From the archives: Len Morgan on airline flying

Editor’s note: Len Morgan was a legendary airline pilot and writer, but many readers may not know that he wrote for Air Facts before going on to Flying magazine. This article, from the December 1953 edition of Air Facts, takes us back to another era and offers a look at the life of an airline pilot during the glory days. Like us, you will be amazed at how much has changed, from women on the flight deck to new technology. But perhaps even more amazing is how much has stayed the same–regional airline first officers may find themselves nodding in agrement.

What every young copilot should know

Career flying–on the airlines

The young man who signs on to fly with a scheduled airline today may spend half of his working life in the copilot’s seat. If he is 24 when he goes to work, he will check out as captain at 42, by this estimate, and fly in the left seat until his retirement at age 60. This is a rough, but reasonable, guess based on factors that are admittedly difficult to evaluate and future developments that cannot be accurately predicted.

Len Morgan by airplane
Len Morgan, legendary airline pilot, began his career in DC-3s and ended in 747s.

There are good reasons why it may take him even longer to check out, the main one being the speed and size of the ships he will fly now and in the years ahead. Bigger and faster ships may be at the delight of an airline’s management but they are the bane of its pilots. Consider the 14-passenger DC-2, 21 passenger DC-3 and 44-passenger Convair 340, three types of airline equipment that have but one thing in common―each requires two, and only two, pilots. The CV-340 crew today hauls three times as many passengers almost twice as fast as the DC-2 crew of fifteen years ago. A Stratocruiser captain with 100 customers aboard is producing 14 times the work he was able to deliver with a DC-2.

Technological unemployment, or the elimination of men through the use of more productive machines, will continue for some time to retard the airline pilot whenever he seems to be getting somewhere, and it is an inevitable and continuous threat to his security which he must accept as part of the job. Following the war one major airline replaced all of its DC-3s with modern, high speed equipment with the result that nearly half of its pilots found themselves out of work, an extreme illustration but a true one. The process is rarely this abrupt, usually taking itself out on pilots in the form of occasional furloughs for junior men and repeated minor, but expensive, setbacks for everyone else. With turboprop and jet power just around the corner for airline use, this sort of discouragement is certain to nag at pilots for many years to come. As one copilot said, after learning of his company’s large order for new ships, “I get the feeling I’m just sitting around waiting for a faster airplane to put me out of work.” He was right, for he is now sweating out an enforced vacation without pay, hoping for a schedule increase which will call him back to work.

Retirements

There are also good reasons why the copilot period should not take up half of an airline career which begins today. The average age of airline pilots has been climbing steadily for several years for retirement has yet to become a determining factor in professional flying. Most lines have set 60 as retirement age although they readily admit that the future may prove it impractical. A handful of pilots have already retired at 60, proving it can be done. The next ten years will tell much about the effects of age upon flying men due to the considerable number of captains now flying in their fifties. It seems likely that retirement in this business will eventually depend more upon an individual’s physical condition, his ability to cut the mustard on flight checks and his own personal plans for later life than upon an arbitrary age limit. A large share may well fly to 60 or even longer for there is as yet no regulation against flying past 60 as long as all medical and proficiency requirements are met. The matter is still one to be decided between the pilot and his company. A certain percentage can be counted upon to quit earlier for reasons of their own but the size of this segment is something no one can predict. Regardless of the ultimate retirement trend, copilots on the major lines will shortly be enjoying slow but regular progress up their seniority list as names are taken from the top.

Frequency vs. Size

The equipment picture is not as gloomy for pilots as it appears at first glance for the airlines know the importance of schedule frequency. Just because you are hauling ten loads of 50 passengers each from Chicago to New York every day does not mean you can do the same trade by running one trip hauling 500 passengers. Besides that, most of our airports cannot stand much more beating than they are taking now which means we are rapidly approaching the limit on aircraft weight for the indefinite future. Airline craft will get faster but not a great deal larger, the experts predict, with passenger capacity probably leveling off at between 75 to 125 seats for the largest ships. The evolution from slow, small airline ships to large, fast equipment is not expected to be quite as rapid in the next decade as it was in the last, a welcome prospect for career pilots.

The development of air coach service is certain to call for more planes and more pilots to fly them. Eight percent of domestic air travel will be by coach service within five years, according to the president of one large line. Air coach fares will bring the speed of air travel within reach of a majority of travelers and draw in new millions of customers to airports just as surely as first class air service has already lured away from the railroads over half of their Pullman trade. When you consider the eventual effect of frequent and inexpensive air service between all cities, the future of the air travel industry seems almost limitless, and the present supply of equipment and facilities will no longer be sufficient to meet the demand.

