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Chapter 5
The Livermore Affair

What sent Joe Livermore and his copilot Art Haid into the midst of an 80-mile-per-hour winter gale on the night of Dec. 18, 1936? En route from St. Paul, Minn., to Spokane, Wash., in a Northwest Airlines (NWA) Lockheed 10 and carrying a cargo consisting solely of Christmas mail, they made their last radio contact at 3:00 a.m., reporting over what they thought might be Elk River, Idaho. They were off course, overdue, and nowhere near their destination.

From Seattle, the western terminus of NWA’s “northern transcontinental” route, Operations Manager A. R. “Bob” Mensing told newsmen the next morning that he felt confident the plane had been forced down northwest of Elk River, and that the pilots had been unable to reach a telephone.

Newsmen in Seattle were particularly interested in the overdue NWA plane because it was the second such mysterious airliner disappearance in a week. A Western Air Express (WAE) plane with seven people aboard, four of them passengers, was missing somewhere along the Nevada–Utah border. It was presumed that there were survivors because two radio stations had heard weak distress calls claiming to be from the downed plane. It was front-page drama—the possibility that somewhere there were injured people desperately trying to summon help. In a race against time, over 8,000 searchers scoured the wild terrain, trying to find the WAE plane before a predicted killer blizzard hit the area. After 24 hours, the faint radio signals, which had stirred hope, were heard no more. Later, WAE officials surmised that the distress messages were probably a hoax—some amateur radio operator’s idea of a joke.

The reporters besieging NWA’s Bob Mensing for news of his overdue plane didn’t know that yet. Consequently, they spent the day of December 19 camped outside his Seattle office, hoping to get a story that would scoop the reporters covering the WAE plane search several hundred miles away in Salt Lake City.

Then, on the following day something happened on the East Coast that upstaged everybody: Henry T. “Dick” Merrill, celebrated transatlantic flier, bon vivant, and Eastern Air Lines (EAL) pilot, disappeared somewhere in the mountains of southern New York. He was flying a DC-3 with a full load of passengers.

Of the three airline disappearances in the nation’s news that week, only Merrill’s had a happy ending. Owing to static that rendered his radios useless, Merrill had become lost in heavy fog. Just before running out of gas he managed to set his DC-3 down on the side of a 1,500-foot mountain near Port Jervis, N.Y. The plane was demolished, but the only person injured was Merrill, who had several teeth knocked out and a broken ankle.

Spokesmen for WAE dampened the high spirits raised by Merrill’s good fortune when they announced that they “had given up hope days ago” of finding any of their people alive. A crushing blizzard had descended on the probable crash site in northern Nevada, convincing them that there was no longer any use in holding out the possibility of rescuing survivors. “We doubt that the plane will be found before the snow melts next spring—if ever,” a WAE executive said.

But there was still hope for the NWA plane and its two pilots. Rescuers had narrowed their search to a series of unnamed ridges along the Wyoming–Idaho border. A ranger in the Gallatin National Forest reported seeing the plane at 4:00 a.m. on December 19, an hour after its last radio transmission. On December 21, a pilot spotted wreckage near Kellogg, Idaho. He thought there might have been survivors, but before ground parties could work their way up to the nearly inaccessible site, another blizzard hit.

There was nothing to do but wait.

On December 26, a fur trapper who had volunteered to snowshoe his way up to the wreckage mushed out to report that there were no survivors—both Livermore and Haid were dead.

When reporters asked Bob Mensing how copilot Haid’s young widow was taking it, he said: “She’s true blue. She simply asked that Art’s body be sent home to Seattle.”

Mensing said nothing about Lorna Livermore, Joe’s widow. He had good reason, for an angry Lorna Livermore had already sent a notarized statement to the Department of Commerce (DOC), the principal federal agency regulating aviation in those days, all but accusing Bob Mensing of murdering her husband.

