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Chapter 9
The Rise and Fall of the TWA Pilots Association

Harvey Bolton refused to join Jack Frye’s company union. He was one of only 17 Transcontinental & Western Air (TWA) pilots who remained loyal to ALPA in 1933 when Waldon “Swede” Golien led out the rest. Of course, Bolton kept quiet about it—on TWA, silence was the price you paid to keep your job if you were an ALPA member.

But we can’t ask Harvey Bolton for his reminiscences during this year of ALPA’s half-centennial. Bolton’s been dead since May 6, 1935, when his DC-2 crashed near Kirksville, Mo.

As fatal accidents go, the crash that claimed Harvey Bolton and his co­pilot Ken Greeson wasn’t too disastrous. Of 13 on board that night, only five died. Under ordinary circumstances the accident would have made only a headline or two and quickly faded.

It didn’t fade, however. Owing to the identity of one of the deceased passengers, the crash that killed Bolton, Greeson, and three passengers was still in the news nearly three years later. Sen. Bronson Cutting of New Mexico had boarded the plane earlier that evening at Albuquerque and gone to sleep. Because Bolton missed his approach at Kansas City and subsequently failed to find his alternate at Kirksville, the senator never woke up.

Senator Cutting was the first prominent politician to die in an airline crash. His death triggered a full-scale congressional investigation into air­line safety that would ultimately revolutionize the industry and indirectly bring about the passage of the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938.

For ALPA, the “Cutting crash” would have two important side effects. As a consequence of a muddled investigation by five separate governmental bodies, the accident would provide Behncke with a perfect forum from which to argue for something he had long dreamed of—an independent Air Safety Board, which would investigate accidents in order to fix their probable cause. It also set in motion a chain of events that brought down the TWA Pilots Association, Jack Frye’s company union.

The TWA Pilots Association was born in December 1933 at a time when Dave Behncke was threatening a national strike. Behncke’s strike threat was a desperate last gamble to keep the operators from “reforming” the wage structure, and it almost certainly would not have succeeded. Even knowing they could not win, a surprising number of pilots would have walked out anyway, largely because they felt the operators had left them no choice. At the last minute, Behncke’s adroit manipulation of his political connections got the issue before the National Labor Board (NLB), thus averting the strike. But the pressure of the moment was too much for TWA’s pilots, who were badly intimidated and all but leaderless owing to the death of Hal George. In a case that foreshadowed the actions of the American Airlines (AAL) master executive council (MEC) three decades later, TWA’s MEC Chairman “Swede” Golien led the defection. The average TWA pilot went along with it because he was bewildered, fearful of losing his job, and prone to following his local leaders.

Swede Golien wasn’t really a bad guy, and to this day ALPA loyalists refuse to speak ill of him. An affable, easy-going sort, Golien was well-liked by his fellow TWA pilots. The idea of directly confronting men like company chief Jack Frye and head of operations Paul Richter in a strike situa­tion was abhorrent to him. Although Golien knew that Frye and Richter were his superiors, he thought of them as his colleagues. Behncke’s maneuvering in Washington, coupled with his threat to call a nationwide strike, was too much for Golien, and many pilots shared his views. As Howard Hall remembers:

You see, most pilots then, and I suppose today for that matter, didn’t really understand what was at stake during the time when ALPA was being formed. We had to do it, and people today better believe we had to do it. I didn’t like belonging to a union, but on the other hand I could certainly see the handwriting on the wall, that if we didn’t have a union the profession wasn’t going to be worth a damn.

I think Golien was a man who just couldn’t see that. He sincerely believed that the company union was the best thing. Other men joined him, and naturally Jack Frye and the company helped them out.

I went on a two-week vacation during the time when the com­pany union was being formed. When I came back, I was taken to the office TWA had opened for them. On the door in gold leaf was “TWA Pilots Association.” I was taken there and told that I would be furnished a secretary and everything necessary.

Swede led the walkout, but he wouldn’t be president of the new company union. The company wanted me to do it, because they knew I had been a good ALPA man. When I said no, I would have no part in it, the next word was from Mr. Frye. He said, “Hall, if you lead a strike against this company, you’ll never work for another airline as long as you live.”

