Saturday, November 6, 2010

Back to the Land of the Free

In the early Fifties, Australia re-instituted involuntary military service; in the USA it was called “The Draft”; in Oz it was called National Service or in Aussie slang, “Nasho(e)s”. Being an independent sort and not wanting to mix with the hoi polloi, I had no desire to be ‘called up’ to serve. I had been told, or read, that to preserve one’s American citizenship, you could not serve in a ‘foreign’ army.

I still treasured my American birth certificate and longed to return to land of cheap motorcars. In 1952, I took the train to Sydney and presented myself to the American consulate on the top floor of the Bank of New South Wales, an impressive Victorian sandstone building at the end of Martin Place in the center of the city. (The building is still there and is still a bank – WESTPAC.)

I filled out the necessary papers and was given a US draft card for my trouble! I asked if I could be inducted into the US Armed Forces then and there, but was told that I must enlist in a country where the Army had a presence and the nearest country was Japan. So much for that way out! I then asked for my passport but was told they would issue one when (and if) I had a ticket to the USA. To ensure that there was no doubt as to my intentions to resume my U.S. citizenship, I took my British passport, drafted a ‘snotty’ letter to the Australian Passport Office in York Street, where I relinquished my Australian citizenship and was able to avoid the Australian Draft. (The law was changed in the 1990s so I am now a dual national – able to own property, collect the Australian Old-Age Pension and vote.)

Back in Gunnedah with my head in the clouds, I walked the hot, dusty sidewalk and imagined I was in America. Maybe Texas, or even California. (I didn’t dream of living in Arizona where we now reside.) Living in the Imperial Hotel in Gunnedah, I drank with traveling salesmen and college graduates who knew something of the world outside. They advised me to leave Gunnedah and go to Sydney to seek a new adventure. Why not leave Australia and return to the USA? Yep, why not?

By the summer of 1955 I decided to go to the U.S. as soon as I saved enough money. I was earning a journeyman wage and by reducing the partying and extra-curricula activities, I could minimize my expenses. Besides, my friends were marrying – Bob Cozens the airplane mechanic who had helped me learn the airplane mechanic trade was engaged. My old Riverview mate, Bob Bower was married to his long time love, Virginia and starting to raise a family. QANTAS was a good job but I realized that with my lack of training I would never be able to progress beyond a low technical level job. A free college education was beyond my reach, nor I did not know how to go about it.

“San Francisco, a One-Way Ticket, Please.”

During my insurance days, the Pacific and Orient Steamship Company (P & O) was two doors away on Spring Street; I knew the blokes who worked there and they helped me find the cheapest berth on the ship. I wrote a cheque for £50 and reserved a berth on the S.S. Oronsay to depart Sydney on December 3, 1955. And what a berth it turned out to be! The ‘no porthole’, tiny, six-bed cabin below the waterline reminded me of pictures of WW2 troopships. But my bunkmates were pleasant and we all shared one thing in common: we were off on an adventure! My childhood friends were excited and a bit envious. One of us was ‘getting out of Australia’. In the 1950s, many Australians felt that the only national culture in Australia was to be found in a bottle of yogurt! Most young people went to Europe and began their adventure in Kangaroo Valley the Pommie name for Earls Court in London. It was crawling with Aussies who lived together in much the same way as American kids did in the late sixties– 10 to a room using the ‘hot bed’ principle: there was always someone sleeping in every bed and sometimes two to a bed! But, because I had a U.S. passport, my travels would allow me to go the America, and unlike most other kids, I could legally hold a job!

Before departure, my friends would not allow me to spend and more money than was absolutely necessary. The waitress at the local ‘greasy spoon’ brought me as much food I could eat and charged me only the minimum price on the menu. My mates bought most all the beers and three girls made me a gray pullover wool sweater as a joint project. They presented this to me at a going away party held at Rae Soulos’ apartment. They had made the sweater without measuring me and the arms were ten inches too long. (Several years as an Air Force cadet my friends told me that it would be de rigueur with blue jeans and I purchased my first pair of Levis in Lubbock.)

And what a party it was! John and Shirley Jones, my QANTAS mates, Bob Cozens and his intended, several girl friends and their blokes gathered at Rae’s tiny Coogee flat and we had a great ‘piss-up’. I crawled back to my room in Cowper Street and passed out.

