Stories from the Age of Transition
in Commercial Aviation
Captain Cowboy and Me
His jaw was as big as his heart, but his ego was bigger. I called him “Captain Cowboy.” He wasn’t a bad guy, but he had a smart-ass sense of humor. The only real barrier to “nice guy” for him was an aggressive attitude that may have helped him become a superior pilot but certainly kept him from being the “most-loved” Captain on American Airlines.
Captain Cowboy usually flew the Mercury, American’s crack DC-6 Skysleeper coast-to-coast, with a Chicago fuel stop each way.
He was a stickler for on-time arrivals. If he had tailwinds eastbound, he’d fly around Long Island so he could bring the airplane to the parking spot exactly on time. A late arrival totally frustrated him. I’d never characterize him as “moody,” but some saw him as somewhat superior, patronizing and a bit supercilious.
If he happened to land a few minutes early, he’d taxi slowly, ever so slowly to the ramp, making certain to cut the engines at exactly 6:59, the scheduled arrival time. But most of the time he’d come in with only moments to spare and he would virtually fly the airplane into Gate 1. It was this habit that put him on my list, ahead of any other nuisance in an otherwise great job.
Ramp agents with American at that time had a diversified job description: checking bags, working as gate guard, working weight and balance prep in the load house, working at departure gates lifting tickets and boarding passengers, computing final weight and balance at the gate, checking all final figures, matching fuel requested against final fuel, adding it all up & comparing final totals with allowable gross take-off weight, getting a final count from the stewardesses, pulling the steps, and, finally, saluting the airplane off. The top job and the most nerve-wracking, was gate control. We wore blue uniforms and regulation caps with American’s proud golden eagle icon, no sleeve stripes and no cap salad.
On inbounds, the ramp agents, standing on a yellow spot on the tarmac about 5 feet wide and using day or night wands, guided the aircraft on to the nose wheel lead line. On an inbound DC-6 that position put the agent directly in the path of the propeller of the number two engine–and that, ultimately, was what brought about my confrontation with Captain Cowboy.
A number of agents complained about it when he’d fly it into the gate, but management never seemed to do anything about the complaints. And then I was assigned to Gate 1. The first few times I saw that propeller heading for my tender bod, I backed off from the spot, as I’d sadly seen enough of what spinning propellers could do while I was in the Army Air Corps.
Captain Cowboy stuck his head out of the cockpit window, called down his in-time (on-time, of course) and then cracked: “Whassa matter–you chicken?” I was ticked, but let it pass.
The next day he did it again. He’d ram that airplane into the gate and pump the brake just as I gave him the cut-engines sign–sometimes braking so violently that the nose of the ship would bob up and down. On another day, he’d baby the thing in and give me a sweetheart grin as if to say, “Nice and easy does it!”
We all knew he was teasing, but we also knew the behavior was getting on our nerves. Those blades flashing in the morning sun looked like meat cleavers.
Finally, one morning he did the fly-it-in at me and he was coming so fast that I simply threw the wand down, turned my back and walked away, back to the gate and into the load-house. Minutes later he caught up with me in the load-house and hollered furiously, “Don’t you ever walk away from me again, you sonofabitch!” I turned and picked up another wand and threw it at him. He caught it and stood there, furious. “Take that and go out and meet the next damn airplane,” I hollered back, “and I hope the goddamned brakes fail!”
Astonished, Captain Cowboy gaped at me, and then he retreated. A puckish grin on his face, all he said was, “Aw, hell!
He put the wand down, turned and walked out.
On his next trip on the Mercury, he landed early and brought the airplane up to about 300 feet from the gate, in front of American’s Hangar 1. There he stopped–probably to make sure I was waiting on the spot. Then he let the airplane move forward at the speed of a slow walk, barely inching along. It seemed as though a half-hour passed before the left wheel touched the spot, and the props were windmilling so slowly you could flip a deck of cards through them. He cut the engines and let me wait for a bit, then stuck his head out and without calling his in-time, gave me his mugging self-satisfied grin and said, “Howz-zat?”
I looked back up at him, dead-in-the-eye, and said, “You’re a fast learner, Captain!” The grin vanished–but so did the behavior. We never had another problem with Captain Cowboy.
