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Chapter 10
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 Poland and launched World War II.

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 Washington. He secured passage of the “pilots’ amendment” to the Railway Labor Act in 1936, thus removing the necessity for any more panicky strike confrontations. The inclusion of airline pilots under this law, with its machinery of conciliation and adjustment boards to hear grievances (originally written in 1926 to prevent strikes on the railroads), was probably Behncke’s most long-standing achievement. Airline pilots to­day still benefit directly from the provisions of this act. Without Behncke’s careful political legwork, it would never have come about.

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 Colorado said when Congress passed the pilot pay and working conditions section of the new law:

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 Wisconsin with a grade school education, now headed a union representing the ma­jority of the nation’s airline pilots. He had been in the Oval Office of the President of the United States for the ceremonial signing of important pieces of legislation on several occasions. His testimony was usually the high point of the dozens of congressional hearings he attended. News­papers sought him out for comment, prestigious groups such as the Aero­medical Association invited him to speak at their annual conventions, and learned publications, such as the Journal of Air Law and Commerce, named him to their boards of editorial advisers. Behncke was a success in the classic American way—by his own hands. His standing was so high that the 1938 ALPA convention reelected him without a single dissenting vote.

Born on May 1, 1897, in a farmhouse near Cambria, Wis., David Lewis Behncke’s early years were similar to those of any son of a hardscrabble farmer of German immigrant ancestry. Money was tight, the family atmosphere was austere, and education was a rare privilege, clearly secondary to long hours of farm drudgery. Recreation consisted of weekly attendance at church services.

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 Milwaukee to enlist, but his undocumented claim to 18 years didn’t jibe with his juvenile face, so the Army turned him down. Having nowhere to go and fearful of facing his father’s wrath, Behncke turned to the only thing he knew—dairying. He got a low-paying job doing the most menial work in a big dairy on the outskirts of town, toiled unremittingly for six months, contracted tuberculosis, and was sent home to die. The atmosphere was strained at first, but Behncke and his father made their peace.

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 Europe spurred demands for American products of all kinds, and farmers got more than their share. The Behncke family rapidly advanced from near poverty into the comfortable middle class. Simultaneously, young Dave Behncke surprised his doctors by making a dramatic recovery from TB.

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 Mexico in 1916. But because he had established a good reputation as a buck private, Behncke was sent to San Diego for flight instruction after the Pershing expedition came to an end. While there, he became a corporal and a designated pilot.

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 various Chicago businesses. The only kind of aviation ac­tivity he avoided was the one that paid best—rum running. Not that he wouldn’t occasionally haul a few gallons over to Rockford when he was really hard up, but Behncke wanted nothing to do with bootlegging on a regular basis. In the unanimous opinion of the surviving old-timers who knew him, Behncke was a moral man, particularly when it came to booze and women.

By 1921, Behncke had fared better than most. He owned a couple of nickel-plate Jennies and had a reputation as one of Chicago’s best airmen. In September 1921, he won the Chicago Air Derby, covering a 55-mile course in just 49 minutes. That gave him name recognition, so through the next four years, until 1925, he was able to make ends meet running Check­erboard Field. By this time, Behncke’s parents had joined him in Chicago and were operating a boarding house in which Behncke also lived.

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 Virginia with his new bride for what he hoped would be a lifetime career in uniform. After six months, however, Behncke found himself back in civvies looking for any job that would support him and his young wife, provided it was in flying. Behncke wanted desperately to stay in the flying game, primarily because it would enhance his chances of re­turning to military duty. Upon his release from active duty in early 1926, Behncke got a job with Charles Dickenson, a Minneapolis-based entrepre­neur who held the first private contract for airmail service to Chicago. Behncke was first on the pilot list of what would eventually become North­west Airlines (NWA). Throughout the remainder of 1926, Dave Behncke flew a single-engine Stinson “Detroiter,” an enclosed-cabin monoplane, back and forth between Chicago and the Twin Cities. He was one of three pilots working for Dickenson who picked up three spanking new Detroiters in the city for which they were named. Behncke then led a forma­tion flight to Chicago, where they picked up a full load (12 passengers on three airplanes), and proceeded on to St. Paul. The other pilots were Eddie Stinson himself and Raymond B. Collins, an executive who specialized in aviation finances. Among the passengers was Charles R. “Speed” Holman, a newly hired pilot. Behncke’s path would cross Holman’s again, with unfor­tunate results.

“The Northwest Airways,” as it was called in late 1926 after a name change from “Dickenson Air Lines,” made stops at La Crosse and Milwaukee, Wis., in each direction. In the beginning, it was strictly a mail service, but on Feb. 1, 1927, it carried its first paying passengers. The pilot was Dave Behncke.

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 St. Paul airport who subsequently became NWA’s operations manager. It was a tough life, one that required pilots to fly two days out of three, but Behncke loved flying and also the technical aspects of the airline’s operations. In May 1927 he wrote an article that was published in Aviation magazine (predecessor of today’s Aviation Week), titled “The Cabin Monoplane.” The gist of this piece was that pilots need not fear flying “out of the slipstream.” Many early pilots insisted that a pilot must always be in an open cockpit, even if the passengers had to be out of the weather. There was no other way to get the “feel” of an airplane, they contended. Behncke dismissed this kind of thinking, pointing out that the comfort and convenience to the pilot was a safety factor.

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 Omaha, while Behncke would get one more crack at a military career. The Army accepted him for a full year of active duty. Once again he was off to Langley Field, this time posted as executive officer of the newly formed Second Bombardment Group. Gladys was pregnant with their first child, and Dave Behncke was determined to succeed this time, his third chance, in the Army.

“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 Chicago and I went into the regular Army as a staff sergeant, enlisted flight instructor.”

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 Wisconsin and of German heritage) was twofold: first, the military was short of money; second, neither had the requisite educa­tional background for a regular commission. It was common knowledge that moss-backed antiaviation careerists were trying to keep the Army’s aviation branch small, and they frowned on commissioning mere pilots in the first place.

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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