Now, Frye was an excellent pilot, and later I got to be good friends with him. I don’t think that Jack Frye was doing anything that any executive would not have done. But if he’d succeeded with that company union, pilots as a profession would have gone down the drain. We would have been the same as taxicab drivers. That company union would have provided no protection whatsoever.

Because Howard Hall refused to have anything to do with the company union, Harlan Hull, a TWA executive pilot, became the titular president. The TWA Pilots Association was so obviously a creation of management that few pains were taken to conceal it.

Still, the TWA separatist movement was a serious threat to ALPA. In the absence of contractual guarantees, even committed and loyal ALPA members would have no choice but to join a company union should their em­ployers follow the TWA example. In late 1933 ALPA was still far too weak in numbers to seek collective bargaining agreements, and in any case the ma­chinery for selecting a bargaining agent through a representative election was not yet in place. That would come later, as the New Deal matured.

For the moment, Behncke knew that he must devote all his energies to stamping out the virus of company unionism that had broken out on TWA before it spread to other airlines. His chosen method, as we have seen, was to establish a political presence in Washington. If he could convince airline executives that ALPA could make trouble for their airmail appropriations by influencing key legislators, Behncke believed they would hesitate be­fore undercutting ALPA with company unions.

But politics by itself would not be enough. Behncke knew that ALPA would have to survive on its own merits, that it would have to perform, produce salary increases, win grievances, help pilots in trouble with the government—the whole gamut of job-related assistance that modern pi­lots take for granted. And that’s where the Long & Harmon affair proved helpful.

Behncke fought like a bulldog against Long & Harmon, the rogue airline where unreasonable working conditions for pilots posed a clear-cut threat to safety. His victory there, which actually led to shutting down the airline, impressed pilots everywhere.

The episode rippled through the industry and first manifested itself on Braniff and Delta, neither of which was complying with Decision 83 before the Long & Harmon crackdown. Both airlines began paying their pilots the prescribed scale shortly thereafter, and by threatening to bring another ac­tion through the Post Office, Behncke got Braniff to distribute $30,000 in back pay to its pilots.

Vernon I. “Whitey” Powers, one of the early Braniff pilots, who later served repeatedly as Braniff’s local ALPA chairman in Kansas City and also became one of the first regional vice-presidents, is now 84 and living in re­tirement in Mississippi. Powers remembers Braniff’s financial maneuvers in those early days all too well:

Braniff never met its payrolls. When I first started to work it was called the Braniff division of Universal Airlines, but that ceased operations in December 1929. I flew for Braniff Airways from March to May 1931, but the pay was so slow in coming I quit to go to work for Century Airlines in Chicago. That strike on Century, we called it that, but it was really a lockout. Cord locked us out. That’s where I met Dave Behncke and became an ALPA member. Then I caught on with Braniff again in July 1932, and flew for them until I retired.

Until Behncke forced Braniff to start paying the labor board scale, we never saw any cash money, and they were always trying to get us to do something contrary to the labor board’s decrees. They tried to get each of us to sign a contract whereby we voluntarily agreed not to get the labor board scale.

But Behncke kept Tom Braniff so busy in Washington he forgot all about us boys down here, and he had to get about the best law firm in Washington to save that airmail contract.

Behncke’s case for ALPA was helped even further when a group of small operators created “The Independent Operators Association,” an entity whose ostensible goal was to lobby the Post Office for increased airmail compensation and more favorable routes. By the fall of 1934, Behncke was regularly castigating this group, contending that its real purpose was to seek “ways and means of violating the new law [Decision 83].” Thanks to an anonymous airline executive who leaked memos to him, Behncke was able to document his claims.

ALPA’s proven effectiveness as an agent for pilots was in direct contrast to the public record of the TWA Pilots Association. The differing testimonies of Behncke and Harlan Hull before the Howell commission bring those differences into clear focus.

