Wednesday, October 08, 2008


My father, my mother, my sister and I were refugees from the Great Depression in the United States. An expatriate Australian, my dad was unable to find accounting work in San Francisco and in 1938 turned in his Ozzie passport for a free passage home to Sydney on the SS Mariposa. Times were tough, but he managed to find work in Sydney and we settled in to an apartment in Bondi Beach.

Shortly after war was declared in 1939, dad who had been a commissioned officer in the Great War and who was probably suffering from what would now be called, Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, volunteered for the AIF and was appointed a Staff Sergeant in the Paymaster Corps at Victoria Barracks. A year later he died in the repat Hospital in North Sydney, his spirit finally succumbing to the effects of his on the Somme in World War 1.

We were alone and reduced to living in Wooloomooloo in a small bedroom with a louvered kitchen porch, a penny-in-the-slot gas-ring, a tin washing-up dish and a shared bathroom downstairs. Lest anyone think this was the gentrified neighborhood it is now, it wasn’t! Our neighbours were out-of-work actors (Peter Finch, Nan Taylor) and young women who sought out the Yanks cascading from the American Invasion to win the war.

Charity -Receiving and Giving.

The Legacy Club accepted mother and I for help: dental, medical, financial and social. The war had made it obvious that the wives and children of deceased enlisted men could not ‘make it on their own. Jobs were scarce for unskilled, homemakers so my mother became a domestic servant - a steep descent for a woman whose family in Bourke had owned farms and a hotel on the Darling River. When the Legacy Club asked us to sell Legacy buttons, we started out early in the morning for the Wooloomooloo docks and the approaches to the Garden Island Navy Base.
Buttons were priced one bob to five quid and we sold a lot of them to the dockworkers and the generous Yanks.The Australian currency was ‘funny money’ to them - and they had lots of it. No wonder our neighbour ladies liked the Loo! Legacy was grateful for our efforts and when I passed the NSW State Bursary exam they agreed to pay the extra half of the tuition and board at the school of mother’s dreams. Billy would be a Riverview man!
Mother still a great sense of style, and I don’t know where the money came from, but towards the summer’s end, I was introduced to Peapes - the Sydney equivalent of Brooks Brothers in the United States.At the Temple of the GPS - the Boy’s Department on the 2nd floor, I was outfitted in a Riverview gray, suit. Several days later I was interviewed by Rector of, Fr. Johnston S.J., who, because he followed the previous rector, Fr. Hehir, a.k.a. “The Mouse”, was known as “The Cat” !

My Riverview Experience and Its Mark On Me

Old Boys will tell you that life at ‘View in the Thirties and Forties was tougher . They will say,“WE slept in open air dormitories, ate tinned baked beans on toast and endured ‘table wars’ for a limited supply of milk; had melon and lemon jam on dry bread for an after sport snack.”.

Old men always had it rougher than today’s softies. Really? Heads up, old classmates, today’s a different world! The expectations placed on today’s lucky few are beyond anything we could have imagined.

A well rounded education today involves travel, writing and research on a computer, a good diet and a healthy body. These are real needs for all the young men at Riverview. For a bursary student whose family is of modest means, not participating in the sports and travel nor having the right gear, leaves them at a severe disadvantage. Believe me, I’ve been there! Having to borrow Brian Regan’s jacket was embarrassing in 1948 but today it would be humiliating. Not having easy access to a computer puts the man at a disadvantage not easily overcome. Today’s bursaries must include things which at my time would have been considered luxuries.

But what did Riverview do for me?

St. Ignatius left me with a lifelong love of learning. I shall grow old remembering Fr. ‘Twit’ Dennett’s Ancient History classes, Fr. Ryan’s encouragement to “write, write, write”, Doctor King’s world view, Bruce Kinnaird’s patience in Maths. and Harry Thomas’ attempts to eliminate Strine. Great men who set a great example. ‘View also left me with a sense of what was the right thing to do: to help someone who was less fortunate or had ‘lost the way’, to give without counting the cost, to never give in. When asked what our school motto “Quantum Potes, Tantum Aude” means, I usually reply that a loose translation is, “Give it a go, mate.”

And what’s in a name?