The night before departure was sleepless because of a visit from a psychotic, drunken fellow boarder. I guess he’d had enough of my bragging at dinner and decided to take me down a peg or two. He bashed in the door to my bedroom and as I didn’t wish to get involved in a pre-departure interview with the local constabulary, I yelled for help. Paddy, a nearby friend had been an Irish policeman and knew how to handle drunks. He ‘took him away’ in short order. The landlady, Mrs. Retallack, a tiny slip of a woman set on the stairs for several hours to preclude another visitation. Poor woman - the job was worth more than her trouble of looking after an aging apartment, its staff and twenty rowdy inhabitants.

Next morning with my Val Pak (a B-4 leather bag which I kept for years) and briefcase in hand, I called a cab, and boarded the SS Oronsay, a Clyde-built, single funnel, P & O two-class liner which was doing service in taking Poms and Wogs to Oz, and disgruntled Aussies to Canada and the USA. By today’s standards of cruise ships, the Oronsay was small. My below-the-waterline cabin had no porthole and six bunks. This was home for almost three weeks—and after New Zealand, I was the only occupant.

The Oronsay was docked in Pyrmont adjacent to the dock where the family had landed 18 years ago on the SS Mariposa. The dock and the deck were jammed with partygoers envious of those of us who were ‘getting out’. There were confused noises of music, laughter, sobbing and ‘chundering’. The gang from Cowper Street showed up with booze and small goodbye gifts. I remember none of them except a bottle of Cointreau from a girlfriend (I think it was Jacquie Trigg) who remembered that we had enjoyed champagne cocktails in her room on some forgotten evening orgy. We hugged and kissed until the ship’s siren blasted and the crew announced, “All visitors ashore, all visitors ashore!” I stood with hundreds of other escapees by the railing throwing the traditional rolls of streamers to my friends until the gap between the ship and dock was a solid paper wall. The tugs took hold, the streamers parted and the sliver of water in the gap grew larger. I turned my back to the wharf and went downstairs to unpack. I didn’t look back.

First stop, Auckland, and by then I had made new friends over coffee in the lounge with my new shipmates. They were a mixed bunch: old friends were quickly forgotten in the spirit of the moment. Next stop, Suva, Fiji where in 1938 my father had been forbidden to go ashore for fear he would jump ship and leave his wife and two children to fend for themselves. Next stop, Honolulu and for the first time in my life, I knew I belonged to a great country; the Immigration and Naturalization Service of the US Government had set up two tables labeled U.S. Citizens and Others. The line to the U.S. Citizens table was short, and I was home!

I had made friends with a Canadian couple returning from a six month walkabout in Australia and they allowed me to share a car rental. We toured the island until late afternoon. It was in downtown Honolulu, a place which I would frequent with my wife and children 5 years later, that I saw my first TV. I stared like a country bumpkin through the window of a department store until they dragged me away to a fast food restaurant several blocks away. We walked a little way further and I tasted my first American hamburger slathered in relish.. My Canadian friends were quite amused as they were ‘world travelers’ raised in Canada and used to the American diet.

Little did I know that in three years I would visit Honolulu as a commissioned USAF pilot and eat in the Officers’ Club at Hickam AFB.

Mid way through the voyage, I found that I had friends in First Class—two Armenian sisters from Coonabarrabran. They were the daughters of a modestly well-to-do haberdasher and had been on several Gunnedah YCW outings I attended. The 21 year old was rich, but chubby but I knew a good thing when I saw it. She had invited me to her cabin several times during her afternoon nap and was generous with drinks and squeezes. She suggested that we visit the night spots before our midnight departure. Heck, I didn’t own the proper clothes but she took care of that and a blazer was borrowed. On her nickel, we hit several clubs and as the ship was scheduled to cast off at midnight, we left the joint at a quarter to twelve, hailed a cab and the five of us tried to pile in.

“No way brudda!” said the cabbie, “You need two taxis for this load!” I panicked—I had no money for a cab, but the others thought it was a great joke and decided to run to the wharf. So we ran. The two girls were in heels and the three boys were nine sheets to the wind. We arrived the minute prior to their raising the gangplank to the cheers of those already on board. Being always the gentleman, I was the last on board.

The weather became very cold. The leg to Vancouver was a bit rough, but we were now seasoned mariners and walked the rolling decks in the rain and cold wind of late November. I walked the decks with my new friends, kept my sea legs and my meals. During evening coffee there was much talk about Canada and finding jobs—none of the Australians seeking work were permitted to continue to the USA without an appropriate visa and these were in very short supply.

