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Dave Behncke—An American Success Story
Who was Dave Behncke? To the public at large he was practically an unknown, bearing a name so peculiar that many people who saw it in the news thought is was a misprint.
Everybody in air transportation knew who Behncke was, though, and what he had done. They knew Behncke as the obscure United Airlines (UAL) pilot who came out of nowhere to forge a labor organization rivaling in power the industry’s corporate giants.
But who was he? What were the wellsprings of his beliefs, the roots that made him such a striver?
Few people know the answers to these questions. Even his closest professional associates admit they hardly knew Behncke beyond the most superficial of levels. A few old-timers speculate that this may have been the result of Behncke’s having lost so many close friends, men like H. A. “Collision” Collison of UAL, Hal George of Trans World Airways (TWA), or Clyde Holbrook of American Airlines (AAL), who were killed in crashes in the early 1930s. Behncke himself used to encourage people to believe that his early friendships with these men were so deep that they were past replacing.
Although there is probably an element of truth to this idea, it is also true that Behncke’s friendships always tended to be more professional than personal. He was reserved and distant from beginning to end. Those who associated most closely with him in the formation of ALPA unanimously agree that they never really understood what made Dave Behncke “tick,” that he was driven by intense, compulsive forces that he himself understood only poorly. Many could predict Behncke’s behavior, his probable reaction to an event, or his way of dealing with a crisis. But those who worked with him admit that they never knew the whys of this strange man—why he had risked his chosen career to embark upon the risky seas of labor organization, why he was at once the most generous of souls and the most vindictive, why his judgment could be so sure in some areas and so faulty in others, why he was a leader.
Behncke did leave some clues. To follow them we must return to
1938, Behncke’s shining hour of triumph, the last full year of peace before
Hitler’s panzers shattered
By 1938 Behncke could look back with satisfaction on nearly a decade of achievement. The capstone of his success was the passage of the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938, with its full federal guarantee of wages and working conditions for airline pilots. Starting in 1931, with nothing but a pilot’s job on Boeing Air Transport and an idea, Behncke had wrought dramatic changes.
Despite opposition from the Air Transport Association (ATA
hastily formed in 1935 to lobby Congress and oppose ALPA), Behncke won battle
after battle in
Thanks to ALPA’s activities, Congress had come to regard the professional airline pilot as the indispensable cog without which the system could not function. Behncke had succeeded in portraying the professional airline pilot as an individual whose personal welfare was in the nation’s general interest.
As Rep. John Martin of
In my opinion, the piloting of these great airplanes is the most responsible, the most skillful occupation mankind has ever engaged in. They are the picked men of the country. It is a profession to which many are called but few chosen. These men ought to be as free from worry about their economic condition or future as it is humanly or legislatively possible to accomplish. If there is anything we can put in the legislation that will keep worry from the airline pilots, it ought to be done.
Behncke was at the pinnacle of his success in late 1938, looking to a future of limitless possibilities. He had already begun the final countdown on collective bargaining agreements with each airline, and by now it was simply a matter of circumstance and timing as to which pilot group would be first to have a contract. The slow pace of contract negotiations bothered some ALPA members, but Behncke was in no hurry.
The 1936 ALPA convention had taken up the subject of collective bargaining in earnest, agreeing on a standard set of negotiating points, principal of which was, in Behncke’s words, “a bulletproof seniority plan.” That Behncke proceeded so slowly indicates his caution, especially since passage of the Railway Labor Act amendment made his bargaining base essentially secure. In May 1936 Behncke told the Central Executive Council that he feared Col. Edgar S. Gorell, head of ATA, had outsmarted him on the Railway Labor Act. What if ALPA signed a contract and the operators followed the procedures specified in the Railway Labor Act for breaking a contract, and a court subsequently upheld it? Would a contract supersede the pilot protective provisions in the Airmail Acts of 1934 and 1935, he wondered? If so, would he not be jeopardizing those laws by negotiating a contract—any contract? It was farfetched, but this kind of thinking reveals Behncke’s inveterate suspiciousness and caution. Behncke deliberately waited another three years before finally approving a collective bargaining agreement—well after passage of the 1938 legislation was complete and legal counsel had advised him that his fears of an end-run by the operators to kill Decision 83 were groundless.