I’ll share little secret: Years later after I returned to the USA, I took an entrance exam en route to becoming a USAF pilot. The Air Force assumed that my listing of three years at St Ignatius College was three years of ‘college’ - the U.S. name for university. And, with my Jesuit grounding in the liberal arts, my test score was lifted above the other entrants. Once again, in a new country, the bursary boy scored a try - his first, but one which built on the great Riverview foundation.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Back To the Land of the Free

In the early Fifties, Australia re-instituted involuntary military service; in the USA it was called “The Draft”; in Oz it was called National Service or in Aussie slang, “Nasho(e)s”. Being an independent sort and not wanting to mix with the hoi polloi, I had no desire to be ‘called up’ to serve. I had been told, or read, that to preserve one’s American citizenship, you could not serve in a ‘foreign’ army.

I still treasured my American birth certificate and longed to return to land of cheap motorcars. In 1952, I took the train to Sydney and presented myself to the American consulate on the top floor of the Bank of New South Wales, an impressive Victorian sandstone building at the end of Martin Place in the center of the city. (The building is still there and is still a bank – WESTPAC.)

I filled out the necessary papers and was given a US draft card for my trouble! I asked if I could be inducted into the US Armed Forces then and there, but was told that I must enlist in a country where the Army had a presence and the nearest country was Japan. So much for that way out! I then asked for my passport but was told they would issue one when (and if) I had a ticket to the USA. To ensure that there was no doubt as to my intentions to resume my U.S. citizenship, I took my British passport, drafted a ‘snotty’ letter to the Australian Passport Office in York Street, where I relinquished my Australian citizenship and was able to avoid the Australian Draft. (The law was changed in the 1990s so I am now a dual national – able to own property, collect the Australian Old-Age Pension and vote.)

Back in Gunnedah with my head in the clouds, I walked the hot, dusty sidewalk and imagined I was in America. Maybe Texas, or even California. (I didn’t dream of living in Arizona where we now reside.) Living in the Imperial Hotel in Gunnedah, I drank with traveling salesmen and college graduates who knew something of the world outside. They advised me to leave Gunnedah and go to Sydney to seek a new adventure. Why not leave Australia and return to the USA? Yep, why not?

By the summer of 1955 I decided to go to the U.S. as soon as I saved enough money. I was earning a journeyman wage and by reducing the partying and extra-curricula activities, I could minimize my expenses. Besides, my friends were marrying – Bob Cozens the airplane mechanic who had helped me learn the airplane mechanic trade was engaged. My old Riverview mate, Bob Bower was married to his long time love, Virginia and starting to raise a family. QANTAS was a good job but I realized that with my lack of training I would never be able to progress beyond a low technical level job. A free college education was beyond my reach, nor I did not know how to go about it.

“San Francisco, a One-Way Ticket, Please.”

During my insurance days, the Pacific and Orient Steamship Company (P & O) was two doors away on Spring Street; I knew the blokes who worked there and they helped me find the cheapest berth on the ship. I wrote a cheque for £50 and reserved a berth on the S.S. Oronsay to depart Sydney on December 3, 1955. And what a berth it turned out to be! The ‘no porthole’, tiny, six-bed cabin below the waterline reminded me of pictures of WW2 troopships. But my bunkmates were pleasant and we all shared one thing in common: we were off on an adventure! My childhood friends were excited and a bit envious. One of us was ‘getting out of Australia’. In the 1950s, many Australians felt that the only national culture in Australia was to be found in a bottle of yogurt! Most young people went to Europe and began their adventure in Kangaroo Valley the Pommie name for Earls Court in London. It was crawling with Aussies who lived together in much the same way as American kids did in the late sixties– 10 to a room using the ‘hot bed’ principle: there was always someone sleeping in every bed and sometimes two to a bed! But, because I had a U.S. passport, my travels would allow me to go the America, and unlike most other kids, I could legally hold a job!

Before departure, my friends would not allow me to spend and more money than was absolutely necessary. The waitress at the local ‘greasy spoon’ brought me as much food I could eat and charged me only the minimum price on the menu. My mates bought most all the beers and three girls made me a gray pullover wool sweater as a joint project. They presented this to me at a going away party held at Rae Soulos’ apartment. They had made the sweater without measuring me and the arms were ten inches too long. (Several years as an Air Force cadet my friends told me that it would be de rigueur with blue jeans and I purchased my first pair of Levis in Lubbock.)

