Aviation’s Answer To ‘Mad Men’

April 20, 2012
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-6 and DC-7 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'd be no food worth scavenging – or diving in a dumpster – on most of today's average flights.


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 on board.

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 maintenance manager at the station. 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 see 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.


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.

Usually they reported for work the next day. Nothing would happen since you weren't ever likely to spot the man at two consecutive shifts. But it made for a terrible time when the local manager tried to enforce discipline and every single member of the staff could point to the company's role model.

I was unlucky enough to be challenged by him during the companywide morning briefing. I had an APU fail in a spectacular way during an engine run-up. It started to burn and the aircraft automatically shut it down and discharged the first fire extinguisher. The fire alarm kept going so I discharged the second extinguisher bottle. That put the fire out.

He criticized me in front of everyone for "panicking." This, I hotly denied since I was a fire chief in my community and knew a thing or two about such situations.

He then challenged me about the aircraft automatically discharging the first extinguisher. Even though everyone knew I was in the right, I could feel people pulling away from me. Later, I sent him marked-up pages from the applicable manuals and the wire diagrams to prove my case. (I think he may have fired me, too.)

Well, times have certainly changed – and no doubt for the better. Still, there is a time and place ... on one cold and windy night in the 1940s, the night crew at LaGuardia came together in the wee hours to wish each other a Happy New Year.

They were surprised to see an erect figure wearing an overcoat and a fedora walk into the hangar. It was Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, himself, president of the airline.
"Hello boys," he said. "Are the airplanes all ready?"
"Yes, sir," said the lead.
"Do you have to move any of them for the morning departures?" Capt. Eddie asked.

"No sir. All positioned. Aircraft fueled. Everything ready."

"Good!" said the Captain pulling out a bottle of fine Scotch. "Let's celebrate the New Year."
Imagine that scene now!