These recollections were prompted by the stories read on the North Central web site, hermantheduck.org . I read them all; some were familiar, and all interesting. Two areas not covered were;
#1- Station Agent (SA). Dale Brinkmeyer did very well from his Passenger Service Agent (PSA) view, but the realm of a SA covers additional ground, thus this “Life and Times of a NC Station Agent”.
#2- ESCORT, a prime SA and PSA Agents’ tool a story I will next attempt.
First, it must be acknowledged, that the individual(s) establishing and maintaining this NC web site deserve our kudos, and financial support. Tho confident it’s done for more than monetary reward web sites are not “free”, thus there are out-of-pocket expenses. I say this knowing, “to pry” money from a NC’ite is akin to pulling “hens teeth”. Since at the age of 70+ my teeth are mostly dentist manufactured, I’ll gladly contribute, even annually.
This site is equally important in this age of airline debacle, for their and other employees to see ‘how it can be AND how it has been done’. An organization can succeed with creditable leadership giving priority to ‘the business and concurrently’, its prime tool, its People. Result will be loyal productive employees and a successful business.
This is a story of ‘my life’ during Station Agent years. Perhaps not unique, except it was a chunk of my impressionable younger years. These jottings are non-fiction, not a novel, or works of a professional teller of history. Fully aware my composition skills are faulty maybe lacking, it is self-written, simply words strung together, somewhat sequenced, as pried from my memory of those times. I did seek clarifying help, on various portions, from earlier co-NC folks. I’ll freely use names, when recalled, hoping to engender retorts. I believe the only person incriminated herein is I, if not, it’s an error.
My literary expertise might make more sense, if it’s known that I was country born betwixt the farm hills of Western Pennsyltucky. My birth year included the setting of a 7+ hour cross country air record by Howard Hughes and Amelia Earhart vanishing over the Pacific. Following my 3 year Army hitch, I returned to my Dad’s chicken hatchery farm. There I failed, never knowing, “Had I planted those chicks too deep or too far apart”. Thus I sought a better future.
A newly minted innocent 22 year old, ready to become an “Airline Man”, I began a 25 year airline career with NC - I began with nothing, departing 25 years later - I still had most of it. Still do.
My credentials are #1 -10 years (1959-1968) NC Station Agent, and #2 -15 years as an initial ESCORT Programmer advancing to its Manager (1968-1983). What really put the NC years in perspective, was the later decade plus of working similar jobs with other employers. It was after departing NC, that values and ethics learned at NC (Note that I did not say RC) became clear.
Over the following 11 years I held management positions with three subsequent large employers having ESCORT similar systems. Experiences across these times made it very-very clear my fortune to have developed what proved to be a unique work ethics during my NC years. This character building was only possible due to the NC philosophical management style and its pursuit of performance and employee job gratification. The “school of hard knocks” has taught; “Ethics, Performance and Gratification” differ across employers and differing top-down leadership styles. In other words, the NC work environment was unique to NC. In this era of change, it’ll not soon be matched.
Under the continuing gaze of the ‘Blue Goose”, the long held ‘make sense’ work environment, began to fade. During the early 1980’s the NC spirit, was replaced with that of RC. Vanishing were ole-timey cost controls and key NC leaders who had made them an everyday reality. One example of events illustrating erosion of NC standards, I experienced during this period. Yet another of the many hired “extraneous experts” appeared. One had the “mission to root-out” detractions that might impair the RC image. A imperfect literary memo of mine crossed his desk. His days work made. He phoned to discuss my literary short comings. I asked if he understood the memos message, ‘yes’ he replied. I hung up, never met or heard from him again. While this guy might be deemed harmless, the real problem was that too many of his tripe were appearing.
NOTE: In 1959, the 2-letter code was NO for North Central. About 1968 when Northern Consolidated Airline of Alaska vanished, its 2-letter code was acquired, and NO became NC. I’ll consistently use NC, though at a given time it was really NO, or perhaps (RC) Republic Airlines. Wisconsin Central apparently did not have a 2-letter code?
During the 1960 - 1980’s, it was a time of NC transition; #1- aircraft transitioned from piston propeller DC-3’s to Jet powered aircraft, #2- Available seats increased from 800+ to some 4,800 and, #3- Agents moved from prime tools of stubby pencil and reference manuals to keyboards and CRT’s as prime computer driven tools. Plus, sadly for some, two sizeable airlines, Southern and Hughes Air West (SO / RW), were combined with NC resulting in RC.
I departed RC while “Herman, the Blue Goose” still rode the tails of its aircraft, prior to the taint of the “redtail” - thus today I remain ‘pure’.
Preparing to be a Airline Man
I sprung from my mothers arms into (join the Army and see the woods of both Texas and Louisiana) a 3-year Army hitch in the 24th Combat Engineers (bridges, roads, land mines, dozers, pick and shovel) of General Patton’s old 4th Armored Division (Sherman tanks). GI time was followed by a year on the Family Chicken Farm. A fun year for a 21 year old buck and moon light drives in a red pickup truck. During daylight it was grain farming, eggs, chickens and shoveling. A really nice life, but a bleak future.