And what a party it was! John and Shirley Jones, my QANTAS mates, Bob Cozens and his intended, several girl friends and their blokes gathered at Rae’s tiny Coogee flat and we had a great ‘piss-up’. I crawled back to my room in Cowper Street and passed out.
The night before departure was sleepless because of a visit from a psychotic, drunken fellow boarder. I guess he’d had enough of my bragging at dinner and decided to take me down a peg or two. He bashed in the door to my bedroom and as I didn’t wish to get involved in a pre-departure interview with the local constabulary, I yelled for help. Paddy, a nearby friend had been an Irish policeman and knew how to handle drunks. He ‘took him away’ in short order. The landlady, Mrs. Retallack, a tiny slip of a woman set on the stairs for several hours to preclude another visitation. Poor woman - the job was worth more than her trouble of looking after an aging apartment, its staff and twenty rowdy inhabitants.

Next morning with my Val Pak (a B-4 leather bag which I kept for years) and briefcase in hand, I called a cab, and boarded the SS Oronsay, a Clyde-built, single funnel, P & O two-class liner which was doing service in taking Poms and Wogs to Oz, and disgruntled Aussies to Canada and the USA. By today’s standards of cruise ships, the Oronsay was small. My below-the-waterline cabin had no porthole and six bunks. This was home for almost three weeks—and after New Zealand, I was the only occupant.

The Oronsay was docked in Pyrmont adjacent to the dock where the family had landed 18 years ago on the SS Mariposa. The dock and the deck were jammed with partygoers envious of those of us who were ‘getting out’. There were confused noises of music, laughter, sobbing and ‘chundering’. The gang from Cowper Street showed up with booze and small goodbye gifts. I remember none of them except a bottle of Cointreau from a girlfriend (I think it was Jacquie Trigg) who remembered that we had enjoyed champagne cocktails in her room on some forgotten evening orgy. We hugged and kissed until the ship’s siren blasted and the crew announced, “All visitors ashore, all visitors ashore!” I stood with hundreds of other escapees by the railing throwing the traditional rolls of streamers to my friends until the gap between the ship and dock was a solid paper wall. The tugs took hold, the streamers parted and the sliver of water in the gap grew larger. I turned my back to the wharf and went downstairs to unpack. I didn’t look back.

First stop, Auckland, and by then I had made new friends over coffee in the lounge with my new shipmates. They were a mixed bunch: old friends were quickly forgotten in the spirit of the moment. Next stop, Suva, Fiji where in 1938 my father had been forbidden to go ashore for fear he would jump ship and leave his wife and two children to fend for themselves. Next stop, Honolulu and for the first time in my life, I knew I belonged to a great country; the Immigration and Naturalization Service of the US Government had set up two tables labeled U.S. Citizens and Others. The line to the U.S. Citizens table was short, and I was home!

I had made friends with a Canadian couple returning from a six month walkabout in Australia and they allowed me to share a car rental. We toured the island until late afternoon. It was in downtown Honolulu, a place which I would frequent with my wife and children 5 years later, that I saw my first TV. I stared like a country bumpkin through the window of a department store until they dragged me away to a fast food restaurant several blocks away. We walked a little way further and I tasted my first American hamburger slathered in relish.. My Canadian friends were quite amused as they were ‘world travelers’ raised in Canada and used to the American diet.

Little did I know that in three years I would visit Honolulu as a commissioned USAF pilot and eat in the Officers’ Club at Hickam AFB.

Mid way through the voyage, I found that I had friends in First Class—two Armenian sisters from Coonabarrabran. They were the daughters of a modestly well-to-do haberdasher and had been on several Gunnedah YCW outings I attended. The 21 year old was rich, but chubby but I knew a good thing when I saw it. She had invited me to her cabin several times during her afternoon nap and was generous with drinks and squeezes. She suggested that we visit the night spots before our midnight departure. Heck, I didn’t own the proper clothes but she took care of that and a blazer was borrowed. On her nickel, we hit several clubs and as the ship was scheduled to cast off at midnight, we left the joint at a quarter to twelve, hailed a cab and the five of us tried to pile in.

