I was thinking that perhaps some of those who visit this site might do so in the hope of obtaining some insight as to what others, who have gone before them, might have experienced in securing a position as an airline pilot many years ago. This then is what my path to a seat in an airline cockpit looked like.
How many kids that you know want to be a policeman, a fireman or an airline pilot? The first two occupations probably drew a lot more interest in the 1940s than the last. But I have to confess that at the age of 12, I did choose to be an airline pilot. That would have been in 1946. I had kept two scrap books throughout the war years (1942 through 1945) and they were full of nothing but pictures of our military aircraft from that period.
I was a country kid, from the farm country 35 miles west of Cleveland, Ohio, in Lorain County. The air routes from the west into the Cleveland Municipal Airport ran right over our home, so I had a real “fly by” situation everyday as the big transports made their approach to the airport, which was about 25 miles east of our home, as the crow flies. Most of the planes were from United, American and Capital Airlines going to and from Chicago, Toledo and Detroit.
In that time period, 1946 through about 1949, they were mostly Douglas DC-3s and DC-4s and perhaps a few Capital Lockheed Constellations. Later on, the Convair 240 and 340 plus Douglas DC-6s would begin to show up. In that stage of their approach and departure, in and out of Cleveland, they were perhaps 2,000 feet above the ground, so I really got a good view of them. Anytime that we were anywhere near the Cleveland Airport, I always begged my dad to drive by and if time allowed, we would stop for a few minutes so I could get a closer look at the airline operation.
The Cleveland Air Races were in their “hay day” in the 1947 1949 time frame and on the final day of the three day event, they would have a squadron of B-29s and three
B-36s providing a fly by over the air race grandstand area. When the bombers were forming up, they would pass right over our place. There must have been at least 20 or 25 planes in the formation and their altitude was no more than 1,000 to 1,500 feet as I could plainly see the crewmembers faces with the ground shaking as they passed over. I knew right then that I wanted someday to be a part of the great drama that was “flight”. At that time, I didn’t know how, but there is a saying ….”where there is a will, there is be a way”. I definitely had the will….now I had to find the way and that was not going to be easy. The Cleveland Air Races came to a tragic end on Labor Day 1949 when Bill Odom lost control of his heavily modified P-51, “The Beguine”, and crashed into a home as he was participating in the Thompson Trophy Race. I was at that race that day and saw the fateful event. Aviation, like many other occupations, is very unforgiving of error.
When I turned 16, I got my drivers license and guess where I spent some of my spare time? I had been driving on the back roads of Lorain County since I was 10 years old, the license made it possible for me to officially drive wherever my dad allowed me to. So, I “poked around” the Cleveland Airport as much as I could, living about an hours drive from that facility. That would be the 1950/51 era. My dad had a close friend who was a captain for American Airlines, based at CLE. In that time frame, American had crew bases not only at the large airports like New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Dallas, but they also were operating a fleet of about 75 Convair 240s. To augment that operation they had small Convair bases at Buffalo, Cleveland, Nashville, Detroit and Memphis. These bases were a “throwback” to the DC-3 days, which the CV-240s replaced. My dad’s friend, Chuck Wilford, would become my mentor as I leaned forward into the winds of discouragement that were thrust up to persuade me to take up another interest besides aviation. But I was hooked and I knew that I was not going to be happy until I found a way to get to the left seat of an airline transport plane.