The commission, chaired by Clark Howell, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, had as its primary purpose the study of airmail subsidies. In the aft­ermath of the airmail cancellations in February 1934, FDR had asked Con­gress for specific legislation authorizing him to appoint a study commission to update the work done by the Morrow board, a similar study commission appointed by President Coolidge in 1925 and named for its chairman, Dwight Morrow. Since Morrow was a powerhouse Wall Street­er, it was no surprise that his board’s findings favored heavy investment in commercial aviation, with strong subsidy support from the government (via airmail contracts), guaranteeing private risk capital. The Morrow board’s work laid the groundwork for the whole edifice of early commer­cial aviation, including de facto control by the Postmaster General—the system, in short, that FDR dismantled when he canceled the airmail con­tracts. The Howell commission’s job was to erect another structure, one that eventually turned out to be the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938, the cornerstone of the industry until the arrival of airline deregulation in 1978.

Although Charles Lindbergh refused to serve on the Howell commission, thus earning FDR’s enmity, several other prestigious persons were associated with it, including Edward P. Warner, an M.I.T. professor and avia­tion expert with a worldwide reputation. The Howell commission began its work in July 1934 and submitted its report in January 1935.

In his testimony before the Howell commission in November 1934, Behncke was, in effect, addressing his fellow pilots on the dangers of com­pany unionism:

Among the so-called pilots who will testify before this commission, you will seldom find one who will raise his hand in protec­tion of or in the interest of his brother pilot. They are practically all employed by the airline interest. Some of them are so-called fa­mous pilots who seem to forget that they were ever pilots. The commission will find that these pilots who usually do the talking are not even licensed, and for that reason, due to the rapidly changing style of flying, are not qualified to render an opinion.

Airline flying is no different than any other profession. In order to know about it you must do it actively, continuously. The least you can do is be actively flying the line.

Behncke was making this point by way of rebuttal to the testimony of celebrity aviators, like Amelia Earhart, who had unanimously opposed minimum wage and working conditions guarantees in testimony before the Howell commission. He succeeded well in linking this “managerial mentality” to the TWA Pilots Association. When Harlan Hull appeared before the Howell commission in his capacity as president of the TWA company union, his testimony was indistinguishable from any airline executive’s. He opposed minimum guarantees of wages and working conditions, and he also protested against a provision proposed by Behncke whereby a fed­eral agency like NLB would be established to hear grievances in the case of a pilot being fired. Hull had, in short, totally discredited the TWA Pilots As­sociation by his testimony, because if there was one thing every airline pilot wanted, it was some safeguard against capricious dismissal.

Behncke and Hull differed on one other issue as well. Behncke was foursquare in favor of an independent safety board to investigate acci­dents; Hull was lukewarm, leaning toward opposition. Another issue agreed upon by every pilot was that the existing system of accident investi­gation was much in need of reform. “Pilot error” appeared far too often as the probable cause of accidents, and early airline pilots wanted that stopped.

By early 1935, Behncke’s files were beginning to bulge with letters from TWA pilots filled with a variety of grievances. The TWA Pilots Association had proved utterly worthless as a watchdog. Many of these writers rather shamefacedly admitted the error of having supported the company union.

“You were right,” wrote one furloughed TWA pilot. “A lot of us out here have been wrong. We fell for it and resigned from ALPA feeling that the new organization would recognize seniority. Yesterday 20 of us were laid off, although at least seven copilots junior to us were retained.”

TWA pilot Jimmy Roe, as perceptive in 1934 as he is today, never had any illusions about the company union:

I would say that accident over at Kirksville was a definite turning point. In the aftermath of that crash, a circular went out from Rich­ter and Frye ordering all TWA pilots and employees not to talk to the press.

Of course, pilot error is one thing, and company error, like maintenance or lack of facilities or breaking some federal rules, is another. They could live with pilot error, because that didn’t cost the airline companies money. From the start, ALPA was putting 50 percent of its dues money into safety. The TWA Pilots Association really didn’t amount to much in the safety area. How could they? They were completely under the company’s thumb.

So we weren’t supposed to talk to anybody, and I didn’t, I followed orders. There was a big hullabaloo in the company over that one. They’d fire anybody, and the so-called officials of the company union went along. They were riding high up till that crash, so we stayed pretty much in the shadow.