“No way brudda!” said the cabbie, “You need two taxis for this load!” I panicked—I had no money for a cab, but the others thought it was a great joke and decided to run to the wharf. So we ran. The two girls were in heels and the three boys were nine sheets to the wind. We arrived the minute prior to their raising the gangplank to the cheers of those already on board. Being always the gentleman, I was the last on board.

The weather became very cold. The leg to Vancouver was a bit rough, but we were now seasoned mariners and walked the rolling decks in the rain and cold wind of late November. I walked the decks with my new friends, kept my sea legs and my meals. During evening coffee there was much talk about Canada and finding jobs—none of the Australians seeking work were permitted to continue to the USA without an appropriate visa and these were in very short supply.

In Vancouver, I said goodbye to all of my new friends except the sisters. But, as fate would have it, a young Sydney honey, already in love with the USA and American boys in general, boarded en route home to Oz via San Francisco. I forgot my Armenian friends and quickly became entangled with this new Sydneysider.

Alas, the trip ended far too soon.

Under the Golden Gate

The morning I arrived in America was foggy but passing the Farralone Islands, the sky cleared and the Bronze Bridge was dead ahead. Packed and ready, I went to the pointy end and, just as in the movie “Titanic” many years later, I stood on the fore-peak and was first to pass under the Golden Gate.

Thus began my American adventure.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Count the Rivets 1957

(The author, William (Bill) Critch a resident of AZ was in 1957, a USAF aviation cadet in Class 58H. After graduation, he was commissioned a 2nd Lt and assigned to the Military Air Transport Service as a co-pilot.)

Bainbridge Air Base, Georgia. June 1957

I taxi into the takeoff position and hold the brakes on with my feet pressed against the top of the rudder pedals. Today, it’s a solo flight to practice coordination maneuvers and aerobatics.

The plane in front of me has lifted off, so I apply full power. The big radial engine has a comforting sound and I feel the propeller torque trying to turn me to the left. I press in right rudder and keep the Trojan headed straight down the runway. The prop seems to be turning very s-l-o-w-l-y, but it’s a typical illusion of the T-28’s two-bladed propeller and not at all like the smaller T-34 in which I soloed. The airspeed is increasing normally and I lift off at around 85 knots. I say out loud to myself, “Gear Up”, and climb straight ahead to 500 feet, increase the airspeed, raise the flaps and then make a right, then a left climbing turn and I’m clear of the traffic pattern. I check the cowl flaps closed and set the power for Climb.

A beautiful spring day. Big woolly clouds against a clear, blue Georgia sky. But I don’t day dream – I’ve work to do. I clear the sky to my left to see if anyone else is close and continue climbing and turning to 8,000 feet. The farmland underneath, as indeed most of the land in the U.S., is laid out in sections with the boundaries running north, south, east and west. As I climb, I practice staying lined up with the section lines.

Using an imaginary line I mentally draw across the windshield, I practice steep turns. We have not been taught to fly on instruments yet, and refer I to them only to check my ability to maintain altitude while looking outside. I talk to myself while turning.

“Throttle up a bit. More back pressure on the stick. Keep that imaginary line on the horizon. Oops, I can feel I’m losing altitude! Add power. Raise the nose a bit. I’m skidding. Ease out some bank and use a little top rudder – keep the ball centered, keep it coordinated. Now, more bank again, back to 60 degrees. Fly the plane, don’t let it fly you!” I work at turns for about 15 minutes till I’m tired of it.

Now for some chandelles. This maneuver, that I seem to have little trouble performing, feels like flying is meant to: a rapid change in altitude, pitch angle, speed, and the sense of a rapid climb out of some dangerous situation. I imagine myself flying into a fjord or into a box canyon and finding that I must immediately reverse direction and climb back out. This is a situation that can easily happen and indeed, several later, I put this maneuver to good use when flying in Greenland.

Next snap rolls, horizontal reverses and the exhilarating Cuban Eight. I don’t know why it’s called a Cuban Eight but it is two loops joined together like an infinity sign.