Finally, in the fall of 1952, Labor Day to be exact, I entered flight training at the Sundorph Aeronautical Corporation at the Cleveland Airport. In that period, the GI Bill from WWII and the Korean War was providing vast amounts of flight training and there were three pretty good sized flight schools located on the east hangar line at Cleveland. Needless to say, I was not eligible for the GI Bill. My parents had agreed to fund my first steps in this quest to become an airline pilot. That first step, to a private pilot license, cost about $600.00 in 1952/53 dollars. My first flight was in an Aeronca 7 AC Champ, and I was on my way. But still, when I taxied by one of those giant transports, I knew I was going to have to jump pretty high to get into the cockpit of even a DC-3. But my attitude was, “let’s walk first before we run”. I flew on weekends, when the weather was good. Near the end of September 1952 I soloed and two months later I did my cross country flight, first dual and then solo. A week following my high school graduation, in June 1953, I took my Private Pilot check ride and so I was over hurdle number one. I could actually fly and carry passengers, but not for hire……that would require a commercial pilot’s license. I spent the summer of 1953 building hours and even got a couple of hops as co-pilot on the Beech D-18 that Sundorph used for charter work. Don Patrick, the owner of Sundorph, took a liking to me and in taking me along with him on the Twin Beech, he was throwing me a “bone” or two to help me see what the larger aircraft were like. I think he was hoping that perhaps I would someday get a multi-engine rating from him. I was now working on the ramp for United to pay for my flying on the Aeronca Champ and a Cessna 140 along with some instrument training in the Cessna 170 which was all I could afford at that point in time. I had to find that “spring board” that would allow me to get some heavy multi-engine experience without really paying for it. I took my commercial cross country from CLE to STL (St. Louis) and back in the Cessna 140. I took my dad with me and he really enjoyed himself. So some of the discouragement wind was beginning to ebb a bit, but there were still plenty of skeptics out there questioning my desire of wanting to “fly for a living”.
I stayed in close contact with Chuck Wilford and I would occasionally see him at the airport as he was leaving on or coming off a trip. His CV-240 flights would generally take him from CLE to Columbus, Cincinnati, Louisville, Nashville and terminate at Memphis returning to CLE the following day. I was a long way from the cockpit of a CV-240 at that point with about 200 total hours of flight time, but I was getting close to getting my commercial license and next would be the instrument rating.
Then in early February 1954 a buddy of mine, who worked along side of me at United, told me about the U.S. Air Force Aviation Cadet Pilot Training Program. Up until then they required two years of college. However, the Air Force had altered their requirements to say that they would waive the two year college requirement if the applicant passed a series of tests they would administer. In late February, my friend and I traveled to Chanute AFB at Rantoul, Illinois and spent four days taking a battery of exams that included an eight hour “sta-nine” written exam, a series of coordination tests and the flight physical. I passed them all. My buddy failed the physical exam and thus was disqualified. I felt really bad because it was he who had put me on the track of the Air Force flight training program in the first place. I was told to expect my orders within a few weeks. In late March, my orders came through advising me to report for active duty in the USAF on April 23, 1954; destination San Antonio, Texas. My civil flight training had come to an end, at least for the foreseeable future. My Uncle Sam was taking over and if I played my cards right, I would get the experience that I needed while at the same time serving my obligation to my country in the armed forces. In that time period, all males were required to serve at least two years in the armed service. So this program that I was entering was a win, win situation for all concerned.
On the evening of April 23, 1954, my folks saw me off at the Cleveland Airport for my training as a USAF Aviation Cadet . The first leg of the trip to San Antonio was on a Capital Airlines DC-4 flight to Chicago. There were about 20 of us from the CLE area in the group. Believe it or not, this was my very first experience as an airline passenger. At Chicago Midway we changed over to a Braniff CV-340….an “all-nighter” to San Antonio. We made stops at Kansas City, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Dallas and finally onto San Antonio. At Chicago, I showed my Untied ID to the Braniff flight crew and told them where I was headed and they invited me to ride on the jump seat to Dallas, where they would be leaving the flight. So there I was, looking first hand at what I hoped to be doing in the future. The flight crew treated me like one of their own, allowing me to accompany them into their operations offices at each of the stops on the way to Dallas. We got to Dallas, Love Field, at about 7:30 AM and I bid farewell to the flight crew and my group and I grabbed a quick breakfast before we boarded our flight for the final leg to San Antonio, arriving there just past mid morning.
My destination was Lackland, AFB which would be my home for the next three months. Here I would begin to learn to “speak USAF”. My class was identified as Pilot Training Class 55-S. My upper class, PTC 55-P, would try to break me mentally by way of some pretty rough “hazing”. Over the next three months, I would receive some college courses taught by professors from the University of San Antonio. I also received classes in military customs and courtesies taught by officers. I would also take part in physical training as well as close order drill. For any “mis-Qs” on my part, I would receive demerits and that would translate into hours of walking the “tour path” on saturday and sunday afternoons, depending on the number of “gigs” that I received during the previous week. I learned my “lessons” quickly as I only walked off demerits on two of the six weekends that I was a member of the lower class. But this is where they “separated the men from the boys”, as it were. I watched several of my classmates “washout” and we were not even into actual flight training yet. Back in February, at Chanute AFB, when I was going through my testing phase, an officer briefed us on what to expect at Pre-Flight. He said that roughly 30% of those who started out would be eliminated during that three month phase and that another 20% would fail to graduate at the end of the eighteen month training course. So yes, I did have my work cut out for me.
