|When I came aboard North Central Airlines in the spring of 1959, we had what was referred to as “left seat authority” after completion of the first year of probation. This was not a given, it was a privilege that was “subject to the captain’s discretion.” It came about because NCA was expanding so fast in the mid 1950’s that many first officers (F/Os) were advancing to captain in only a little over a year. The real purpose of the left seat authority was to provide the inexperienced first officer with an opportunity to work under an experienced captain while flying from the left seat. It allowed him to get the “feel” of the plane from that position so that when he went to captain transition, he would be more comfortable in the left seat. Also, during that time frame (mid ’50’s), many of the F/O’s had very little experience in “heavy” aircraft such as the DC-3. In many cases during that time period, first officers were even assigned to a specific captain for their first month on the line. However, that policy was no longer in effect when I arrived in ’59. Here is how the left seat policy worked in my time. After the F/O completed his first year and “year end” check ride, the captain he was flying with could offer him the privilege of flying from the left seat. Some captains were not “comfortable” flying from the right seat in the event that the F/O needed assistance in a “tight” situation. But many of the captains that I flew with, especially on a month long regular block of time, would say something like……”OK Dick, I’ll fly it out and you bring it home”. And the next time that we flew, the captain would allow me to fly the outbound flight and then he would bring the flight back. That is how it was and it provided darn good experience for we F/O’s.
I would like to share with you my first time in the left seat; it was quite a unique experience. It was December 1959 and I had gotten my first regular block of time after seven months on reserve. The trip was 801 and 814, five days a week, Monday through Friday. Depart MDW at 0700 on Flight 801 with stops at AZO and JXN; terminate at YIP. Then a one hour turn around and we headed west bound on Flight 814 with stops at BTL and SBN arriving at MDW at about 1300. Let me help you with the station codes…..AZO = Kalamazoo; JXN = Jackson; YIP = Detroit-Ypsilanti; BTL = Battle Creek; SBN = South Bend and of course MDW was Chicago-Midway. The captain was a favorite of mine, name of Ed Thompson. I had flown with Ed on his very first trip as a brand new captain back in early July and we hit it off from that very first trip. Ed was a big fella…..a bit over six feet tall and medium build with a quick wit and smile. He was an excellent pilot and as we flew the trips day after day, I learned many things from him and don’t forget, this was December and the “snow machine” was really working hard across lower Michigan that year. We were solid IFR about 90% of the time and I was loving every minute of it.
Well, as the days passed, Ed would ask me from time to time…..”when is your year up?” And I would respond with ….”on April 15th”. “Oh”, he would respond. Well this question became a habit of his on nearly every trip to the point that I was wondering if he was planning to have me “let go”…..you know , as in “fired”. Why else would he keep asking me that same question. And believe me when I say that there was no formal hearing that a new F/O attended when being let go. In most cases his “termination notice” would be in the form of a pink slip in his mail box at the end of a trip. And there was NO RECOURSE what so ever during that first year of probation. You just left and the company mailed your final pay check to your last address. On several occasions I discussed the situation with my wife….I was really concerned . But I could not figure out why I was perhaps nearing a “separation” situation from NCA. I had not done anything really wrong. I had not knowingly “crossed” any captain.
Then one day, in about the second week of December, we were headed out of YIP for BTL and I was flying. Here came that same question…..”when did you say you would get your year in?” Same answer…..”April 15th”. And with that, Ed got up, out of his seat and I figured he was going back to the “blue room”. But he just stood there between our two seats. Before I could wonder what he was up to he tapped me on the shoulder and said, while at the same time motioning with is hand, ”get over in the left seat”. I was absolutely dumb struck. I had only been with the company seven months and what he was suggesting was sure to get both of us fired. I protested, but he was “quite firm” and he repeated….”get over there Dick”. So I trimmed the plane and slid over into the left seat. When he had re-seated himself in the right seat I again discussed the matter and I told him that ….”OK, but when we get near to MDW we should again switch seats, because if our Chief Pilot Captain Milt Ellyson ever saw me bringing 814 into that gate right in front of his office, he would fire us both right there on the spot”. Ed replied with…..”you just fly and I’ll worry about Captain Ellyson”. And so it was, that whenever I flew with Ed and four or five of his “close buddies”, we swapped seats all the time. Man, what a “kick in the behind” that was…..I was on cloud nine! This journey of mine, to become an airline pilot, had begun on Labor Day 1952 with my first ever flight, in an Aeronca Champ at the CLE airport. For years, all I ever dreamed about was the chance to become an airline pilot…….and a bit over seven years later, including a four year hitch as an Air Force Pilot, I had made it. This “ride” would take me 35 ½ years to complete and what an experience it would be.... and I even got paid for it, too.
Ed continued to show me many “tricks of the trade” during our time together that month. On the day that he first put me in the left seat, I had to shoot a low frequency range approach into BTL and they were hanging right on minimums…..of 400-1 in snow and blowing snow. The inbound leg of the range approach to runway 36 that was also aligned with a road had a big barn located just about a mile south of the field and a bit to the left of the runway. When the time from “low station” to our missed approach point was nearly up… Ed sighted the barn and said……”ease her down a bit, Dick”……”OK I have the runway at one o’clock and about a mile”. I moved the plane over to the right a bit and we completed the first leg of my first time in the left seat of an NCA DC-3.
I came to North Central with a type rating in the DC-3, having flown the C-47 for about 400 hours during my four year tour in the Air Force. My primary assignment was on KC-97 tankers, but I also flew the C-47 out of base operations from El Paso (Biggs AFB) to San Antonio (Kelly AFB) and Oklahoma City (Tinker AFB) hauling base ops cargo. Our day would begin about 0700 and end just before midnight….it was a long day, but I was building time in a machine that I would be flying a great deal in future years. It is now my feeling that some of the very junior captains at NCA might have been on the “inner circle” with people in the GO at MSP and they knew of my previous experience in the DC-3. When it was time for my year end check ride, they didn’t bother with that either, sighting the fact that I already had a type rating in the aircraft.
However, our “left seat authority” at NCA has sort of a sad ending. As we left the 1950s and worked into the early 1960s, the company was taking delivery of at least two Convair 440s each spring and inserting them into the summer “expansion” schedule. In the fall, when the summer schedule was cut, they would sell three or four DC-3s and as we began to furlough pilots, junior captains were “bumped” back to being senior F/Os again. This situation was further exasperated due to the fact that the route expansion program that saw the airline expand quite rapidly of recent years, had pretty much come to a halt. The Convairs carried nearly twice the passengers and at 25% faster speeds. That translated to the need for fewer pilots over the short term. That condition lasted for about three years. So checking out as captain moved from a few months to a few years. In my case, it took eight years to move from F/O to captain. So the company decided that there was little need for the left seat authority and they did away with the policy in about 1963. I was also made aware of another situation that caused the company to discontinue the left seat authority program. That was the fact that there were a few F/O’s who had come to feel that it was their “God given right” to occupy the left seat 50% of the time on every trip, and a few captains took great exception to that attitude. In one instance, an F/O is said to have informed the captain he was working with that he did not wish to fly from the right seat. In my view that was a case of gross insubordination. It was also a situation where a few spoiled it for the whole group. But I had enjoyed about four years of flying left seat, “at the captain’s discretion” and I really enjoyed every minute of it. With some patience, I would be back in the left seat of that “old bird” as a captain in four years and besides, by the mid 1960s, I was flying pretty much full time F/O on the CV-440. We’ll visit my early years on the CV-440 in a future story of “Flying the Line”.
copyright 2007 - Captain Richard A. Brown