I try to remember what the acrobatic section of the flight manual says as I talk myself through the maneuver:

Prop…Full Forward
Airspeed…descend to increase to 200 Knots.”

I begin to dive and enter a loop. Easing in the back pressure, I feel the gravitational force – “g’s” - as I begin the loop looking over my head to keep the North/South section lines fore and aft. Over the top, back on the throttle and dive upside down at a 45 degree angle until the nose passes through the horizon. Then I half-roll till I’m right side up and commence another loop all the time keeping the plane properly aligned. Over top again, down at 45 degrees and roll out at my original entry altitude. Wow! Fun, fun, fun. Oops, lost a thousand feet or so – better do another, and another. I’m charged!

Before I realize it, my two hour solo is almost over and I’m going to be cutting it pretty fine to land in time so that the next student can have the plane.

I can see the field from this altitude and also can see that the line of trainers preparing to land is stretched out five or six miles. Yikes! How will I squeeze in? Like the ‘tiger’ I’d like to be, I make a high speed descent and parallel the 45 degree entry for the south east runway. I see a gap and whip into a steep 180 degree turn and bully my way in front of another T-28 who has left a bit wider spacing than usual. What I don’t know is that the ship I have pushed in front of has a student and an instructor.

I turn right 45 degrees on to ‘initial’ and can see I’m too close to the plane in front, so I extend my pitch-out point a bit further down the runway. What I don’t hear is the mobile control tower say to me, “Solo T-28 on initial, go around.” They can see I’m extending the pattern too far, but my attention is already divided with spacing and landing. For all intents, I’m deaf to their request and I begin my 60 degree ‘pitch-out’ to the right.

“Throttle back until the horn sounds, Gear Down, Horn silent…..” I say as I turn.

Suddenly I become instantly aware of a blur ten or fifteen feet above my canopy. I can almost count the rivets in the underside of another trainer’s fuselage.

I have barely survived a near miss at less than 1,000 feet. If he’d hit me, nobody would have survived; we would both be a pile of burning metal at the end of the runway.

I continue my descending turn towards the runway, but something doesn’t feel right. I’m descending too fast. I add power, and the descent slows. I touch down much faster than usual and do not make the first turn off but taxi further down the runway causing the next T-28 to go-around.

While ‘cleaning up’ after landing, I realize why I landed long and fast. After the near miss with the other plane, my train of thought was interrupted and I forget to put down ‘landing flaps’. What a ‘tiger’ I am. More like a scared pussy cat.

Entering the line shack, I decide to say nothing about the near-miss to Earl Wederbrook, my instructor. Glancing out of the window, I see a short instructor walking very quickly toward our building. Earl also sees him coming, and flicks his eyes towards the parachute loft. I take the hint beat a hasty retreat. I put it together! The approaching instructor is my old nemesis, P.D. Bridges, the southern boy who doesn’t like slow Yankees with an Australian accent and it was he who I cut out of the pattern and with whom I almost shared a common pile of burning rubble.

Five minutes later having checked in my parachute, I look inside the line shack. P.D. and Earl are nose to nose, except that my instructor is about six inches taller, 50 pounds heavier and who is looking down on a red faced Bridges who is obviously yelling. My protector is saying nothing, and shortly P.D. turns on his heel and leaves.

Earl has a wry smile during the debriefing and after I discuss my maneuvers, Earl says, “By the way, next time you cut someone out of the landing pattern, be sure he’s shorter than me. I’m a lover, not a fighter.”

Back in the barracks before supper, I look at my log book and realize that I have just passed 100 hours of flight time and in an airplane which 15 years ago would have been considered a high performance machine.

And I am sad knowing that neither my mother nor father will ever know their grown up son.

How To Get That Job In Aviation 1954

Saturday morning at the Insurance Company of North America, Australian Home Office, Spring Street, Sydney.

"Strewth, what a day. If I wasn't working I could'a done my grocery shopping at King's Cross before the rush, now it'll be off the tram, into the deli before it closes at two, back on the tram and hope there's something goin' on tonight in Bondi. Hope I've got time to hit the Pitt Street Rhineskeller Wine Shop for a jug."