Any roster listing airlines with the worst pilot-management relations records would show Northwest Airlines somewhere near the top. On other airlines, bad blood between pilots and supervisory personnel would ebb and flow, but on NWA it seemed to stay pretty much at flood stage. Before catching on with United Airlines (UAL), Dave Behncke himself had worked for NWA. In fact, he would have been first on the seniority list if he hadn’t gotten fired and if NWA paid any attention to seniority.

So it came as no surprise that something like the Livermore case happened on NWA.

Joe Livermore was an “old” pilot.

“I would say that he was maybe in his late 30s,” says R. Lee Smith of NWA, one of six pilots who met secretly with Dave Behncke in 1930 to begin planning what would later become ALPA.

Livermore lived in Spokane with his wife, Lorna, flying a regular section between there and St. Paul, with stops at places like Missoula and Billings, in the twin-engine Lockheed 10, a low-wing all-metal airplane called the “Electra.” It carried 10 passengers.

The Lockheed 10 could operate IFR (instrument flight rules), but the state of the electronic airways was still so rudimentary over NWA’s routes that in a crunch many pilots still preferred to fly visually, relying on the Post Office’s old lighted airways with their reassuring beacons winking every few miles. Joe Livermore was one of them, and he is a classic case of an older pilot caught in the transitionary bind between what pilots still called “contact” flying and instrument or “blind” flying.

In the late 1920s, when the first practical passenger aircraft, such as the Ford and Fokker Trimotors, began to appear in regular airline service, the instrument panels already had a modern look. They usually sported a complete array of instruments, including even the revolutionary gyro-driven artificial horizon, so a pilot could easily keep his plane right side up when he inadvertently ventured into clouds. The problem was navigation. Effective IFR operations were still impossible because the electronic airways were not yet complete.

Even as late as the 1930s, after low-frequency ranges began dotting the nation’s airways and suitable in-flight radios were available, the all-weather concept could still be hindered by elements such as static.

In those days, a pilot navigated under instrument conditions largely by his ears—like a bat. Each low-frequency range transmitted steady “As” and “Ns” in Morse code, in alternating 90-degree quadrants. That is, if you were flying in an “A” quadrant, you would only be able to hear “A,” “dit-dah.” In the next quadrant, the “N” quadrant, you would hear a “dah-dit”—“N.”

At the point of juncture between these “A” and “N” quadrants, the Morse code signals blended to form a steady aural “tone,” which designated the airway. So each low-frequency radio range was capable of producing only four airways (or “legs”), and static could play havoc with the radio recep­tion necessary to delineate them. And that wasn’t the only problem.

The feature of early IFR flying that drove the first generation of airline pilots crazy was “ambiguity.” Each 90-degree “A” and “N” quadrant had a mirror image exactly opposite. Which “leg” were they on? Were they going toward the station, or away from it? (There were no convenient “to” and “from” flags.) Did they have the range correctly identified by its Morse code call sign, or was a similar station in Calcutta skipping around the world to deceive them? (There were cases on record in which a phantom station created by skip waves lured pilots to their deaths.)

The most troubling aspect of early IFR flight was the approach—what pilots called the “let down through” procedure. It was one thing to sit up high, clear of surrounding terrain, and take a chance that the “beam” was on course. But when it came to dipping down into the soup, trying to fly the beam into the field, that was something else. A pilot had to be absolutely certain he had gotten station passage during the approach, and the only way he could determine that was, again, with his ears—something called “the cone of silence.” Directly over the station there was an electronic null that could be either very small or very large, depending on your altitude and atmospheric conditions. Static could have a number of effects on a low-frequency radio range, but from the point of view of early airline pilots, the worst thing it did was to interfere with reception to the point where they could not determine the cone of silence.

In theory, the low-frequency radio ranges worked well enough that air­line executives and government officials declared that the age of all-weather flying had arrived. Working pilots knew it wasn’t true. They knew from firsthand experience how vulnerable to such factors as atmospherics and poor maintenance the early IFR system was. They knew the terrors of wandering ranges and all the other problems they encountered on an everyday basis. Most pilots developed their own tricks to avoid betting their lives on their ears. Some only grudgingly endured the new instru­ment training and rarely flew “blind” They would take off and submit fraudulent position reports, saying they were at “9,000 instruments,” when actually they were dodging sagebrush, flying visually underneath, just like they used to in the old days. How was anyone to know before radar?

