Time Machine

Seems like it’s been a few days since my last entry…actually it has been.  As of today (22 February), that gap can be measured by exactly 262 sunrises and sunsets. Time has a way of slipping away from all of us, and if you ask anyone (up to and including old “Al Einstein” himself), they would offer that time is a commodity; a very precious one in fact.  We get scant little of it on our journey from cradle to grave, and when that fateful day comes as your personal hour glass runs out of sand, a King’s ransom will make no difference.

This entry is about time, but not the moments that you and I are spending now, or those that we are sure to pilfer away tomorrow or next month. This story is about days that have come and gone. We humans call it “history” (wonder what dogs call it…), and for a bloke like me, it’s as fascinating as it gets. If I were ever to construct a Time Machine, I would care not about traveling into the future, but I would ache to go backwards. Imagine being on/at the likes of: Calvary Hill, Hastings in 1066, Plymouth Rock, Independence Hall, Waterloo, Ford’s Theater, Kitty Hawk, Promontory Peak, the Little Big Horn, Times Square on V.J. Day…the list is almost endless.

On my last trip a few days ago, the F/O and I began to muse about things historical, and I relayed a story about a magical afternoon that I was allowed to spend many years ago. I give you the following piece penned originally in 1998 concerning that day…

“When Time Stood Still”

The agent at gate D2 looked more than just a little pissed-off, “what time does your ACARS read now?” She was referring to our datalink screen on the center pedestal; this is our version of a “dog leash” to all things that are company related. It would show that Northwest flight # 845 was already past the point of an on-time departure toward Anchorage this evening. We were being held at the gate as a “weight critical” flight, and I (by FAA law) could not release the brakes until I received the datalink message from our Load Control folks in Memphis. It would tell me if we were going to be heavier than our 228,500 pound maximum ramp weight.

b757-ramp-saipan

(Boeing 757-251 on the ramp in Saipan)

I knew it was going to be very close, and we weren’t going anywhere until this particular message came across our screen (we usually receive it about five minutes after departing the gate while we are taxiing for departure). She didn’t seem to care about all the technical reasons, she just wanted to shut the main cabin door and be done with us, but for a variety of reasons I wasn’t letting her do that. Not least of which was the fact that after she closed the cabin door (and as we sat stationary next to the jet-way awaiting our uplink) she would be rendering that exit useless in an emergency evacuation…not good in my opinion. Now with “her gate” showing a late door closing, and the resulting tardy departure, she was going to look bad to her supervisors (who have a habit of making the lives of those like her miserable). On this evening, “Old Man Time” was not her ally, and her demeanor was less than amiable.

So this begs the questions, why does time control our lives? We are able to firmly grasp most everything around us, but not the one thing that ultimately matters most. We spend so much of our youth wishing things would happen at a faster pace. Remember those school days sitting in class watching the clock tick toward the 3:00 bell that spelled freedom? Those minutes were mired in molasses. We often mused that we couldn’t wait until we were a “big kid”, for our lives would change, and all for the better. And maybe it did somehow, it’s been so long ago I don’t recall. Now as we get older, time doesn’t crawl by, but moves with the speed of a heartbeat. On that day that we are all racing toward (no matter how much we resist), our time will come to an end here on Mother Earth and we will fade into history, alive only in the memories of friends and loved ones.

A few years ago, I was offered the unbelievable gift of stopping time for one afternoon. In fact I was even allowed to step back fifty plus years, to a place none of us will ever see…and it was magnificent. I had the privilege to speak at length with a person that was an aviator from a time gone by, an age long gone, and an age that I have only read about. I was fabulously lucky, for he took me with him on a journey with his tales of wonder, amazement and some pain; a journey that fills me to this day. His name was Bertram Ritchie, and on that day he was ninety-two years young.

My family and I were new to the Twin Cities area that summer of 1996, but we were fortunate in the fact that my mother-in-law was a long time resident, so she helped with the period of adjustment. One steamy July day, she called from the nursing home where she was employed part-time, and told me that someone had just checked in that I may want to meet. She explained that he was an ex-Northwest Airlines pilot, and when she informed him that I too flew for that logo, he asked her if I would like to get together.  I couldn’t believe what she was asking me!  Who wouldn’t want to meet and spend time with this gentleman? I set a time for the next day, and counted the hours filled with much anticipation.

