June 12, 2015
Over the years, I have curiously looked back over the names and histories of some of the major aviation organizations that today are highly-respected organizations. I am a little surprised (but should not be) to trace the companies’ origins back to individuals who had dreams and demonstrated a relentless commitment to those dreams. The heritage of these individuals and their companies are recorded and not forgotten, but sometimes we are just too busy to reflect back on them. I would like to share with you a few of the stories I find most interesting. I have attempted to provide you with accurate facts but might not have gotten everything perfect. This is my “fine print disclaimer.”
Boeing Airplane Company
Did you know there really was a Mr. Boeing? At one point, what kept the company afloat was a contract to fly mail for the United States Postal Service. As I recall, at another point in time as a struggling business, they fabricated furniture inside of one of their hangars until things got better. Who would have ever guessed? I just think it’s honorable to remember this aviation pioneer and his effort to help create what has since become a world-class company that creates so many good jobs for our Country.
I have known people who worked beside Bill Lear on the assembly line, creating some of the very first Learjet 23s! They came in as replacement workers when management took over the production line from workers on strike. Early in my career we joked that the early Lear’s were “bondo bombers” due to all of the body filler used to overcome the less-than-perfect sheet metal work. Did you know that what became the Challenger 600 was actually a Lear design? As I recall, the Lear or Challenger aircraft cabin was designed specifically wide enough to carry shipping containers for one of the airfreight companies. When the freight carrier decided to do something different, there was a need to figure out what to do with the newly-designed aircraft, and the rest is history.
Dee Howard, the founder of the Dee Howard Company, was a brilliant self-taught engineer. He is one of the first pioneers of customized military surplus aircraft after World War II. He took the surplus aircraft and converted them into what resembles our current corporate jet interiors. He and his company, located in San Antonio, Texas, designed many modifications for Lear Jets and was the first in the United States to customize a Boeing 747 for a head of state. I had the privilege of visiting with Mr. Howard a couple of times.
I had the pleasure of meeting Carl Fox, the founder of Foxtronics, the ground power cart founder. What most people don’t know is that Carl Fox was the very first President and primary founder of what today is Associated Air Center. Carl had the idea of creating a radio repair facility and needed someone with a little bit of capital, so he recruited two of his subordinates when he worked for Southwest Airmotive on Love Field. He also created Associated Radio, which today is Associated Air Center.
Early in my aviation career I was blessed to have spent some moments with Herb Kelleher and Colleen Barrett. I give them credit for greatly influencing my feelings and understanding of Servant Leadership and fostering a mission of service greater than self. This was a real blessing for me. What most people don’t know is that in the 1980s Southwest Airlines operated two Boeing 727-200 aircraft! I know this for a fact because when I was President of Associated Air Center we refurbished a Boeing 727 for Southwest. I even have a photo of a cake with the aircraft on it and Herb giving me a satisfied-customer peck on the cheek for on-time delivery and quality of workmanship! At some point, after putting the two Boeing 727s in service (which went against their business model of a standardized fleet), I am told it was called the “worst decision.”
I remember meeting a man who looked like he was just out of the movies. His name was Ramon Gibson and he was a helicopter test pilot for the FAA. When I was at Associated Air Center we were a Bell Helicopter Service Center so I would get to visit with Ramon from time to time. He shared with me that he had set a new altitude record for a helicopter. He said he was hovering at some unbelievable altitude and that holding the control still resembled holding a cracked raw egg with the tips of your fingers on one hand. He laughed that an airliner flew near and reported an unbelievable sighting of what appeared to be a helicopter at a similar altitude.
Many years ago, my friend Bo Wafford had a most interesting experience when he was a young pilot. He and a friend flew to Fredericksburg, Texas and landed on a run outside of Fredricksburg. The runway had no taxiway, so after landing he turned the aircraft around and headed to what he thought was the FBO or terminal building. He noted that upon taxiing up to the building there was a black car with two men in it. As he shut down the engine the men approached the airplane with guns drawn! They asked Bo and his friend, “What are you doing here?” Bo explained that they were going into town and found the runway on their map as a good one to use for Fredericksburg. The men asked to see the map and sure enough, there was the runway without any restrictions. What Bo and his friend learned after showing the men the map was that they had just landed on the private ranch runway of former President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The map got changed real quickly after this incident! I also have a friend who was a Braniff crew member who several times had flown a BAC-111 in and out of that same ranch runway.
I wish that I had kept all of the business cards of the representatives that I have worked with or met over the years. In the 1980s, the airline business was crazy. I was involved in the refurbishment of countless air transport aircraft for freight carriers, airlines and leasing companies. At times, you would refurbish an airliner and before it ever rolled out of the hangar, someone else had purchased it or the entire airline, and your work scope would change. I remember one time when we had just completed a heavy maintenance project for a fledgling carrier that went on a test flight with several of our technicians on board. They departed without paying their bill and then kicked our maintenance technicians off the airplane. Had they crossed state lines, it would have been a felony for kidnapping, but we eventually got paid.
I have a friend who was a crew member on a DC-10 that buzzed the beach in Hawaii. He called me right before his greeting with the FAA upon destination arrival. I know of some people who rolled aircraft that “cannot be rolled.” I know of several stories of men who nightly used to fly bank checks and have lived to tell their stories, despite all sorts of poor aircraft maintenance and weather issues. There are people who have all sorts of “in flight” cabin passenger stories. There are also plenty of stories about celebrities that won’t be told! Most important of all, there are heartwarming stories about how aviation people have served countless people by using their caring hearts to serve others in times of need.
There are countless stories and wonderful memories of our aviation greats that I failed to include, but they are probably just as or even more important than the few I shared. I hope that someone will one day create a book on the memories of the past, if they have not already. If they have, please let me know so that I can get my own copy. Some of my stories can only be shared in private—and anyone who has been in aviation knows the secret code. Just like for some classified military special operations, other stories are to never be repeated out of trust and sometime written contractual directives. If you ever want to hear some of my “better” stories, I am good for a few over one or two adult beverages of Puerto Rican Rum and Diet Coke with two limes!