Following another day on the tractor seat reading the local Beaver Falls, PA Tribune, I spotted and responded to an advertisement to become an “Airline Man”. I signed up to attend Central Technical Institute (CTI), in Kansas City, MO. The tuition was paid (just like the Daddy of Loretta Lynn, the coal miner’s daughter) by selling fresh pork products: the result of the four hogs I raised, killed, skinned and butchered one 1958 wintery day. For sure, my farm boy days made clear; a ‘hog and bacon’ commitment, versus ‘chicken and egg’ participation.
On a dark, stormy, thunder boomer night while loose barges were roaming the over flood stage Ohio River, I was driven to the Pittsburgh airport. I boarded a TWA Super Constellation (un-pressurized) while it danced thru lightning bolts and thunder, headed for Chicago (MDW) and on a 2nd “Connie” to Kansas City. There at daylight we landed. The runway approach was over the stockyards, several stories beneath the top of nearby high rise apartments there folks could be seen scurrying to start a new day.
The mission of CTI was, for a fee, to train idiots to become airline employees. Their admission criteria were two; able to tie your own shoe laces, and able to pay their fee. My hogs handled most expenses, but weekend house cleaning and ‘cold-calling’ to sell ‘dining out’ books from a dimly lighted room was needed to settle the balance and provide poker funds. Actually, they did a good job insuring we learned each airline operating region and its cities (codes), and such aberrations as; ZZV = Zanesville, Ohio.
There, one fine spring day, an important VIP, John J. O’Keefe of NC appeared on a “Hiring” mission. He chose several warm bodies to administer the ‘very difficult’ Wonderlic and Minnesota Clerical Tests. Once test results were tallied, he cherry-picked for future glories, several potential airline Station Agents (SA), the first to be taken from the class.
Asked if I wanted ORD (Chicago O’Hare) work or ATY (Watertown SD) - dah? Another “chosen-one” was Larry Philippon, who went to ORD, where later he become its Station Manager and later, another GO (General Office) ‘expert’ working for the Ground Operation Chief, Ken Hubertus who had replaced retired R.H. Baker. We both quickly vacated Mrs. Zimmerman’s boarding house and headed for the ‘real’ world of real airplanes, ‘crushed hat’ pilots, charming Stewardesses and the mostly amicable air traveling public.
Watertown, South Dakota (ATY) A Station Agent is born
After becoming an “Airline Man”, I quickly dug out maps to find ATY. It was 400+ miles uphill from Kansas no interstate highways then, thus a nice country drive. There, next morning, I reported to the big man, Station Manager (SM) Wayne Sherman on April 4, 1959. Wayne began his airline career July 1952 with Wisconsin Central Airlines at MDW (Chicago Midway), where he later became a Senior Agent. When the CAB (Civil Aeronautics Board) awarded NC a number of new cities ranging from North Dakota to Nebraska and Spearfish SD to Minneapolis, Wayne became ATY SM February 1959 with 4 Agents. Displaced were Braniff Airline DC-3s. All of their employees vacated ATY.
Wayne was bred, born and raised on the streets of Chicago. Certainly trepidation prevailed as his January road trip, with city born Wisconsin Wife Ione and two young daughters, as they approached ATY. Moving to a town of 15,000 located on wide open prairie lands whose airport (an ex-Army Air Base) was on a grain farm - from one of the world’s busiest (MDW) airports that’s culture shock! ATY demonstrated its warm welcome by keepings its temperature at zero, or below, the next 30 days later swapped for 90s plus dry summer months..
Added qualification for this history , was ‘how’ I spent my 10 year NC Station Agent career. I worked in 11 stations, nine as a Relief Agent, two were Class A or large stations, the balance were smaller (Class C) and medium (Class B) sized stations. Work requirements and procedures were NC standardized only flight numbers, faces and surprise events varied. It was my feelings that Station Managers were taking particular caution that I learned the un-disrupted business of their domain.
Briefly, most SA daily duties in Class B and Class C Stations were:
1) Respond to customer telephone and counter ‘walk-up’ traveling and cargo queries. Often, we were the only visible airport-humans’, so we dealt with physical-airport issues; fueling, weather, etc.