I knew from my historical readings the origin of my line, and it boils down to one word…airmail (in fact my uniform wings haven’t changed since their design in 1929. A globe inscribed with the words “U.S. Air Mail” with wings sprouting from either side). In 1925 Congress passed a law called “The Contract Airmail Act”, and the race between some very competitive aviation visionaries had begun. A hard charging Minnesota businessman convinced several members of the Detroit financial elite to contribute enough capital to form a small line to serve the Chicago-Twin Cities route, and with that decision my airline was born. They barely beat the October 1, 1926 deadline to have service flying by two weeks, with a grand total of two rented open-cockpit biplanes and three pilots.

nwa-wings-2a

(My uniform wings for 27 years…nowadays, the wings on my chest proudly display the Delta Airlines “widget”)

The business goal was to fly people, but in those infant days of commercial aviation, they all knew where the “real” money lay… in the airmail contracts. For my airline it all started on a sultry day in July (not at all unlike the one on my drive to the nursing home that summer morning). Northwest Airways would begin as a passenger airline with one passenger, one pilot, and a Stinson Detroiter flying machine. The year was 1927, barely 24 years removed from the miracle at Kitty Hawk, and flying was outrageously new to your average citizen.

They would depart St. Paul, Minnesota, their destination being Chicago, Illinois. This would be accomplished several hours later after stops in La Crosse, Madison, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. At precisely 2 p.m., Charles “Speed” Holman (winner of many stunt flying and race competitions, and the number one pilot on NWA’s seniority list of three), and St. Paul businessman Byron Webster lifted off the brown grass runway. They were bound for La Crosse, Wisconsin, but they would fail to make it, their first stop being barely 50 miles southeast of where their journey began. Roughly thirty minutes into the flight, the 220 hp, Wright “Whirlwind” engine of the Detroiter suddenly sputtered and quit. This was nothing new to “Speed”, for all pilots of that generation had suffered this fate many times. He simply picked a suitable farmer’s field, and gently set the Detroiter down.

Unruffled, he climbed out, and after some wrench turning (with “maybe” an expletive or three), he felt that he had the engine problem solved. Unfortunately, the field wasn’t big enough for the biplane to lift off with the all-important mail sacks AND the one passenger, so Holman used the farmer’s phone to call St. Paul and have them dispatch a truck for the mail and Mr. Webster. He then flew the plane north to where they had started two hours before, and waited for the lorry to arrive. After an hour and a half spent bumping (and sweating) along a series of dirt roads, the truck arrived and Holman approached Mr. Webster with a fateful question. He asked, “Shall we try it again?”  “Sure” was the businessman’s answer, and with that one word, history was made.

stinson-detroter

(Stinson Detroiter)

They lifted off once again, and this time made La Crosse without an issue, consequently proceeding on to Madison. It was past sunset by now, and the dozens of “well-wishers” in the crowd had long since gone home. They had impatiently waited for the event through the long afternoon, but the evening thunderstorms and the late hour had taken their toll. Holman loaded more mail sacks, and after placing a phone call to Milwaukee (and learning that a thunderstorm was now over the field), he decided to delay. At exactly midnight, they touched down in Milwaukee, again to a mostly empty ramp. A few hours later, at roughly two-thirty in the morning, the first commercial passenger flight from the Twin Cities landed in Chicago. The almost four hundred miles had taken its toll on the clock… twelve and a half hours. It had also taken a heaping amount of other things: vision, courage, determination, skill and a bit of luck. It was a fascinating story, and now I was to meet one of those men; those incredible airmen that pioneered my beloved world of aviation.