In Vancouver, I said goodbye to all of my new friends except the sisters. But, as fate would have it, a young Sydney honey, already in love with the USA and American boys in general, boarded en route home to Oz via San Francisco. I forgot my Armenian friends and quickly became entangled with this new Sydneysider.

The trip ended far too soon.

The morning I arrived in America was foggy but passing the Farralone Islands, the sky cleared and the Bronze Bridge was dead ahead. Packed and ready, I went to the pointy end and, just as in the movie “Titanic” many years later, I stood on the fore-peak and was first to pass under the Golden Gate.

Thus began my American adventure.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Count the Rivets

Bainbridge Air Base, Georgia. June 1957

I taxi into the takeoff position and hold the brakes on with my feet pressed against the brakes on the rudder pedals. Today, it’s a solo flight to practice coordination maneuvers and aerobatics.

The plane in front of me has lifted off, so I slowly apply full power. The big radial engine has a comforting sound as I feel the propeller torque try to turn me to the left and I apply right rudder and keep the Trojan headed straight down the runway. The prop seems to be turning very s-l-o-w-l-y, but it’s a typical illusion of the T-28’s paddle-bladed propeller after flying the smaller T-34. The airspeed is increasing normally and I lift off at around 85 knots. “Gear Up”, and I climb straight ahead to 500 feet, raise the flaps then make a right, then a left climbing turn and I’m clear of the traffic pattern. I check the cowl flaps closed and set the power for Climb.

A beautiful spring day with big woolly clouds against a clear, blue Georgia sky. But I don’t day dream – I’ve work to do. I clear the sky to my left to see if anyone else is close and continue climbing and turning to 8,000 feet. The Georgia farmland, as indeed all of the land in the U.S., is laid out in sections with the boundaries running north, south, east and west. As I climb, I practice staying lined up with the section lines. Today, the fields are irrigated, the section lines less prominent and are replaced by the circles made by the watering systems.

Using an imaginary line across the windshield, I begin to practice steep turns. We have not been taught to fly on instruments yet, and I refer to them only to check my ability to fly while looking outside.

I talk to myself. “Throttle up a bit. More back pressure on the stick. Keep that imaginary spot on the horizon. Oops, I can feel I’m losing altitude! Add power. Raise the nose a bit. I’m skidding. Ease out some bank and use a little top rudder – keep the ball centered, keep it coordinated. Now, more bank again, back to 60 degrees. Fly the plane, don’t let it fly you!” I work at turns for about 15 minutes till I’m tired of it.

Now for some chandelles. This maneuver, that I seem to have little trouble performing, feels like flying is meant to: a rapid change in altitude, pitch angle, speed, and the sense of a rapid climb out of some dangerous situation. I imagine myself flying into a fjord or into a box canyon and finding that I must immediately reverse direction and climb back out. This is a situation that can easily happen and indeed, several later, I put this maneuver to good use when flying in Greenland.

Next snap rolls, horizontal reverses and the exhilarating Cuban Eight. I don’t know why it’s called a Cuban Eight but it is two loops joined together like an infinity sign.

I try to remember what the acrobatic section of the flight manual says as I talk myself through the maneuver:

Prop…Full Forward
Airspeed…descend to increase to 220 Knots.”

I begin to dive and enter a loop. Easing in the back pressure, I feel the g’s as I begin the loop. I arch my back to look straight up and keep the North/South section lines fore and aft. At the top of the loop, I ease back on the throttle and dive upside down at a 45 degree angle until the nose passes through the horizon. Then I half-roll till I’m ‘blue side up’ and commence another loop all the time keeping the plane properly aligned. Over top again, down at 45 degrees and roll out at my original entry altitude. Wow! Fun, fun, fun. Oops, lost a thousand feet or so – better do another, and another. I’m charged!

Before I realize it, my two hour solo is almost over and I’m going to be cutting it pretty fine to land in time so that the next student can have the plane.

I can see Bainbridge Airbase from this altitude and also can see that the line of trainers preparing to land is stretched out by five or six miles. Yikes! How will I squeeze in? Like the ‘tiger’ I’d like to be, I make a high speed descent and parallel the 45 degree entry for the south east runway. I see a gap and whip into a steep 180 degree turn and bully my way in front of another T-28 who has left a bit wider spacing than usual. What I don’t know is that the ship I have pushed in front of has a student AND an instructor.