Forat and the Show Dog
His name was Forat. He was a big old scruffy, gray, one-eyed tomcat and he lived somewhere in the depths of the old circular terminal building at LaGuardia. At the time, there was a small greasy-spoon of a “restaurant” located on the ground floor of the northwest quadrant of the terminal, known only to God and to the airline shift workers who dashed over between flights for a quick hamburger or a cup of coffee. The place was always in a turmoil, smoke-filled and crowded with mechanics, fleet service people, agents and the occasional stewardess or pilot. Few of the stewardesses ever returned for another cup. They were ladies.
Forat, who only showed up between the hours of 1 a.m. and 4 a.m., stationed himself at the entrance doorway to the restaurant, which opened out on the paved area used by Carey limos bringing passengers from downtown to the TCA, AA and Capital departure concourse. There, he made a very fine living for himself with a nibble of hamburger here, a hot dog nub there, from his sympathetic airline pals. Unlike us, he never complained about the food.
His name, by the way, was an acronym derived from the Flight Dispatch term, “Flight Orders to Be Received At . . . ” When you came to work on a dreary, rainy, foggy day or evening and the teletype from Dispatch read, “Following flights are Forat 0600 or 1200 or 1800, or Forat arrival,” you knew you were in for a dilly of a day because some of the flights would be canceling out, others delayed interminably, equipment would go way out of balance and we’d have unhappy passengers to deal with. Nothing to do but take a deep breath and plunge right in.
Now, American’s midnight shift on the LGA ramp was peopled by a small handful of regulars–outcasts from the morning and evening shifts, an iconoclastic bunch of rule-bending individualists who marched to a different drummer, to say the very least. A couple of mechanics and fleet service clerks with daylight second jobs who managed to catch 140 winks curled up in the cubby-holes next to the ramp load house plus, in the load house, a lead agent, a load agent, and a ramp agent for inbounds and the rare late arrival. A lone ticket agent worked at the counter in the terminal. There was also an isolated airfreight agent who worked in the area on the east side of American’s Hangar One–the only airfreight presence American had at that time. Like King Kong on his island home, the hairy agent was a lonely giant, a great but sympathetic hulk crouched in his distant lair and very, very lonely.
In the load house, we’d have an occasional visit from Forat, who, with no little sense of guilt, would show up now and then at our doorway, a huge dead Norway rat in his jaws. We called them Port Authority Rats because, like the Port Authority, they were swollen and quite comatose. The dutiful but grateful cat would drop the rat at our feet and then disappear for the night.
Our lead agent was a sweet guy, a drifting derelict who washed up on our midnight shore, a sad relic from American Overseas Airlines by way of Pan Am in the era of the great flying boats. Jim would come in at midnight, disappear now and then to a bottle stashed in the parking lot, and at about 2:30, seated on the stool at the ramp control desk, drop his face into his folded arms and depart for destinations unknown and unannounced.
We liked him–more than liked him–and we covered for him, month after month, making sure that he was OK and steady and writing his E-522’s (Report of Irregularity) and other paperwork as needed. Eventually, he married a ticket agent from Capital and left the company. We missed him.
But on this particular night, long after the last inbounds were in and Forat had dropped his last rat, the phone rang at about 2:45, jolting Jim awake. It was the midnight airfreight agent with a rare problem. Half-awake, Jim hung up and asked me to go down to Hangar One and see what the problem was. Saying that, he drifted back to sleep.
The gates were littered with aircraft, some with fleet service personnel making ready for the morning departures. A fuel truck was working a DC-6 on Gate 1B. And from the western edge of the airport, the steady drum of engine checks sounded like rolling thunder. Hangar One seemed deserted when I rounded the corner from the ramp area. Neatly ordered piles of air freight were stacked on pallets, some shrouded in canvas. I made my way into the depths of the freight section, until I heard what sounded like sobbing or moaning.
Breaking out of the forest of pallets, I saw the freight guy at his desk against the back wall of the hangar, the source of the anguish I was hearing. He heard my steps and turned as I approached.
“What’s up?” I said. His eyes were wet. It was clear, the guy was troubled.
He gestured to his right, to a large wooden cage. The door to the cage hung open. Whatever it was that had been in there, was no more. The inner surface of the cage was lined with fine mesh wire, so that no human hand could reach through and no occupant could press a nose outward.
“The show dog,” the agent said. “He’s gone!” He sat there, limp.
“The son-of-a-bitch! That damn dog sat there looking at me with those big sad eyes and I knew he was hungry so I thought I’d share my sandwich with him and I opened the door and before I could even hold it out, he was gone!”
“Gone where?” I asked.
“I dunno. He just ran straight out and stopped and when I ran after him he took off again out across the cement and toward the runways. I don’t know where he is!”
I stared out through the narrow corridors of piled freight, out at the black night and the runways. Only the lights from the Marine Terminal and Rikers Island were visible, and, of course, the smokestack across Flushing Bay with the vertical red neon sign that flashed, LILY . . . TULIP . . .CUPS. . . LILY. . .TULIP. . . CUPS–all night long. That dog, I decided, was long gone, long, long gone.
“I think we have a problem,” I said.
“He was a very valuable mutt,” the agent said. “He’s insured for a hell of a lot. What are we going to do?” he asked me, recovering now from his worst moment. “He’s supposed to be picked up in the morning. The forwarder’s taking him into the annual dog show that opens this morning at Grand Central Palace.”
I thought about it. There was no way we could search the airport, no way for us to drive out beyond the runways with flashlights. We were stuck with an empty cage and a half-eaten ham sandwich just inside the door.
Then, it came to me.
“You have your car here?”
The agent nodded.
“Yeah–over in the parking lot.”
“OK,” I said. “Grab the sandwich and let’s go!”
Jackson Heights and the area around Queens Boulevard in those days were very different from today. Where multi-storied apartment buildings now stand along the boulevard there were mostly open fields–acres and acres–much of it with shrubbery and weeds. The old trolley still ran from the top of the Parkway Bridge on private tracks and then on to 92nd Street all the way to Jamaica.
We cruised around, up one street and down another until at one of the vast empty lots near the boulevard I spotted our quarry with one back leg raised against a fireplug under a street light. He was beautiful! A frowzy, mangy, collarless stray with his ribs showing through, who seemed to be a collie-sheepdog mix of some kind. He did not run as we approached on foot, rather came to us, bowed down and clearly ready to sacrifice freedom for a ham sandwich.
We raced back to the airport with the dog in the back seat, ignoring the parking lot and driving clear into the back of the hangar where for the price of a second sandwich our willing captive happily made his way into the cage while we slammed the door shut. He wolfed the sandwich fiercely, lay down, and was quickly in a deep and satisfied sleep.
Kong and I took a solemn blood oath at that point never to disclose the events of the night, no matter what. And when my phone began ringing at home, waking me from a deep and satisfying sleep at 1000 a.m., I knew nothing about what dog, where? Show dog? No, not me!
Kong, too, recalled nothing eventful about that night. And since the cage had originated in the midwest, changed at Chicago and flew on a freighter with a stop in Buffalo to New York, there were several spots where the cage door could have been opened and the dog’s escape made. Nothing like shared blame, especially with no witnesses!
I went back to sleep that morning, picturing the cage being delivered at Grand Central Palace, the officials opening the cage and our flea-bitten, fragrant, filthy mutt strutting out there in the presence of his groomed, ribboned and well-bathed peers, clearly Best-of-Show!
The Convair 240
At American, the Convair 240 was as revolutionary in our ground operation as any of the later more spectacular airplanes. Conceived as a short to medium range carrier, it filled the niche formerly occupied by the DC-3 which it replaced. It was ideal for the short haul routes within American’s Central and Eastern Regions, though it also saw service along AM4 to and through Texas.
Before American’s commitment to the 240, the airline came very close to choosing the Martin 202, but certain flaws in the basic design spotted by AA’s engineering group, which in operation with other carriers later proved to be disastrously fatal, tipped the scales in favor of the 240 after Martin refused to make the structural modifications engineering wanted to see. The requested changes subsequently made by Martin in the 404 proved the wisdom of American’s group, but by then it was too late to beat the 240 as the airline’s aircraft of choice.
The 240 offered a number of innovative features, but from the passengers’ point of view, perhaps the most important and well received were the two large open baggage compartments on either side of the cabin just aft of the entrance way. Passengers were urged to carry on baggage that would otherwise be checked. The arrangement was ideal for high volume, short haul runs such as BOS-LGA-BOS and LGA-DCA-LGA routes which were strong revenue producers for AAL in those days. It greatly facilitated both loading and debarking passenger movement.