Walking through the door, I was faced with a not totally unexpected sight. A gentleman in his ninth decade of life was lying in a bed, and looking to be asleep. He was tall in frame, but a bit slight in stature, and had a full head of ghost white hair. He possessed something else. My mother-in-law awakened him, and as the moment of disorientation gave way, and he began to realize who I was, a very wide grin spread across his time-worn face. His handshake was that of a bear (albeit, an old bear), and the clouded blue eyes shone like the thousand sunsets they had witnessed aloft. It was then, that the “something else” I spoke of came alive. For lack of a better description, he had the “air” about him. An air of a man from a different world, a world that had been gone for a very long time. He was from days long past, days alive only in his memories (and in the volumes of history), and he was about to welcome me in.

I didn’t know where to start, but thankfully he did. He asked if it was true that I flew for Northwest, and said that he had “put in a few years there too”. He told me that he had retired in 1963 on the Lockheed Electra L-188 turboprop, after flying nearly everything that had sat on a Northwest tarmac. When I asked if he had ever “checked out” in the jets, he said that the company knew he was close to retirement, and had offered him (leaning close so as to foil prying ears) “10,000 dollars to stay on the Electra”. Not that this is entirely unheard of; today it is quite common for an airline to save the cost of upgrading a “grey-beard”, by just offering them the money difference and keeping them on the same jet until retirement. But $10,000 in 1963! A king’s fortune to be sure.

lockheed-l-188-electra

(Lockheed L-188 “Electra”)

Now it was my turn to ask a question, but little did I know that his answer would unravel throughout the entire afternoon. I asked about his beginnings in aviation, and here he began his story. He was a young man back in the 1920’s, and in him the spark of flying burned deep. He had somehow managed to save enough money to log time in the rag-tag machines of that era, and was very close to becoming an actual “licensed” pilot. As we know from our history books, times took a turn for the worse that last year in the second decade, and flying and he parted company. The best he could manage was obtaining a job working as a “hangar boy” for a new company in the Twin Cities (side note; I too, was a hangar boy at my aviation college roughly half a century later). Northwest Airways was not an everyday company name, but he was fascinated by all things “airplane”, so he took the job. Their first few years were a struggle, and although the depression was closing business’ doors from coast to coast, they were somehow managing to barely hang on.

Then came the day that would change his life forever. It seems that the reigning “Chief Pilot” for Northwest Airways, Captain Holman (yep, the same “Speed” Holman from the inaugural flight) was in the midst of a dilemma.  The regular co-pilot for one of the “behemoth” Ford Tri-motors had called in sick that night for the Duluth run, and “Speed” needed a pilot, and needed one now. He knew that the young man on the business end of the broom sweeping the hangar floor had some time in a cockpit, and that made the decision for Captain Holman a bit easier.

He approach Ritchie and casually spoke the words “the co-pilot is sick for the Duluth flight tonight, drop that broom and go get in that Tri-motor…you’re now a co-pilot.” Just that simple. From “broom-pilot” to co-pilot in one sentence. Sadly, he would be the last pilot that “Speed” Holman would hire, for this amazing, world class aviator and pioneer would perish in a stunt flying accident within the year. Wow… I knew that my flying world was different from his, but I truly had no idea how great that chasm would be.

He told me of days flying as a new co-pilot when his job was to load the baggage and the mail, then sit in the cockpit and “shut-up and don’t touch nothing!” One of his first jobs was to sort the mail during his spare time. He told stories of some lines tossing old engine parts in the mail bags to build up the weight, and thus the fare charged to the U.S. Postal Service. These were days when competition with the rail system (which also transported the mail) meant everything, but on occasion they would become allies. A not uncommon event in those early winter days was to “find yourself in a blizzard and be forced to land. The common procedure was to find a railroad track, land in the field next to it and wait.” When the next train would appear, they would flag it down, load the mail and any passengers (the single engine Hamilton Metalplane held six), and wait for the weather to break. In casual conversation recently, I told this to one of our Flight Attendants, and she actually thought I was making it up! I assured her I was not. This was aviation in its infancy. This was the heritage of not only her company, but also of her country. Sad that so few of us know from whence we come.

hamilton-metalplane

(The Hamilton Metalplane)