I turn right 45 degrees on to ‘initial’ and can see I’m too close to the plane in front, so I extend my pitch-out point a bit further down the runway. What I don’t hear is the mobile control van say to me, “Solo T-28 on initial, go around.” They can see I’m extending the pattern too far, but my attention is already divided with spacing and landing. For all intents, I’m deaf to their request and I begin my 60 degree ‘pitch-out’ to the right.

“Throttle back until the horn sounds, Gear Down, Horn silent…..” I say as I turn.

Suddenly I become instantly aware of a blur ten or fifteen feet above my canopy. I can almost count the rivets in the underside of another trainer’s fuselage.

I have barely survived a near miss at less than 1,000 feet. If he’d hit me, nobody would have survived; we would both be a pile of burning metal at the end of the runway.

I continue my descending turn towards the runway, but something doesn’t feel right. I’m descending too fast. I add power, and the descent slows. I touch down much faster than usual and do not make the first turn off but taxi further down the runway causing the next T-28 to go-around.

While ‘cleaning up’ after landing, I realize why I landed long and fast. After the near miss, my train of thought was interrupted and I forget to put down ‘landing flaps’. What a ‘tiger’ I am. More like a scared pussy cat.

Entering the line shack, I decide to say nothing about the near-miss to Earl Wederbrook, my instructor. Glancing out of the window, I see an old nemesis, P.D. Bridges, my ex-instructor, the southern boy who doesn’t like slow Yankees with an Australian accent. Earl sees him coming, flicks his eyes towards the parachute loft and I beat a hasty retreat. I put it together! P.D. was the guy I cut out of the pattern and with whom I almost shared a common pile of burning rubble.

Five minutes later having checked in my parachute, I look inside the line shack. P.D. and Earl are nose to nose, except that my instructor is about six inches taller, 50 pounds heavier and who is looking down on a red faced Bridges who is obviously yelling. My protector is saying nothing, and shortly P.D. turns on his heel and leaves.

Earl has a wry smile during the debriefing and after I discuss my maneuvers, Earl says, “By the way, next time you cut someone out of the landing pattern, be sure he’s shorter than me. I’m a lover, not a fighter.”

Back in the barracks before supper, I look at my log book and realize that I have just passed 100 hours of flight time and in an airplane which 15 years ago would have been considered a high performance machine.

And I am sad knowing that neither my mother nor father will ever know their grown up son.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Newcastle, 1954

A Trip to the “Big Smoke”

Australia had re-instituted involuntary military service; in Australia it was called, national Service, in the USA it was called “The Draft”. Being an independent sort, and not enjoying the exclusive company of men without women, I had no desire to be ‘called up’ to serve in the national service. Chockos* once a week in high school was amusing, but going through Army ‘basic training’ with a bunch of yobbos, was not my idea of an interesting way to spend six months. I still treasured my American birth certificate and longed to return to land of cheap motorcars. I had been told that to preserve my American citizenship, I could not serve in a ‘foreign’ army so I took the train to Sydney and presented myself to the American Consulate on the top floor of the Bank of New South Wales, an impressive, Victorian sandstone building at the end of Martin Place in the center of the city.

I filled out the necessary papers and collected a US draft card for my trouble! I asked if I could be inducted into the US Armed Forces then and there, but was told that I must enlist in a country where the United States Army had a presence and the nearest country was Japan. So much for free passage to the USA! I then asked for my passport but was told they would issue one when (and if ever) I had a ticket to the USA. To ensure that there was no doubt as to my intentions to resume my U.S. citizenship, I took my British passport, drafted a ‘snotty’ letter to the Australian Passport Office where I relinquished my Australian citizenship and was able to avoid the Australian Draft. (The law was changed in the 1990s so I am now a dual national – able to collect the Australian Old-Age Pension and vote.)

Back in Gunnedah with my head in the clouds, I walked the hot, dusty sidewalk and imagined I was in America. Maybe Texas, or even California. Living in the Imperial Hotel, I drank with traveling salesmen and college graduates who knew something of the world outside Gunnedah. They advised me to leave Gunnedah and go to Sydney to seek a new adventure. Why not leave Australia and return to the USA? Yep, why not?

One of my drinking mates worked for the Vacuum Oil Company, known in the USA as Chevron. He told me of a job in Newcastle some 70 miles north of Sydney at the refinery where I could earn a wage much higher than in Gunnedah. I gave notice to my employer, packed my bags, put my trusty steed (bicycle) up against the back wall of the Imperial Hotel and headed for Newcastle.


Even today, Newcastle is a smoky city; the Australian equivalent of Newark, New Jersey and probably just as polluted. In 1953 it was a grimy place populated by mostly blue collar workers working for Broken Hill Proprietary (BHP) the largest iron/coal producer in the Southern hemisphere. It was also the rail junction between the north coast and the wool and wheat producing northwest.

I stepped off the train in the afternoon with two large suitcases filled with what clothes I owned and a large supply of reading material: magazines, textbooks and novels that I had accumulated during my last several years in Gunnedah. What did I expect from Newcastle? Another adventure, more money and new friends? I caught the bus to the refinery, but as it was a Saturday my ‘contact’ was missing. He was reported to be aboard the “Stanvac Shanghai”, an oil tanker unloading in the harbour. I searched around the wharves in the quiet of the Saturday heat, found the “Shanghai” but my sponsor has left. I had never been so close to a tanker and was excited that I would be perhaps working around ships like this. I presented my Letter of Introduction from Gunnedah’s pastor, Msgr. McDermott to the parish priest and I was admitted to the Young Christian Workers Hostel.

The Y.C.W. Hostel on Church Street

The Y.C.W. Hostel was on Church Hill overlooking the Newcastle railway station and was run by three old Irish maids: the O’Reagan sisters, who as it turned out were indeed related to the Hollywood film star and later U.S. President, Ronald Reagan. The O’Reagans did not belong to any religious order but rather had taken on the task of caring for 15 young men who were workers in the industries and offices of the industrial city. They cooked breakfast, packed a lunch in a brown paper bag for each boarder. They cooked and served dinner and presided over the recitation of the Rosary every night in the living/dining room. They were well educated and had a great Irish sense of humour.

The inhabitants were a mixed bunch: my roommate David was a seventeen-year-old apprentice fitter (machinist) at the BHP foundry and was the illegitimate son of a Sydney prostitute. David had a few hang-ups: he was moody and if analyzed today would probably be called paranoid – he thought everyone at his workplace was conspiring against him and knew of his unfortunate lineage. He loved guns and had, unbeknown to the O’Reagans, bought and secreted a .22 caliber rifle under his bed. He planned to take it to work and humble his persecutors, but when I met him he had not yet got around to it. He gave me a twenty-two caliber round with my initials engraved on it, and one afternoon he asked me to hand it to him. He loaded it into his twenty-two caliber rifle, cocked the weapon and standing six feet away, pointed it at me and smiled. I was frightened but was able to talk him out of pulling the trigger if indeed he intended to do so. He then unloaded the gun and handed me the cartridge. A memento of a narrow escape?

Our other roommate, Joe, was an Irish merchant seaman. He had been allowed to lodge at the YCW Hostel on the basis of his Irish connection. He too was a little ‘nuts’ and soon formed what may have been an unhealthy relationship with David. We all went to movies together, hid throwing knives in our pockets and imagined we could take on the world much as our movie heroes did.

On Sunday, church was mandatory and it was here that our social contacts could develop. As the new boy in town, I was able to begin a brief relationship with a young woman who had dropped out of Sydney University. She and her sister Robin, lived with their parents in a ‘luxurious’ apartment close to the church. I have forgotten her name, but we spent some happy times late at night lying on the beach at Knobbys talking about our futures. I suspect she attracted me because she had attended university and was also very cuddly. Lest anyone think our relationship was consummated, think again. This was pre-Pill - nice girls had never heard of diaphragms and condoms were still difficult for shy country boys to buy. We drifted apart and I took up with her sister, but this came to naught after I discovered Eleanor Bell.

Eleanor was large girl – a sweet porpoise longing to be harpooned. Her father managed the local abattoir and, on several Sundays, I visited them and was introduced to pork loin. No, not Eleanor, but the real stuff which I had never before eaten. After all, he did have access to the best meat in Newcastle. And so did I, but it wasn’t exactly choice! Eleanor and I would attend local concerts of recorded music at the Public Radio station. I thought I was pretty cool listening to real classical music with the young Newcastle intelligentsia. I even entertained thoughts of going to a technical university and majoring in Industrial Management. A favorable interview with a Newcastle Tech College counselor allowed me to consider entering at the beginning of the next year, but it all seemed very complicated. And hard work.

Where to go, what do? A train trip to the Big Smoke cinched the deal.