2) Quote schedules, fares and make reservations; notify pertinent NC and other airlines. Write tickets. Perform similar chores for air cargo customers
3) Check-In Passengers, write tickets, lift flight coupons (insure fare valid), check luggage (if +41 lbs make added collection, listen to customer utterances) and ‘literally’ hand them to the Stewardess
NOTE: Often, interspersed with above activities and demanding immediate attentions were:
4) The ‘coming and going’ of airfreight, airmail, and (usta be) REA (Rail Express Air) express
5) The ‘coming and going’ of flights monitor air-ground radio and crew radio contacts
6) Interfacing with ATC (Air Traffic Control) to file and relay flight’s air route clearances
7) Recording In & Out bound load on FMR (Flight Movement Report); send to downline stations
8) Calculating aircraft Weight & Balance, MGL (Max Gross Load) and prepare Crew Weight Tab
9) Assemble Weather, Forecasts, and Winds for Crew delivery
10) Receiving a/c on ramp, loading/unloading, and some fueling/de-icing and crew interaction
These daily, wide ranging activities covered everything done in large (Class A) stations except maybe ramp congestion. Of course, larger station work was divided between those having public contact, Passengers Service Agents (PSA), and SA’s, separated from the public, performing flight arrival / departure duties and ramp work. ‘Ramp work’ was my 8-hour duty working two large stations, one during the rainy season showers were invented by those having to wear those yellow rain suits, the other during mid-winter freezing weather that indeed did freeze ears and other protrusions. Aside from weather extremes, a full day working the ramp was not to my liking. The glory of an SA is performing the full range of duties with each flight.
PSA duties were governed by the Traffic and Sales Manual; encompassing Reservations, Ticket Counter and Passenger Check-In duties. Additional SA duties were governed by the Station Operations Manual. My ALEA (Air Line Employees Association) Union manual also stipulated another difference, ie; Rates of Pay - several dollars further separated the two. This experience gave me a good sense of NC operations and was my basic training for a later ESCORT Programming career developing new ESCORT programs.
At rare times, a flight required refueling. Most DC-3s had 200 left, 200 right and 200 gallon center fuel tanks. Fueling was rare, but done often enough to remain proficient and to check each engines 22 gal oil dip stick. This was not car gas, it was high octane volatile fuel. Early on, SM Sherman had spoken about ‘the-fears’ of improper fueling procedures. Thus, I always closely supervised fueling; insuring aircraft and fuel vehicle were properly grounded together. True or not, “improper grounding during a MDW fueling” had resulted in a spark, an explosion and a fully cooked ex-fuel’er.
Rarer was the ‘dreaded’ a/c de-icing. You can be certain it was not Florida weather that prompted its necessity, mostly falling slushy snow or freezing rain. Within smaller stations this process was as basic as hand pumping de-icing (ethylene glycol) fluid into a bucket, mounting the fun to push in snow , muscle builder, front bin cargo loader near the a/c and then slopping the fluid about wing surfaces with a (Just like Moms) mop. Fun - avoided, if possible.
ATY had a nice building. It was crammed with such technology as a VHF/HF Radio, ASR (Auto Send/Receive at 40,later 75, words per minute) teletype, ticket validater (customer weapon) , telephone, ball point pens, TS-3s 3x5 Reservation Cards, and O-24s (for on-off load records, MGL, a/c Wt & Balance for the Crew weight tab). In addition, there were a couple of manually operated bag carts and a (muscle-builder) nose loader. Oh yeah, there were also barrels of ‘de-icer’ fluid with mops and a long piece of flannel - if needed for winter grooming of a/c. Later, a couple of snow shovels appeared. In a few months time, after the tumble weed blow-by season, I was to enjoy the pure glory of a South Dakota winter.
After a couple days closely ‘bird-dogged’ by the SM, it was time to earn our keep by working our shifts alone. It was during this period I learned some ATY and SM Sherman history. The most memorable was why I was so soon a ‘replacement hire’, after Sherman opened the station just several months earlier. Seems the original staff had involuntarily departed, failing to match SM Sherman’s expectations. And, since I had no desire to go back to the Army or the chicken farm, I paid close attention to SM Sherman’s expectations, my first SA lesson. My first year in particular, revealed many unique ‘learning’s. These, the result of surprises, always appearing at the most unexpected in-convenient time requiring rapid ‘cracking’ of the books. Perhaps my many SA indiscretions are typical of an aggressive youth in their 20’s (my excuse), while yet a full time student at the “school-of-hard-knocks”.
We had eight DC-3 flights daily. Two people were on duty each shift. The first four flights, one headed in each prime-compass direction, came and went in about a 30 minute period. Even though loads were typically light, it amazes me yet to this day, we could check-in passengers/baggage, write tickets, process express/mail, work weight & balance, handle a/c radio (in-range, ramp checks, ATC for IFR ops), load/unload aircraft, get FMR’s (Flight Movement Reports) received/sent by teletype and work Reservation phones, while maintaining the scheduled 3-minute stop. One motivation; the required Ground Delay ‘Write-Up”, should we exceed stop time, knowing that our justification (excuses) would be questioned. and they were!
Getting those Weight & Balance forms correctly prepared was kind of intense. There was little time for this exercise. Use of ball point pen was required, making last minute error corrections hard to erase - I do not recall an adding machine. Completed (often cleaned up) forms were kept on file. Their 90 day retention was plenty of time for GO types, most often ‘cigar chomping’ Regional Manager Richard Cooper, to appear for an audit and that our shoes were polished.