By March 1939, a close race had developed between Panagra, Braniff, and American for the honor of signing the first contract, with TWA also in the running. In May 1939, American won the race. C. R. Smith signed for the company, while Behncke, W. P. McFail, Walter Hughen, and copilot representative Harry L. Clark signed for the pilots. This first working agreement between American and its 279 pilots covered not only pay, but also expenses, hours on duty, seniority rights on “bulletined runs” (a primitive “bid” system for preferred routes), leaves of absence, promotions, and provisions for investigations and grievance settling.
A milestone had been reached. Behncke, a farm boy from
Born on May 1, 1897, in a farmhouse near
Sometime in his early adolescence Behncke attended a county fair that featured one of the era’s typical commercial exhibitions of flying. Behncke was thrilled by what he saw. It was a common dream among rural youth of that era to go flying, to soar across mountains and rivers, to be free. No more tedious farm chores, no more rules laid down by strict parents, no more ordinary worries, only those that really mattered—like life and death. Not one youngster in a thousand who entertained these fantasies ever acted upon them, but Behncke would. Already, he was breaking out of the pack.
Young men yearning to fly but lacking the financial resources had only one path open to them—the U.S. Army. Because he needed help on the farm, young Behncke’s father angrily denied him permission to enlist in the Army. Although he was just 16 years old and had only a smattering of formal education, Behncke ran away from home, displaying early the steely will that was to characterize him in adulthood.
He headed for
In 1914, Behncke’s father began reaping the benefits of the
economic bonanza that to this day marks “parity” for American agriculture. The
outbreak of war in
By 1915, Behncke was on good enough terms with his now-prosperous
father to secure his blessings for an Army enlistment. His goal was to become an
enlisted pilot in the Signal Corps, but the closest Behncke got to an airplane
was peeling potatoes in an aviation unit, and the most thrilling thing that
happened to him was rear-area-support duty during General Pershing’s pursuit of
Pancho Villa into
Thanks to World War I, the gates of aviation opportunity swung wider for young Behncke. He was able to parlay his new piloting skill and native ability into a commission and an instructor’s billet.
Had Behncke had his wishes, he would have stayed in the Army. But his lack of formal education made him a poor choice to the selection boards that determined such things. In 1919, the Army released Behncke to make his way in the world of civilian aviation. There can be no doubt that Behncke was disappointed. Over the next few years he would request active duty several times.
After the armistice, Behncke, like thousands of other young men,
began the familiar pattern of barnstorming and gypsy aviating. He bought a
surplus Jenny and did the country fair circuit for a while, joining temporarily
with a company of daredevils in a “flying circus” that wowed the locals with
wing-walking, parachute jumping, and other aeronautical exotica. His goal was to
earn a decent living while at the same time continuing in aviation. No mean feat
that, for the woods were full of young men with similar ideas. After the number
of people willing to pay five dollars for a ride dwindled, he tried to make it
as a freight operator. That didn’t work, so he tried teaching, aerial mapping,
and aerial advertising, painting the sides of his aircraft with the names of
By 1921, Behncke had fared better than most. He owned a couple of
nickel-plate Jennies and had a reputation as one of
For Dave Behncke, being an independent businessman wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. He longed to return to the military, to participate in the great things Billy Mitchell had begun. In any case, the Cook County Forest Preservation Society, which owned the land Checkerboard Field was on, was threatening to cancel his lease. So Behncke was eager to bail out when Tony Yackey made him an offer.
Something else was on
Behncke’s mind by 1925. Her name was Gladys Mae Hensen, and she became his wife
early that year. Soon after, the Army accepted Behncke’s application to return
to active duty. Behncke set off for Langley Field in
“The Northwest Airways,” as it was called in late 1926 after a
name change from “Dickenson Air Lines,” made stops at
Behncke might have ended his
career as an NWA pilot, might well have been an executive of the airline. He got
along exceedingly well with Col. L. H. Brittin, the developer of the
In stressing safety, Behncke was ahead of his time, and in direct conflict with pilots like Speed Holman, a daredevil who insisted that the natural employment for an aircraft was aerobatics, that all pilots should prefer to fly inverted, and that every plane should be periodically tested out with a few loops—just to warm it up for a passenger flight later in the day.