Two weeks later my sister, Mary, had taken me under her wing and I was living at her boarding house in Sydney and dreaming dreams of an exciting social life: drinking with the British and German immigrants who were living down the hall, meeting with the Daily Telegraph journos* Mary worked with and catching up with my old mates from Riverview. Ah, the dreams of youth

Journos, slang, Australian, pl. Newspaper reporters, jourmalists

Chockos, slang, Australian, noun, collective. High School Army Reserve (from: Chocolate Soldiers, 1920s musical comedy)

How To Get That Job In Aviation 1954

How To Get That Job In Aviation - 1954
Saturday morning at the Insurance Company of North America, Australian Home Office, Spring Street, Sydney.

"Strewth, what a day. If I wasn't working I could'a done my grocery shopping at King's Cross before the rush, now it'll be off the tram, into the deli before it closes at two, back on the tram and hope there's something goin' on tonight in Bondi. Hope I've got time to hit the Pitt Street Rhineskeller Wine Shop for a jug."

Just the three of us: Crazy Kath Sherlock in her gray Red Cross uniform, sucking Cure 'Em Quicks, and that new honey, Judy Stutchbury who won't even give me the time o'day. Y'know, the other day I asked her to type some stuff and she said that it wasn't her job? Who the heck does she think she is? I've been here longer than she has, and besides, isn't that what the girls are supposed to do?

Who's this at the door?

"Yes, madam, you want to renew your Household policy? Do you have the renewal slip?"

"No? Not a bother at all. Now what is that address again?"

Go to the ledger, find the address, find the policy number, go to the pending folder. Let's see, City Account? She must be one of our agents' shirt-tail rellies getting the 15% discount.

Good, she's done and gone.”


God, 2 hours till I get off at 1 o'clock. I'll read the Herald want ads”.

Needs Mechanics' Helpers Positions at Mascot Aerodrome Good working conditions. Interviewing today at Wentworth House 10.00 am until 4.00 PM

Hmm. Wonder what Mechanic's Helpers do?

If I was in aviation, maybe Polly would let me take her out to the flicks instead of up the hill to St Patrick's to confession where I know she confesses rooting her court reporter boyfriend. She only takes me along as 'cover'.

(Wentworth House is no longer standing, but it was just across the street from Polly's weekly confessional and it was the headquarters of QANTAS Empire Airways, Australia's locally grown, aerial connection with the outside world. Probably because of Australia's dedication to the British Empire and her assistance to General Douglas McArthur's drive to defeat the Yellow Peril, Australia had been granted a round-the-world route. QANTAS had been flying the U.S. built Lockheed Super Constellation: Sydney, Darwin, Singapore, Delhi, Cairo, and the long leg to London. Then, London to New York, nonstop to San Francisco, Honolulu, Nandi and Sydney.)

I look for the Employment Office but instead find a sign, 'Interviews' and nearby a varnished, glass enclosed office with an old coot reading the Saturday Daily Telegraph with his feet propped up on a empty desk.

This is aviation?”

"Sir, is this where you're hiring mechanics helpers?"

Bill Grove, Maintenance Foreman of Hangar 85 at Mascot, takes a look at me in my blue, double-breasted, tailor-made suit, white shirt and Windsor knotted club tie and wonders what the hell I'm doing there, but it's a slow, late, spring afternoon and there are no other applicants lined up.
"Yairs, son. Come on in."

Bill is a balding, stocky, middle-aged man dressed in a nondescript plaid suit which is not near the cut of mine. He too is having a boring day, seconded by the Personnel Department to do interviews as Saturday is their day off and managers don't get overtime.

We talk father to son stuff. His son is attending Scotts College, a GPS school at the west end of Rose Bay, where I am, at great expense, currently subletting and sharing a house.

"Why would you want to be a mechanic's helper?" asks Bill.

My enthusiasm has always been a door opener and it flows out to open this unexpected portal.

"Well sir, I've always wanted to get into aviation, in fact, it's really my first love."

This was not totally untrue as I had been the class 'drawrer' since 1st grade and could draw the best aeroplanes and rocket ships ever to adorn the covers of my mates' exercise books. I regularly buy and devour a weekly periodical from England, "The Aeroplane", and if I can afford "Flight", I buy it too. The smell of airplanes in a hangar is totally intoxicating. I dream of layovers on Pacific islands exploring abandoned Japanese Army fortifications and tunnels finding souvenirs of the war I have only read about. I also dream about 'hosties' like Pauline and how they get all gooey when talking about pilots.