Joe Livermore was such a pilot. On the night of Dec. 13, 1936, he did something that got him in serious trouble with Bob Mensing, his immediate superior. Livermore abandoned the electronic airway early that night because of static and thunderstorms. Maybe he was right in doing so, and the chances are good that Bob Mensing wouldn’t have made a fuss had Livermore not had a long history of going off the beam.

Livermore worked his flight safely into Missoula. But it was a turbulent trip at low altitude, and Livermore’s passengers were airsick and scared. The night was turning ugly with lots of lightning visible on the horizon. Livermore did what he thought was the responsible thing under the circumstances—he “trained” his passengers. Then he checked into a Missoula hotel to get some sleep and to wait out the weather.

Bob Mensing was furious with Livermore for two reasons: first, because he had trained his passengers, thus depriving NWA of much-needed revenue, and second, because he had gotten off the electronic beam to fly contact, again! Mensing had previously warned Livermore about flying into low turbulence because of the upsetting effect it had on passengers. NWA was trying to get all of its pilots to fly on instruments up high where passengers could have a smooth ride. It was company policy not to go contact unless there was no other choice. Mensing was convinced that Livermore had canceled instruments prematurely. Or maybe Mensing was just angry because Livermore had gone into town, casually leaving word at the field to call when the weather got better, instead of staying by the plane to assess the weather for himself.

So Bob Mensing exercised his managerial prerogative by chewing out Joe Livermore over the telephone. “What in the hell is the matter with you? Is your job too tough for you?” Mensing demanded of Livermore (according to his widow’s deposition). “You bring that section through or I will accept your resignation!”

“You mean I must either take this ship out now or resign?” Livermore asked. But Mensing refused to answer the question directly, according to Lorna Livermore’s reconstruction, thus indicating that the ancient concept of a pilot’s command authority was still basically intact. Nevertheless, Joe Livermore checked out of his hotel room, returned to the field, and took off into what ground personnel later described as “bad weather.” He successfully made it home to Spokane—for the last time.

Lorna Livermore’s notarized deposition stated that Joe was highly upset by the dressing-down Mensing had given him over the phone in Missoula. “Joe came home very late, tired and worried,” she said. “He didn’t want to talk about it. Finally he told me that he had been ‘given hell’ by Bob Mensing. Joe said that it came down to the fact that he had to fly in any weather or lose his job.”

Five days later Livermore was airborne once more on his regular run. The weather was bad again, a solid IFR night, with a winter storm slamming across the northern Great Plains at winds clocked at up to 80 miles per hour. Copilot Art Haid might well have been better qualified to fly the gauges than Livermore, owing to his recent Army stint where he had learned the most up-to-date IFR techniques.

It is apparent that Joe Livermore, on the night of Dec. 18, 1936, should probably have canceled his flight. But he was so depressed, under pressure, and fearful of losing his job that he didn’t. He and Art Haid would pay with their lives for that error in judgment.

If it were not for the use Dave Behncke made of the Livermore “pilot pushing” case, nobody would care about it today—except perhaps the heirs of Joe Livermore and Art Haid. But the Livermore affair came at a crucial point in American aviation history. Congress was in the process of writing a sweeping new law that would ultimately be called the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938. The Livermore affair became the dramatic centerpiece of Behncke’s campaign to protect pilots from the arbitrary dictates of officialdom, both government and corporate, at least when safety was at stake.

Between 1934 and 1938, from the airmail cancellations crisis to the passage of the cornerstone legislation of 1938, the air transport industry was in constant turmoil. In Washington, the heavyweights were sparring over the shape of future federal law. ALPA began as a lightweight in 1934, and moved rapidly up to about middleweight status by 1938. It wasn’t an easy climb. Nothing about the future was certain except that one bad error, one poorly chosen fight, one major political mistake would finish ALPA. It was a perilous time for the pilots who were struggling so hard to create a “voice” in Washington—footing their own bills, giving up their free time, and appearing as a chorus of moral support for Behncke on the innumerable occasions when he testified before congressional committees.