Holman on one occasion took a Stinson Detroiter up for such a flight just before Behncke was scheduled to take it out on a regular run. A confrontation followed, with Behncke getting the worst of it—Holman got Behncke fired. It was a shattering blow to Behncke, who expected Operations Manager Brittin to back him up on what was obviously a safety violation. Holman might well have overstressed the airplane by flying maneuvers for which it was not designed, Behncke argued, but to no avail.
Consequently, in early 1927 Behncke was once more unemployed.
Holman would shortly kill himself doing acrobatic maneuvers in
“Me and Dave Behncke was
happy fellows,” remembers Werner O. Bunge of his days with Behncke at Langley
Field in 1927. Bunge, who flew as a commercial pilot for United and later KLM,
died in 1981 at the age of 82. “Our wives both had babies in the post hospital
at the same time and we lived in the same house. I was a second lieutenant and
so was he, and we had a pretty close association. We both learned to fly Martin
bombers. But then the money ran out, the Army had no more money for active duty,
so he had to go back to
That, in a nutshell, sums up Behncke’s last chance at a regular commission and the military career he coveted. Not that he hadn’t done well. He had won a promotion to first lieutenant, functioned exceptionally well as an administrator of the group’s affairs, and was officially credited with taking out the Pee Dee River concrete bridge after MacArthur’s artillery failed to do it during war games in late 1927.
The problem for aspiring career officers like Behncke and Bunge
(both of whom were from
One key to understanding Dave Behncke is his Army experience. He had worked hard, had overcome severe educational handicaps, had painfully clawed his way up from being a nobody to rather substantial achievements, both in civil and military aviation. Yet he was getting nowhere. On Northwest Airlines he had been fired unjustly, and the Army, despite his best efforts and excellent performance, had once more rebuffed him. That Behncke was disillusioned, there can be no doubt. That these painful experiences caused him to reject the stereotypical notion that success comes in due course if you work hard enough, there can also be no doubt. Behncke had had enough of the Horatio Alger success myth, the idea that any young man can go from rags to riches, from a log cabin to the White House. The decks were stacked against him, it seemed, with educated, patrician elitists getting all the plums in life, regardless of how they actually performed.
When you add this set of experiences to Behncke’s natural doggedness and determination, you get a man who was willing to found a labor union. When the Army released him from active duty in late 1928, he got a job flying for Boeing Air Transport on the Chicago–Omaha run. This subsidiary of United Aircraft had no way of knowing it was hiring a man who had all the prerequisites for a successful labor leader—suspiciousness, lack of sentimentality, and a good deal of personal drive.
This still leaves unresolved the question why Dave Behncke would expose himself to yet another firing by leading the drive to unionization. Perhaps it was precisely because he had been fired before, and had survived, that he was willing to risk being fired again. Like many airmen, Behncke believed the propaganda of that time, which depicted pilots as extraordinary individuals. He also understood that his fellow pilots were, at that particular moment in history, ripe for the undertaking he had in mind. They seemed to understand that the privileged few, the ones from good homes with good educations who got the regular commissions and the executive jobs with airlines, were going to milk this commercial aviation bonanza for all it was worth, and ordinary pilots were not included in their plans.
Perhaps George Douglass, the Mr. “V” of the organizational period, sums it up best:
I don’t really know why Behncke was the leader, and I don’t know why he picked me out as the Key Man on Varney. He must have had a crystal ball. I had met him just once or twice, but he was sharp enough to size me up as a working stiff who understood we needed a union. He didn’t have to explain it to me. When he asked, I said, “Fine and dandy, I believe in it.”
As to why Behncke was successful, boy, that’s a tough one. He was able to see that there’s something in human nature that wants to join something, to be associated. It’s the same old story, in unity there is strength. I sure as hell believe that.
I hate to think where we’d be if Dave Behncke hadn’t been there to put it all together.
To Chapter 11
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