I graduated from Pre-Flight in late July and moved onto my next assignment….which would be Primary Flight Training. My base would be Hondo Air Base at Hondo, Texas, 42 miles west of San Antonio. I reported into Hondo in early August. This was a civilian contract flight training school operated by Texas Aviation Industries. All flight instructors were civilians, but the military maintained a staff of tactical training officers that were very much in full charge and made their presence felt at all times. And yes, the tour path was very much available on weekends for those who got careless and managed to acquire enough demerits during a given week. I did manage to join that group on a couple of occasions, but not many. My flight instructor was Mr. Bill Dolar. He was a really nice chap, in his mid to late thirties and was at one time a co-pilot for TWA. He said that his wife did not like having him on the road all the time so he quit and came here to Hondo. Each flight instructor had four students. My first aircraft was a Piper PA-18 and we all were required to have 35 hours of flight time before moving on to the North American T-6-G. Because of my prior flight experience, my progress was above average for the first few weeks and then when we got into the T-6, my classmates began to catch up with me. We spent half a day in flight training that consisted of aerobatics, day and night cross country flights and instrument flight training under the hood. About two thirds of our flight time was solo. There were two or three flight checks given each student by the military tac-officers and some of them could be pretty hard to get along with, too. The other half of the day was spent in ground school. Link trainer experience was also a big part of the flight training program and when I was not flying, I was usually in the link trainer, getting the experience I would need to accomplish the instrument training phase, under the hood, in the rear seat of the T-6. In that case my instructor rode in the front seat as safety pilot while I was under the hood in the rear seat.
During this phase of flight training Mr. Dolar and I discussed, on several occasions, what I would like to do after Primary Flight Training was completed. I told him of my goal to be an airline pilot and he related some of his experiences fly the DC-3s for TWA. He had nothing but good to say about airline flying. In late March, my time to graduate came around and we were advised that 25%, or one student pilot from each instructor, would have to remain behind and “wash back” to the next class, in this case Pilot Training Class 55-V. I wanted the North American B-25 in the next phase of training, which was Basic Multi-engine Flight Training. My other course choice was the T-33 jet trainer that would lead to fighters. So I stayed behind with the “wash back” group and joined 55-V. I did not attend any more ground school and I was not required to meet any formations except the one that went to the flight line. I was allotted 50 additional hours in the T-6 and I chose advanced instrument training. I spent the major part of my additional flight time under the hood and my instructor, a former WWII P-38 pilot, even got me a few ILS approaches at the San Antonio Municipal Airport. That was all very good experience for me and I enjoyed it a lot.
In early April 1955, I finally departed Hondo for Reese AFB at Lubbock, Texas. Would I ever get out of Texas? My experience at Reese was really great! My instructor,
1st Lt. Henry Detweiler, was a former WWII pilot with the Mighty 8th AF flying B-17s. He was shot down in February, 1945 and spent the last 3 months of the war as a “guest” of the Germans. This man had it “all together”, he was great and we really hit it off from the first. I did well and really enjoyed my four months of flying the B-25. Again, the tour path on weekends was available for those who needed to be reminded about what the program was all about. I avoided this particular part of the program as much as I could. Training at Reese followed the same routine as that found in Primary Flight Training; flight training half a day and the other half in ground school. After getting “checked out” in the B-25, two student pilots would fly together, alternating in the left and right seats. We did a lot of formation flying, too. We also took some really great cross countries to such places as Phoenix, AZ and Laredo, TX. On the serious side, this is where I would also obtain my Air Force Instrument Rating and so, in addition to all the other training I experienced, I was under the hood doing instrument flight training much of the time. My final check ride took place in late August. On September 15, 1955, PTC 55-V graduated and I received my AF wings of silver and a commission as a 2nd Lt. in the USAF. I had made it all the way!