Grossing at about 40,500 from an empty weight of 33,500, with gallonage of 420 to 540 on these route segments, the airplane could easily handle 40 passengers, baggage, mail plus a reasonable amount of express and freight. But AM7 was another story, especially when American added HPN to its 0700 flight 783, LGA-HPN-SYR-ROC-BUF. 783 became the turkey flight for the morning load man who worked up the preliminary weight and balance figures, because fuel requirements of over 580 gallons to HPN meant a weight restriction and often fewer than 40 passengers and no freight or express. This, of course, led to problems at the departure gate, often with fuel top-offs or oversold passengers. The slightest weather enroute could mean a maximum passenger load of anywhere from 34 to 39.
But the airplane was a beauty and soldiered on for many years until the advent of the Electra.
A little-remembered fact is that the prototype for the CV-240 carry-on baggage system was in several of the converted US Army surplus C-54’s that AA bought and reconfigured as the DC-4 just after the war. These several airplanes were, I believe, the low-numbered ships of a fleet of about 49–94450 to around 94459 or so.
We called these ships “Front-Loaders.” For the ramp agents, these were real lemons despite the fact that they proved a point about baggage portability very early in the game.
These modified C-54s were equipped with two passenger doors, one forward and just behind the cockpit on the right and another in the more traditional location on the left fuselage just aft of the wing.
As in the 240 the front-loaders featured spacious open baggage bins just inside the front entrance door. The arrangement greatly aided in loading and unloading passengers quickly in an airplane that carried 46. Front loaders were used in that configuration mostly on the high-density BOS-LGA-DCA corridor.
They were great for passengers in a hurry, but often created havoc for ramp agents meeting the inbound flights. Dispatch messages from outgoing stations included the flight number and the procedure called for inclusion of the letter, “F” after the flight number (352F) in the message if the forward entry had been used in gate boarding.
All too often a message would fail to include the “F,” so that on arrival the agent would wheel the boarding steps to the rear door, open it, and find the stewardesses at the front door and most of the passengers well up the aisle toward the front door through which they boarded. This created no end of confusion and considerable congestion when passengers had to reverse direction and carry their bags through the aircraft body to the rear door.
Since most of the BOS or DCA-LGA trips were terminated at LGA’s Gate 4, formerly a DC-3 and later a Convair gate, a four-engined behemoth allowed for very little clearance for other than nose-in entry and push-back departures. LGA agents particularly disliked a nose-in unloading because Gate 4’s tarmac was on a rather steep downward slope and maneuvering the movable steps downhill was a difficult and somewhat dangerous task requiring at least two and ideally three hands to prevent a runaway and a damaged fuselage. The pull-away was equally troublesome–uphill all the way.
Tractor turnarounds were an ideal answer, but not always feasible because of very tight clearances with Gate 1C opposite and 4A adjacent to the immediate north.
To make matters worse, the situation was even more complicated when a tractor reversal was done. The steps were rolled up to the front door and stewardesses and passengers were waiting at the rear door. Little wonder that the LGA agents welcomed the CV-240!
But the basic worth of the carry-on idea proved itself again and again with the DC-4 front-loaders.
The CV-240 with its 40 passenger capacity proved a boon on the high traffic short haul routes, particularly on the LGA-BOS-LGA trips. Friday afternoons at LGA were incredible. AA’s daily schedule LGA-BOS showed hourly non-stops to and from Beantown, with the magic hour–4:30 to 5:30 creating a log-jam of standbys often numbering more than a hundred on Fridays, so many that the airline created a standby room on the concourse adjacent to the loadhouse at the head of the Gate 4 finger. The standby room was manned by 2 and sometimes 3 ticket agents at a counter about seven feet wide.
At one time an angry passenger, furious because he had not been boarded on several consecutive flights, pounded the desk and shouted at the agents, “I’ll have your goddamned jobs for this! CR Smith is a personal friend of mine! I’m calling him now and you’re ass is mud!
The agent’s pleasant smile, or better, his chuckling laugh, infuriated the passenger even more.
“What’s so goddamned funny?” the passenger demanded.
“Your friend is standing just behind you, Sir,” the agent said, gesturing toward CR Smith, next in line behind him. CR, of course, could ride jumpseat on any flight but he often took the role of an ordinary passenger just to see how things were going. The passenger in this case took one look and hunched up, making his way from the counter and toward Eastern Airlines, his face beet-red as the other passengers witnessing the scene laughed him away.
It’s said that once, CR standing before the DCA terminal ticket counter with the station manager beside him, said, “Let’s get some tits on that counter!” Certain strategic personnel moves were made forthwith.
And this brings us to the story of flight -352, a LGA-BOS 5:00 PM departure. This trip invariably left the gate with 40 passengers every day of the week. A reservations agent by the name of Jesse, a fine gentleman of the old south, worked the flight in Res and he knew the pattern well.
For Friday afternoon departures, he always booked 60 or more passengers–and once, 85–on the 40 seat airplane, knowing from experience that most of these would no-show. For months, even years, the pattern held.
At departure time, even with sixty bookings, the gate agent would find himself with eight, ten, possibly 14 or 15 seats still open. Standbys easily made it a full ship–until on one steamy August Friday everybody showed up!
There were 40 holding passengers aboard ten minutes before departure time and holding passengers kept streaming down to the gate until the entire finger was filled with passengers holding legitimate reservations of the flight.
They stood there in the narrow finger, shoulder to shoulder, sweltering and angry as all three passenger service managers tried to make some semblance of order out of the mess. Poor old Jesse got himself fired for that, despite his excellent management of the flight over all those months and years.
Though the CV-240 was a perfectly trustworthy airplane with an excellent safety record, the two fatals it experienced during American’s operation of the craft hit us pretty hard on the LGA ramp. The first was the accident near Fort Leonard Wood, in which the left engine caught fire on final approach. The pilot fought valiantly to keep the airplane airworthy but only yards from the end of the runway, the engine dropped off and the airplane went in with 100% fatalities.
The subsequent investigation showed that a maintenance error at LGA had been the basic cause of the disaster and as a result, we lost a remarkable and wonderful man, Marv Whitlock, the vice president of maintenance and one of American’s real pioneers.
Marv was a gentleman, a man of real integrity. I often saw him in the hangars on Sunday mornings, standing in a circle of mechanics, talking shop. And on one morning, I saw sitting on the concrete floor of the hangar under a wing, with three mechanics squatting beside him. They were examining a part and obviously deep in meaningful conversation. Our loss was United’s gain, for Marvin went on to become United’s top maintenance man for many years afterward.
American had a policy with newly hired agents of providing the new people with a familiarization flight within the geographical limits of the Eastern Region. Two new ramp agent hires, William Schreiber and Sal Cinquemani, after working for a few weeks, elected to take their familiarization flight to Buffalo and return the same day.
Schreiber was a heavy set, chubby-cheeked, smooth-complexioned outgoing kid with close cut blonde hair. He would have looked more natural in a white apron in a German bakery than in his blue agent’s uniform. He was friendly, upbeat and delighted to be working on the ramp with us.
Cinquemani was a quiet youngster, with almond eyes and a Mediterranean skin. He looked like an Etruscan wall mural with classic features and a rather sad face. But he, too, was excited about his new job. Neither man was married and they both spoke of the pride their mothers and fathers had with their new opportunities.
The flight to Buffalo was uneventful, with several landings and takeoff enroute along AM7. Both of them were standing by as NRSA–Non-revenue, space available–passengers for the return flight that evening. With them, quite by chance, was Nick Mandela, an LGA ramp and lead agent who had recently received a promotion as a staff man in the New York General Office. Nick had a non-revenue, positive space ticket for the return flight. The flight they were standing by for was a BUF-EWR nonstop CV-240.
At departure time, two seats were open. Nick, with his positive space ticket, took precedent, but he declined because the flight was going into Newark and his car was parked at LGA. That let both Schreiber and Cincquemani free to board. Mandela caught the next flight, a BUF-LGA nonstop leaving an hour later. When he arrived at LGA, he found to his horror that the flight that he could have been on had crashed in Elizabeth on approach to Newark. There were no survivors.
The experience scarred Nick for life. The only sense anyone could make of the disaster was the old Eastern concept of Karma–but few in those days had any idea of what this obscure term meant.
It was more than enough that we lost 38 passengers, two cockpit crewmen, a stewardess, and two fine young men who died without ever knowing what wonderful careers lay ahead for them.
Birthing the 747 at American
I was with American Airlines from 1947 until 1969 and so had the opportunity to witness firsthand the evolution from the DC-3 to the 747. No airplane had the impact that the 747 had on every aspect of passenger–and cargo–aviation. The changes were astounding, both in the planning stage and in the reality of the aircraft’s implementation.
Based at the Tulsa Maintenance & Engineering Center from 1961 until I left the company to join Peat, Marwick in 1970, I was active in much of the advance work from a rather unique perspective, as Manager of Organization Development (OD), during the two significant pre-entry years of the airplane.
We had, for example, information that for every incoming passenger on any flight, two and one-half visitors could be expected, meeting and greeting. Thus, an airplane with a capacity of 400 passengers could realistically see as many as 1,000 greeters.
Though I do not know the source of this figure, the impact of this alone on the airport infrastructure was enough to give any planner nightmares. Parking, rest rooms, restaurants, passenger corridors, departure lounges, emergency facilities, skycap services–a thousand variable factors from the standpoint of inside facilities alone–compared to what existed, then–were simply mind-numbing.
Add to that the ramp, air freight, service, hangar, maintenance, and reservations and information services and you begin to get a real feel for the impact the 747 had.
We’d had difficult tasks earlier, among them the introduction of the DC-6, the DC-7, the Electra debacle, and the 707, which caught us with only one university graduate in our entire maintenance organization, and a mechanic force utterly unready for the complexities of a 750 volt system and the sophisticated electronics. That’s another story!
And I recall one very oddball meeting, where the nine vice presidents located at Tulsa approved a several million dollar EDP system after a discussion of about 14 minutes–and then argued for 45 minutes about the assignments of parking spaces in the lot outside.
So, there was an air of panic at Tulsa as the advent of the 747 loomed. We were definitely not ready for the technological advances that this airplane demanded, and I doubt if any airline, ever, really was, in those days.
Charley Turcott, the system’s Vice President of Line Maintenance, based in Tulsa and responsible for all of the major base maintenance stations, reported to the Vice President-Maintenance & Engineering, a tall, affable man named Tom Fleig.
Turcott was a barrel of a man, schooled on the streets of New York. He’d risen from the ranks, from mechanic at LaGuardia and Kennedy, to Manager of Line Maintenance at Kennedy, thence to Tulsa. He was an aggressive fighter who brooked no nonsense from his staff, from staff support people, or from any of the eight vice presidents who were his peers at the base.
But one day he appeared in my office, distraught. For some time, I’d noticed that he seemed to be under greater and greater strain. The long hours he habitually worked may have been part of it, but long hours had never put him in such a state before. Nor was the fact that he had been given full maintenance and facilities responsibility for the 747 entry program in the field.
The guy was an effective manager, and this was just one more big one in a series of big ones. The problem that was killing him was with his peers and, according to him, their inability to listen to what he was telling them, and their seeming apathy to the massive problems he was facing at this critical time when their cooperation–and the cooperation of their staffs right down the line–was absolutely essential to the success of the project. “I can’t seem to get through to them, to get them to understand,” he said to me. “My neck’s in the wringer on this, my whole career is riding on this one–and they either don’t care, or they don’t know, or they’re out to get me!”
Hearing this from a legendary fighter, a guy who’d stay toe-to-toe with the toughest on the block, gave me great cause for concern. I’d been in on many of the meetings and had seen the way the management team habitually cut Charley out of the loop. There was a vice president for every function–engine overhaul, aircraft overhaul, engineering, quality control, purchasing, line maintenance, management information, and directors of personnel and of long range planning. Every one of them was a tiger, and they were a pretty self-centered crew. What was worse, it was clear that they simply had no feel for Charley’s problem–or, if they did, cold-blooded as it sounds, it seemed that they cared not at all for either his program or his fate.
They were, for the most part, wrapped up in their own parts of the problem, each of which, though a separate function, dovetailed intimately with and critically affected what Charley was trying to do.