The National Recovery Administration (NRA) “code” hearings of 1933 provide a good example of Behncke’s use of a phalanx of uniformed airline pilots to establish an ALPA “presence” in Washington. The NRA was the New Deal’s big gun during the early war on the depression. It was premised on the notion that cooperation, rather than competition, could get the country back on its feet economically. In June 1933, President Roosevelt signed legislation permitting the government to oversee the creation of industrywide “Codes of Fair Competition.” The crucial part of an industry’s code was the hearing during which a mutual voluntary agreement on prices, profits, wages, and working conditions would be reached between representatives of management, labor, and consumers. At the August 1933 Air Transport Code hearings, Behncke pulled out all the stops to keep airline pilots exempt from any control by the code.

John H. Neale, who stood No. 1 on the seniority list of Capital Airlines prior to its merger with UAL in 1961, remembers what it was like to help Behncke during these trying times:

Almost my first contact with Dave after joining the union was when he asked me to sit with him before a hearing on the National Recovery Administration Code Authority. Our good friend Mayor LaGuardia of New York came down and sat with us at the hearing. He was always willing to help us at any time. Dave Behncke did nearly all the talking; in fact I can’t remember ever opening my mouth. I just sat there in my uniform providing moral support. I can’t remember the gist of his thinking now, but Dave was adamantly opposed to our being included in the code. He knew a great deal about it, so I was willing to trust his judgment, as were the other pilots from several airlines who were there.

Many pilots were puzzled by Behncke’s opposition to the inclusion of pilots in the code. On the surface, having their wages and working conditions spelled out in the code appeared advantageous, as did the contractual provision requiring employers to bargain collectively with their employees and to recognize the right of labor unions to exist. (Later, after the NRA was declared unconstitutional, Senator Wagner of New York would extract these labor provisions from the NRA legislation and salvage them in the Wagner Labor Relations Act of 1935.) But Behncke became alarmed when he discovered that the operators were proposing ridiculously high maximums of 140 hours per month as in the Air Transport Code, higher than the 110 hours per month the Commerce Department established as the monthly maximum in 1931. Behncke had been battling to lower the maximum to 85 hours, so he fought hard to stay out of the code, preferring instead to seek specific congressional action on pilots’ wages and hours.

The NRA code hearings were held in the ballroom of the Mayflower Hotel, under the supervision of Malcolm Muir, deputy director of the NRA. There was an all-star cast of airline executives present, so Behncke made sure that well-known airline pilots, such as E. Hamilton Lee of UAL (probably the senior professional pilot in the country) and Mal Freeburg of NWA (recent recipient of the Air Mail Pilot Medal of Honor), were present. LaGuardia flew down from New York on August 30, and Behncke met him at the Washington Hoover airport with a contingent of airline pilots in full uniform. Among them were Sam Carson of Kohler Airlines (later UAL), Walter Hunter of American Airways (AAL), Homer Cole (NWA), and E. Hamilton Lee, Charles Drayton, and John Tilton of Pan American (PAA). Behncke rotated these pilots at various hearing sessions and added Howard “Sonnyboy” Hall of TWA, Gene Brown of EAL, Clyde Holbrook of AAL, and John Neale of Capital Airlines.

The primary fear haunting these men was that if they did not succeed in establishing ALPA as an effective vehicle for pilot representation, pilots would almost certainly never get another chance. The 1920s were littered with failed experiments like ALPA, short-lived organizations bearing prestigious names like the Air Mail Pilots of America, the National Air Pilots Association, and the Professional Pilots of America. As we have seen, the first airline pilots were under no illusions about their economic vulnerability or the ease with which their employers could replace them. They knew a prestigious name wasn’t enough, nor was a glamorous image. Leadership, the ability to function as a group, and timing were everything.