Now, as I told you, we never knew exactly who was a member of ALPA and who wasn’t, and neither did the company. I never said I was and I never said I wasn’t. But they thought I was, and Behncke was making big trouble for them over this crash.

So Paul Richter, vice-president in charge of operations, called me up and gave me hell about ALPA. I just sat there and listened and never said a word, and when he got through he asked me if I had anything to say. I said no. I left that office and shortly afterward called a meeting of ALPA pilots. I knew a few who were members, word of mouth, friends like Dan Medler and Fred Richardson, but I didn’t know all. And I told the guys who came to the meeting what had happened, that Richter had called me on the carpet and threat­ened to dismiss me. They said they were behind me. Several who had gone over to the company union more or less to save their jobs came over secretly. Right then we started getting ALPA active again on TWA. Just about all of them eventually came back and paid dues and fines, even “Swede” Golien.

Anyway, after that crash that killed Senator Cutting, the company union started to fold. After 1936 you never heard any more about it, although they still had an office. No members, just an office.

What about “that crash that killed Senator Cutting”?

At first glance, Harvey Bolton would seem an unlikely pilot to have blundered into the fog-shrouded hills of northeast Missouri. He had accumulated over 2,000 hours of pilot time (a respectable total for that day), of which 714 were in the DC-2 that he was flying the night his career ended.

The company regarded Bolton as one of its best pilots. TWA prided itself on the IFR (instrument flight rules) competency of its pilots, and Bolton was a crackerjack. He had scored 100 percent on a series of written instru­ment tests in late 1934, and navigation instructor Pete Redpath had noted on his TWA “qualifications certificate”: “His general navigation ability in the air was observed to be very thorough.”

As a reward for his proficiency and skill, TWA had assigned Bolton to special charters, flying VIPs. The flight that claimed his life began as a charter on April 30, 1935, carrying a party of Hearst newspaper executives from New York to California, where they met with press lord William Randolph Hearst at his San Simeon estate. When the Hearst party canceled the return portion, Bolton was assigned to an extra section of the regular run from Los Angeles to Kansas City.

The passengers who boarded Bolton’s aircraft at 4:00 p.m. on May 5, 1935, at the old Glendale Central Air Terminal were not what you’d call ordinary. Common folk took the train in that era. People who flew by commercial air were usually smart, worldly, and accustomed to the best that money could buy.

Two of the passengers were on TWA nonrevenue passes. June Mesker, the wife of TWA pilot “Doc” Mesker, was an experienced air traveler, as was Virginia Hillias, sister of TWA dispatcher Duke Hillias. They occupied seats 1 and 2, directly across the aisle from each other. June Mesker, who would survive another 32 years, owed her life to the fact that she was sleepy and that the forward two seats didn’t fully recline because of a wall separating the passenger cabin from the DC-2’s cockpit. After takeoff, Ken Greeson, the copilot, helped her move aft to Seat 10 on the right side. TWA didn’t use cabin attendants, so passenger comfort was the copilot’s responsibility. Vir­ginia Hillias was wide awake, so she stayed put on the left side. It was a fatal choice.

The next two pairs of seats, numbers 3 through 6, were occupied by Paramount movie executives. The next two were occupied by Mr. and Mrs. William Kaplan of Los Angeles, en route to New York on business. Midway through the flight they exchanged seats so that each could enjoy a different view. This casual exchange would prove fatal to Mrs. Kaplan, while enabling her husband to survive.

Seat 9, also on the ill-fated left side of the cabin, was reserved for Senator Cutting, who would board Flight 6 at Albuquerque. Seats 11 and 12 were empty. The last two seats, 14 and 15 (TWA never numbered any seat 13!) were occupied by Mrs. Dora Metzger and her 15-month-old daughter. During the first part of the flight the baby girl slept peacefully, while Mrs. Metzger enjoyed the panoramic view out the left window. When the baby became fretful, Mrs. Metzger moved to the right seat to hold the child in her arms. Had she stayed on the left side, they would both have died.

