their hands, thanking them for coming and for the good-luck Lycee envelopes they piled on the table at the entrance. I went to each of the thirty-six tables; toasting to long life, many babies, happy times, good luck, and good wishes from a delightful, jovial crowd who had no idea that I was going to have to get up at four AM to go to work.

Showing at the appointed hour there was Bruce in his flight suit looking surprised. “Oh, hi Dave, what are you doing here?”

“You scheduled me for this trip – don’t you remember? What are you doing here?”

“Yeah, well someone said you had a party to go to and I didn’t think you’d make it. Have you been drinking?”

“No. Do you want me to take the trip?”

“Well yeah, if you feel all right – I mean you’re scheduled for the run and I’ve got some paperwork to do.” With that he turned and went back to his apartment.

My copilot was Joe Migone who commented after we got in the car, “You know you really pissed him off – he wanted to fire you for not showing up.”

“Yeah, Bruce has a real hard-on for me.”

“He’s gonna fire you because old man Delong likes you and he’s afraid you’ll take his job – you know that?”

“Yeah.” There was no question I had to get another job. However, I wanted to leave on my terms – not his.

Vickie and I set-up house in the Ambassador, as there was no-sense renting an apartment. I saw a couple of condos listed for sale for the bargain price of fifteen-thousand cash-dollars. Vickie advised against the idea because it looked like the Communists were going to take over Hong Kong and we’d lose our investment. There was no question the Commies were creating quite a stir. It was obvious the Brits would fold in the event of a showdown.

I received a phone call from Bill Foster that he’d not only landed a job with World Airways but was made a captain on their newly acquired Boeing 727 jet. We’d shared a villa in Saigon and were close buddies. When I left Vietnam for health reasons, he’d decided to quit and take Janet, his new bride, back to America. It was unheard of for an airline new-hire to be promoted to captain with no prior experience in jets.

“How’d you do it?” I asked.

“It was just luck. I got into their first jet class and the chief pilot selected the captains based on performance instead of seniority.”

“That must have pissed-off a bunch of senior captains.”

“It did, but I don’t care – I did the work, and got the job.”

“Do they need any more pilots?”

“I think we’re running another class. The chief pilot’s name is Ed Healey; why don’t you give him a call?”

“Can I use your name?”

“Why not?”

Allowing for the time zone changes I called Captain Healey the next morning at nine-fifteen, his time. After fighting my way through a couple of secretaries I finally got a chance to speak with the man. “Captain Healey, I understand you are looking for pilots for your jet program, I’m available.”

“Have you sent in an application?”

“No sir, I just heard about World’s expansion yesterday and I understand you are starting a class shortly.”

“That’s right, the class starts Monday. Have you got any jet experience?”

“No, but Bill Foster and I flew together in Vietnam. We were both check airmen for Continental Air Service…”

“This is a lousy connection. Where are you calling from?”

“Hong Kong, but I can be in your office in twenty-four hours…”

“Hong Kong? What are you doing there?”

“I’m flying a C-47 twice a week to Vietnam. I can book PanAm on the next flight to San Francisco…”

“Hong Kong? That’s too far to come. I don’t think it would be a good idea for you to come this far for an interview. Why don’t you send me a résumé and I’ll put it in the file for any future work we may have?”

I sensed he wasn’t interested in me for whatever reason and I was wasting my money to keep the connection open. “Yes sir, thank you. I’ll have a résumé in the mail in the morning.” I think the distance I was calling from threw him; he wanted someone he could interview straight away with no complications. The flying game is funny in that there are normally more pilots than jobs.

Nevertheless, the call made up my mind to get into jets. That was where the future lay; propeller aircraft were going the way of the dinosaur. If I didn’t get into jets my career in aviation would be coming to a screeching halt. Checking out Cathay Pacific Airlines I was informed they only hired Australians. Mike Harris, a pilot-friend from the Congo and Laos, was flying for Japan Airlines on a contract through IASCO, a sort of pilot Kelly-Girl service out of San Francisco. I needed to get back to the States where I could be available for a quick interview rather than halfway around the world.

I owned a small condo in Honolulu that I’d been renting out. When it suddenly became vacant things began to fall into place; we could head back to Honolulu where a light plane job waited, and I could send in applications to all the airlines until one of them hired me. I explained to Vickie I’d probably have to fly at least five years as a copilot, which meant a big pay-cut, but it would all work out in the long run when I became a jet captain, and she agreed with my plan. I gave Bruce two-weeks notice; he countered by firing me on the spot as he already had another captain in the pipeline.

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