My next assignment was to Randolph AFB,…..back to San Antonio. I guess I was not supposed to leave Texas. I was assigned to Combat Crew Training, flying the Boeing
B-29 Superfortress. This aircraft was 10 years out from active war service and was being used, in this instance, to train future SAC (Strategic Air Command) pilots headed for duty assignments on the Boeing KC-97 tankers. Most of these aircraft were right from active duty squadrons with all guns still installed. All of the flight training that I received was in the left seat and I got about 150:00 of time in that big bird. My time at Randolph was all too short. What a base to draw for a first assignment fresh out of flight training.
From Randolph, I was assigned to the 97th Air Refueling Squadron at Biggs AFB…………at El Paso, Texas. I was becoming a real Texan after all. It took me about four months to “fill all the squares” in getting checked out in the KC-97-G. This was the latest model and our aircraft were only about eight months old. Now this aircraft was a real dream to fly. It was the military version of the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser that was the “queen of the airways” for Pan Am, Northwest Orient and United Airlines, not to mention the many international airlines, such as BOAC who also had them in service. This aircraft was fully pressurized and the flight deck was huge and very comfortable. Our KC-97s carried a total of 14,000 gallons of fuel. This included the JP-4 jet fuel for transfer to the receiver aircraft that we serviced as well as our own 115/145 high octane fuel for the four giant Pratt & Whitney R4360 engines that pulled this big bird through the air.
During my two years of service on this assignment, I also picked up some extra flying time on three Douglas C-47 cargo aircraft assigned to our base operations at Biggs. My normal route of flight with this airplane usually took us to Kelly AFB, San Antonio then on to Tinker AFB at “Oak” City and back home to Biggs…….all in one day. These bases were air material command parts depots and the mission out of base ops was to take used parts from Biggs to the depots and get new parts that were needed at Biggs. The aircraft commanders that I worked with were tops and the trips were something I always looked forward to. Most of the time we left Biggs about 0800 and got back home around 2100. This was a very long day and I was just eating that time up. I made that circuit a couple of times a month for about six months. In the refueling squadron, we seldom got more than 15:00 or 20:00 flying time in any one month…….so I volunteered to help out with base ops flying when they came around and talked to us about supporting their C-47 operation.
I came away from four years of service with my Uncle Sam with just over 1,000 hours total flying time, a commercial pilot’s license with multi-engine rating and an instrument rating along with type ratings on my commercial license for the B-25, DC-3 and B-377. In March 1958, when I was discharged, I figured that I would be able to land a job with one of the trunk airlines (AA, TWA, UAL, NWA, CAP etc) without any trouble. I had started to correspond with most of them about six months before I left the service. Most wanted between 1,000 and 1,500 hours total time with some heavy multi-engine time. At the time I had about 600 hours of heavy time and just over 1,000 total time. But I was dead WRONG! Many of these airlines had some pilots on furlough and that was bad news for me. Seems that the economy was a bit “iffy” and things were not looking up, plus the trunks were putting the first jets into their schedules, so fewer pilot would be needed, at least for the short term. Contrast this with what took place in the late 1960s…..at North Central we were hiring pilots with as few as 250 total hours and a commercial and instrument rating. It is the old story of supply and demand. There is a definite cycle in this industry and I, in 1958, was on the wrong end of that cycle. I left the service at the end of my four year contract because I did not want to get in a position of having a class assignment to an airline and then try to get released from active duty. When the airline job was available I wanted to be free to accept it.
So I began to look in any place where there might be an open cockpit seat. I took a temporary position with Tag Airlines, a small commuter airline out of Cleveland Lake Front Airport that lasted for about six weeks while their crews took vacations and military leaves. I also flew vacation relief for the Upjohn Company at Kalamazoo, MI during the month of July 1958. My wife, being a registered nurse, was able to work part time as a “private duty nurse” and that helped us keep the “wolf from the door”. In September 1958, I took a permanent position with the F.C. Russell Company out of Cleveland flying as co-pilot on their recently refurbished Beechcraft D-18. This was a small manufacturing company but with nation wide travel needs for the president and his wife. During the next seven months I would not see much of my family, but I would be averaging about 50 to 65 hours a month on the Twin Beech. Our destinations ranged from Newark to Los Angeles and Minneapolis to Miami and all points in between. We normally left Cleveland on Tuesday and got back the following Sunday night. To get some time off they checked me out as pilot on the Beech and the other pilot and I flew some flights within an hour or so radius of Cleveland solo. I made regular solo runs from CLE to BUF and also IND, PIT and DET……out and back the same day most of the time. But I was building time and also getting to some of the bases of operation for the trunk airlines.