"Well, you look as though you could do the job, but frankly it's a greasy, sweaty job cleaning parts that have been taken off our Connies and I don't think it would interest you for more than a week or two. But, I tell you what, if you can afford a tool box and a pair of overalls, I'll take you under my wing and see that you stay out of trouble. I need someone to work just outside my office door to take care of the Maintenance Manuals and tag the airplane parts that the mechanics have removed for repairs. When I can find them, the apprentices aren't interested and do a lousy job and the mechanics hate paperwork."

I don't have a clue as to what 'take me under his wing' means but he seems to be a straight bloke and just may have my interests at heart. Perhaps it's the Riverview/Scotts College connection - both are members of the elite Great Public Schools of New South Wales and I am after all, a Riverview bloke. Well, kind of.

I lie about my age and he doesn't seem to care. The better wages start at age 21, so for QANTAS purposes, I'm 21.

"You may have to live closer to Mascot. Do you have a bike, or a car?"

He knew I didn’t have a tool box, but a car? A motor bike? Last time I saw my push bike, it was a year ago and it was leaning against the wall of the Public Bar of the Commercial Hotel in Gunnedah. Who knows which drunk had ridden it home.

"Ah, no I don't, but I can get one!"

"Right-o then, you can start in a coupla weeks. I'll set it up. Keep your mouth shut, or tell anyone who asks that you worked in Clegg and Tyrell's Gunnedah Garage instead of working in the Parts Department. When you start, I'll check your tool box over so's no-one will question it. By the way, you'll have to join the Union and you might consider taking the evening classes at Ultimo Technical College."

I leave Wentworth House flying just a little higher than those Connies I hope see in two weeks.

Little did I know that this would be the beginning of a career in aviation which lasted over 40 years.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

South of the Border or How to Repossess a 727 circa 1968

You can always tell when an aviator is about to tell you a tall story. His preamble is usually, “Now this is no sh*t.”

I won’t preface this story with the Aviator’s Preamble. However, I knew the principals in this story from the late Sixties and they were usually very truthful if not somewhat evasive about all the facts. After all, they would never tell the Federal Aviation Agency any more than they had to.

The call came from the Boeing Commercial Airplane Company’s Sales and Contracts office in Renton to Ernie Campbell, a lead flight instructor in Boeing Flight Training.

“Ernie, we need a crew to pick up an airplane.”

“Sure,” said Ernie. “Just tell me when and where, and I’ll get right on it.”

Ernie Campbell was then, and until he died in 1997, a fixture in the aviation world. An old Strategic Air Command B-52 pilot and General Curt Lemay’s personal pilot prior to his retirement, he joined Boeing long before I met him in the Seventies. Everyone knew and respected Ernie and he was a star at the many Customer Conferences and Road Shows held all over the world. He could tell a good clean joke, hold his liquor and stay up late enough to put most of the clients to bed. He was a pilot’s pilot and an aeronautical engineer’s source of experience-based information and a laid-back flight instructor’s nemesis; he would always have a job for some idle hands hanging around Flight Crew Training. Instructor pilots usually fled at his approach and headed for the Cafeteria or out the door.

“Well, it’s in Mexico and we’ll send some of the Contract lawyers with you to make sure it’s all legal, but Aeronaves de Mexico has fallen way behind in their payments and we’d better bring this bird ‘home’ to Seattle and put it back in the nest till they feed us some more pesos.”

The flight crew, Ernie, Bill Conine and Don Boyd as flight engineer, coordinated their arrival in Guadalajara with the arrival of the Aeronaves’ 727-100. As the Contracts lawyers had already taken care of the legal niceties of repossession and enlisted the aid of the local policia, the group proceeded to the arrival gate.
But the airline had been tipped off that their shiny 3 Holer was about to be snatched and had quickly moved it to from the arrival gate. Ernie and the Boeing contingent in hot pursuit, found it at the far end of the field in the hard-packed dirt ramp and behind two of their decrepit Lockheed 749 Constellations.

The Lockheed Constellation in flight is a beautiful airplane, and at one time, the Queen of the Skies, but these two had been abandoned and were now looking quite un-regal sitting on their landing gear stubs the wheels having been recently removed to preclude their being towed -two very immovable objects.

Ernie accessed the appropriate panel and lowered the rear stairs. The crew and the lawyers climbed aboard. Bill Conine and Don Boyd checked the cockpit and started the auxiliary power unit while Ernie surveyed the surrounding terrain. One of the Queens of the Sky was parked with its tail cone almost touching the radome of the 727; the other was parked just ahead of the first ensuring that if they were able to move one, surely they couldn’t move the second.