His first act was checking those files, which he just knew contained errors. Length of ‘audit’ was determined by time required to fill his yellow tablet with ‘gigs’. Rarely was he disappointed, his audit was of merit; he had typing work for his Secretary. After enjoying the miracle of Watertown’s downtown “Miracle Mile”, he’d retreat home smiling (he did that?), another ‘dinging’ success trip.
While flight time was hectic, agent activities were soon choreographed. Lacking the always lurking ‘hiccups’, most days went smoothly. Flights ‘bedded’ down, it was coffee time, maybe a game (or two) of cribbage or gin, and noontime Paul Harvey, plus always the ringing reservation phone. Later it was ‘Wind down’ time at local watering holes, to view yet another Yogi-the-Bear and Land-of-sky-blue-waters (nope, not forest fire prevention) poster. Other enjoyments included fishing the local creeks or lakes. Also, appreciated by local farmers, was trying to pick-off a few gophers just a loud whistle, heads popped up.... and oops another gopher done gone. During the fall, we would even chase a few pheasants.
Meanwhile, and throughout the day, the reservation phone ‘always’ required prompt attention, incoming flights or not, hoping it was a simple itinerary to be concocted. Attendant to booking reservations was the continual maintenance of the NC ‘Seat Availability Charts’. Reservation results were recorded on a 3x5 Res Card (TS-3), prepared in block lettering, using a ball point pen. Making reservations to exotic places was a laborious process and our tools were rudimentary. No long distance phone calls permitted, such came out of SM Sherman’s pocket money.
The OAG (Official Airline Guide) was the basic available reservation building tool, a well thumbed inch thick document, received monthly. Nope, this was not the more expensive semi-monthly QRE (Quick Reference Edition), readable and usable by most any novice. Found in the OAG, were airline schedules in alpha sequence, shown in a reproduced image of those public timetables found on ticket counters. The OAG had two sections; Domestic airlines followed by International. International queries were most always referred to local Travel Agents.
The Domestic OAG section contained schedules for 13 Trunk (UA, EA, CA, DL, & etc), 13 Local Service (OZ, MO, LC, NC & etc.) and 3 Helicopter (NYC, CHI & LAX) carriers. By the year 2008, most folks had never heard of most of these airlines. The only remaining ones are; AA, CO, DL, NW, UA and US (former AL etc) along with a number of “commuter” carriers.
Believe me, using that OAG took diligent ‘on-the-job’ training to piece together acceptable trip routing across multiple airlines, let alone obtaining seat confirmations, a much more difficult process during holiday travel times, when seats were hard to find.
The values of my Airline School (CTI) tuition paid off in my ability to ‘root-out’ the more complicated interline itineraries. At CTI we learned each airlines route, cities served and its geographical area of service. It became a rare 3-ALPHA city/airport code not committed to memory. Such memory knowledge did not gain one a pay bonus, but it was a nice asset, since in those days, some 60-70% of all NC bookings included connections to other airlines (OA). Rarely, within a short period, did one handle multiple reservations to the same interline destination.
It was rather common knowledge that any city code beginning with a Z or Y was a Canadian city. Less well known were ‘several’ USofA Y-Z exceptions. What are they, 3 pop to mind.
Often, several “mucking-about” days were required to complete an acceptable interline reservation along with seat confirmations. Obtaining such began with the trusty teletype keyboard. First one had to understand another manual, SIPP (Standard Interline Policy and Procedures) which dictated precise interline message; format and content. Compliance failure resulted in no response or a nasty response from some unknown ‘expert’.
Once the PSGR was happy with the quoted itinerary, notifications to boarding locations were required. Itinerary example; Watertown, SD to Detroit, MI (YIP) via Minneapolis, MN
On flights of NC, Capital (CA) and Northwest (NW)
A teletype (TTY) message would be addressed to: CRCRCNC, MSPRRCA, YIPRRNW, MSPRRNC
Originator identification: .ATYRRNC 20DEC1000Z
Each booked flight would be expressed as:
NC 765/23DEC ATYMSP SS 1
CA 463/23DEC MSPYIP NN 1
NW 272/29DEC YIPMSP NN 1
NC 764/29DEC MSPATY SS 1
Thank you Army for that typing class
From today’s view, it was a mind-boggling process. Once the booking message was keyboarded (fat fingered) producing an inch wide ‘hole-punched’ paper tape, it was inserted it in the Sending Unit and when line became available, it was sent. A comparable paper tape would be generated in the NC Chicago Communications Center where it would be manually moved to the each of the two outbound transmitters servicing CA and NW.
The reverse would occur, when CA and NW would respond within the expected 24 hours confirming or denying the booking. All booking messages included CRCRC (NC Central Res Control), who maintained system wide NC seat inventory. Later, message switching between airlines was automated via an ungraded ARINC (Z-Circuit) system. ARINC (Aeronautical Radio, Inc) was an airline owned system, its purpose communications both Ground to Air and message processing.
Imagine the difficulty obtaining interline seats during peak travel. One could only hope ‘all’ airlines would favorably respond with confirmed seats. If not, start over. Later procedures were improved with Free Sell (FS) and assume a (KK) confirmed seat, absent a response within (I think it was) 12 hours. Upon receiving favorable responses from each airline, the PSGR would be called confirming his reservation and a airport ticket pickup time arranged. Most tickets were purchased in advance of departure date.
Determining Seat Availability on NC flights was less of an issue, but a labor intensive process. Stations kept system wide Flight Availability Charts, one for each day, ‘X’ days into the future. All NC flights were numerically listed on each days chart with their ‘line-of-flight’, example; 764 SPF RAP PIR ABR ATY MSP.
Central Res Control (CRCRCNC) managed seat inventory, generating many flight status (AVS) messages, like (SS-stop sell, list only) which required stations to put a ‘Red Circle’ around indicated sold-out city.
CRCRC could (and often did) generate Limit Sale (LS) messages for a pair of city’s for the purpose of generating ‘longer-haul’ passengers from up-line cities. The city-pair on the Seat Availability Chart would be given a blue bracket effectively allowing only ‘wait-list’ passengers between that city-pair. This technique was quite common for North/South bound 15 minutes flights via MKE. Many, many AVS seat status messages arrived, requiring red/blue pencil work.
Passenger Rules and Fares Tariff were ‘the’ stations passenger ticketing and ‘pricing’ tool. Updates were published continually by C.C. Squire & Son. Its content, some 4 inches thick ‘governed’ fare calculation and related routing rules (a MKG to SFO fare might be valid via MKE, but not via CHI). For a few itineraries use of a “hidden” (Example one more distant then passenger destination) would produce a lower fare. Even in those days of relative simplicity, rules and fares were in a constant state of change. Keeping abreast of valid travel surcharges, exceptions to “normal” and disrupted travel (Rule 75), would pale a big city lawyer
Thanks goodness in those earlier simpler golden days, NC offered only a single class of service, as did most airlines. But, with the arrival of Jets (707s, DC-8s and Convair 880s) new classes of service were evolving. Many trunks were adopting ‘prime’ flights having F (First) and T (Tourist) class plus a few night flights offering reduced Night Coach (FN - TN) fares. JET flights, less common, required a Surcharge. It was soon common for all trunk airlines to offer first (A) and couch (T-tourist) class service, and pure-Jet service with an F and Y (coach) cabin. Each service class had its own unique fare, some based on time of departure. At times surcharges were applicable..
Ticket fare calculation and preparation was a deliberate manual process. The only available ticketing gadgetry was a ball point pen and a ticket validater (sometimes used as a customer weapon). When prepared, the ticket would be validater ‘wacked’, initialed by preparing agent and made ready for delivery. “Fancy” gadgets like ‘routing plates’, some even with embedded fares, came later. Soon to become a SA, one only had to demonstrate the ability to tie only one shoelace.
Should a ticket fare be improper or otherwise, one could expect special attention from NC Revenue & Accounting Dept, demanding we ‘pony-up’ cash and/or explain preparation ‘logic’. We got pretty good at detail and generating constructive rebuttals after enjoying such notifications.
Ticket payment was mostly cash or check. Credit cards then were rare, mostly UATP (Universal Air Travel Plan) cards, typically the result of airline trade-out agreements - the original corporate travel card. Checks were common, their acceptance comparable to tip-toeing through a landmine field.
Check acceptance required 3-types of identification, each recorded on check reverse side. In the 1950 and 60’s, it was common for some folks not to have such, thus use of library cards, etc. Others, became ‘disturbed’ (substitute word) to think we could ask ‘them’ for such. A famous character ‘objected’ to such a request, he walked away Mr. McGoo thought his ‘comic character trumped our requirement Not!
At times we compromised. However if that check bounced, liability belonged to the accepting agent. Of course Rev & Actg folks would issue their demands. I, at times was guilty, but often successful in my direct passenger collection contacts. One was for $60-70 bucks, big money. I found the check writer, after maybe a dozen “on-my-knees” pleading letters and several months - the money arrived.
Ticket selling, PSGR Check-In, excess baggage collections (40 lb limit) along with handling mail, REA Railway Express Air) express, and freight happened concurrently with such flight handling as In-Range reports, Ramp Checks and ramp work. ATY was favored with four flights in a short period, people were checking in, while earlier flights arrived/departed. Time management was critical.
Cash was strictly accountable. If you cash drawer at shifts end was short, you paid up; be it a dime, a dollar or ten. If over…..well, ya know. Some stations in which I later worked, kept an un-official (un-authorized) slush fund for this purpose. I never saw one with but a few coins (no paper).