In their independent thrusts, each man was creating interface problems with Turcott and his men, and with the airplane delivery date looming, Charley saw disaster ahead, wrapped in big box, tied with a ribbon, with his name on it. I didn’t blame him one bit, because no one else faced the overlap and the conflicting matrix of problems that he faced, and worse, no one seemed to give a hoot.
When he asked me for advice, I suggested that we get away from the property, that we all get down to one of the Oklahoma state lodges from a Friday afternoon to Sunday, on the next possible weekend. There was no question in my mind but that the exigencies of the immediate operation were no small part of the problem. We had to get them out of the pit they were functioning in and on to neutral ground of some kind.
Well, Charley persuaded the New York Headquarters for Maintenance, and New York persuaded Fleig, and we all rolled down to the state lodge at Lake Eufaula–a beautiful facility set in the rolling hill country south and west of Tulsa, for what was officially a “747 entry planning meeting.”
After a comfortable dinner, we retired to a private meeting room which I had carefully planned with the problem in mind. There was no meeting table. The team sat in an oval in comfortable arm chairs. The first cigar had hardly been lighted when it as clear to me that everything Charley had told me was true. He was definitely out of the loop. They worked an agenda, and the agenda definitely concerned 747 entry problems, but each time Charley tried to make clear the extent of his frustration and the problems the team were creating for him, he was either put down, or the topic was changed to fit someone else’s agenda. It was not that the problems the team was voicing were not real, or not important–it was that each one there felt his own problems were paramount and worked to see that the group acknowledged that and did something about it.
By the time we broke shortly after midnight, Turcott was fit to be tied. Utterly frustrated, sweating, teeth-biting angry, he grabbed me in the hall and said, “Did you see that? Did you hear what was going on in there? Now do you see what I mean?” And he was right. He had attempted several times during the evening to make his point, but each time had been cut out, sometimes subtly, sometimes abruptly to the point where the scene resembled a labor-management confrontation. “They’ll come around,” I told him. “Let’s see where they are in the morning.” Not very reassuring words from a guy who was supposed to be a specialist in organizational dynamics. I watched Charley stalk down the corridor to his room, feeling the potent fury in the man.
We were well into the morning meeting after a good night’s sleep–for half our party, at least. A clique, I learned, had been up until after 4 in the morning following the established male ritual–poker, cigars, and good scotch. Charley was ragged, red-eyed, and ready to go home. He had not been at the card table.
I listened during the first hour or two as the process of the previous evening was repeated. Finally, when Charley had clearly reached the limit of this frustration and I could see that his peers were still not amenable to his input, I broke in.
“Let’s do something,” I said. “It’s pretty clear that Charley has something to say to us, and I want to be sure we all understand what that is.” Turning to Charley, I said, “Are you willing to try something different, Charley?”
Looking back at me with desperation in his eyes, he said, “I’ll do anything–anything at all if it will make these guys hear me.”
“Okay,” I said. “Everybody stand up,” I said. Each man obeyed. A few stretched and yawned and then stood there, quizzically waiting, their skepticism clear. I pointed at the carpet.
“Charley,” I said, “will you lie down, there?” Charley looked at me as if I’d lost my mind, but he complied. The rest of them seemed convinced that I had.
Turning to the others, I said, “Lift him up. Lift Charley up!” They looked at me as if I had a loose bolt. “Come on, lift him, like this–” I demonstrated, placing my hands under Charley’s waist. Then I stood back and the seven men squatted, three on each side and one at Charley’s head. Charley looked scared stiff. His eyes rolled from side to side as his protagonists’ faces loomed over him.
They slipped their hands under Charley’s prone figure. “Now lift,” I said. “Lift him up!” They struggled mightily, breathing hard and grunting, as working as a team together they slowly lifted all 250 pounds of Charley Turcott waist-high, then shoulder-high. They were groaning and moaning and giggling as well as grown men can giggle–and they were beginning to sweat a little.
Not quite satisfied with their performance as yet, I commanded, “Now–all the way, all the way up!”
They looked at me doubtfully, as one. “What? This load of shit?” one said.
“Up,” I said.
With a final groan, they raised their burden until Charley’s nose was barely more than a few inches from the ceiling. He was terrified. “Holy shit, you guys!” he cried, “Don’t drop me, for Christ’s sake!” They replied with more moans. The burden was a tough one.
