I know it’s hard to believe, but there was a time when Coors Light didn’t exist. In fact, if you lived on the East Coast, even regular Coors wasn’t available. It was a mystique beer in 1973, available only to those lucky enough to live in the Wild West, or to a few lucky line boys who worked on the night crew at Piedmont Aviation in Norfolk, Virginia.
Fortunately for us, there was a 1966 Jet Commander based there in those days, and flown by pilots who always took great care of the line crew. On more than one occasion, the crew of N222GL would provide us a case of Coors when they returned from one of their trips to the Rockies. It’s no wonder that the pilots of N222GL were our favorite flight crew. Being thoughtful of those who do the tough jobs for little pay can make a big difference in their lives. I never forgot the lesson.
You see, being a line boy teaches us how to treat people and, in turn, how we like to be treated. The fact that I can remember N222GL, N399TL, and N11LA from 43 years ago, but can’t remember what happened last week is probably more indicative of age, but also a vivid reminder of the experiences around each of these airplanes.
Line boys have their favorite airplanes. A Beechcraft Duke, N399TL was my dream airplane, but the airplane didn’t feel the same way about me. The Duke has a long nose, and once the towbar was attached to the tug, there’s not much clearance between the two.
I was charged with parking the airplane in the group hangar on a very dark, cold, and rainy night in February of 1973. We had an old tug that must have been built in WWII. As I was backing the Duke into the hangar, my foot slipped off the clutch pedal. The tug lurched ahead, punching a softball size hole directly in the nose of the Duke. I felt horrible! I should have asked for help, and now I had to wait until morning, worrying how to break the news to the station manager. They called him “TC” and he was tough.
He was livid about my error. For the next couple of days I had to look at my favorite Duke sitting in front of the maintenance hangar with a pink nose made of “curing body filler.” It was a fitting punishment. Lesson learned: never be afraid to ask for help!
Line boys also have dreams. Many want to be airline pilots some day. I was one of those. I thought working at Piedmont would be my ticket. In those days, Piedmont Aviation was the parent company of Piedmont Airlines, based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The FBO was owned by Piedmont Aviation and flight instructors could work their way up to charter pilots and, in some cases, have an opportunity to fly a YS-11A or 737-200 for the airline.
Sometimes you make it, sometimes you don’t. I didn’t. The closest I got to the cockpit was as an aircraft cleaner on the night crew. We cleaned Piedmont jets while they sat on the apron overnight in Norfolk. When the weather was good, we cleaned the exhaust smoke from the tails and bellies of the 737-200s with Scotch-Brite™ Pads, attached to very long extension poles. Little did I know at the time that selling Scotch-Brite™ pads would become part of my 35-year career later on. Those first jobs are so very important!
When the weather was bad we cleaned the interiors on Piedmont’s 737 Pacemakers. Do you remember the days on airlines when the back ten rows were for the smokers? I sure do, because I had to clean that gunk off the seats in the middle of the night with a Scotch-Brite™ pad and 409. I decided never to smoke. Thank goodness for the lessons from being a line boy!
Line boys also make mistakes. A Beech King Air, N11LA, has a special place in my heart. It was owned by Landmark Communications, and Frank Batten, the CEO of Landmark, was a frequent passenger. Mr. Batten went on to create the Weather Channel, and I always respected his vision and drive. [Editor’s Note: John Coleman was co-founder of the Weather Channel. He had formerly served as a chief meteorologist at WLS-TV in Chicago and as a forecaster for Good Morning America.]
I hadn’t been a line boy very long when the supervisor directed me to service the windshield deice reservoir in N11LA. He pointed to the corner of the hangar where two 55-gallon drums of solvent were stored. One said “De Icing Fluid” and one said “Isopropyl Alcohol.” Since I was servicing the windshield deice reservoir, I selected the “De Icing Fluid” and nervously filled the reservoir in the King Air.
As I walked back to the hangar, a little voice told me I better check with someone to make sure I had used the right solvent. Sure enough, I was wrong and should have used the “Isopropyl Alcohol.” Oh well, back to the station manager and another confession to “TC…” The King Air had to cancel the flight and the airplane went back to the maintenance hangar to have the tank drained. It’s hard to admit you’ve made a mistake, but they do happen. Admit it and go on.
Shortly thereafter I was transferred from the night shift to the day shift. They said my “people skills” were better suited to “dealing with customers.” Ha-ha! They were right! I lasted another six months and went on to a sales career.
Addendum to the story – the airplane that delivered the Coors:
Design of the jet powered Aero Commander first began in 1961. This early example was a 1966 model and, as such, was produced by the Aero Commander Division of Rockwell International, later to become a Division of North American Aviation. Since North American was already producing the Sabreliner, this became a slight problem (some overtones of anti-trust laws started rearing their head – although I don’t know why: lots or manufacturers produce more than one jet). Whatever. In the event, the manufacturing rights to the Jet Commander were sold off to Israeli Aircraft Industries in 1967. (Both the FAA and Airliners.net refers to it as Israel Aircraft Industries – wouldn’t you think they’d get it right?)
Production then continued with the Model 1123/1124 and the name changed to Westwind. This aircraft had a rather checkered career. It was delivered as N6513X. It was then sold to Switzerland as HB-VBX. My shot shows it at Santa Monica in 1966 just after application of the European rego. I am not sure how long it stayed in Switzerland (not long) and was then repatriated as N33GL. It became N222GL and had a mechanic’s lien thrown on the hull for some unpaid maintenance bills (which action was then thrown out by the courts) after which it was re-registered N222HM.
My trail grows cold after it became N200LF and its ultimate fate is unknown.
Do you have a favorite line boy or line girl story? Add a comment below.