Flying with the famous and infamous

Flying Boeings and Bells was how I crossed paths with Charles Lindbergh, Mustapha Chafik, the Shah of Iran’s nephew, Mohamed Ali, Leonard Bernstein, and Richard Nixon. Geopolitics and the ups and downs of the airline business played a hand as well.

A Chat with Lindbergh

The year was 1968 and Charles Lindbergh was “non-reving “ (the airline term for flying free) in first class on our flight from Rome to New York’s J.F. Kennedy Airport. He was on the Pan Am board of directors and frequently flew to Europe, taking advantage of the company’s travel perks.

No longer the instantly recognizable flyer of his early years, he was a quiet, unpretentious traveler, indistinguishable from the other conservatively dressed older gentlemen seated in first class. Technology had long since moved beyond his expertise. By then Pan Am’s Stratorcruisers and Connies, planes he would have been more familiar with, were long gone and 707s and DC-8s routinely crisscrossed the globe. Doppler and inertial navigation systems had replaced navigators on most routes and main frame computers did the flight planning. Yet his relationship with Pan Am was mutually beneficial. He was a prominent personality on the board of directors and the company’s travel privileges were a convenient and economical way for him to maintain overseas relationships, some of which (the world later learned after his death) might have raised some eyebrows.

Charles Lindbergh
Charles Lindbergh, still dapper at 66, was a frequent Pan Am passenger.

We were advised before departure that he’d be with us and the captain passed word back that he was welcome to visit the cockpit in cruise flight. It was years before reinforced cockpit doors and captains had more latitude about who could visit the cockpit. I was the relief copilot, not scheduled for cockpit duty until later in the flight, but I hung around after my mandatory presence in the cockpit for the takeoff and initial climb, knowing that he’d be coming up soon. He came forward as the flight approached Paris. Lean and tall with thin gray hair, he moved easily into the jump seat behind the captain. Having long since left behind cockpit routines, and largely out of his element, he sat quietly as the captain and first officer went about cockpit chores.

With Paris passing below in clear skies, the captain pointed to Le Bourget airfield saying, “I guess you’re familiar with that place.” Lindbergh nodded with a smile. He then told us about an early flying experience in Mexico before World War II.

Navigating with spotty charts, he was unsure of his position so he flew low following railroad tracks hoping to read a town’s name on the side of a railroad station. He said: “As I flew by at rooftop level, the only sign I saw was CABALLEROS [men’s restroom] on a side door.” We all got a good chuckle. We shook hands and I left the cockpit, headed for my crew rest seat in first class. A few minutes later, he returned to his seat, settling in for a meal and a nap.

Instructing the Shah’s nephew

Well beyond my purview as a new hire copilot in 1968, Pan Am’s chairman, Juan Trippe, was gearing up for a major expansion of world air travel. In the mid 1960s he convinced Boeing to build the 747 and initially ordered 25. Trippe’s timing was years off the mark. The first Pan Am 747 arrived at New York’s JFK Airport in January 1970, about a year into what would become a major worldwide downturn in airline traffic. My furlough letter arrived by registered mail in December 1969, along with thousands of others sent to junior pilots at all the major airlines.

Prince
The Shah’s nephew was an avid, if not always diligent, pilot.

I returned to active military duty for two years as a standards instructor at Helicopter Training Squadron Eight in Pensacola. Iranian Lieutenant Mustapha Chafik, nephew of the Shah of Iran, was among my international flight students. He was comfortable in the ways of the west, had a cheerful manner, a ready smile and got on well with instructors and fellow flight students. Yet, Chafik was a product of the time in 1970s Iran. Savvy in the country’s politics and intrigues, he was careful to follow the iron-fisted dictates of his uncle, the Shah, who came to power following a US- and British-engineered coup of then Prime Minister Mosaddegh.

In Iran, Chafik occasionally flew helicopters but mainly commanded a flotilla of 14 high speed, armed hovercraft. My job as a standards instructor was to make him a competent helicopter instrument flyer. He progressed satisfactorily but shrugged off what he considered the details of air traffic control, flight planning and fuel tracking. The squadron’s UH-1H and TH-1L Huey helicopters had endurance of about 2 hours 40 minutes cruising at 110 to 120 knots. Consuming 8 to 10 pounds of JP 4 per minute, depending on the model, flight planning with attention to even small head and tailwind components and enroute fuel tracking was especially important. Computing groundspeed on the E6B, he’d smile and say, “If Allah wills it, it will be.” Same with holding pattern entries, NDB, VOR, and TACAN approaches. To him, terms like minimum enroute altitude, minimum off route altitude, and minimum sector altitude were esoteric abstractions he accommodated to get through the program. Smiling, he’d say, “In Iran, we follow camel tracks.”

Chafik completed the syllabus and returned to his hovercraft unit in Iran. Seven years later in what became known as the Islamic Revolution, the Shah was ousted and fled the country with his immediate family. Chafik, by then an Iranian Navy captain, was detained but managed to escape in an Iranian Navy hovercraft, eventually settling in his mother’s Paris apartment.

According to The New York Times, he hadn’t requested special security. On December 7, 1979, about a month after arriving, he was assassinated by an Iranian agent on a Paris street while carrying groceries home.

My seat by the Champ (Muhammad Ali)

Returning to Pan Am by the mid-70s, I did mainly flight safety projects at the company’s JFK flight operations headquarters and occasional special mission flying.