My first big ATY event was a 30 day October vacation without pay. WHY? I permitted the boarding of a nice NC non-rev co-pilot and beautiful NC Stew as passengers #27 & 28 on a 26 seat ATY MSP flight. Shades of bad luck, also onboard was a FAA guy who took his job seriously, thus my un-paid vacation. I was invited to attend a ‘fact-finding’ meeting in MSP, chaired by R. H. Baker (RIP) the Stations Superintendent. Couple days later Baker called Sherman and said, “Fire him’. But Bossman Sherman saved my bacon, telling Baker he had already administered severe discipline, “30 days off without pay”. Bakers response, “Oh well that will have to do”, maybe thinking ‘duel’ punishment would become a union (ALEA) issue?
Some 15 years later, having worked several years in the GO, still thinking Some Mr. Baker had given me the ’30 days’, one early AM morning I walked into his office and asked, “Why didn’t you fire me as Sherman expected?” His replay, “Cause, a replacement might do the same dumb thing and I expected you had learned a lesson.” It was not until this year (2008), I learned that Bossman Sherman had saved my bacon, I’m thinking he did not want to train another fishing and etc partner.
That lesson stuck with me. Some years later, on a nice Sunday morning we had a full DC-3. Plus some how, a 27th PSGR had boarded (Stews could not count to 26, but readily recognized 27) and was walking the aisle in search of a seat - exciting the Stew. I, having the duty, pleaded for a volunteer to deplane. Adding this plane will not move until someone de-planed - no volunteers. Would you believe (naw, but true, it was a Sunday) my co-agent came on the DC-3, whispered in a passengers ear “Sir you have a telephone call.” Yep he deplaned. Problem solved, flight saluted off the ramp. The former passenger was less then happy.
Watertown was farm country; in fact the airport grounds were active farm lands. Our first year in ATY was one of the coldest (-30 not unusual) and driest. So dry, farmers were claiming they harvested less grain than planted. Why, I can’t recall, but SM Sherman and others were out working along the runways. Perhaps putting up those black marker signs used as runway makers during snowy winter ops. An aging couple drove up asking, “How do we get to town?”! Someone had left the gate open.
ATY folks were initially sort of “stand-off’ish”, but quickly became receptive to us new comers. One example; with a few paychecks in-hand it was time to buy a car. This became known, with one ole folksy salesman driving up to the airport and asking me to look at a car. It was a nicely priced beauty, pink and cream 4-door hardtop 1957 Buick it became mine, papers signed on the spot - I drove it home.
It was here I learned how the cold winter days of So. Dakota produced ice for the city folks. Nearby was a big aging lakeshore building. Prowling about I learned its purpose. An old timer explained they used long saws to cut large blocks of ice, horses to drag them the to ice house where they were stored between layers of straw. Later the ice was out-loaded on trains to distant city ice boxes and mint tulips.
Not all travel, like current years, was by air. The Greyhound bus station was still popular. Many were the locals who would be roadside, picked up for day trip shopping and later dropped off near their farm.
ATY had their annual pheasant hunting season. Shotgun toting hunters would come from far places. To accommodate this sport, often extra flights were added. Plane loads of ‘big-city-boys’ arrived to flush those pretty birds from hay, grain and corn fields. Hunter groups would line up and walk across fields. With a sudden burst of wing clatter, a cock would rise to their front. A mighty Sears & Roebuck clad hunter would shoulder his shiny new long barreled automatic Browning 12 gauge shot gun and that cock (hopefully) would tumble from the sky. The more “daring” would road-hunt, driving the extensive farmland back roads.
Many left town as they had arrived, via the airport. One late evening, the ATY-MSP flight was loaded over MGL (maximum allowed gross load). Sooo, to get within weight, I pulled bags and put them on the evening train, so notifying MSP (Minneapolis). Couple days later, MSP advised the bags had been found beneath other box car stuff, delaying delivery. Also, the bags contained pheasants, now well beyond dead, quite odorous and the hunter, unhappy. Lesson learned, if the passenger goes, so does his bags or was it, not to pack pheasants with your underwear?
A problem developed late one evening. I consulted and executed ‘guidance’ from the Traffic & Sales Manual. I knew it was a ‘sorry’ decision, but the manual prevailed. Next day, SM Sherman questioned my action, so I flipped open the T&S Manual. He read where my finger pointed, flipped the manual to its opening cover page. You’ve all read it; I later used that info many times over. It said, “There is no substitute for good common sense.”
Working DC-3’s was always interesting. The flight crews seemed always anxious to add their personal touch; after all, ATY was far, far away from the GO. I suppose most of those crushed-hat pilots were WW II vets. One was Ralph, he would frequently announce his arrival by playing a harmonica tune. Examples of some more intriguing ‘admitted’ pilot events are to be found on the NC web site: hermantheduck.org
Dealing with a problem, this 22 year old attempted to alert a crushed-hat pilot, “there was ‘some’ extra weight in the rear bin. Looking me hard in the eyes, he (to wit) responded. “I used to fly these planes over the hump, during that nasty period when we were supplying our Chinese war partner. There, they would first board the pilots, then fill the cabin - with who knew what. Departure approval was a slap on side of the plane, sending us off mostly we cleared the hilltops for our next trip.” After explaining this bit of history, his parting words, “get off my airplane”. I did and he departed with the extra few pounds. Conversely, one pilot threatened to weigh his airplane claiming it to be overweight Bull! It was not his only problem!
