One of the first DC-3 captains I flew with after - finally - being able to successfully bid back from Chicago to North Central Airline's home domicile for pilots was Bill Robbins, a veteran of WW II. Bill was probably (looking back now) the dean of airline comedians with his often sly and understated style and manner. Almost any trip with Bill resulted in coming home with abdominal muscles that felt as though I'd been doing sit-up exercises because of laughing at his constant jokes and mannerisms. I believe he'd flown P-51 Mustangs for the USAF Reserve out of Minneapolis-St.Paul International Airport in the post war years.

One of my most vivid memories of Bill is in the cockpit on the tarmac at the old Minneapolis-St Paul stone terminal on a late sunny, Sunday afternoon. We'd been assigned a four-day trip together, out in the western division. Arriving at the airplane, we were busily engaged in completing our cockpit pre-flight duties. One of my primary duties was to fill out the flight plan, which all first officers (copilots) kept on a clipboard, along with all the other bits of paperwork and flotsam that inevitably accumulated during a trip. At the end of a trip, we'd discard all this material into the circular file, EXCEPT for the aforesaid flight plan. This was jealously guarded until we safely deposited it in the airline's paper mill after completing the flight, being the sole source of flight pay information for the entire crew. Accordingly, we needed to enter our four-digit payroll clock numbers on it; this important matter was usually taken care of almost as soon as we seated ourselves in the airplane's cockpit for the first time.

Since this was the first time I'd flown with Bill, I'd just finished asking him for his payroll number in order to enter it on the flight plan. Before I'd finished penciling the number 7548 in the space allocated for the "captain's payroll number", I heard the sound of high heeled shoes behind us, ascending - "clickedy click" - up the rather steep incline of our DC-3's cabin aisle. Within seconds we were greeted with a cheery, "Hello captain - sir - my name is Nancy!" "I'm your stewardess and this is my very first trip!" "Hmmmmmmm", I muttered to myself, "maybe it'd been better if she hadn't mentioned that last part to Bill". This, of course, represented strictly an assumption on my part. And - since copilots weren't paid for their opinions back then - better to keep my thoughts to myself! And, by the way, just for the benefit of a modern reader of a more politically correct nature, this was back in the very early sixties, when using the term "flight attendant" would've just invited either a puzzled stare or a quizzical look!

As soon as Bill heard her cheery greeting, I subliminally became aware of his brain beginning to race at about ninety miles per hour. He never missed a beat as he casually reached over and took the clipboard from me. I'd already written my payroll number, 9580, on the form. Without hesitation, he glanced at the numbers for the briefest fraction of a moment. He then turned in his seat to direct his undivided attention towards this petite blonde, every hair in place, just as perfect as the stewardess training department could have asked. All this in spite of the heat and humidity that the arrival of summer's dog days had provided. He expelled a long-suffering sigh, undoubtedly meant to convey the resignation he felt in - once again - having to explain the rituals and intricacies of airline flying. He began, "Well, I'm so happy to have you along". "I know they tell you young ladies all sorts of things over there in your new hire classes about pilots and all, like how to behave on your first trip". "I'm sure you've heard all that stuff and I just want you to know that we're really glad you got to fly with us first so you won't find yourself taken advantage of or anything". "First thing you should know is, North Central's a really friendly airline, we may not be big, but we're really friendly, especially among us line crews, sorta like a family". "And - you should know that we don't go much for that title stuff around here, that's more for the big international airlines and all, so you don't need to call me captain". "But ever since we've gotten into this spurt of growth, there's so many new people around here that we've had to start calling each other by our payroll numbers." "For instance, I'm Seventy-five-forty-eight", then nodding his head in my direction (and he never even hesitated) -, "he's Ninety-five-eighty". "But like I said, we've always been friendly around here, and we'd sure like to keep that feeling even as we expand, so why don't you just call us by our nicknames on this trip; I'm Forty-eight and you can call him (nodding towards me again) Eighty". Since I was busily engaged in looking out my side window in a frantic attempt to stifle my laughter, I can only imagine the puzzled expression on her face. This bit of line knowledge obviously hadn't been mentioned in the curriculum at stewardess school, or else she'd simply - somehow - missed that small part! Hesitating for just an instant, she then stammered, "W-e-l-l, they told us to always call you captain, but I guess it'll be OK; I'm (and here she quickly referred to a figure she'd previously penciled into her notebook) 2412, but it'll be OK for you two to call me Twelve". And so it was - for the entire next four days!

I'd have given anything to have been a "mouse in the corner" to listen to the next crew she flew with, and what they made of this strange story when "Twelve" wanted to know their payroll numbers! But - who knows - perhaps they just looked at the bid sheets to find out who'd been the captain of her first trip - and then exchanged knowing glances while grinning at each other!

One disclaimer here - the passage of nearly forty years seems to have caused me to somehow forget "Twelve's" exact payroll number. All I can reasonably be sure of is that it was somewhere near to the number I used!

R.L. Sohn - copyright 1999

-Captain Randy Sohn is one of the most rated and experienced pilots in the world. Soloing at age 18, he went on to fly B-25's in the Air Force (and received his ATR in one) before being hired by North Central Airlines in 1960. While flying everything NCA had to offer, Randy became an instructor / flight examiner for both North Central and the Minnesota Air National Guard. He has unlimited authority from the FAA to fly and give pilot check outs in all high performance piston aircraft. Capt Sohn has flown it all, from P-38's to the B-29, from DC-3's to 747's.