“It was perfect flying,” June Mesker said later. “Very smooth, not a bump over the mountains. The passengers, a congenial group, were apparently enjoying themselves. One man took pictures. Kenny Greeson served sup­per around 6 o’clock.” Senator Cutting boarded the plane at Albuquerque just after 9:00 p.m. Some of the passengers went to sleep.

The flight from Albuquerque to Kansas City was routine. Bolton and Greeson were trailing a few minutes behind another TWA aircraft piloted by J. D. Graves. Graves could hear Bolton communicating with TWA’s ground stations en route, but neither flight contacted the other. The weather was clear until just after they passed Wichita. Then both planes en­tered instrument conditions.

From that point on, nothing is clear except that Bolton failed to get into Kansas City, diverted to Kirksville, and had trouble locating the low-power NDB (nondirectional radio beacon) there. (Its normal operating range was only 25 miles, and evidence developed during the Senate investiga­tion indicates the possibility that its effective range was only two miles.) We can never know for sure the sequence of events that followed, but there is enough circumstantial evidence to reconstruct the final moments of Flight 6, at least partially.

Because the crash occurred within the normal range of the Kirksville NDB, it is possible that Bolton deduced that the beacon was malfunc­tioning once he reached his dead-reckoning estimated time of arrival. He might well have reversed course in an effort to descend to contact condi­tions. The last weather reports from Kirksville called for a ceiling of 1,200 feet and visibility of five miles, so it should have been at least a possible ap­proach. Because the country was flat and docile, there was a satisfactory margin for error.

But something went wrong. At less than 200 feet AGL (above ground level) by the altimeter, TWA Flight 6 was still in and out, unable to establish firm contact flight, and in the few clear pockets there was no sign of the beacon.

Bolton and Greeson were probably straining every nerve, employing the lateral vision technique used by early pilots to locate a beacon’s “mushover effect”—the faint aura that a rotating light spreads through fog. They were probably too far south of Kirksville to locate the beacon, but the Department of Commerce (DOC) had made their chances even slimmer through what an investigator subsequently called “a niggling economy.” Director Vidal had earlier ordered airport keepers at secondary fields to reduce their beacon wattage. By so doing, DOC saved nearly $2,000 per year in electric bills. That bit of penny-wise and pound-foolishness may well have caused Flight 6 to lose its race with destiny.

“I had a bad feeling that we were losing altitude,” June Mesker said later. Mr. Kaplan, the Los Angeles lawyer, agreed. So did Pat Drew, one of the Paramount movie executives. “We were looking out the window into the fog,” Kaplan testified later. “Suddenly Pat said ‘Say! Did you see that?’ We had just passed over a very white house!” Alarmed, the two men woke up the rest of the passengers.

Finally, one of two things happened—no one will ever know precisely which. Either Bolton saw what he thought was a suitable precautionary landing field and tried to land before he ran his tanks completely dry, or he inadvertently flew the DC-2 into the ground. The evidence for the former is that Bolton turned on the “Fasten Seat Belts” light shortly before the im­pact. The evidence for the latter is that there was no noticeable power re­duction. There was no cabin address system by which the pilots could communicate with the passengers; nor was there a cabin attendant who could pass the word.

Kaplan said he noticed some kind of aircraft light come on once, probably landing lights, but thought they were off just prior to the crash.

The DC-2 slammed to earth, flipped, and broke apart. The cockpit was smashed, but miraculously, Bolton survived the impact, although he was badly hurt.

“It was all over in an instant,” said June Mesker, who found herself lying in mud, thrown clear of the aircraft. “I could hear people crying and moaning,” she said.

“My God, these poor people,” Bolton said over and over as he moved painfully among the injured. Bolton explained that he had “run out of gas.” Technically this wasn’t true. Later tests would show that he still had 30 gallons remaining. But Bolton was in pain, and apparently unwilling to be more specific about the nature of the landing.

The survivors focused their attention on trying to get help. It would be a while in coming, and for some, already too late. Kenny Greeson died instantly, his neck broken and one leg severed. Mrs. Kaplan’s back was broken—she would die the next day following emergency surgery at Samaritan Hospital in nearby Macon, Mo. Virginia Hillias and Senator Cutting died of massive injuries where they sat. Everybody else had major injuries, except the fortunate June Mesker, who, having only slight fractures, could still walk.