Ali
You never know who you’ll sit next to on an airplane.

Part of the job was representing Pan Am at the International Air Transport Association (IATA) on operational and safety issues. I was returning from a European IATA meeting in the late 1970s when Muhammad Ali bounded onto the plane just before the doors closed and sat down next to me. He was sweaty and had obviously been running to catch the flight. The plane was a Pan Am 747-100, with its spacious, open cabin and large first class seats. By then passengers were seated and settled in with their drinks so when Ali hustled into the cabin, they all noticed.

As time passed we started chatting. He had no pretensions and a kind of simple acceptance of his place on the world stage. As an aside, pointing to the Rolex watch on his wrist, he said, “People give me things.”

When I mentioned that I was a pilot and worked for Pan Am, he had lots of questions mostly about the working lives of airline pilots and their compensation. I explained that salaries were largely based on a plane’s payload and crew position and for that reason 747 captains were paid the most. He mulled the numbers and said, “That don’t seem like that much.”

I thought, but didn’t say… the Airline Pilots Association (which represented Pan Am pilots) would be pleased to hear you say that! But my response was: “Yes, you get a lot for fights but when you step into the ring you can get your head knocked off.”

He looked me in the eye and said, “Now you’re talking, man!” Then our midday meal was served. As the flight progressed, passengers sheepishly approached asking Mr. Ali to autograph their menus. He’d nod and sign.

The Maestro and the kids

The Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty was signed in March 1979, normalizing relations between the two countries. In 1980, an enterprising but overly optimistic Egyptian tour operator started Nefertiti Airlines and acquired N893PA, a Pan Am 707-321, to capitalize on anticipated cross border travel. It was a shoestring charter operation and ground to a halt two years later. On its final flight, the ill-maintained 707 landed at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, where it was abandoned, impounded, and locked up with the last flight’s catering still on board.

It sat baking in the sun for months as Pan Am arranged to repossess it. By April 1982 most legalities were complete and as first officer I dead-headed from JFK with the captain and flight engineer to retrieve it. That’s how I crossed paths with Leonard Bernstein, shepherding a group of high school boys to Israel in upper deck first class on an El Al 747, from London to Tel Aviv.

Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein was all business during rehearsal.

Years earlier, in college, I attended a New Haven rehearsal where Bernstein was a visiting conductor at Yale. With the players seated and tuned up, wearing a sweat shirt and jeans, he walked in from the stage, stepped onto the conductor’s stand with his baton and began the rehearsal. He was serious and meticulous, directing with stops and repeats, all business, not the smooth beginning to end concert goers would later hear. It brought to mind the remark by Kaiser Wilhelm that if one likes sausage don’t watch how it’s made. Now in El Al first class, attired in business casual, laid back and at ease, he doted over his charges, chatting amiably in what seemed to me the drawn out speech affectations of New York’s art world. A long way, I thought, from the Boston accents of his childhood.

The next day, checking out N893PA, it was obvious the plane was in no shape to fly even under rules less stringent than FAR Part 121. Its moldy galley food trays were just an exclamation mark on the whole sorry scene. Several legal formalities remained as well. Meanwhile, mechanics from Israeli Aircraft Industries towed the N893PA into a hangar, where it was jacked up, hydraulic pumps activated, flight controls exercised, and the landing gear cycled and checked for leaks. With repairs underway and no prospect of departing for at least a couple of days we rented a car, drove to Jerusalem, and took in the sights.

On April 21, 1982, with enough repairs to make the plane airworthy for the ferry flight, we took off for London’s Stansted Airport. The captain recalled we departed with one of the four engine-driven generators inoperative, wing anti-ice system inoperative, and pages of inoperative components totaling about two dozen write-ups. Routing to London was as direct as possible, over lightly traveled airways of then Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe.

Eight months later, the Chinese government purchased N893PA for their Tianjin technical school. See Flying an Old Boeing to China For Christmas.

Gregarious Richard Nixon

In the early 1990s, La Guardia’s Marine Air Terminal was the bustling base of Delta’s 727 air shuttle operation, flying passengers to Boston Logan Airport and Washington National Airport. Savvy flyers preferred it because it was on LGA’s west side, away from the main terminals, allowing easier access and often less delays for takeoff and landing. Perhaps for those reasons Richard Nixon chose Delta for his trip to DCA that day in 1992.

Nixon
By the 1990s, Nixon was long removed from politics, and perhaps more jovial because of it.

It was a morning flight and we were strapped in—making our cockpit nests, positioning Jepp pages on the 727’s side window clipboard, setting nav radios, RMI heading bugs, VOR courses, and engine EPR bugs—when a flight attendant popped in to say former President Nixon would be coming on board. By then he was living in Bergen County New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York City.

Passenger boarding was delayed for a few minutes while gate agents blocked off seats for him and his Secret Service detail. Next, a phalanx of Secret Service agents took positions around where the President would be seated in the forward cabin. Then Nixon walked briskly on board, heading straight for the cockpit.

He wasn’t the dour man I remember in the 1972 photo giving a victory sign from the helicopter the day he left the White House. Rather, he was animated and smiling. “Good morning, how ya doing,” was what I recall as he leaned in over the control pedestal to shake hands. Nixon’s trip that day provided a new insight about the man who was so hobbled by his dark temperament, yet who ended the draft, negotiated the end of the Vietnam war, established the EPA, and began friendly relations with China. That cockpit visit told me he still wanted to be in the game.

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