Untapped Field

Air Facts magazine, December 1953
This article first appeared in the December 1953 edition of Air Facts.

Air freight is as yet a toddling infant. Its rate of growth will depend upon the introduction of planes that are specifically designed to meet the special needs of heavy duty hauling and upon the ability of the airlines to increase the demand for this service. While the scheduled airlines have been too engrossed in their post-war passenger programs to give air freight the attention it deserves, several new companies have stepped into the picture and proved conclusively that there is big money in crates and boxes as well as people. It is altogether possible that another ten years will see more planes and pilots engaged in freight work than are required for passenger service. The current experiment in carrying first class mail by air is yet another aspect of airline activity which may eventually lead to promotion in pilot ranks.

No one can say exactly how these many factors will balance out in the long run. An individual copilot’s progress during his first years will depend not only upon the general industry trends but upon the progressiveness of his own company and its ability to keep abreast of the times and exploit new ideas, and these are things that simply cannot be foreseen.

Taking the bad omens with the good, considering the past history of airline flying together with reasonable predictions for its future, it becomes obvious that the new copilot on the average airline today is going to wear out a lot of uniforms before he sews on that fourth stripe.

The Company’s the Thing

The would-be airline copilot is in a puzzling position as he stands on the outside looking in. He thinks he wants to make a career of flying and he knows his entire future as a pilot will depend directly upon the ups and downs of the company which hires him. Most of the copilots now flying began work in the hectic period when pilots were a glut on the employment market and are where they are because they had to take the first good offer with little regard to personal choice. Today’s applicant can afford to be choosy and do a bit of shopping around. The big question in his mind: who do I want to work for?

While the average airline man is completely loyal to his own line, he is apt to reflect from time to time upon the circumstances that led him into his present job and compare his own progress with that of friends who went with other lines at the same time. If he finds he is trailing the rest in promotion he can take some comfort in the fact that a newcomer to the business has little way of telling a good deal from a bad one. No one can tell him, for, while industry trends can be predicted in a general way, the course a particular company will take is anyone’s guess.

The choice boils down to size. Large airlines offer the greatest variety of working conditions with their far flung routes and varied types of equipment. Smaller lines and feeders with their localized, short haul operations often offer more rapid promotion, however. Generally speaking, the bigger the company the slower the promotion.

New Responsibilities

The copilot of today resembles the copilot of twenty years ago about like a DC-7 resembles a Ford Trimotor. The man who held down the right seat of an early airliner was anything but a “copilot.” He was more of an airborne slave, actual handling of the controls being an occasional treat rather than an everyday chore. He was paid to load baggage, collect tickets, gas planes, serve sandwiches and, incidentally, satisfy a government regulation which called for two men in the cockpit. On some lines, early copilots actually paid their employers for the privilege of building up time and learning the trade. It was a sound investment as things turned out, for promotion to captain rarely took over a few months. Captains of that colorful era figured they were flying one-man airplanes (which they were) and often resented the new rule which insinuated they required an assistant in their duties. The rookie foolish enough to incur the displeasure of an old timer with two or three years’ service with the company was likely to lead an unhappy life on board the airplane.

Amusingly enough, many people both outside and inside of aviation today still have a conception of airline flying which includes a tyrannical old captain continually screaming his rage at a poor whimpering copilot. Nothing could be further from the truth. The modern high speed airliner is a two pilot airplane which cannot be properly flown under all-weather conditions by one man, no matter what his experience. The additional assistance of a flight engineer is now required by law in the complex cockpits of craft grossing more than 65,000 pounds. The copilot has come of age.

DC-6
Bigger, faster airliners like the DC-6 were rapidly changing the industry in 1953.

On the major airlines copilots are now serving from five to ten years before gaining enough seniority to check out and the promotion rate continues to lose speed. Already there are more than a handful of “million-milers” still waiting for their fourth stripes and the trend promises to produce a fair number of ten-thousand hour copilots within the next five years. The first officer of your DC-6 today often has twice or three times the experience logged by your DC-2 captain in 1936. He is a fairly capable pilot in his own right. He shares the cockpit responsibilities, enjoys his work and holds an enviable position on the pilot list. Thanks to recent changes in pilot working agreements he pulls down a paycheck which is far more in line with his capabilities and experience that the pioneer copilot ever dreamed of. He is no longer the “forgotten man” of commercial aviation.