Bolton, who refused medical attention until all the other injured were removed, died en route to the hospital of massive internal injuries.

It is almost a certainty that Bolton was an ALPA member, because Behncke promptly included his name in the “In Memoriam” list of the deceased in the next issue of The Air Line Pilot. (Ordinarily, Behncke excluded non-ALPA members from the column, at least temporarily.) Furthermore, in the September 1934 issue, Bolton’s name appeared in a routine social activities column. “TWA pilot Harvey Bolton had an opportunity to express his ideas when he paid a visit to the submarine S49 moored in the Chicago River.”

There is no way to be absolutely sure because, as we have seen, even pilots like Jimmy Roe didn’t know who all the ALPA men were. Behncke kept the list under tight security, and it has never come to light since. The truth is that Behncke would have made a huge fuss over the Cutting crash even if Harvey Bolton hadn’t been one of ALPA’s secret supporters on TWA, espe­cially once the DOC findings of “pilot error” appeared three weeks after the crash.

For airline pilots of the 1930s, the frequency of “pilot error” findings was a source of constant irritation. They believed the investigatory process was rigged against them and in favor of the companies and the government. Early airline pilots wanted to subject the bureaucrats of DOC to the same rigorous investigation they had to undergo following an accident. At the time of the Cutting crash, DOC still investigated itself. Could the truth emerge from such an investigation? Many people, including Dave Behncke, wanted the answer to that question. It seemed unlikely. Out of a total of 101 fatal accidents between 1927 and 1935, DOC attributed the ma­jority to “pilot error,” with a few other causes making up the remainder. Not once did DOC attribute the “probable cause” of an accident to its own areas of responsibility.

Because Behncke suspected that Bolton had not been completely at fault in the accident—that a combination of poor weather forecasting and worse radio maintenance at Kirksville was responsible, he gambled that an early publicity campaign hinting at a cover-up would put DOC on the de­fensive. “A tired pilot is an unsafe pilot,” Behncke informed the press in the first few hours after the accident. “The pilots believe that fatigue is an im­portant factor in accidents.”

Behncke went on to inform the press that Harvey Bolton had been flying more than eight hours and that there was a DOC regulation prohibiting this. “TWA regularly flies its pilots more than eight hours,” Behncke said, “under a special waiver” granted to it by Director Eugene Vidal of DOC’s Bureau of Air Commerce. “ALPA had made a detailed survey of waivers of flying hours following the recent crash on TWA,” Behncke continued. “We believe the 8-hour maximum-flight rule out of any 24 should be hard and fast, with no waivers.”

Behncke also flooded the newspapers of the country with letters at­tacking the investigatory process in general, DOC in particular, and espe­cially Eugene Vidal, whom he regarded as being in cahoots with the opera­tors. Behncke’s incessant drum beating did not fall on deaf ears because the powerful Hearst newspapers soon took up the cry. “President Behncke of the ALPA makes it plain questions of serious moment are involved in crash which killed Senator Cutting,” said a standard editorial that ran nationwide. “They must be searchingly investigated by competent and dis­interested experts.”

On May 28, 1935, faced with mounting criticism from congressmen who were unaware that he had the power to waive the eight-hour rule, Vidal canceled all such waivers. Round one to Behncke. The second round would be a fight over an “independent” investigation of the accident.

After initially dismissing Behncke’s call for an independent investigation as “mere window dressing” and expressing “complete confidence” in DOC’s accident investigation procedures, Frye and Richter began to have second thoughts. It dawned on them that the Cutting crash had heavy polit­ical overtones and that as a consequence the bureaucrats weren’t to be trusted entirely. So the canny airline executives became quiet, while al­lowing the TWA Pilots Association to continue prattling in news releases about how wonderful the “system” was and occasionally taking a slap at Behncke. The TWA leaders suspected that the bureaucrats were unlikely to admit error themselves and might be searching for a candidate to throw to the wolves. With a pilot scapegoat ruled out (thanks to the fuss Behncke was making), that left very few candidates, and Frye and Richter had the uneasy feeling it was going to be them.

If Behncke and the Senate hadn’t been breathing down DOC’s neck, chances are that the old “gentleman’s agreement” between management and DOC would have held, and the whole scandal would have been smothered. Bolton and Greeson would have been blamed, and that would have been the end of it. TWA knew that Bolton had done nothing wrong, but it was for management to keep silent in cases like this. Frye and Richter couldn’t be sure that this comfortable arrangement wouldn’t hold once more, and so they had to play the string out.

As May blossomed into June of 1935, everybody waited for DOC’s formal report. The accident board heard testimony from 35 witnesses in six days. Nobody had an inkling what its verdict would be. Then on June 15, 1935, it hit like a bombshell. DOC placed the entire blame on TWA and its pilots, citing a long string of “rules violations.” Oddly enough, in announcing the verdict, Secretary of Commerce Daniel Roper, Vidal’s boss, told reporters: “In my opinion the crash was due chiefly to bad weather.” In the next breath, however, Roper levied several thousand dollars in fines against TWA. The airline would almost certainly be sued for negligence as well.

DOC’s report focused on trivial infractions unrelated to the crash. For example, the principal cause cited by DOC was that TWA had cleared the flight from Albuquerque to Kansas City “with the radio transmitter not functioning on night frequency.” TWA argued fruitlessly that the applicable rules simply required a functioning transmitter, and the DC-2’s “day” frequency was working fine.

There was conflicting testimony as to whether anyone had actually talked to Bolton, and TWA officials began to suspect perjured testimony on the part of DOC underlings. DOC even disputed that Bolton had actually received radioed instructions to proceed to Kirksville.

DOC admitted that many of the infractions had nothing to do with the crash, but they were added to the report anyway, thus making the case against TWA look stronger. For example, Harvey Bolton had been a few days overdue on his quarterly physical. Also, the DOC waiver that per­mitted flights in excess of eight hours required the copilot to have a Sched­uled Air Transport Rating (the equivalent, in 1935, of an ATP). Greeson didn’t have one.

It was obvious to Frye and Richter that they were going to need the pub­lic investigation Behncke had been insisting upon. Luckily for them, the Senate had already authorized it. But before the Senate inquiry could get under way, something curious happened. Because a malfunctioning radio had allegedly caused the crash, an unimportant federal agency known as the Communications Commission on Radio Broadcasting (a predecessor of the Federal Communications Commission) issued a report. The agency, staffed largely by political hacks, accused TWA of another 45 “rules viola­tions” and flatly declared that “the root cause of the crash was due to the company’s radio system.”

Not only was aviation outside this agency’s area of responsibility, but it also appeared that the report was timed to appear just after DOC’s and had been instigated by DOC. It certainly reinforced their report. Frye and Rich­ter were furious over what they saw as a concerted bureaucratic effort to frame TWA.

Sen. Royal S. Copeland of New York headed the Senate’s inquiry into the death of Bronson Cutting. At the first public session, Senator Copeland declared the purpose of the committee to be “a sweeping investigation of the present standards of safety in commercial aviation.” To achieve that end, Copeland vowed to take testimony from “cabinet officers from all government departments, and experts in every field of aviation.”

Copeland’s handling of the probe won plaudits from the New York Times, which had been openly critical at first. After a week of public hearings, the newspaper complimented Senator Copeland for his “careful groundwork.” For the next seven months, every witness who had some­thing relevant to say about aviation safety or the Cutting crash got a respect­ful hearing from the Copeland committee.

The final report of the Copeland committee was an almost complete vindication of TWA and its pilots. The committee cited DOC inefficiency as the principal cause of the accident, and TWA’s errors as merely “contributing.” The report had nothing but praise for Harvey Bolton and Ken Greeson, however. “No one could possibly allege carelessness, lack of loyalty to duty, selfishness, or a character that would shirk,” the report said of the two dead airmen. “They were ‘let down,’ the victims of fallible ground aids to navigation in which they trusted implicitly.”

