Aviation’s Answer To ‘Mad Men’

Times have certainly changed as have the attitudes toward drinking while on the clock.


There I was in the supermarket’s meat section looking for bargains, if such still exist. The sign said, “2 for $5.” Nice, round, plump filet mignons with bacon around their edges in vacuum packs. Instantly the brain cells went into memory mode for once upon a time these were the staples of first-class airline food. This, of course, was in the days before no meals at all or maybe just a handful of peanuts.

I was familiar with those filets sitting in their ovenware plates, a bit of juice pooled under each. Not because I was a first-class passenger. No, I was on midnights, the graveyard shift, and we would pick up late arrivals at the terminals and taxi the Connies and DC-6s and DC-7s to the hangar for an overnight check.

I can admit to occasional scavenging. (Dumpster diving?) A filet mignon on a good European roll had an exquisite taste not to be found nowadays. Mark Twain once wrote that there was a distinct difference in taste between a watermelon served at home and one “borrowed” from a farmer’s field.

Of course, it was stupid since it could have cost me my job. It also leaves one to suffer from an interesting variety of food poisoning. But one thing’s for sure: There would be no food worth scavenging – or diving in a dumpster – on most of today’s average flights.

LIQUID REFRESHMENTS

There were others who scavenged the liquid offerings. In those days, the steward would mix martinis and manhattans in crystal pitchers for the stewardesses to serve. No miniatures then either; these were full-sized bottles.

We had a cleaner who would hit the galley and find all the leftovers in the bottles and pitchers. The cleaner would mix all this up together, including the residue in the wine bottles, into one pitcher and chug-a-lug it down, smack his lips and get going on the cabin cleaning.

In this day, we randomly test for alcohol and drugs. Drinking on the job is as rare as finding those filet mignons onboard.

I can categorically say, however, that in the 1950s and even later some very bad cases of alcoholism were just overlooked. In fact, it was not unknown for lead mechanics to assign their alcoholic mechanic(s) to the aircraft cabin where he (they) could sleep it off while the rest of the crew did his (their) work.

Even in the 1970s, when companies had alcohol programs offering protection against punishment and entry into facilities for addiction, I found I had inherited a lead avionics mechanic on graveyard who was in the worst shape I had ever seen. I was appalled, and after some heated words, the shop steward had the union bring in its alcohol adviser.

It probably didn’t help that the adviser was blowing 100 proof himself. But he did succeed in talking the fellow into signing himself into a facility.

They had several husky guys ready and whipped him off immediately. Unfortunately, it was far too late, and the mechanic died at the clinic a couple of days later. Try to explain that you only had the best of intentions to the wife and daughter who came to my office after the funeral.

The problem extended very high up in the companies, too. When I began as a maintenance instructor I was told to always meet the station’s maintenance manager. The maintenance training department wanted to make a good impression. So when I went down to Washington D.C. to teach a class on the DC-9, I tried my best to meet the manager.

Despite repeated attempts, I was always pushed off to the general foreman. “Mr. X” was always in conference ... at lunch ... or just plain not available. I later discovered that the manager was a severe alcoholic, and his people were covering for him. He finally retired when he reached the right age. At least they rewarded the GF by promoting him to manager.

EVEN HIGHER

The drinking problem could go a lot higher than that, too. At one time we had a senior vice president who, in addition to a drinking problem, had a nasty and tyrannical personality. People down at the main base lived in perpetual fear of him. Even worse, it was not unknown for him to wander into a station in the middle of the night, blitzed to the eyeballs, and abuse one and all – even fire people.

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