In MIA, during January 1959, I interviewed with Eastern and took their pre-employment written exam. Captain Rudy Semore, the Chief Pilot, told me I would be in their August new hire class. Well, I finally could see some light at the end of the tunnel. I was also interviewed and offered a job with the Firestone Tire Company at Akron, Ohio after I flew a check ride in their Lockheed Lodestar. However, I really wanted the airlines over corporate flying. At this point my good friend and mentor, Captain Chuck Wilford, told me to look at what was called, at that time, the “Local Service” Airlines. There were thirteen of these carriers at that time…..such as Lake Central, Allegheny, Mohawk, Piedmont, Ozark and there also was this Minneapolis based carrier called North Central Airlines. In February 1959, Chuck told me that he could get me on at American that spring, but that I would most certainly face a fall/winter furlough for at least several years to come. Chucks prediction came true as some 1959 AA new hire pilots that I became friends with at the Midway Airport in Chicago did in fact get furloughed each fall over the next three years. In Chuck’s words, “the near term expansion would be with the local service group while the trunks would be pretty stagnant from an expanding view point”. I did some research and found that North Central was the biggest and most profitable of the local service carriers. So on a February flight to Minneapolis, I stopped and talked to the North Central people. I filed an employment application and was told that they had already hired 35 new pilots that month and intended to add 10 to 15 additional pilots in April and May. I made several phone calls to the chief pilot, Captain G. F. Wallis, reminding him of my interest in NCA and my qualifications.
In early March I was invited to MSP for an interview with Captain Pete Wahl. Capt. Wallis was, on that day, taking his type rating ride with the FAA on the newly purchased Convair 340. In late March, I received a class assignment for April 15, 1959. On that date I stood on the interior balcony of the North Central hangar at the north end of the west hangar line at the Wold Chamberlin Airport at MSP and began what proved to be a 35 ½ year experience as an airline pilot that saw me serve as a captain for over 27 of those years.
In May 1959, I received a call from Eastern for a June new hire class assignment and in June I also had calls from Frontier Airlines and Shell Oil Company with job offers. Where were these offers in 1958? Yes, the pilot hiring pendulum does swing. I was quite happy with what I saw at North Central and so I stayed put. I flew the DC-3, CV-440, CV-580 and DC-9. When the airline, through mergers, changed it’s name to Republic in 1979, I was a DC-9 captain and then through the merger with Northwest, in 1986, I finished out the last 3 ½ years flying the DC-10, retiring at age 60 on September 15, 1994 with slightly over 23,000 of total flying time and a career that was free of any violations or accidents. To be sure, I flew through some really stormy situations during that 35 ½ year period. But these challenges were the test of did I have what it took to cope with changes in an ever changing industry. I saw a regulated industry become de-regulated. I also saw jet-A fuel at O’Hare increase from 3 cents a gallon to a figure that no one could have envisioned and I saw many airlines fade out of existence taking with them many of my friends. My mentor told me in the early spring of 1959 to look at the local service carriers as that is where the expansion would be. He was right and through a stroke of very good luck, I picked the right one. Back in 1959, when I joined NCA, there was no medical insurance coverage of the magnitude that we have even today and the retirement plan was just beginning to be thought of. Our overall pilot group was very young in those days. The medical coverage consisted of the employee paying the initial bill and then submitting it to the company for reimbursement on a predetermined schedule. Major medical coverage did not appear until the mid to late 1960s and the retirement plans began to receive major attention in the early 1970s. It was a great ride and in 35 ½ years, I never lost a day of work as an airline pilot due to strikes or furlough. What was flying the line like back in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s? I have several stories on this web site that tell of those experiences that you might enjoy reading. My hope is that if you want to have a career as an airline pilot that you too will be blessed as I was. Good luck and God’s speed in your quest!
copyright 2008 - Richard A. Brown