Normally to back up an airplane requires a tug, a tractor like vehicle with a tow bar and you've all seen how it works at our local airport prior to departing the gate area; lots of signals by ground support crew complete with red wands and hand waving warning of obstructions such as other airplanes, baggage carts or catering trucks. But there was to be no help from Aeronaves. Nada!

Ernie conferred with his crew and decided they would use the engines’ reverse thrusters and back up into hard packed dirt and sagebrush until the could clear the Connies blocking their way out. With the lawyers chewing the ends of their ballpoints and sweating profusely in their Brooks Brothers suits, Ernie carefully backed up the Boeing with Conine outside giving suitable hand signals and surrounded by the dust storm kicked up by the reversers.

Free of the Lockheed relics and with the surrogate ground crew leading the way, Ernie, closed the reversers and taxied across the dirt and over several mounds until he found a paved taxiway. Using the now available, built-in stairs, they collected Bill, shut the door and got taxi clearance. En route to the runway, they filed a flight plan and taking a quick glance around were cleared for takeoff. Yes, they were light on fuel but there seemed to be enough left from the incoming Aeronaves trip and sufficient to reach Seattle if all went according to plan.

As the passed over the Southern ADIZ, (Air Defense Identification Zone) and were handed off to Los Angeles Center, the communications with the U.S. FAA became rather puzzling: “Say pilot’s name, Say airplane registration, Say destination, Who owns your airplane?”

The same questions were asked when over the San Joaquin Valley, Los Angeles center handed them off to Oakland Center. “Strange” thought Ernie, “I told ‘em that already.” About the same time, Don was getting a little nervous about the fuel supply. After all, the Mexicans had not offered to refuel them and Seattle was looking not quite CAVU (Ceiling And Visibility Unlimited).

“Oakland Center this is Boeing 727, we’d like a radar vector to San Francisco International.”

“Roger, Boeing 727, Oakland Center, turn left heading 300. Contact San Francisco Approach Control over Woodside. Descend at pilot’s discretion and Cruise Flight Level 180.”

After touchdown at San Fran, they turned left and approached the Executive Terminal - the old San Francisco terminal and were greeted by a Follow Me jeep, their first indication that something was amiss. They proceeded beyond the Terminal, were stopped in front of a large closed hangar, and given the signal to shut down.

Immediately the hangar doors opened. Police vehicles, an ambulance, two fire trucks and several unmarked but obviously government cars surrounded the airplane. Depressurized, Ernie opened the window to see shotguns and pistols pointed in his direction and a bull horn announced, “Get out of the ‘plane, keep your hands in sight.”

The lawyers insisted that seeing as he was the captain, Ernie should descend first, so taking off his flight jacket, he descended the stairs with his hands above his head.

“Who are you?” said a plain-clothes man, “You are under arrest, you have the right to remain silent, you may….”

“Just a minute,” said Campbell, “why am I under arrest?”


“You’re mistaken. This is a Boeing airplane we have repossessed and are on our way back to Seattle. You wanna talk to my lawyers?”

“What,” said the Fibby. “You have your lawyer with you?”

“Lawyers, plural,” said Ernie. “You don’t think I’d hijack an airplane without legal help, do you?”

“Don’t get smart with me,” said the man with the badge. “This airplane has been reported stolen by a Mexican airline and the State Department alerted us to arrest the perpetrators.”

Ernie slowly turned around to the airplane’s forward door and saw open jawed several faces looking down at the on-going drama below.

“C’mon down fellers, it’s O.K. They won’t shoot.”

Briefcases in hand, papers under their arms, the lawyers descended the Airstair under the careful scrutiny of the FBI and the airport police. By now the assemblage had grown and several newspaper reporters were pushing through the crowd.

The Feds hustled the nervous lawyers into one of the cars, motioned to Ernie and the other two crewmembers to stay where they were. There were still many drawn handguns and shotguns pointed at the trio. But the law was now looking less nervous.

“I guess we’ll wait,” said Ernie, as the car drove toward the nearby terminal

Twenty minutes later, the lawyers reappeared with smiling faces and only one Fibby.

“The next time you pull a stunt like this, you’d better clear it through channels,” said the Fed.

He turned on his heel, and drove away.

Guns were lowered, pistols holstered and the crowd dissolved.

“We still need fuel,” said Ernie. “Anyone seen the fuel truck?”
And yes, they were back in Seattle for a late dinner.

From a story told to both myself and Bruce Jones in 1994