Seniority

Among the first things a new copilot learns is the meaning and value of seniority. Airlines, like railroads, use the seniority system for most of their employees. This method is often criticized on the grounds that a man’s opportunity for advancement should be based on his qualifications and ambition rather than upon his date of hire. Although the “merit system” of promotion looks better at face value it would be almost impossible to apply fairly to a group of specialists who have traditionally measured themselves in terms of experience. The wave of petty office politics which would almost certainly follow a change to the merit system would rapidly make captain/copilot cockpit relations intolerable. Seniority keeps experience where it belongs―in the most demanding jobs.

Unfortunately, seniority usually becomes important to a career pilot only after it is too late for him to do anything about it. Many ex-service pilots took temporary work following the war, waiting for the stampede for airline positions to subside before making applications. When they finally signed on it was only to discover that their more eager friends were comfortably established scores of numbers ahead on the list. There is probably not an airline pilot living who does not make himself thoroughly miserable at regular intervals by reflecting upon the “big chance” he passed up by failing to take up the same work sooner. They can prove (and do at every opportunity) how they have lost literally thousands of dollars in income by getting there later than the rest. For the sharp would-be airline man, the word is run, do not walk, to the company you fancy as soon as you are qualified and make a general nuisance of yourself around the employment manager until he hires you to get out of his sight. It is not at all a bad idea to initiate the same process simultaneously at every other line you can visit, phone or write.

Training Systems

Some lines use pilot personnel for the flight engineer position, drawing their new copilots from the top of the engineer list as vacancies occur. Others select professional mechanics for engineer work and start copilots off in the right seat. In either event, the man finds himself in ground school before the ink is dry on his application. Schooling may amount to no more than the three takeoffs and landings required by Civil Air Regulations or include an extensive refresher course in piloting subjects with Link and hood time thrown in, depending on the training policies of the company and the demand for new men on the line. (The flight engineer course, when required, calls for about two months of not-too-easy ground school and dual on the jump seat, concluded with a flight check.)

Sooner or later the new man is assigned to his first trip and finds himself standing in a place called “Flight Control,” feeling conspicuous and ill at ease in a strange uniform, and looking for a captain he never heard of before. If he is an ex-service man he immediately recognizes that “Flight Control” is just another name for what the Air Force and Navy call “Operations.” Although he does not realize it yet, he will probably stick close to the captain he is about to meet for from one to three months, during which time his performance will be under the closest observation. Then he will be passed around among several others for more of the same, the chief pilot being kept posted all the while on the progress of his newest man. It sounds as miserable as the first term at boarding school but the subject of this close scrutiny has little to worry about if he is as keen on flying and is as willing to learn as the average applicant.

You can’t blame the airline for being careful. Someday this boy may have to help his captain through one of those treacherous situations when everything has to be done right, done fast and done without a lot of cockpit conversation. So, for his first year of line flying, the new copilot is on probation and in for as many home study courses, check rides and fitness reports as the training policy of his particular line may require. The rare misfit who has slipped past the first interviews is quickly eliminated.

Dog Days

Len Morgan Braniff
Morgan flew for over 30 years as a captain for Braniff International Airways.

For his first two years the average newcomer to the pilot staff is on a flat salary. His seniority, such as it is, is worthless to him, for in the eyes of the scheduling department he is merely a reserve to be assigned to extra sections and such other trips as are not covered by regular men. His duties are, of course, restricted to the most junior equipment. Following his probation period a new copilot’s name is added to the pilots’ seniority list along with those of his classmates, the order of their listing depending upon ground school grades and fitness reports. (New men are usually hired in groups of 10 to 50 for reasons of training economy.) Glancing over the new list, carefully noting the handful of names below his and trying to ignore the lengthy list above, the still-very-junior copilot is apt to imagine himself far more important to the company than his current status actually denotes. He impatiently waits out the irksome assignment period, itching for the bid rights that will give him a choice of runs.

While international crew members are often able to select and fly their routes for as long as they desire, domestic pilots generally work on a month-to-month basis. A written bid is submitted by each pilot, stating his numbered preference of the “patterns” of trips that have been posted for next month’s flying, the final award being made according to seniority. Night runs on heavy equipment go senior because of the pay; jerk-water daylight stuff calling for extra days out of town fall to junior captains and copilots. Domicile is likewise determined by seniority, the gray-beards taking Miami and Los Angeles, high numbers picking up what is left. A couple of numbers up or down the list can assume major significance when a choice base needs more crews.