Leadership was something Dave Behncke supplied, sometimes brilliantly. Functioning as a group was something the pilots were doing on two levels: first, with their peers, their fellow pilots, and second, as part of the American Federation of Labor, identifying themselves with the political and economic aspirations of the labor movement. Timing, although hard to categorize, essentially meant knowing when the iron was hot, and how to strike it cold-bloodedly in your own interest.

Of the three, timing was probably the most important factor, because even brilliant leadership and aggressive group action cannot succeed in the absence of opportunities. Dave Behncke’s genius lay in knowing when to press the issue of safety. Thanks to Lorna Livermore and his own gift for theatrics, Behncke made the safety issue almost irresistible by 1938.

In the anti–big business climate of the depression years, Behncke was adept at hitting the right rhetorical notes with his charges that the operators cared less about safety than about their profits. He did this in speeches that, despite their occasionally shrill, ungrammatical, and overly sentimental content, never struck people as being particularly “radical.” Partly, it was because of the way Behncke looked. Although he seldom wore a tie, he had a well-manicured appearance, reminding some people of a Philadelphia Main Liner. He was, as more than one airline executive discovered, an exasperating foe to tangle with before a congressional committee.

In another sense, Behncke was something of a pioneer, thanks to a devastating new wrinkle he injected into the debate over airline safety—an attack on government bureaucrats. The feeling of ordinary people in the 1930s was that government power was good, but Behncke argued that it was rather like Frankenstein’s monster—it needed watching. Specifically, Behncke was highly critical of the stewardship DOC exerted over aviation, particularly in the area of accident investigation. On that point, Behncke caught the public’s fancy, for he had survived a crash and walked with a limp and a heavy cane, which served as constant reminders.

In a 1937 article published in Liberty magazine, Behncke wrote: 

On Dec. 21, 1934, I took off from Chicago on my regular run, and after proceeding 10 minutes westward found my hands filled with dead throttles. Both motors had quit with every instrument in the cockpit registering normal. The result was a forced landing into treetops at night with injury to no one but myself. It was even pos­sible to rebuild the airplane. That was my first serious accident in nearly 20 years of flying, but I have no doubt that if my copilot and I had not lived to defend ourselves, “pilot error” would have been given as the cause of the crash.

The thrust of Behncke’s argument was that only pilots could speak for safety, because only pilots had the same interests as the traveling public. Government officials, Behncke insisted, were too closely tied to the industry they supposedly regulated, and when it came to investigating accidents, they often conspired with the airline operators to fix the blame on dead pilots. His argument was plausible because of a long history of interchangeable personnel moving through a revolving door between DOC and the airlines.

The worst conflict of interest, Behncke maintained, was that DOC, which maintained the airways and wrote the regulations governing commercial aviation, was allowed to investigate itself. Behncke wanted an independent federal agency to investigate accidents. He was the first to advocate the concept that would ultimately become, in 1966, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

The Livermore crash provided Behncke with a forum from which to attack both the operators and government bureaucrats on the safety issue. DOC’s Bureau of Air Commerce, under severe pressure since mid-1936 owing to a Senate investigation into the death of Sen. Bronson Cutting of New Mexico on a TWA plane the previous year, held a public hearing on airline safety in February 1937. The combination conference and investigation permitted interested parties to appear, but it discouraged those whose direct interest was not in air safety. Too often in the past, DOC hearings such as this had degenerated into wide-ranging, unfocused “bull sessions,” featuring all sorts of aviation cranks and self-appointed experts. For this reason DOC narrowly restricted those who could participate. That Behncke was included on the list was a measure of ALPA’s growing influence. Not too long before, DOC had excluded ALPA from participating in its accident investigations, contending that it was not an interested party.

Behncke appeared on February 6, the final day of the conference. Pointing out that DOC had attributed 16 of the last 27 airline crashes to pilot error, Behncke raised publicly, for the first time, the issue of “pilot pushing.” Gung-ho supervisors were regularly intimidating their pilots into dangerous flights under threat of dismissal, Behncke testified, and DOC was doing nothing to stop the practice. Furthermore, Behncke said he had affidavits to prove his charges.

Behncke’s testimony provoked anger from airline executives in attendance, among whom were C. R. Smith, W. A. Patterson, and Eddie Rickenbacker.

Patterson, Behncke’s old boss, who had recently reversed himself on the subject of pilot unionization, nevertheless disputed charges of pilot pushing on United. The New York Times called the interchange between the two men “a lively battle of words.”

Eddie Rickenbacker all but snarled at Behncke: “If you’ve got proof of pilot pushing, then produce it.” Rickenbacker said he was confident Behncke had no such proof.

With a small secret smile, Behncke listened to the various airline executives heatedly deny any pilot pushing on their lines. When they were finished, Behncke asked chief of the Airline Inspection Division, Major R. W. Schroeder, to confirm the existence of Lorna Livermore’s deposition, which had not yet been made public because the investigation was still incomplete. The reluctant Schroeder had no choice but to make the information public. He read selected portions, including the closing sentence of Lorna Livermore’s deposition: “I am writing this letter so that the Department of Commerce will have an understanding of the attitude of the operators. This attitude can be verified very easily.”

Behncke then called attention to an affidavit from Roy P. Warner, a recently fired NWA pilot, that supported Mrs. Livermore’s charges.

Behncke had succeeded in putting the operators on the defensive about the safety issue, and in so doing he had seized the initiative. He now had his choice of two mutually exclusive courses of action. The first choice would be to grab all the headlines he could, levy a barrage of additional charges, and try to make more waves in commercial aviation’s already troubled pond. The second choice would be to play ball with the industry, making a reasonable deal in exchange for defusing the pilot pushing controversy. He chose the latter.

“The companies have seen the error of their ways,” Behncke testified. “Northwest has seen their mistakes, and they have eradicated them.”

What did Behncke mean by this enigmatic statement?

In effect, Behncke was using the Livermore crash, and poor Lorna Livermore as well, to further ALPA’s interests. He was saying to the airline executives assembled, “Look! This is another example where we could have been as radical as the devil and blown this thing sky high. But we are going to back off and play ball with you. Now give us what we want in return.” (Behncke actually used just these words in a private conversation.) What he wanted was some kind of judicial device that would take account of the pilots’ point of view. In short, Behncke was cutting a deal with the operators, and the Livermore affair was just the last in a series of complex maneuvers. The ultimate goal was an independent accident investigation board.

The upshot was that Lorna Livermore would have to shift for herself on the pilot pushing lawsuit against NWA. “Old” Joe Livermore might well have been totally wrong. Rather than Bob Mensing killing Joe Livermore, it might well have been Joe Livermore who killed copilot Art Haid by willfully getting off the electronic airways to fly contact too soon.

It was admittedly a murky case, but the facts are that NWA’s young copilots were up in arms about Joe Livermore and two other “old” captains, both of whom later got fired. The copilots did not have bidding rights in those days, so they flew with whichever captain they were assigned. Several of them had already flatly refused to fly with Livermore/st1:place> again because of his reputation for premature termination of IFR flights. In fact, it was said that he sometimes simply took off his headset under IFR conditions and continued flying blind by the seat of his pants.

Speaking for the majority of NWA pilots, R. Lee Smith sums up the Livermore case this way: 

I suppose Joe was pushed. We were just beginning to fly instruments, and he was reluctant. The copilots had complained about him and [two unnamed pilots]. They were really unhappy. They complained through ALPA, in fact. Livermore and [the unnamed pi­lots] only got away with it because Fred Whittemore, who was general manager, was the same way. He wouldn’t fly instruments either. Of course, he didn’t fly every day, but when he did it was all contact. Mensing wanted to fire Livermore, but Whittemore wouldn’t back him up. Not too much later, Whittemore did the same thing. He picked up a new Lockheed 14H at the factory in California, it was his baby anyway, the 14H, an abortion of an airplane, unstable as all get out. Planeload of company employees, wives and kids mostly, and the guy wouldn’t fly IFR. Hell, he wouldn’t even practice! So he wound up getting lost in one of those box canyons; he could have punched through that overcast and been in the clear. Killed the whole damn planeload because he wouldn’t fly instruments. Joe Livermore was the same. The night he got killed he reported Elk River because he was lost trying to fly visual and he spent time circling there at Elk River because he had earlier mistaken the glow of a forest fire, of all damned things, for the lights of Spokane, and he let down too soon and got lost.

Behncke knew what he was doing when he refused to render any further assistance to Lorna Livermore after having exploited the issue raised by her husband’s death. She wanted ALPA to appear on her behalf in the legal action she brought against NWA, alleging wrongful death under Washington State law. Both the Central Executive Council and the NWA pilots agreed that ALPA should ignore her and do nothing further in the pilot pushing case.

Despite all this, Lorna Livermore won her lawsuit. Her victory came early in 1939, at the end of another very bad year for NWA. The cause of NWA’s trouble was the Lockheed 14H, successor to the 10A, called the Super Electra and a real loser according to many old-timers.

“What nobody could figure out,” says R. Lee Smith, “was why Whittemore didn’t insist on the kind of structural changes on the 14H other airlines did—the Dutch on KLM, for instance. That was the mystery. We were strongly suspicious of that plane long before Nick Mamer had one come apart on him at Bozeman.. ALPA was going to have to get into aircraft certification someday, that was for sure.”

The trouble with the 14H was control surface flutter, which increased in harmonic series, quickly becoming uncontrollable (in perhaps a second or so), until it wrenched the double vertical stabilizers completely off the aircraft. When it happened to Nick Mamer on Jan. 11, 1938, he had a planeload of passengers. Everyone died. The weather was clear and there were eyewitnesses on the ground, so there wouldn’t be any pilot error findings on this one. They saw the tail come off during straight and level flight. Subsequent investigation of the wreckage confirmed it.

Somebody had to be at fault, and since it couldn’t be a dead pilot this time, NWA itself was the prime candidate. DOC came down hard, sending in a special team to conduct what Secretary of Commerce Daniel C. Roper promised would be a “thorough investigation.” As a first step Roper, no longer trusting his beleaguered Aviation Branch to calm public apprehension, personally announced the grounding of all NWA’s Lockheed 14Hs. Then, on Feb. 4, 1938, citing “failure to comply with regulations for aircraft maintenance,” Roper suspended NWA’s operating certificate, grounding the whole airline. It was an unprecedented action. On February 6, Roper permitted NWA to begin carrying mail and express freight again, but not passengers. Finally, on February 10, NWA passed muster and Roper allowed passenger service to resume, but there were few takers.

NWA’s unsavory reputation almost surely had an effect on the Spokane jury, which awarded Lorna Livermore $37,500 in damages on Jan. 17, 1939. Although the jury gave her only half the $75,000 she had asked for, NWA stood legally convicted of pilot pushing in the death of Joe Livermore. NWA’s legal counsel promised to appeal all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary, but NWA didn’t. Enough was enough. An appeal could only cause more bad publicity. You can’t win beating upon the widow of a martyred pilot. And it didn’t matter that much anyway. Pilot pushing was a dead issue—that was the Livermore affair’s ironic legacy.

By 1938, ALPA had positioned itself so favorably in Washington, thanks to Behncke’s adroit exploitation of episodes like the Livermore affair, that it really couldn’t lose. Everything was guaranteed—collective bargaining contracts over and above federal minimum guarantees, a full partnership in the new aviation establishment called the Civil Aeronautics Administration—everything. Particularly in the area of safety, ALPA had it made. The Livermore affair was crucial in Behncke’s successful drive to make an inde­pendent safety board part of the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938. Tom Hardin, an American Airlines pilot who was ALPA’s first vice-president (second in command to Behncke), was FDR’s first appointee to the new Air Safety Board. Nothing demonstrated ALPA’s new muscle better than Tom Hardin’s appointment.

But it hadn’t come about overnight. No single issue, not even one as flashy as the Livermore sideshow, or the safety angle, can account for ALPA’s extraordinary political success in Washington up to 1938.

In order to understand that, we must go back to the beginning of the decade.          

To Chapter 6

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