From the archives: Len Morgan on the personal stories a pilot sees

Editor’s note: Most airline flights involve simply moving people and things from point A to point B, but sometimes an airline pilot gets a view of the human side. In this touching article by Len Morgan, the legendary pilot and author shares a memorable flight that shows how powerful air travel can be and the lives it can connect. This article originally appeared in the November 1956 edition of Air Facts.

Good Load Tonight

An airplane in flight is a world in itself, its occupants removed for a time from the world to which they rightfully belong. In an airliner, this little world is sharply divided into two parts: the cabin with the passengers in their reclining seats and the cockpit, where we work. Passengers are not allowed up front and pilots are usually too busy to visit the cabin so we seldom learn anything about the people who have paid their good money to come along for the ride. But being curious is part of being a pilot and we wonder who they are, where they are going and why. You like to see where your bit of the day’s work fits into the scheme of things.

Air Facts 11-1956
This article first appeared in the November 1956 issue of Air Facts.

Not long ago we got an interesting glimpse of the total picture. It was a late afternoon trip, one of several connecting with non-stops from the east and north to scatter their loads down a line of small southwestern cities. After we had run through the checklist I went back to lock the commissary door, one of a copilot’s duties on my line. There was quite a commotion in the rear of the ship where a small, plump woman was attempting to get nine children settled in their seats all at the same time. They were all young, the smallest being a baby who was sound asleep, and about evenly divided between boys and girls. The oldest was about four, a little blond-headed fellow who had found a window seat. He was very quiet and watched me intently with grave blue eyes. A Swissair tag on his coat made me wonder how far these kids had flown. I offered him some gum and he carefully picked out a single piece. On impulse, I pressed the whole box into his hand and he accepted it without comment or change of expression. He was neither frightened nor friendly and there was nothing about his manner, so strange for a boy, to suggest what thoughts tumbled through his little head.

“Good load tonight,” I told the captain, for nearly every seat was taken.

After we got off the hostess came up with coffee. “They are German orphans and have been adopted by American families.” None of them, she said, could speak English, not even the lady in charge, but the ramp agent had some information on them. The kids had left Germany less than twenty-four hours before and were to complete their long trip at our first stop. A doctor and his wife in this place had somehow become interested in the orphans and arranged to adopt one. Friends heard of it, more pictures were exchanged and letters written over a period of months with the result that nine weary youngsters were now speeding westward to new homes in a new world. And that’s about all she knew.

We landed just after sundown and a crowd of perhaps a hundred and fifty people were waiting at the gate of the small terminal. Several young men came out to help unload the kids. Then came a scene to answer many questions as babies and toddlers were carried out to meet their new parents. It is hard to forget.

“Here she is!” said one of the young men, handing a little girl to his wife. “Isn’t she a little beauty!”

Another man was holding a chubby boy at arm’s length and his wife was saying, “I’d have known him anywhere. Look at him. Look at that smile, will you!” And a slender boy in blue jeans said, “Let me see him again, Dad. Here, let me hold him.”

All over the place it was the same thing. Kids being passed around from parents to grandparents to uncles and aunts in a scene that needed no explanation. Some people were smiling and a few were crying and everyone was happy. It was infectious and you couldn’t watch it without feeling happy for them and wishing this sort of thing happened more often.

German orphans
For German orphans, being adopted by Americans started with a long airplane ride.

“Just like her picture, just exactly like the picture,” someone kept saying as though it was all too good to be true.

“Oh, he’s so tired, poor thing. Let’s take him straight home,” said an older woman, settling happily into her new role as grandmother.

“Did you ever see such pretty eyes. Look at him.”

Somebody from a newspaper began lining up the kids and their families for pictures and then the crowd wandered apart into little groups. It was about time for us to go and I looked around for the little boy. He was with a young man and woman, as quiet as he had been on the plane, studying them with the same grave expression. The lady held his hand and fussed with his coat but not much was being said. They did not seem like people to talk a lot and I imagined the boy had found his way into the right home. I hoped so.

Then we were off again, heading west into the dusk to complete our scheduled rounds.

“Wonderful thing, that,” said the captain after a while. “When you think of those kids coming over here to grow up. Did you notice the little blond boy, the quiet one?”

“It’s quite a change for him,” I said, “having to leave everything he knows for a new life, even at his age.”

“It’s the beginning of a life for him that counts.”

When the hostess came up with dinner she asked, “Did you fellows notice the lady who got on back there with the two little girls?”

We remembered her, yes – an attractive young woman about thirty with pretty daughters about five and nine.

