Sunday, April 23, 2017

So Ya Wanna Fly?

So Y'Wanna Fly?

May 1956.

3.00 AM Graveyard Shift, "Move Crew" Room, United Airlines San Francisco Maintenance Base.

"Hey Aussie, 'ave ya seen Don?"

"Naw," I say. "He's probably sleeping in the seat storage room. He was flying this afternoon."

"When's he gonna get his Commercial license?"

"Dunno, but didja y'know he's taking classes at San Mateo JayCee for his A & P."

Any conversation to stay awake. We keep one eye out for the foreman, a good bloke but a company man. John Blackwell, fresh out of the Trappist Monastery in Ogden, is out on the ramp in the morning chill saying his Rosary; Jerry Mukai's leaning back in his chair staring into blue collar airspace; Brown is reading yesterday's Chronicle he found on a DC6 coming in for overhaul. It's the ugly hour when you know the shift's half over, and you don't want to be farmed out for some grunt job with another mechanic who's behind on his job and all that's left is the shit work.

"Todd, what's Sather have to pay for his flying time?" I ask.

"I think Cessna 140 time's about $14 an hour solo," Todd replies.

"No way," says Brown, always ripe for an argument, his eyes just clearing the top of the broadsheet newspaper paper. "A guy I know only pays $12." Brown always knows a guy.

"Critch," says Todd, "when I was a mechanic in the Air Force they had a program called Aviation Cadets - they will teach you to fly. It takes about 18 months and when you're done, ya got yer wings and they make you an officer."

"No shit! Where do you sign up"

"Nah," interrupts Brown, "you'd never qualify, Todd. You've gotta have two years of college and they only take the smartest guys." Once again, Brown knows all about it.

"Bullshit, I was with a mechanic who didn't have any college and he got in! Dunno what happened to him but I know only 50% of the guys make it through. It's tough - the academics, the military chickenshit. It's a real 'Tiger' program. They keep saying they only take the top 2% and wash out half of them."

I think, "Well that let's me out. I'm no 'Tiger' and my academic career was not brilliant having left school at age 16."

"Hey, Aussie, wanna go down and find out about it?" asks Todd.

"Sure, why not. I don't have anything planned after the shift's over."

Don't have anything planned? What's to plan. I've been in the USA since Christmas last year and the horizon is void. Can I get my A & P? Perhaps. Go to college? How and where and with what? I have no money saved but perhaps if I joined the service I could get something out of it without shelling out any dough. My background as a mechanic is mostly fabricated although I'm a quick study and smart enough to stay out of trouble.

Shift over, coveralls sweaty and dead tired, we head out in Todd's car for Mission and Market Streets, and up the stairs to the Air Force Recruiting Office.

Todd takes over.

"Good morning sergeant, we'd like to sign up for Aviation Cadets."

The six striper takes a look at us and figures if he can talk us into signing up as enlisted swine, he just might make his weekly quota. "Aviation cadets, no way," he thinks.

"Well, you have to fill out the application, have a physical and take the written test. It'll take all morning, do you have the time?"

I look at Todd, his eyes like two pissholes in the snow. "Why not?"

Now, thanks to the sisters of St. Joseph I've always been good at tests. All you have to do is figure out what the test writer or the prospective employer wants and give it to him. .

The Application

Education: Hmm. Attended St Ignatius' College Riverview. Sounds good and it's true. High School: Gunnedah High with passes in, let's see: Physics, Chemistry, Math I and II, English.

Work Experience: Mechanic, Clegg and Tyrrell (well that's stretching it a bit, but they'll never check that out) QANTAS Sydney, Aero Engineer and Mechanic (got a certificate proving that) United Airlines, got a job there.

Citizenship: Got my passport - Thanks Mum, thanks Mary.

"Here y'are sergeant."

He looks and is pleasantly surprised.

The Test.

Thank God it's general knowledge, aptitude and some basic math and science.
What's this airplane? What's that capital? Sines and cosines. Pythagoras. Elementary algebra. Some nonsense about train schedules and interpretation of graphs. Fun stuff. Piece o'cake; Coulda done it in 7th grade.

An hour later, I emerge from the test room. Ex Airman 2nd Class Todd is still in there.

The sergeant takes the test and runs it through a scoring machine. He is more than pleasantly surprised, he's impressed but tries not to show it.

"Take this paper over to that office across the room and give it to the nurse. We'll give you your physical this morning."

Geez, a physical, at this hour. Don't know if I can even make water. Oh well, what the heck, it's something to do. Nice nurse, bit old for me 'tho. Fill out the medical form. Childhood sickness? I'm not totally truthful, but then I'm not sure what I've had. Good thing I don't know what caused my brother's or parents' or  deaths. Venereal Disease? No, never. Christ, can't tell the truth here but I'm almost a virgin. Physical restrictions? Nope.

Strip off down to my shorts, see the doctor, turn, cough, get a 'finger wave up the rear. Touch the toes, look left, look right, can you see my fingers? How many? Say aaah!

Back to the Recruiting Sergeant. Still no sign of Todd.

"Am I in?" I tactfully ask.

"Well, no. This is just the beginning. You'll have to have another more extensive physical, and a two day exam north of here at Travis Air Force Base near Sacramento. You'll get a letter setting it up."

I head out and find Todd in the waiting area sitting in the cheap leatherette seats.

"How'd you make out?" I ask.

"Didn't pass the test. Aww. I really didn't want back in the Air Force"

"Wanna beer?"

Todd's 3 AM "Hey, Aussie, wanna go down and find out about it?" changed my life's direction more than any other planned decision.

That's life.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Alameda, California 1938

I am four years old. And my world is small.

Who are all these people? Mostly all I can see is legs. And skirts.

It’s the Depression - 1938 and we are busted.

The family, I mean. The tall, long legged man who comes and goes can’t hold a job. The nice Catholic lady is stuck with a vow of Obedience to the Man. That’s the fate of being an ex-patriate, Australian Catholic wife in the Thirties. And the man who has survived the Battle of the Somme in 1917 has re-developed his taste for scotch

We move a lot – the Aussie word is ‘shift’. The moves are in the night and long after the rent is due. We stay in the same suburb but why the landlords can’t find us is a mystery. Maybe other people do the same thing. But then, mother has the gift of the Blarney and dad is a Will o’the Wisp.

Our last stop is the second floor of a sparsely furnished, wood-frame apartment close to Alameda’s shunting yards. The freight trains in the backyard bring the out-of-work bums from the East and load the outbound freight from the Port of Oakland. 

It’s Sunday morning and dad opens the Oakland Chronicle’s funnies and reads them to me; Buck Rogers. Black Barney, Doctor Huer, Buck and his young protégés, Buddy and Alura are fighting the Martian cat people and the Mongol hordes, the evil Killer Kane and his ‘squeeze’, Ardala Valmar. To author Philip Nowlan and illustrator, Army Air Corps Lt. Dick Calkins they are surrogates for the real foreign aggressors who will soon throw the world into war. My brother Jim who died two years ago would have been a Navy man maybe even a carrier pilot. Then I would have had a model, a mentor. He is dead too soon which rips out my mother’s heart. She blames my father. Why?
“Your drinking has caused this, Will! I can never forgive you.”

In my I.Magin suit with pearl buttons, we are in the City. San Francisco. The big people I am used to seeing every day are hurrying. Where are we going? I cannot understand what's happening. It's not the usual routine of being washed, dressed and fed. Hurry, hurry, hurry.

The man has surrendered the family passport for free passage ‘home’ to Australia.

We are now in a small space with the steamer trunks - large trunks that I shall remember for the rest of my life.  I see suitcases, I feel secure. The smell around me is a ‘new’ smell like the paint on my black toy train but there is no train. Like so much, it is left behind.  But I can and see Dutchie, the girl doll I have undressed. I hold my Teddy bear out of the round window and hold him tight. He can’t swim, but I will soon get my first lessons.

The Voyage ‘Home’

Big ship, little boy. No other kids so the big people are kind. They pass me around.

