The day I really graduated to airline pilot

As a new 2nd lieutenant, I completed a combat tour in Vietnam, logging over 1,000 hours in an Air Force AC-47 “Spooky” gunship (a converted DC-3 modified with electric side firing machine guns). After subsequent flying assignments I left the Air Force and joined Eastern Airlines as a pilot.

DC-3 Spooky
Flying one of these is a good way to build some unique experience.

In those days all new flight crew members started at the bottom of the pilot seniority list as flight engineers—regardless of your prior flight experience. In my case, I had accumulated over 3,500 hours as a pilot in command, instructor, and examiner but at 30 years of age I was still relegated to the third seat on an Eastern Airlines DC-8 as an engineer.

Many senior pilots at Eastern regarded new hires as a “kid who didn’t have enough common sense to come in out of the rain.” This condescending attitude was particularly true of some of the older WWII captains flying the DC-8 at the time. Their view of your engineer status and job was simply, “get the fuel on board, sit down, shut up, and keep your feet off the seat.”

After my checkout as a flight engineer, one of my first DC-8 flights was with a very senior, WWII-vintage captain for three days. This captain was one of those who didn’t put much stock in Crew Resource Management or any of that touchy feely stuff. To him the captain was God and everybody else in the cockpit was simply an FAA add-on requirement and so much extra weight.

It’s important to note here that one of the “extra duties” of a flight engineer at Eastern was reading the checklists using the “Command/Response method.” The engineer reads the checklist items, the pilot performs and responds appropriately. This whole verbal exchange was to be performed and recorded real time on the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR).

As a probationary employee, needless to say I wanted to do things correctly and certainly please the cockpit boss. This included performing my engineer duties and reading the checklist. So for the first two legs of the trip, I dutifully read the checklist and waited for the captain to provide the required response.

There was no response from the Captain so I would repeat the item and still no response.

Being a bit concerned about that voice recorder thing, I determined that somebody’s voice response had to show up on the recorder, so I started imitating the captain’s voice and responded for him with “gear down” into the recorder microphone.

On the third leg of our trip, I was getting frustrated and very polity asked the captain to help me out: “Captain, it would help me greatly if you would respond to the checklist items if only for voice recorder purposes… since I am a probationary employee I could be terminated if I don’t do the checklist thing properly.”

In Vietnam
Compared to Vietnam, even an airline captain isn’t so scary.

With that the captain looked around at me, slid his seat back and frowned. And then in a very condescending tone proceeded to put me in my place: “Listen sonny, when you have as many hours in a DC-3 as I have, I will answer to your damn checklist.”

I was shocked and not a little humiliated. So, I determined to return the humiliation in kind.

As it so happened, I was carrying my Air Force logbook with me in my flight bag. I reached in, pulled it out and flipped to the Flight Hour Summary page. There it was printed in bold print: “AC-47 (aka DC-3) 1032 hours Aircraft Commander.”

I folded the logbook open to that flight summary page, underlined that DC-3 entry and handed it to the captain.

The captain stared at that logbook page for quite some time before a grin appeared on his face. And then, without another word, he looked at me and said, “gear down.”

At that moment he then became and remained one of my best friends at Eastern Airlines.

7 Comments

  • My Grandfather flew for Eastern from 1956 to 1982 in the Martin 404/Convair 440/Connie/DC-4/DC-8/DC-7/Electra/ 727 and A300 and despite him not having any DC-3 time at Eastern, sounds very much like him!

  • Great story, but how many other people was this captain an a-hole to? No excuse for the bad attitude. Hopefully times have changed.

  • I was hired by EAL in January of 1967. My class of about 25 “new hires” consisted of mostly ex-military types plus a good sampling of GA pilots, affectionally know as FLAPs, F…ing Light Airplane Pilots. The class aircraft assignments were divided up by flying experience; the most experienced became DC9 first officers (copilots), the least experienced became flight engineers (second officers) on either the Connie or Electra. The middle group, me, became dual qualified as first and second officers on the B727. Many of my Captains where WWII vets but the 727 was their first jet so all 3 of us in the cockpit went by the book when flying the 3-holer. Very few had the attitude of the DC8 Captain mentioned by Bill. CRM had not been “discovered” then, but the good captains seemed to intrinsically apply good CRM procedures. I loved flying the 727 but the draft board had other plans, so I got an invitation the join the Army for 2 years before returning to EAL and continuing my career.

  • Great story! One of my father’s best friends, Captain Ed Quill, died in Viet Nam flying AC-47’s. I wonder if you would have known him?

  • John – My Grandfather was Fred McDonald and he started flying the 727 very early in it’s time at Eastern, eventually logging more than 2)K hours in it.

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