As the battle for Northwest Airways to expand westward was at a zenith, the government again stepped in and drove a stake through the heart of many a small feeder line (thankfully, not mine). Fearing widespread corruption in the mail contracts, President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order canceling all air-mail contracts with the airlines. He ordered the Army Air Corps to begin flying the mail, and received widespread outrage from aviators nationwide. For ten days the nation was without air-mail service, and when the Air Corps did begin the service in old obsolete machines, the fatality rate was horrendous (famed WWI ace and founder of Eastern Airlines Eddie Rickenbacker called it “legalized murder”). He told me that after a third of the NWA employees were laid off, he and the other co-pilots continued to fly their schedules, but their pay was the paltry sum of $112 per month. After a few months of this debacle, government officials again opened the air-mail routes up for bidding by the airlines, but at a cost of a complete restructuring of said airlines. When the dust had cleared, a new company was formed by the present name of Northwest Airlines, Inc.

The fancy new machine was called the Lockheed 14-H, but to the slick airline ad execs, it was known as the “Sky Zephyr”. It would be bigger and faster than the Lockheed 10-A Electra it was replacing, but the pilots didn’t want it, it simply wasn’t safe. As he began to tell me of their disdain for this new machine, his eyes began to see old, long departed faces of friends. “We told them not to buy it. We lost Mamer in one at Bozeman, one at Miles City, and Whittemore hit that canyon wall. It was dangerous, and we told them. We had one almost go down taking off from Billings, and the only thing that saved them was being up on that bluff.” (I’ve flown in and out of Billings, Montana many times, and the airport does indeed sit high on a bluff overlooking the town.) “One of the big-wig chief pilots was in the co-pilots seat, and shortly after that one almost went down…..we got rid of them all”. Some things never change. Why listen to the line pilots, what do we know? Shortly thereafter, NWA placed orders for the “huge” 21 passenger Douglas DC-3.

lockheed-14-h

(Lockheed 14-H “Sky Zephyr”)

I was curious about his war-time experiences, so I asked what it was like during the forties. Most (if not all) of the bigger lines lost many of their planes and pilots to the Air Corps for transport duty overseas, but not NWA…guess we just weren’t a big enough “player”. He said that most of his duty was to help ferry new B-17s from the factory in Seattle up to Alaska. The Army Air Corps crews that were taking these north, were very young, very inexperienced flyers, so Boeing asked NWA if they would send an experienced Captain along with them. Times being what they were, Northwest said yes.

He told me of one such flight where he had met up with four crews to fly four of the big “Flying Fortresses” up to Fairbanks (they would ultimately continue to the Pacific to join the war). He was the lone airline Captain with these young men, and during the several day trip, he got to know them rather well. “They were nice young men, all of them. Very new flyers, only a couple of hundred hours logged by their most senior pilot. I sat between them in the cockpit as we flew north, and we got to know each other pretty well. They were pretty scared about what was in store for them, but wanted to do their patriotic duty. I remember we made it into Fairbanks, and within a few minutes they called and said we had to get to Anchorage fast. We flew down there after little or no rest. The next day all four of the airplanes took off for some place west, and you know what? They were never seen or heard from again. Forty young men…boys really…all gone. What a waste.” His beautiful blue eyes again were seeing a sky that was from fifty some-odd years ago. Deeply sad, they were…like he could still hear their voices, and see their young faces.

As the day wore on, he told me of many adventures. His mind was sharp with the details, and I was transfixed by his recollections. They included names, dates, places, etc. When he told me of a flight in the DC-3 “Gooney Bird” were he was caught in the fog and had to land blind; I swear I could feel the twinge of anxiety tamping down the fear. I could hear the throb of the Pratt and Whitneys, smell the stale tobacco smoke and dried sweat. I could sense the vibrating metal under my boots, and the lumpy leather seat that’s been glued to my rear-end for many an hour. I could picture his hair a little less gray, the blue eyes a little less clouded, and the old “wireless” headphones covering the cap with the trademark “fifty mission crush”.  I swear I was there with him in that cockpit, in that fog storm. (I’ve been where he was mentally…all pilots have…not scared really, just very, very concerned.)