Following the report of the Copeland committee, President Roosevelt ordered a shake-up in DOC. Vidal was the first to go, resigning in disgrace. This was not altogether to Behncke’s liking because although he had differed with Vidal, the two men respected each other and Vidal had at least been willing to learn from his mistakes. Furthermore, Behncke began to suspect that the Copeland committee had fallen into the hands of FDR’s enemies, and indeed the final report focused heavily on the administration’s shortcomings. Ed Hamilton, ALPA’s Washington representative, criticized the Copeland committee for “making personal attacks on individuals which may not have been warranted and did not reach the seat of the trouble. The fault lies more with the system than it does with individuals.”

The Copeland committee generated a reform movement in Congress that eventually brought about the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938. So in the final analysis, Senator Cutting’s death served a purpose, for it indirectly brought about a new regulatory agency to control commercial aviation completely outside DOC.

It also brought about an indirect meeting of the minds between airline operators and their pilots. Following their harrowing encounter with professional bureaucrats out to save their own necks by blaming somebody else, TWA management dropped their opposition to Behncke’s pet project, the Air Safety Board (ASB). It was clearly not in the industry’s interest to have any regulatory agency investigating its own failures. ASB was thus an integral part of the Civil Aeronautics Act package, and with the appoint­ment of ALPA First Vice-President Tom Hardin of American Airlines as one of its three members, Behncke had achieved a cherished goal. The ASB is a direct ancestor of today’s National Transportation Safety Board.

The Cutting crash also spurred TWA to begin using cabin attendants once more. It had been the first airline (during its earlier incarnation as Transcontinental Air Transport [TAT]) to do so, but in keeping with the macho image of 1920s aviation, they had been men. They were also considered a “frill.” Following TAT’s near bankruptcy, such “frills” were dropped. United later began using young women as cabin attendants, but TWA re­sisted doing so, preferring instead to have copilots double as stewards.

During TWA’s intensive internal investigation, their thinking about cabin attendants began to change. TWA’s investigation reconstructed the flight in minute detail, and its technical analysis was far in advance of anything DOC’s “official” investigation attempted. Consequently Frye and Richter knew much more about the crash than DOC. They were also airmen first, and businessmen second. Their handwritten notes on the flight, still available in TWA’s archives, reveal an almost palpable anguish. They knew what Bolton and Greeson went through during the final moments, almost as if they had been with them, looking over their shoulders. Frye recognized that if a cabin attendant had been aboard, maybe he or she could have helped. Before the year was out, TWA had graduated its first class of “stews”—copying United this time, by using young women who also knew a good deal about airplanes.

Finally, one curious result of the Cutting crash deserves mention. In 1935 there was still very little difference at TWA between the men who managed an airline and those who did its day-to-day work in the cockpit.

Some airline bosses flew regularly, and they thought like pilots; many pilots exercised management functions and thought like managers. The welfare of the company was never far from the mind of a pioneer airline pilot. Circumstances were beginning to drive these two similar kinds of men apart. It came down to the ancient questions of autonomy and con­trol. Managers wanted to control things; so did pilots. Differences were bound to emerge. This didn’t mean that they weren’t all still a “band of brothers,” imbued with the mystique of what was one of the most romantic episodes in the history of American business.

The Cutting crash shocked Frye and Richter back to a stark realization of their almost total dependence on the men who actually made the ma­chines go, who controlled the largest part of their corporate assets in the form of a fleet of very expensive aircraft. They needed to communicate with these men, freely and openly, without the hindrance of a “superior-inferior” relationship. In short, the Cutting crash helped TWA’s higher management accept the necessity of a strong, independent pilot voice in the industry. They might not like that voice. It would sometimes cause frus­tration and delay. But it was a safeguard the industry needed, and captive outfits like the TWA Pilots Association simply could not provide it.

Perhaps as a consequence of this realization, TWA softened its attitude. A de facto truce with ALPA ensued, and the TWA Pilots Association faded away without a trace. Within a year, TWA’s pilots were nearly 100 percent in the ALPA fold.

To Chapter 10

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