There are several ‘white hat’ sailors in Steerage. They are to be stationed in Pearl Harbor. When the aft cargo hatch is removed and turned into a swimming pool, I ride on their backs. They are teaching me to swim. No fear of the water now nor ever.

The bartenders gave me root beers. 

“There are roots in the root beer,” the bartender tells me.

“What are roots?” I ask.

No answer. Never an answer, or if there is one, I am distracted by the shipboard excitement and hear nothing.

For years whenever the word ‘root’ appeared, I picture that icy drink in the ship’s bar - the drink of my early childhood, which never reappears until my return to the United States many years later.

I imagine that roots are little balls of flavor like peppercorns; sweet, strange. I see a place that grows roots for sweet drinks for little fair-haired boys with round faces confused by a world larger than can comprehend.

Now, much older, I what understand what roots are. Roots are like stars - distant, invisible and incomprehensible to adults. Roots are part of the mystery of childhood.


We anchor for several hours in Sydney Harbor near “Pinchgut,” a knob of rock with a miniature stone fort – the site of the noonday gun. The sky is a clear winter blue, the water sparkles, the harbor dotted with sailboats and ferries is narrow and the shoreline indented with sheltered coves, edged in lush parks and gardens and houses with red-tiled roofs.

The tugboats nuzzle the S.S. Mariposa into the pier. 

Down we go; down the narrow plank into a mob with suitcases and everybody smells of wool and mothballs their coats recently taken from the steamer trunks.

“Addie, we’re home,” says the big man. He has only £3 in his pocket. Not much even in 1938.

The taxicab with the trunks and four passengers speeds up George Street, left on King Street and up William Street through the Cross.

“Where to, mate?” says the driver.

Mate? A new word I’ve never heard but one that I will carry with me all my life.

“Bondi Beach’s just the ticket,” says the cabbie. “You’ll be right.”

We dodge the green and yellow trams* through Darlinghurst and Kings Cross, and Bondi Junction. Another ten minutes to Bondi Beach with its vacant lots, tiled-roof, brick houses.

On a three storey, brick apartment building opposite Campbell Parade, the fish and chip belt of Bondi Beach, is a “To Let” sign. Will goes inside; returns and pays off the driver.

“Good luck, mate.” And the cab leaves.

Will has talked the manager into waiving the deposit for the first week’s rent! “My funds are still clearing from America.”

The world is starting to make sense.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Lew's Story

Memorial Day Weekend 1958
By Lew Wallick

In early May 1958, Boeing Flight Test moved 707-121, N707PA painted in Pan American
colors, to Edwards AFB in California for the continuation of 707 certification tests. The test program included runway performance, aerodynamic performance, climb performance, thrust and drag in all flap and gear configurations, handling qualities, and system tests. The reason for testing at Edwards was excellent weather, minimal traffic, and convenient test

As Memorial Day approached, the LA newspapers each day had stories of the marvelous DC-8 and how it would be superior to the 707. The local news media was strong supporters of Douglas Aircraft in those days (unlike the Seattle media in regard to Boeing). The news all published stories of Douglas’ plan to fly the DC-8 on Memorial Day weekend (Saturday, as I remember), and bleachers had been erected on the airport for employees and family to witness the first takeoff at about noon.

On the scheduled day, it was just another test day for the 707. Arise at 4:30 A.M., have breakfast, go to the airport, and take off at 6:30 A.M. to conduct the first test flight for that day. Our plan was to proceed to the vicinity of Catalina Island and conduct low altitude climb performance and drag/thrust tests. We proceeded with our test plan and flew test conditions until we had burned fuel to the level we could no longer maintain the gross weight and center of gravity needed for the test conditions, approximately 9:30 A.M.

My co-pilot was Walt Haldeman, a CAA test pilot stationed in the LA region of the CAA.
As we departed the test area, we climbed to about 15,000 feet and set course for Edwards AFB. By coincidence, the route was almost over Long Beach airport where the DC-8 was to make its flight. When we reached altitude, we heard over the radio the various Douglas photo stations, wind measuring stations, and other test support talking on the common flight test radio frequency we also used to communicate with our mobile radio station at Edwards. Walt and I discussed flying over the Long Beach airport and taking a look at the DC-8. About 15 miles from Long Beach, I selected tower frequency, identified myself as 707 Papa Alpha, and requested to overly the airport at 5,000 feet.

The tower acknowledged the request, and after a brief pause asked if we were a Boeing 707.

I confirmed we were indeed a Boeing 707. The tower cleared us to overfly at 5,000 feet. Shortly, the tower came back and cleared us to 3,000 feet, which I acknowledged. Very shortly, the tower cleared us to 1,000 feet, which I again acknowledged. (They were really getting into this!) When we were about three miles from the airport, with no request from me, the tower cleared us to overfly the airport at any altitude we wished! I again acknowledged the clearance. We lowered the landing gear and flaps and descended to about 500 feet (maybe it was a little lower) and flew the length of the runway, added thrust at the end of the runway, and climbed out to continue to Edwards. All of a sudden, as we were over the airport, there was absolute silence of the flight test radio frequency. We continued to Edwards and landed and planned a second flight for the afternoon.

The next day, Walt informed me we were probably in trouble—at least he was. Mr. Douglas had called the regional CAA Office and raised HELL with Walt’s supervisor. Apparently, when we made our flight down the runway many of the local radio media people were in the coffee shops surrounding the airport. When they heard us fly by, they ran outside and saw a jet transport with in those days heavy black exhaust climbing away. They immediately, and typically, reported by telephone that the DC-8 had successfully began its first flight and on and on with their prepared spiels. As a result, many Douglas employees heard these reports and very few actually showed up to witness the DC-8 takeoff. This really upset Mr. Douglas.

I later found out that they also called Bill Allen and apparently read him the riot act as well.

No one in Boeing management said anything to me, good or bad. When the Convair 880

was scheduled for its first flight, Walt and I joked about going to San Diego, but decided it was too far away.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Night Departure from Tachikawa. 1958

The cockpit crew enters from the maintenance stand on the right side. Their shoes scrape the serrated, steep, metal stairs. The side rails are dirty and oily and they are careful not to let them touch their gabardine ‘suntans’. The cabin to cockpit door is closed and the crew compartment is cloaked with a dull red glow; the electrical inverters whine and the gyro instruments hum in anticipation of flight.

All cockpits have a familiar smell. If they are cold and the airplane is new, the smell has a sharp ‘auto body shop’ tang. If the airplane is old and the cockpit is warm, the sweaty smell of long flights clings to the crew’s seats and is released when the crewmembers settle in to make their ‘nests’ - the place in which they must endure the long hours of transoceanic flights. The nest in the cockpit ‘cave’ becomes their personal refuge from the elements outside.

They wait for taxi clearance. The warm summer rain spatters the cockpit windows; the ground crew waits beside the outside power unit with its umbilical cord supplying electricity until the engines take over.

The Cabin Door Warning Light extinguishes; the co-pilot looks at the inner right hand engine and says, “Ready on three.”

The Captain commands: “Start Number Three.” The starter whines, the propeller turns, the cylinders fill with gasoline vapor and obey the spark. The engine wakes up coughing through its exhaust pipes.

All engines started, the plane now alive, begins its journey, taxiing to the runway as the crew recites the litany of the checklists. The smell of the Orient fades as pressurized air fills the ‘plane. Cockpit lights are dimmed as they wait for takeoff clearance.

Now the Flight Engineer scans the engine instruments as the Captain orders, “Max power,” requesting the full power of the four, 14 cylinder Pratt and Whitney engines powering the Douglas DC-6. The Captain’s and Engineer’s hands push the throttles forward, and the maximum power is reflected on the engine instruments. The airplane’s brakes are released. Inside the aluminum tube, everyone feels the rapid acceleration of the propeller driven airplane.
The co-pilot focuses on the airspeed indicator waiting for it to register the speed beyond which the ‘plane cannot stop should the takeoff be refused. The Captain’s left hand which has tightly gripped the Nose Wheel steering control, begins to relax as the rudder now steers the airplane.

The Co-pilot says, “Vee one”, and the takeoff can no longer be denied. They are committed to fly. The Captain’s left hand smoothly moves from the Nose Wheel control and now grasps the yoke – the master control of the airplane’s altitude and direction. He pulls it toward his waist and the airplane begins to fly.  They are airborne, the engines at full power almost drown out the Captain’s command to raise the Landing Gear, but his right hand thumb jerks up – a visual command understood by all airmen, “Gear up!!”

The lights of the city pass under the plane and they enter fractured clouds leaving behind the growing population whose next generation will astound the world with its productivity.

Sayonara, Tachikawa.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Public Punishment at St. John the Baptist

Billy Critch


The Eleventh and Twelfth Commandments at St. John the Baptist were:

11th “Thou shalt not pimp.”

12th “Thou shalt not cry whilst enduring punishment.”

I was one of Sister Mary Clotilda’s Bursary Boys, the select group that she tutored so that we could continue our secondary education with a full-time scholarship at St. Joseph College, nearby. Photos of her successful students were prominently displayed on the wall in her classroom.

The good sisters were death on dirty jokes even if we didn’t understand what they meant; childhood smutty jokes we had picked up from older brothers or fellow classmates were anathema. Repeating dirty jokes was sinful and subject to capital punishment which would now be considered child abuse.

So we concealed our dirty sniggers and grins for those private times when we could escape the sisters’ ever-watchful eyes: on the playfield behind the small pavilion where the equipment was stored, or after ‘lights out’ in the dorms. Laughing was only for happy occasions such as an extra serving of dessert, the announcement of a student’s contagious disease which would close the school for a week or two as a precaution against its spreading.

Imagine my surprise when I was called to Sister Clotilda’s desk on the podium and calmly confronted with the report that I had been guilty of telling a dirty joke.

“Oh, no sister, I would never have said anything like that,” I said.

She pointed to one of my classmates who blushed and avoided my eyes. The rat had broken the 11th Commandment.

The inquisition lasted for what seemed like an hour and I suspect I must have admitted my guilt, as I was probably the kid who told the most dirty jokes in the history of the school. We were a simple bunch without radio, TV or Man Magazine, suggestive movies or access to Roy Rene at the Tivoli burlesque, but somehow I managed to acquire a great repertoire, which fortunately has lasted me through my entire life.

As her interrogation continued she became flushed and her voice became louder and angry. Finally she left her seat, opened her desk and produced what was the largest strap I had ever seen – a suitcase strap an inch and a half wide, and an eighth of an inch thick. With a flourish she threw back her veil over her shoulder grabbed my left arm and commenced to beat me on the backside. As she warmed to the task, I observed the 12th Commandment.

Sister Clotilda was not a tall woman, but born in a mining camp in Arrarat, Victoria, she was very sturdy and had the sisters fielded a Rugby team she would have been a Forward – probably the Rake. She laid into me with a fury I had never seen; classmates later told me I received over 40 lashes and would have received more but in her enthusiasm to root out evil, she made a tactical error.

A leg of the large, reversible chalkboard balanced on the edge of the podium caught the strap on the backswing of the 41st. stroke. The downswing pulled the old board on to the floor where it shattered, much to the amusement of the entire 5th and 6th Classes.

She shook me loose and fled the room. No one laughed nor broke the 11th Commandment by telling any of the other sisters.

And yes, I did pass the Bursary exam but having seen the Marist Brothers in similar punitive actions, next year I became a Riverview boy for, as everybody knows, the ‘Jacks’ were pussies.

If you believe that I’ve got a Sydney Harbour Bridge I will sell you!

St John the Baptist Preparatory School for Boys, Hunter's Hill. N.S.W. Australia

Thursday, April 12, 2012

We're Out of ice, Captain.

“Pacific 423, Medford Tower, you are cleared for takeoff.

It’s the Captain’s leg and late in the afternoon. Somehow we’ve ended up in Medford, Oregon, picking up a load of unhappy passengers whose day has been spoiled by nasty winter weather and delays on the system.The Captain sets the power and we climb out on course for San Francisco and into the ‘clag’. 

I’m a very new co-pilot with Pacific Airlines and am wary of saying too much or adding any suggestions to the Captain’s style or skill. Co-pilots are on probation for the first year and a bad report from the Left Seat can bring my budding airline career to a swift end.

“Pacific 423, you are cleared to climb to and maintain 11 Thousand. Contact Oakland Center one two seven point seven at Fort Jones. G’day.”

The Martin Four O Four is not a new airplane; it’s a twin-engine DC Three replacement built in the mid-Fifties. It has a very reliable engine and no bad habits like its predecessor, the Martin Two O Two that in its formative years had a nasty habit of losing its wings and falling from the sky with a load of thirty-five passengers and crew. Many of the larger U.S. carriers bought the Martin but have since replaced it with turbo props like the F-27 or kept their Convair 340s while they wait for their Douglas DC 9’s or Boeing 737’s to leap into the jet age.

Over the Siskiyou Mountains we are in clouds at our cruise altitude. The highest elevation below us is about 7,500 feet, but the weather does not make for a smooth ride. There is light turbulence and the Martin has no autopilot; the stewardess moving up and down the single aisle serving drinks causes the only change to our center of gravity, but it keeps us alert.Ice collects on the windshield.

“Let’s have the wing heat and watch the Carb Air Temp,” says the Captain.

 What he means is that I should switch on the wing heaters to melt any ice gathering on the leading edge and monitor the temperature indicators to maintain warm air entering the carburetors. If necessary, I will adjust the Carburetor Heat levers on the control pedestal between us. I must also monitor the cylinder head temperatures to ensure they stay in a normal range. The airplane I flew in the Air Force had the same engines and carburetors and this is a routine task.

The captain’s hands move to the pedestal to adjust the throttle setting. He glances at the Fuel Flow Meters. The fuel flow is increasing as he watches. The BMEP gauges are reflecting a decreasing engine power output. The Carb Air Temp is still decreasing.

“More carb heat” says the Captain. 

The engines are rapidly picking up a heavy load of ice that, if not melted can cause engine failure.I increase the carb heat and that causes a further drop in engine power. I turn on the wing lights and check the wing leading edge. Some ice is forming but not enough to cause a loss of lift. Our only problem is the engines and we don’t seem to have a solution.

There’s an old story about the Luck Bucket and the Experience Bucket:When you start flying, you are given a bucket full of luck. If things go badly and you don’t have a solution, you dip into the Luck Bucket and use some. But you must remember to replace it with experience because when you’re out of luck, all you have left is experience.

Even though the Mixture Control levers are in manual lean, the engine fuel flows continue to increase and like an auto engine, this will flood the engines and they will quit. The Captain and I are searching in the Experience Bucket. His tells him to lean out the engines, make them to backfire and blow out the ice. This is his DC-3 experience. Mine tells me that we must decrease the fuel flow just like my Air Force C-118.We both reach to further reduce the Mixture Control levers at the same time but for a different reason. The effect is the same. The engines do not backfire but the fuel flow decreases and the engines regain power.

A knock on the cockpit door and the stew enters.“We’re out of ice for drinks.”I point to the cockpit window.

“Jane, why don’t you pop outside and get some from off our windshield?”

She gives me a puzzled look and retreats to the cabin.

The captain laughs and breaks the tension.

Later as I wait for the bus outside Pacific’s new Headquarters lugging my Samsonite bag and a heavier bag full of charts and manuals, the Captain pulls up in his new sports car.

“I’m headed south, need a lift?”

“Yeah, thanks.”

Bags aboard, we head south; he’s headed for his Palo Alto Eichler rambler and Scotch, I to my stucco ranch-burger next to Bayshore and a beer. First Year co-pilots take home pay is $395 and it makes more sense for my wife to stay at home, look after the kids and keep a tight budget.

.“Hi honey, I’m home.”