It must be mentioned that they were doing this without the aid of our present day navigation aids. Helpers like GPS, INS, ILS, VOR, were merely figments in an inventors brain. They indeed had NDBs (non-directional beacons), but instead of a full instrument approach, they were using something  called a Radio Range approach. Basically you listened to the radio beacon while it transmitted two letters in Morse code: an A and an N. Once you heard one of the letters, you would know that you were on one of the four spokes of the radio range. The problems with this procedure were many. It didn’t give you any distance (ala DME) info, it didn’t tell you which quadrant of the four section pie you were in (you just had to know based on your direction of approach), and static from heavy rain or lightening discharges played havoc with the reception (so when you needed it most, it may be the most inaccurate). These men were aviation pioneers in every sense of the word. One can’t say that flying back then was dangerous, just maybe not very safe.

northwest-dc-3

(Northwest DC-3 “Gooney Bird”)

Late in the day, I could tell that he was tiring from all the talking, so he began to ask me questions about my world as it exists now. As I began to offer what being an airline Captain is like in the last decade of this century, his face became puzzled. “But wait a minute, you have to go through some sort of x-ray contraption to see if you have a gun or a bomb? You’re the pilot, why would you want to hi-jack your own airplane?” And, “you have to do what? Pee in a cup to see if you have drugs in you? You’re the Captain for God’s sake, just tell them NO!” But Captain Ritchie, you don’t understand, I can’t just say no, the FAA would ground me. “What do you mean you can’t tell jokes in the cockpit anymore?” Well, we can tell jokes, BUT we are sent to school to learn “sensitivity training”, so as to not offend anyone.” (Let me say that at best we just shut up when a Flight Attendant enters the cockpit…there have been plenty of “sexual harassment” lawsuits in the last several years.) At his bewilderment about the lunacy of these things, I could offer no explanation.

He had a look of shock and a little sadness when he began to comprehend what I was telling him. His beloved profession was not where he had left it. A pilot for the airlines used to be someone very highly respected; unfortunately, at times now we are treated like any other “Joe” that works at the airport.  I’m sad about that too, and not a day goes by at work that I don’t attempt to wear my stripes with pride, and dignity. I try to never forget that people like Captain Ritchie and his comrades, have (in a way) “paid” for my stripes many years ago with a currency that I barely comprehend.

15-landing-in-tokyo

(Landing in Tokyo in the Boeing 757)

Many times when I’m at work, and confronted with a problem or an obstacle (such as a mechanical delay), I have been known to utter, “but you know, when they write the history books a hundred years from now, this won’t even be mentioned”. It may sound a bit flippant, but I honestly don’t mean it like that, and I feel that it is in fact a very true statement. Most often I use it around the gate agents, etc to highlight the fact that what we are doing is not particularly ground-breaking, and certainly not historic. It’s simply another airline flight flown in a very safe jet, by a group of very skilled people. But the man that I was blessed to spend a summer day with, in the nursing home in Minneapolis, was one of the few who could never say that. They wrote aviation history every single flight, every single day as they flew it.

b767

(One of my current “mounts”…the Boeing 767-300ER)

A rather sad addendum. It seems that Captain Ritchie was to have a son, and that young man too was to grow up and dream of a life in the clouds. He learned to fly, and after many years of hard work, was hired on to the same line that his father pioneered. He was to rise to the rank of Boeing 727 Captain for Northwest Orient Airlines, but sadly, he would perish in an automobile accident the year I graduated from high school (1974). I could see his heart breaking again as he told me the wrenching tale, but I also felt like I was somehow now holding the baton that he and his son had both held.  I could only hope that I was up to the task.

boeing_727-51_northwest_orient_airlines_an0080194

(The livery…and airline when I was hired in 1983. A “Northwest Orient” Boeing 727-51. It was the small version of the 727, seating roughly 125 passengers…we fondly called her “the Stubby”)

Northwest Airlines Captain Bertram Ritchie was to pass away later that fall, and upon hearing this I couldn’t help but feel that a chapter in aviation was coming to a close. These men had done what no others had done before them, and (most) of them survived to tell about it. I was one of the lucky few who got to listen in person.

From an unknown author:

“Fly west my friend, on a journey we all must take…”

Tailwinds to you Captain Ritchie…tailwinds my friend and colleague. And one more thing. Thank you for taking me with you in your Time Machine…thank you.

Till next time,

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