To me, it was always a thrill to watch a big-ole DC-3 come churning up the ramp. It often provoked early rare WW II days when over my Pennsylvania hills where pilots would ‘jig and jog’ their low flying bi-wing and military planes once they spotted us waving kids. Those big ole twin engined 3’s charging up the ramp, would blow leaves, dust and sometimes a hat - always a thrill. It was a step into the future, from the smelly roar of a passing Sherman Tank or smell of sweet Pennsyltucky soil being turned by a team of white sweat covered draft horses puffing and blowing mucus out their noses. .
NC Ramps, big or small, always had painted yellow squares, above which the a/c was to be SA ‘guided’ to a halt, parallel to the passenger gate. Of course SA guiding a ‘crushed-hat’ was at times, a contest. Some ‘crushed-hats’ wanted an ‘exact-spot’ others ‘any thing but’. Guess who won! And who cared, except when a passenger path had been shoveled in the snow!
I worked DC-3’s at 11 NC stations. Except for the two biggie GRB and MSP stations, all flights were scheduled 3 minute stops. On ramp arrival, the left engine would be shut down. The airstair door would be let down and often, with outbound passengers at elbow; the SA would assist deplaning/enplaning passengers all the while maintaining ‘meaningful-conversation’ with the young ‘Stew’. Cargo handling was mostly via the rear bin, thus more talk time..
Lastly, with fire bottle at hand, the agent would signal with 2-fingers aloft, OK to start left engine. Once engines running smoothly, the SA and pilot would exchange military type hand salutes. The salute was an important communication. First, the SA salute meant all pins, locks and chocks were removed, the area was clear of gear and it’s ok to move the a/c. The pilot salute meant responsibilities were now his and he was departing.
NOTE: The ‘on-ramp’ agents time was measured between left engine stop and exchanges of salutes. At times, the clock was a bit ‘shaded’ to avoid a Delay Report write-up. Of course, and no one would ever admit, that at times pilots would “shout out the window” a reduced ramp time, which we would use and he record on his flight log. I suppose later, that modified time, became input to the Payroll Departments pay calculations? Nah!
At rare times, a two engine stop was necessary. Such might be required for front bin loads (Pilots often helped with front bin loads), a/c fueling or much more rarely a/c de-icing. Delay report write-ups always followed with attendant explanations.
A rare thrill during a/c engine start time could disturb the normal. The cranking engine would issue a loud cough, belching smoke and maybe flames. The alert pilot would keep the prop turning and finally blow away the bad stuff. I understood things could get nasty if the prop should stop and the flames naught. I never had the pleasure. My only action with that red fire extinguisher was its periodic weighing.
Early one high wind and ‘snirt’ blowing morning, the runways were snow and ice covered. Runway braking action was ‘Nil’, ice covered runway, absent any braking capability. These BRA reports were oven determined by car. The first flight delivered got his IR (In Range fuel report), answered by the station barometer setting, along with a braking action report. He arrived, made a circulating approach to the airport, and executed his landing. Fish-tailing down the best of two cross-wind runways, he finally stoppedl,‘catawampus’ to the runway. The waiting second flight questioned conditions and was told by the first “Landing not recommended!’ The airborne pilot responded, “Get off the runway, if you can make it so can I” - and he did. I was hoping neither would land, it was nasty Parka WX and fur lined trooper earflap hats were not yet authorized attire - by arm chair GO types.
Weather in ATY ranged well between ‘clear & cloudy’. Temperatures exercised both ends of the scale, my first joys of -30s. The winds blew heartily; summer-time dust, fall-time tumbleweeds, and wintertime snirt (dirt mixed with snow).
Weather forecasting then was quite rudimentary. DC-3s did not have radar capability. On a summers evening, nasty thunder-boomers and fierce lightning bolts filled the air. A DC-3 landed and taxied up on the ramp stopping in front of the terminal. Fast rising, low flying, hair-raising turbulence is unique to Dakota flat lands and perfect for a Clint Eastwood movie scene. Heavy winds increased. Passengers were ushered in the building for safety. Ramp gear with an agent in tow blew across the tarmac.
A tornado sat down, destroying buildings either side of the terminal building during which the pilot had spun around his close-by DC-3 to point up-wind. There he practiced his “tail-up” ramp flying. Meanwhile, watching passengers were also doing a bit of ‘wondering’ of their own. No one was hurt and all soon returned to normal.