The Routine

A copilot’s day or night (depending on his seniority) begins two hours before flight time when he reports to the dispatcher of his division by phone. An hour later he is at Flight Control. After consulting his captain regarding weather and route conditions he fills out a company flight plan form and progress sheet, the latter being used to keep track of estimates and mileages enroute. The flight plan covers every aspect of the trip, eliminating the additional paperwork at intermediate stops which is a headache with military airmen.

Normally, captain and copilot split the flying evenly, each taking the controls on alternate legs of the trip until their return to base. On some airlines the copilot occupies the left seat for his legs while others feel that greater safety is obtained by a pilot keeping the same seat at all times. It actually makes little difference for airline equipment is designed to be flown with equal ease―or difficulty, depending on your experience with it―from either position. The captain, of course, is boss. He “buys” the ship, you might say, when he tools it from the ramp with a load of trusting customers on board and “owns” it until he is ready to shut down his engines at his destination. He is responsible for everything that happens to it and on it for as long as it is in his charge. The exact extent to which a copilot shares in this responsibility is almost impossible to establish for he is at all time under the direction of the first pilot and, theoretically, doing only what the first pilot directs him to do. A botched job of copiloting at a crucial moment can quickly place the best captain in a difficult and dangerous situation. The Company and CAA hold a copilot to account for his part in cockpit duties although the captain must ultimately answer for the mistakes of both.

Once he has demonstrated his proficiency to a captain, a copilot is allowed to fly his portion of the trip pretty well to suit himself, “consistent with company policy and sound operating procedure,” as the manuals say. His pay after the second year is made up of a flat base figure plus a percentage of the captain’s flight pay, usually about half. Flight pay is computed from a formula involving gross weight and speed of the ship flown and separate rates for day and night time. Night flying pays more than day, overwater work pays better than domestic runs. Length of service is reflected in annual increases in base pay. Each airline has its own understanding with its pilots regarding salary.

A Good Deal

The young pilot who wants to make a career of flying will look long and hard to find a better deal than the scheduled airlines. There is other piloting which pays more at the start and offers more rapid advancement―while it lasts. But there are precious few other jobs that offer as much in the long run.

It’s strictly a flying job―eighty-five hours of it a month and that’s plenty when you’re at it every month, year after year. Exciting? Rarely, but pilots do not often grow old in “exciting” flying. Hard work? Sometimes it can be very hard work, very tiring. Dull? Never, and it will never be as long as the future keeps pace with the past.

7 Comments

  • Len Morgan is one of the best aviation writers I’ve ever read. Month after month (in Flying), he would peel another layer of the aviation onion and I would enjoy reading every word. I don’t tend to keep books, preferring to pass them on to others. Reflections of a Pilot has remained on a shelf in my one small bookcase for 30 years now. Thanks for sharing the flights, Len.

  • Loved this one. Well written, and a “time capsule” of the past. Especially when one considers the size of such aircraft as the A380 and B-747, and airlines are asking to stuff even more people in their flying sardine cans. Problem with that, means fewer pilots, with more passengers, and more unhappy “sardines.” (Still prefer to fly myself in a Cessna 150/152/172, or maybe, something as big as a DC-3.)

  • Len was always my favorite when I was young. I miss his humor and wisdom. I keep a bunch of old (1970s) Flying Magazines around just to re-read his articles from time to time. Yep, it was always Richard and Len for me as a youngster.

  • When I read this article I felt like I was reading the path of my own career. I was right back there in time, standing in what we called flight dispatch, in my spanking new uniform which didn’t fit too well waiting to meet the captain for my first line flight. The article was a prophetic view of history … and the story hasn’t changed much with the development of AI fast approaching on the horizon.

  • Many years earlier, I used to be a fanatic reader of the magazine ‘Flying’. I loved reading Len Morgan’s stories very much. They made me feel as I was there in the cockpit as a crew. He wrote a book ‘View from the Cockpit’. Sale of his books were done by his daughter. I contacted his daughter through mail, made the payment and had the particular book delivered to my home address in Kathmandu, Nepal. As a good gesture, his daughter had his dad Len Morgan put his initials on that book for me. Today, I treasure that book. I miss you Captain Len !! You left a legacy behind.

  • I knew Len from when we worked at Flying together (although he didn’t work from the NY headquarters.) He was such a lovely man, a gentleman, and I remember teasing him when Captain Morgan rum came out and asked him if it were named for him. Everyone held Len in the highest regard. He stopped writing when he ran out of stories, and, again, everyone respected him for saying that he had now told every story he had — although, of course, we would have been happy to read many more.

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