“I’ve been talking with her. She’s had a rough go of it. Her husband has been away a year in the service and he was killed two weeks ago in an accident overseas.” We would never have known it from seeing her.

“No, it’s amazing. She’s completely composed. I couldn’t take it like that. She said, ‘The girls and I now know their Daddy isn’t coming back again and we are going to have to stick together and build a new life without him.’ ”

“Just like that?” I said.

“Those were her exact words.”

Braniff Convair
An airline flight sometimes means more than just a trip – it’s a new beginning.

“She’s cut from stout fabric, like the people who opened up this part of the country,” said the captain.

“She said she has always lived out here.”

“I believe it.”

The last faint streak of daylight which had clung to the horizon ahead for several minutes was suddenly gone and the darkness creeping up from behind made the night complete. Car lights made the highway below a tinseled thread on which were tied, like so many glittering jewels, the tiny ranch towns that adorn the plains. Each sparkling cluster of lights was a world in itself, with its own joys and sorrows, like ours in a way.

“What is it for this girl, an ending or a beginning?”

“It has to be the beginning,” said the captain and I knew he was right.

When we began the flight an agent had brought out a small white metal can, about the size to hold a pound of pipe tobacco. Some sort of priority shipment, he had said, and would the crew see it was turned in promptly at the final stop. We put it on the baggage rack and forgot it. During the last few minutes of flight one of us remembered the special handling request and we read the tag pasted on the side. It was addressed to a hospital and had been shipped that afternoon from an eye bank in a large southern city. Within hours the corneas it contained would be stitched into place in living eyes and would probably give new sight to someone who, that evening as we flew, lay hopefully waiting behind an awful curtain of darkness.

“You might call it another beginning,” said the captain.

We landed for the last time and our passengers went their ways. By now all the orphans were tucked in their beds back down the line. The widow and her girls were met by an older couple and drove off towards the lights of the city. The white metal can sat on the operations counter, waiting to be collected.

“An interesting trip,” said the captain. “It’s not often we know anything about the load.”

And then our cab man came and we left for the hotel.

6 Comments

  • How absolutely grand, & what a delightful surprise, to see here one of Captain Len’s remembrances! Over my decades as a ‘Flying’, reader, his page & Bax’ were those to which i turned most avidly month to month. Singular talents, in that same league of poet airmen as Wilson, Gann, Stiles, de Saint Exupery… And your GORGEOUS, emotionally freighted pic of a Braniff-Morgan’s line, of course-Convair 340 at what looks to be old Kansas City downtown? My first airplane ride was aboard the type, SUX-MSP, in 1955 not long after Braniff acquired Mid-Continent, which had IT’S roots in Hanford/TriState at Sioux City. (On point with Cap’s essay, Sioux City was a significant place of post war resettlement for Jewish survivors of National Socialism’s demonic evil.) Now are all of them-all of it-gone, along with that wondrousness of airline travel as experienced by those of us who knew it in those years.

  • Captain Morgan was indeed a true literary gem for those of us who fly. His ability to share the professional and technical aspects of aviation, while maintaining a keen sense of the human experience contained within, is matched by few others. I’ve missed him since he left us years ago; it would be wonderful if Air Facts could continue to publish his writings, as many were published before I discovered “Vectors”. Bax was, of course, in the same league; he just spoke with a different voice. Although I own his books, seeing some of his old work would be a treat as well. Looking forward to more!

  • Beautiful story. I agree with other commenters that Capt. Morgan’s writing is greatly missed. Sadly, today’s cockpit crews have even less chance of knowing anything about “the load” than was true in the ’50s, when Morgan wrote. When robots fly the planes… well, we might as well all be sheep.

  • I corresponded with Len Morgan on several occasions after I had sent him some of my own stories of flying to the various South West Pacific war time island destinations in Air Nauru Boeing 737’s in the 1970’s. I had read his Vectors column in US Flying for years. What a wonderful writer.
    To my delight, one day in Australia in 1998 after I had officially “retired” from airline flying because of the age 60 rule, I received another letter from Len.

    He wrote: “Dear John:
    You are one hell of a story teller. I’ve been reading the articles you sent and examining the fascinating photos. Many thanks for all this.
    Find time to assemble your tales in book form and send me an autographed copy.
    Best wishes!
    Len
    PS – My apologies for taking so long to respond.

    It was because of Len’s encouragement I finally put pen to paper and in 2009 my book “Tall Tails of the South Pacific” was published via http://www.lulu. com
    The spelling of ‘Tails” is correct.
    Sadly Len Morgan had passed away four years earlier

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *