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Chapter 8
Flying for a Rogue Airline

Dave Behncke was determined that there should be no second-class citizens in the ranks of airline pilots. He understood that there was bound to be some expression of chauvinist pride, that natural rivalries would exist among different airlines and their pilots. Nevertheless, Behncke could get feisty when it came to “competitive flying”—pilots of one airline recklessly boasting that they could fly in weather too tough for pilots of other airlines. From the very first issue of The Air Line Pilot, which appeared in newspaper format in April 1932, Behncke warned his fellow pilots:

Faced with the fear of losing his job, even the pilot who knows bet­ter will engage in cutthroat flying, and fly on in the spirit of foolish rivalry. This present reckless competition is setting a dangerous standard. The tougher you fly, the tougher your employer is going to expect you to fly.

Modern business may demand a 100 percent schedule, but this is commerce, not war. The smart pilot knows when to quit, and he doesn’t take pride in flying over or through tougher weather than his brother pilots.

As pilots, we are no longer individuals. We are a group, and as such we must think collectively and work collectively.

Behncke’s remarks struck a responsive chord, particularly among the pilots of the smaller airlines. As W. J. Fry of Pacific Seaboard Airlines (which later became Chicago & Southern and then Delta) put it in the December 1934 issue of The Air Line Pilot:

In airline piloting, there has been a great deal of undue criticism and friction between pilots working for different companies. Recently a pilot made the remark to me that the pilots of one com­pany could not work for another company because they were not capable. This pilot had no reason to run down these pilots. Some of us seem to have the idea that we are a little bit better than any other pilot because we happen to be working for a certain company or flying a certain plane.

This is entirely wrong. We will accomplish a great deal more and have a finer and stronger organization in ALPA if each pilot will work with and help other pilots, rather than create a lot of petty jealousy among ourselves.

Fine words, but in a country dominated by marketplace considerations, the bottom line would always be salaries. The pilot who worked for sub­standard wages on a small airline was, in fact, a second-class citizen eco­nomically, and everyone knew it. That’s why Behncke resolved that the small airlines should pay the same salaries as the large ones.

That was easier said than done.

ALPA’s battle to equalize pilot salaries began in an obscure confrontation on an obscure airline. Forget, for a moment, today’s fast-paced world of jet equipment and crowded terminal control areas, and put yourself in an­other time and place. Imagine yourself in 1934 working for an airline called Long & Harmon, flying mail and an occasional passenger through the virtually empty skies between Brownsville and Amarillo, Tex., in a single-engine Stinson “Reliant.” Put yourself in the place of Long & Har­mon’s pilots, whose names nobody remembers today and whose forgot­ten ordeal appears in no history book. After you’ve read their story, per­haps you will understand why every pilot working today owes them something—particularly those who work for the smaller airlines.

When FDR announced his intention to return the airmail to private con­tractors, Dave Behncke knew there was bound to be trouble with the un­dercapitalized little airlines, fixed-based operators, and crop-dusting out­fits, which were submitting bids in competition with the majors.

The nation’s small operators, led by the Braniff brothers in Texas, had been screaming since 1930 that they had been frozen out by Hoover, the Republicans, and the big corporations. They charged fraud and collusion, arguing that the “little man” had been victimized by rigged bidding.

The alleged villains, Hoover and his postmaster general, Walter F. Brown, had been trying to create an airline system with passenger-carrying capability. They knew that the small operators would be content merely to fly the mail in small aircraft and would never risk their limited capital to purchase the new trimotor aircraft that were becoming available in the late 1920s. The small-fry had no stomach for competing with the rail­roads for passengers. Hoover and Brown reasoned that without the mod­ern equipment that passenger service required, the small operators would never get off the government dole.

In an effort to force the shoestring operators into upgrading their equipment, Brown required all bidders for mail contracts in 1930 to either meet certain minimum specifications or be forced out of business. Be­cause of these requirements, the small operators denounced the bidding session of 1930 as a “spoils conference.” Actually, it was no such thing: the small-fry had the same opportunity as the big fellows—they just didn’t have the money to buy the new multiengine aircraft Brown demanded. Admittedly, there was an element of ruthlessness in the way he proceeded, but it was not illegal. Brown succeeded in creating the genesis of a regulated, integrated airline system—a system that FDR would eventually copy.

Dave Behncke and his union of airline pilots were in complete agree­ment with the policies of Hoover and Brown. Behncke disliked most small operators because they were almost impossible to organize and quick to fire any pilot who so much as flirted with the idea of unionization. In addi­tion, it angered Behncke that most of the small airlines were owned by men who didn’t work every day as pilots, but who nevertheless came to Washington to speak for pilots during congressional hearings. When the Democrats took office in March 1933, the small operators expected to have their day. The Braniff brothers, it was said, had ensured a favorable hearing from the new administration by liberally contributing to certain powerful Democrats. Delta’s C. E. Woolman was playing the same game.

Behncke won FDR’s gratitude by publicly supporting him. Privately, however, Behncke supported the old operators, doing everything he could to get their contracts restored. The last thing he wanted was for the shoestring operators to get a new foothold in the industry.

It proved impossible to keep all the small operators out of the business when the new contracts were let in April 1934. At high noon on an unsea­sonably warm day, more than 150 people crowded into the office of Super­intendent of the Airmail Stephen A. Cisler to see the bids opened. Among those present were heavyweights like Paul Braniff, W. A. “Pat” Patterson of United (UAL), and Lester D. Seymour of American Airways (AAL, later reor­ganized as American Airlines). They were bidding for a one-year contract under an interim law that would apply while Congress was in the process of writing permanent legislation (eventually the Air Mail Act of 1935). The new bids were stated in terms of a flat amount of money per mile over each route. The tension in the room, heightened by full press coverage and a battery of photographers, was largely due to the knowledge that of the 45 bidders only half would be successful. Behncke’s worst fears seemed about to materialize when the final bids were posted. The major airlines suffered severe losses to the small operators, whose bids were unrealisti­cally low. The major operators had to face the tough decision either to compete with the small-fry by also submitting unrealistically low bids, or to stand by while the small operators again filled the nation’s airways with open-cockpit biplanes. The majors had no choice—they had to retain con­trol of some of their old routes, even if it meant accepting substantial losses in the short run. But they dared not underbid the small operators on every route—that could lead to bankruptcy.

As a result of this dilemma, the small operators were able to pick off a number of choice routes. When private contractors once again began fly­ing the nation’s airmail on May 20, 1934, some of them had new, unfamiliar names like Braniff, Hanford Tri-State, Kohler, and Long & Harmon, Inc. At an absurdly low 19.75 cents per mile, Long & Harmon was the lowest bid­der for the 1,125-mile route serving Brownsville and Amarillo at each ter­minus. American, which had to reserve its low bids for more crucial routes, was the high bidder at a realistic 39.5 cents per mile, while Braniff lost out with a bid of 20 cents per mile. Long & Harmon’s winning bid came as a nasty surprise to the Braniff brothers, who regarded Texas as their pri­vate turf. A strong suspicion persists among old-timers that William E. “Bill” Long somehow got inside information on Braniff s bid, and then cagily slid under it with the idea of eventually selling out to either Braniff or American.

Long first had to prove to the Post Office that he could actually serve the route during a probationary period ending Aug. 31, 1934. He was in a good position to do it. Having learned to fly in World War I, Long had seen some combat and then come home to Dallas, where he dabbled in the aviation business. His largest enterprise was a Dallas flying school that employed over 100 people, including 40 pilots. It was from his flying school that he intended to staff his “airline”—which at the time of his successful bid existed only on paper. He had already teamed up with C. E. Harmon, a restaurateur who had run a small airline in Nebraska.

Harmon would serve as general manager of the new airline, which would consist of three divisions: Amarillo–Dallas with stops at Wichita Falls and Fort Worth; Dallas–Brownsville via Fort Worth, Waco, Austin, San Antonio, and Corpus Christi; and Dallas–Galveston via Fort Worth, Waco, and Houston. The Post Office agreed to pay Long & Harmon $443.88 per day for serving these routes, requiring a round trip on each division daily in one of Long & Harmon’s five Stinson Reliants or in the six-passenger, single-engine Travel Air 6000 that the airline planned to hold in reserve. To fulfill their contract, Long & Harmon’s planes had to fly 2,250 miles every day.

Experienced airline men shook their heads at Long & Harmon’s folly. They knew that no one could make a profit flying so far for so little money without supplementing the airmail subsidy with passenger revenues. They also knew that successful passenger operations required modern, multi-engine equipment—of which Long & Harmon had none.

Within a month of beginning operations, Long & Harmon realized what they were up against. The story goes that one day Long started tallying up his receipts, which he carried around in his hip pocket, and determined he would soon go broke unless he got some kind of passenger service going in a hurry. Harmon disagreed, and a violent argument ensued, which Long won with his fists. After Harmon agreed to the purchase of a used Ford Trimotor, the little airline began aggressively advertising its new pas­senger service in Texas newspapers.

For a brief period things improved. Long & Harmon lured 391 paying customers into the air in June and July and began to think they just might succeed in the airline business after all. Had it not been for Behncke and his feisty union, Long & Harmon might be as familiar a name today as Delta or TWA. But it was not to be, because when Long & Harmon got into multi-engine equipment, they set in motion a series of events that finally brought them down.

The problem was that none of their pilots were Ford-qualified. Even though there was a major depression in the country, the pool of available Trimotor-qualified pilots was fairly small. But Long & Harmon found three pilots—Maurice M. Kay, George L. Hays, and Lewis S. Turner—who were Ford-qualified. They were the crucial ingredient in the airline’s successful passenger operation. The pilots took their jobs in good faith, assuming that Long and his chief pilot were honorable men—a handshake was contract enough for them in that simpler, more trusting day. At the end of June, when they received their first paychecks, they realized that the figures were far too low. Long & Harmon ignored their complaints, so the three pilots appealed to Behncke and ALPA in faraway Chicago.

Because of ALPA’s steadfast support of FDR during the airmail crisis, the President subsequently showed his gratitude by insisting that the tempo­rary mail contractors pay their pilots by the formula specified in Decision 83 of the National Labor Board (NLB). Decision 83 required airlines to compensate their pilots on the basis of both the mileage and the time they flew. This formula guaranteed pilots a share in the increased productivity of the equipment they flew In short, a pilot flying Long & Harmon’s Ford Trimotor might not work any more hours than one flying a Stinson Reliant, but the law required that he be paid more because the Ford flew faster.

Long & Harmon refused to comply. Admittedly, the verbal agreement under which the three pilots went to work was vague, but the law was the law, and they expected their employer to honor it. When Long heard that his three Ford pilots had asked ALPA for help, he exploded with anger, denouncing unions in general and government bureaucrats in particular. He also boasted that he could, as he put it, “move Washington by contacting the right man.” Long informed Kay, who was acting as the pilots’ spokes­man, that he already had a “fix” worked out. ALPA couldn’t help them, Long told his pilots, so they might as well forget about it.

Of the three Long & Harmon strikers, Maurice M. Kay is the only one left. Now 75 years old and living in Texas, he has been retired from American Airlines since 1966. He well remembers the troubles with Long & Harmon.

I learned to fly at Major Long’s flying school in the early 1920s and then bought an airplane and went barnstorming. After that I flew for the Major as a flight instructor in the Dallas school, and I also did cross-country flying, charter work, and so forth. I flew for him up until June 1930, when I resigned to go to work for Bowen Air­lines in Fort Worth.

Bowen was a feeder line and I flew from Dallas to Houston, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and Tulsa in the Ford Trimotor. That’s where I got the qualifications at that time, and that’s why the Major needed me. There were five of us on the airline roster, including George Hays, Lew Turner, Burns Ramsey, and Dick Lowrey. There were several more on the flight instructor roster in the school. They opened up without a Ford, and later added one when they hired me. They were only operating the Ford between Dallas and San Antonio, and they just couldn’t make it pay, but they reneged on the agreement with us, so we had this labor dispute.

Now, I liked the Major, he was a nice man. My personal impres­sion was that he was influenced by Mr. Harmon, who was very tight with a dollar. He wanted you to do this and that. He might pay you for it or he might not, but it wasn’t very much he wanted to pay you, let’s put it that way.

Now, I wasn’t a member of ALPA at the time, I didn’t become a member until I went to work for American. But I said my part. We all three met together and decided—Turner, Hayes, and myself. Lowrey and Ramsey didn’t want to get in bad, so they continued to work without saying anything about it.

Things were pretty tough, employment-wise in 1934, but we agreed that we would not work—gave our word. George Hays had been a copilot with American Airways before it became American Airlines, you know, and Turner had been with American, too, the Southern Air Transport division, and they knew Behncke, and that’s how he got involved.

If there was one thing Behncke seemed to love, it was a good fight. With Long & Harmon he was about to get a dandy, and for a change he held all the chips. The company, by its insistence on paying all pilots the same regardless of the equipment they flew, was clearly in violation of the law. The only problem was, how could ALPA get the government to enforce it? In a case like this, you could not simply go to the local sheriff.

NLB could only enforce its edicts through the courts—a lengthy, uncertain, and expensive process. The Post Office, on the other hand, had no way of enforcing the law other than outright cancellation of Long & Har­mon’s mail contract. This alternative was obviously unsatisfactory, because it would result in putting the pilots out of work. Then Long & Harmon solved Behncke’s dilemma.

On the kind of August day when the sun will fry an egg on a Texas runway, Harmon summoned all his pilots to a meeting in a stuffy room in the airline’s Dallas headquarters. He told them that, as of August 31, they were all fired, but he offered each reemployment if they would agree to work for a flat monthly rate. Of the pilots working for Long & Harmon at the time, only the Ford-qualified pilots were relatively secure; the single-engine pilots would be willing to scab. Antiunion sentiment was so strong in Dallas and organized labor so weak at that time that employers habitu­ally flaunted their union-busting activities.

Despite everything, the Long & Harmon pilots decided to fight. The burning sense of righteous indignation over promises broken and a good job unappreciated made them ripe for ALPA.

Behncke had other problems. He was trying to run ALPA almost singlehandedly. While spending time in Washington seeing to it that the pilot pay provisions of Decision 83 would be included in the new, permanent air­mail legislation that Congress was then considering, Behncke was also try­ing to hold down a cockpit job with United, flying a regular route between Chicago and Omaha.

As a result, Behncke told Turner to begin negotiations himself, without waiting for help from headquarters. This came as a shock to the Long & Harmon pilots. They knew that if they became publicly identified as union troublemakers they would probably be fired; they could expect no sympa­thy or support in conservative Dallas. But still, right was right, and they de­cided they couldn’t let Long & Harmon get away with it. Turner called a meeting of all the pilots, and after lengthy discussions, they all agreed that the least vulnerable pilots—the trimotor pilots—should be up front.

Although Kay sympathized with his fellow pilots, he disliked unions and steadfastly refused to join ALPA. If Kay acquiesced to Long & Harmon, the airline could continue to operate the Ford, since it required only a single qualified pilot. But if they all stood together, they could ground the airline and perhaps force Long & Harmon to obey the law. After many agonizing meetings, Kay finally agreed to go along and even to act as the spokesman, although he still refused to join the union. It was a courageous act, undertaken in the hope that Long & Harmon might at least listen to their only non-ALPA Ford pilot. They hoped in vain, however, because not only did Harmon refuse to meet with Kay, he also insisted that all the pilots sign their contracts before reading them.

It is clear from subsequent investigations by federal agencies (most notably the Post Office) that Long & Harmon knew its course of action was il­legal. Long’s behavior has never been satisfactorily explained. He obviously needed to cut costs, but to do so by reducing pilot salaries, which was clearly illegal, seems inexplicable. In any case, Harmon began search­ing for another Ford pilot. When he found one, a man named George E. Halsey (whom ALPA subsequently designated a “professional strike­breaker” because he had previously scabbed for E. L. Cord’s Century Air­lines), Long & Harmon fired Kay, Hays, and Turner outright. The single-engine pilots then caved in and signed contracts.

At this point, Behncke had no choice but to drop everything else and devote his full attention to the Long & Harmon affair. Because he now had little interest in what happened to the scabs working for the airline, Behncke asked the Post Office to cancel its mail contract. At the same time, Behncke brought the cases of Kay, Hays, and Turner before NLB. Shortly thereafter, both the Post Office and the Commerce Department an­nounced formal investigations of Long & Harmon.

By early October, Long and Harmon were seriously worried, despite all their tough talk. ALPA’s Washington representative, Edward G. Hamilton, had interested Sen. Hugo Black, who was responsible for the original cancellations, in the Long & Harmon case. Eddie Hamilton worked like a de­mon on this case because, as one of the former Century strikers who had not yet managed to get a flying job, he felt a keen sense of identification with the strikers. There was also a general fear that if Long & Harmon got away with defying Decision 83, other airlines would follow its example. Rumor had it that the Long & Harmon affair was a deliberate setup for just this purpose.

Thanks to Eddie Hamilton’s activities in Washington, Long & Harmon did not get away with it. Hamilton managed to get Senator Black to personally take up the matter with Postmaster General Farley who, knowing the President’s wishes that the wages of airline pilots be guaranteed, had no choice but to crack down. From then on, the blows against Long & Har­mon fell heavy and fast. A regional labor board meeting in Fort Worth or­dered reinstatement for Hays and Kay and three months’ back pay to Turner, who by then had found another job. A lawyer representing Long & Harmon denied that the three pilots had been fired for union activity, cit­ing a number of other reasons. But the NLB report declared: “We are not impressed by Long & Harmon’s arguments. These men were able pilots. During his employment, Turner flew more hours than any other pilot. The record shows that Long & Harmon was hostile to these pilots because of their union affiliation.”

Next, the Post Office opened formal hearings in Washington, during which Long & Harmon was asked to “show cause” why its airmail contract should not be canceled for violations of Section 13 of the Air Mail Act of 1934 (the provisions relating to pilot pay). ALPA sent its lawyer, Lionel G. Thorsness, to the November hearings, and in one of his first uses of a full-time staff member outside of Chicago, Behncke sent Jack Oates to Dallas, where he took depositions from all Long & Harmon pilots. Thorsness was able to make good use of those depositions, which clearly showed the airline’s attempt to reduce pilot salaries.

Long & Harmon’s lawyer argued that its reduction of pilot wages was undertaken “as a service to taxpayers,” and threatened to challenge the constitutionality of the pilot-pay provisions in the courts. This threat to Decision 83 injected a new note of urgency. Following a day-long recess, ALPA’s representative persuaded Rep. James M. Mead, chairman of the powerful House Post Office Committee, to testify. As chairman of the committee that approved the Post Office budget, he was somebody to whom postal officials would listen.

Mead explained to the postal investigators that the purpose of the pilot-pay provision, as embodied in Decision 83, was “to attract the highest type of citizen to this calling [of airline piloting]. By specifying pilot wages and hours, it was our intent that the operating companies would take this fixed cost into consideration.

“If this were not done, it is obvious that unfair operators like Long & Harmon would take advantage of their more conscientious competitors, resulting in the employment of cheap help, which would have ultimate evil effects, and which certainly was not desired by Congress.”

Faced with this kind of overwhelming pressure, the Post Office investigators formally ordered Long & Harmon to comply by Jan. 15, 1935, or face cancellation of its contract. The final Post Office report, issued in Decem­ber 1934, condemned the company for “willful disregard of the law.” Fur­thermore, in answer to Long & Harmon’s threat to appeal to the courts the constitutionality of Decision 83 on the grounds that it was an “unwarranted expense to the taxpayers,” the Post Office declared: “It was never the inten­tion of the President or the Congress to achieve such savings through con­tracts based upon bids having in contemplation profits to the bidders based on speculation with respect to the cost of labor.” So it would appear that Behncke and ALPA had won a complete victory, as indeed they had in the long run. But for the Long & Harmon pilots it was cold comfort that the price they paid would eventually benefit other airline pilots whose em­ployers realized that they could not get away with defying the government’s wage edicts. Long ignored NLB, the Post Office, and the Commerce Department, and continued to operate while conducting feverish negotia­tions with Braniff and American to sell the route he would surely lose on January 15.

Long & Harmon was officially an outlaw airline, but that didn’t help its courageous “three musketeers,” as Behncke called Kay, Hays, and Turner. Lewis Turner seemed not to care particularly about returning to flying. At the age of 39, he was considered somewhat “over the hill” by the standards of that day. Flying was a young man’s game, people believed, and the fact that Turner had received the highest civilian award for heroism, the Air Mail Pilot Medal of Honor, did not make him any more employable. He eventually went home to Louisiana, where he engaged in farming until his death in 1939.

For George L. Hays, the outcome was far more tragic. In the words of Maurice Kay:

In the aftermath of that dispute, we used to wonder if we did the right thing, you know. ALPA did a good job for us, under the cir­cumstances. We would either carpool or ride over to the hearing sessions in Fort Worth every day. I remember the hearings were held in the Post Office building, and the Labor Board officer there was a Mr. Elliott. We would have a meeting and they would go off and study exhibits, and then Elliot would say they’d have to consult with somebody. We might have a couple of meetings a week, and then go a week before we would have another meeting. It dragged on for about three months. We didn’t know where our next nickel was coming from, that was for sure. We did attend all of the meet­ings, because Carl Miller, the attorney ALPA hired for us, had an of­fice over in Fort Worth, and he wanted us there.

It was a terrific blow to George Hays. He had been with Ameri­can for two or three years, flying the Fokker F-10, and I don’t know why he left for sure, but I don’t think it was just the airmail cancel­lations. They let off a lot of pilots, and they only took back the ones with pull, you know, because there was no seniority or guaran­tee—like in Lew’s case, and he had flown with them for a long time, about six years.

Now, I got on with American because I knew somebody who knew somebody, but neither Lew nor George could get back on, and it was a blow to them, particularly George, who was a quiet, in­troverted type.

You see, the problem was that we went through all this, and we won, and we didn’t win. We stood up and fought for our principles, but it didn’t get us our jobs back. We thought we were doing what was right. I never felt badly about it, and I’m glad we did it. But George, well, he was troubled.

George Hays was living with his parents in St. Louis. With a young wife to support, falling back on his parents must have been humiliating. Sure, everybody knew it was hard times, the depression, that a lot of people were out of work through no fault of their own. But still they felt guilty.

Probably other things were eating at George Hays, too. He was having no luck finding a job, and despite the special fund Behncke set up to support the Long & Harmon strikers, he probably felt abandoned, felt that standing up for his rights had left him an outcast, perhaps forever blacklisted by the airlines as a troublemaker. Behncke’s letters assuring Hays that ALPA was using its influence to find him a job were cold comfort in those troubled times.

So George Hays broke. He went out to his car, parked in the front yard of his parents’ St. Louis home, sat down behind the steering wheel, put a pis­tol to his temple, and pulled the trigger.

And what of Long and Harmon? They succeeded in unloading their route to Braniff. As of Jan. 1, 1935, Braniff assumed all of Long & Harmon’s obligations to the Post Office under the contract let in April 1934. Why would the Post Office permit these outlaws to escape? No satisfactory ex­planation has ever been advanced, and some old-timers were known to mutter that perhaps there had been something to Long’s boast that he had the “fix” in with some high official in Washington.

Despite the paper gains ALPA achieved in the wake of the airmail crisis of 1934, most working pilots came to realize as a result of the Long & Harmon affair that a determined, unscrupulous employer could turn victory into ashes unless there was a more effective way to enforce compliance with the law.

The professional livelihood earned by today’s airline pilot was paid for, in part, by sacrifices like those of pilots Kay, Hays, and Turner—ALPA’s first martyrs. They had no intention of becoming heroes; they were ordinary men who just wanted to work. But they met the challenge and paid the price. They should not be forgotten.

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