Two of the men in the supporting role were antagonists–one, Cy Gilbert, the Director of Long Range Planning, was a living enemy of Ed Huot, the Vice President of Engine Overhaul.
Gilbert was a retired Navy man–an Admiral’s Aide–who was universally disliked not only because he had arrived so late on the scene, but because he had a natural proclivity, which he exercised universally, for browbeating anyone who got in his way.
From the moment he arrived on the scene, turmoil followed his every step. Huot on the other hand had come from the Buick Engine Division of General Motors. He’d been schooled in the 1938 sit-down strikes, a pioneer labor man if ever there was one, with all the scars to prove it. A gruff, demanding, brawling kind of guy, he was if not loved, at least respected and admired by those who worked for him.
Putting the gladiators Huot and Gilbert together before a coliseum crowd of five thousand and expecting them not to confront each other would be a hopeless exercise. They homed in on each other from the beginning. The battle was ruthless, no-quarter, horrendous–and it continued day and night with poor Tom Fleig, no mean fighter himself, constantly having to separate them and make peace.
No wonder Charley was on the periphery–the main battle, the center stage, was between these two, who now struggled mightily with the five others to give Charley the support he so desperately needed to keep from crashing to the floor.
Someone once said that OD people are sadists, and there may be some truth to that, because rather than letting them bring Charley back to earth from this graphic and highly experiential demonstration of the situation that was sinking our 747 entry program, I drew Huot and Gilbert out from the supporting group, taking them to a corner of the room, where I positioned them face-to-face, with the palms of their hands extended, pressed each to the other’s. I simply told them to stand there, palms together, while I returned to the supporting group, which, by now, keenly felt the loss of two of their strongest members.
Worse, Charley himself, with ten hands instead of fourteen supporting him, felt his position weakening by the moment as the support grew more and more tenuous.
“Hold him–hold him steady, now,” I encouraged, acknowledging the sweating circle that was now close to exhaustion. Meanwhile, over in the corner, the two enemies had begun to press against each other, and the match became a physical struggle as they began to work out the anger and the frustration and the antagonism they felt for each other. This grew more physical and ever more vocal, until I called a halt.
We reassembled–and for the rest of the day and most of the day that followed, the group worked the real problems. The demonstration showed them, in the grossest of physical terms, what they had been unable to grasp intellectually or emotionally.
From that day on, Turcott’s fortunes improved, and American’s 747 entry program was the best–even given the new technology–and the smoothest equipment entry the airline had ever experienced.
As for Huot and Gilbert–back on the job, they still would not talk to each other. Not until, one day, I received a call from Huot. “Look,” he said, “I’ll hate that sonofabitch until the day I die, but I learned a lot that day down at the lake. I know we have to talk.” He paused, his voice hushed, almost a whisper. “Can you set it up for me, somehow?”
“Sure,” I said. “Why don’t you come over to his office and let us talk about it, the three of us?”
“Like hell!” he boomed, very suddenly the old fighter again. “There’s no way I’ll go to him! Have him come over here!”
By now, my eyes were tracing the ceiling. “Look, Ed–how about the three of us go to lunch. We can meet on neutral ground in the reception area and we can go in my car–“
Well, that was OK. We met, and as a result of that luncheon, the two of them began a process of communication–only at lunch and only on neutral ground–that at least took them through the worst of the days remaining.
Huot, interested in OD techniques by then, later asked what we could do to improve relations and communication between his engine overhaul group and the engineering group, which were blueprint-to-blueprint in constant hassle.
We took the key managers to an off-site location, split the two functions in separate meeting rooms, and had each group draw a list of adjectives which they felt described themselves, and a similar list which they felt aptly described the other functional group.
When these lists were prepared, the four sets of lists were posted in a third meeting room, into which both groups were escorted following a desultory and uncommunicative lunch.
Naturally, each group’s verbal descriptions saw the other groups with black hats and their group as white hats.
From this perspective of themselves and of their antagonists publicly posted, we were soon into a very meaningful process of communication and of understanding, which, once the two men at the top had resolved their differences, soon moved on down the line. Once again, engineering was talking with engine overhaul!
Thus came the 747 to American Airlines!