Idle time was not unusual working in small stations like ATY and most of my later 10 stations. But, one could not anticipate their next airport adventure, some not ending well. At ATY a ‘flamed-out’ Air Force Jet Fighter ‘dead-sticked’ one hot summer day from about 30,000 onto the short (for him) runway. Later, as he sat drinking a cup of coffee, we were unable to determine whether the wettest part of his attire was his arm pit area or the pants? Later, working at ASX (Ashland WI), a Piper Cub spun a hole in the terra-firma, his last act and messy. While in BEH (Benton Harbor, MI), a couple guys were pulled from a twin a/c floating in Lake Michigan, one of which was my former high school class mate.
All was not sweat in ATY. There was small airplane recreation flying in the ‘wild blue yonder’, tossing out rolls of toilet paper, then attempting to cut the unrolling ribbon headed toward mother earth. Even more fun was trading my ’57 beautiful pink and cream hardtop Buick for shares in ‘The Future Bottle Opening Bottle Corporation”. Its President, a big gregarious red bearded guy, was quite a salesman. I was not the only investor. The newly arrived Pop-Top Can and Twist-Off-Bottle caps killed the investment. I got my car back with a bit of my scarce cash wish I still had it. Attendant to that relationship were trip invitations in his ball busting AT-6 air machine and his Piper Tri-Pacer. Wherever he went, fun followed.
Yet a single man, by now a battered seasoned SA after some 14 months at ATY, I exercised my ALEA union rights. I became a Relief Station Agent, reporting to GO-Chaired Dave Padrta, The Assistant to Superintendant of Stations, Mr. Robert Baker. I left SM Sherman behind, I witnessed no tears, perhaps with less hair. We would meet again in Michigan. His June 14, 1969 memo to my next boss stated (to wit) ‘a good agent in almost all respects, except etc etc”.
But first. During those heady airline days, many station (99.9% Males) people and all Stewardesses (Longest word in dictionary typed only with left hand) were young-young boys and girls. Thusly, hook-ups were not rare. Being a single man in ATY, with each passing flight I ‘interacted’ with equally young single Stewardesses; those were nice young ladies who served warm smiles, along with coffee, tea, bouillon and those 4-pack cigarettes. In later times, doughnuts and rolls were added. Often across the open door to their favored SA’s they would pass ‘some’ in un-used gift bags.
Time during three minute stops was brief, but often productive. One day while guarding the airstair door, I looked up at a blond, blue eyed lassie clad in blue. She later enticed me to marriage, even paid the $3 license fee. I freely admit it was influenced on her near by parents farm, where on Thanksgiving the table was loaded what ‘living and breathing’ youngster would forsake those meats, taters and pies upon that table.
So I departed ATY in 1960, taking with me lasting memories and a soon to be life time partner.
Many changes have taken place since departed ATY. Many can be considered progress, BUT some... well, consider these comparisons (Per Consumer Price Index (CPI). A 1960 dollar compared to $7 in 2007. The combination of money value and the ill conceived ‘Airline Deregulation’ is here illustrated;
CHI-DTT 1960 NC DC-3 2stops, schedule time 2hrs. OW Fare $ 17.90 (2007 CPI $125.30)
2008 AA Jet non-stop, schedule time 1hr 25min. OW Fare $250.00
CHI-DLH 1960 NC CV340* 1stop, schedule time 2hrs 05min OW Fare $ 34.35 (2007 CPI $240.45)
2008 NW Jet 1stop, schedule time 2hrs 08mi OW Fare $ 932.00 (No non-stop svc)
*CHI-DLH after July 1960 was non-stop CV340 Dinner service The future ain’t what it usta be! .
Some 20+ years later I visited ATY. There sat my ole cohort SA Verlyn Nordseth. Watertown Terminal changes had been made, but the table top ‘worn spot’ remained - there Verlyn was resting his heels. Verlyn was a good-ole-boy, like his WW II Aviator brother, NC Capt Nordseth (RIP, Jan 2009).
Capt Nordseth, on a foggy December 1972 night, had just begun his DC-9 roll down a Chicago O’Hare runway. Suddenly, a Delta DC-8 appeared directly to his front, an unauthorized crossing of his runway. His premature liftoff almost cleared the crossing DC-8 almost. His extended gear bounced off the DC-8 top, crashing back to the runway - beyond the DC-8, - fire broke out.
Passengers were evacuated. Capt Nordseth crawled the aisle to insure all passengers were off, he was the last off his plane. While he thought all people were off, they weren’t. Due to the black, oily smoke filled cabin, several passengers missed exits, ending up in the biff and cockpit. If the Captain of the Airliner landing on the Hudson River (February 2008) was a hero (and he was), for sure Captain Nordseth is equally so. I understand these fatalities became the driving force behind aisle way floor lights on current day aircraft..
I appreciate what a harrowing experience it is to be surrounded by black, boiling, oily stinking smoke, which is what Captain Nordseth endured. Early on a sub-zero windy ATY Sunday morning, a nearby equipment building was on fire. Thinking I could rescue something, I opened the door and stepped inside. It was my first time dealing with black, churning smoke - I let it burn.
copyright 2009 by Coston E. "Skip" Powell