Just the three of us: Crazy Kath Sherlock in her gray Red Cross uniform, sucking Cure 'Em Quicks, and that new honey, Judy Stutchbury who won't even give me the time o'day. Y'know, the other day I asked her to type some stuff and she said that it wasn't her job? Who the heck does she think she is? I've been here longer than she has, and besides, isn't that what the girls are supposed to do?

Who's this at the door?

"Yes, madam, you want to renew your Household policy? Do you have the renewal slip?"

"No? Not a bother at all. Now what is that address again?"

Go to the ledger, find the address, find the policy number, go to the pending folder. Let's see, City Account? She must be one of our agents' shirt-tail rellies getting the 15% discount.

Good, she's done and gone.


God, 2 hours till I get off at 1 o'clock. I'll read the Herald want ads.

Needs Mechanics' HelpersPositions at Mascot AerodromeGood working conditions.Interviewing today at Wentworth House 10.00 am until 4.00 PM

Hmm. Wonder what Mechanic's Helpers do?

If I was in aviation, maybe Polly would let me take her out to the flicks instead of up the hill to St Patrick's to Confession where I know she confesses fooling with her court reporter boyfriend. She only takes me along as 'cover'.

(Wentworth House is no longer standing, but it was just across the street from Polly's weekly confessional and it was the headquarters of QANTAS Empire Airways, Australia's locally grown, aerial connection with the outside world. Probably because of Australia's dedication to the British Empire and her assistance to General Douglas McArthur's drive to defeat the Yellow Peril, Australia had been granted a round-the-world route. QANTAS had been flying the U.S. built Lockheed Super Constellation: Sydney, Darwin, Singapore, Delhi, Cairo, and the long leg to London. Then, London to New York, nonstop to San Francisco, Honolulu, Nandi and Sydney.)

I look for the Employment Office but instead find a sign, 'Interviews' and nearby a varnished, glass enclosed office with an old coot reading the Saturday Daily Telegraph with his feet propped up on a empty desk.

This is aviation?

"Sir, is this where you're hiring mechanics helpers?"

Bill Grove, Maintenance Foreman of Hangar 85 at Mascot, takes a look at me in my blue, double-breasted, tailor-made suit, white shirt and Windsor knotted club tie and wonders what the hell I'm doing there, but it's a slow, late, spring afternoon and there are no other applicants lined up.
"Yairs, son. Come on in."

Bill is a balding, stocky, middle-aged man dressed in a nondescript plaid suit which is not near the cut of mine. He too is having a boring day, seconded by the Personnel Department to do interviews as Saturday is their day off and managers don't get overtime.

We talk father to son stuff. His son is attending Scotts College, a GPS school at the west end of Rose Bay, where I am, at great expense, currently subletting and sharing a house.

"Why would you want to be a mechanic's helper?" asks Bill.

My enthusiasm has always been a door opener and it flows out to open this unexpected portal.

"Well sir, I've always wanted to get into aviation, in fact, it's really my first love."

This was not totally untrue as I had been the class 'drawrer' since 1st grade and could draw the best aeroplanes and rocket ships ever to adorn the covers of my mates' exercise books. I regularly buy and devour a weekly periodical from England, "The Aeroplane", and if I can afford "Flight", I buy it too. The smell of airplanes in a hangar is totally intoxicating. I dream of layovers on Pacific islands exploring abandoned Japanese Army fortifications and tunnels finding souvenirs of the war I have only read about. I also dream about 'hosties' like Pauline and how they get all gooey when talking about pilots.

"Well, you look as though you could do the job, but frankly it's a greasy, sweaty job cleaning parts that have been taken off our Connies and I don't think it would interest you for more than a week or two. But, I tell you what, if you can afford a tool box and a pair of overalls, I'll take you under my wing and see that you stay out of trouble. I need someone to work just outside my office door to take care of the Maintenance Manuals and tag the airplane parts that the mechanics have removed for repairs. When I can find them, the apprentices aren't interested and do a lousy job and the mechanics hate paperwork."

I don't have a clue as to what 'take me under his wing' means but he seems to be a straight bloke and just may have my interests at heart. Perhaps it's the Riverview/Scotts College connection - both are members of the elite Great Public Schools of New South Wales and I am after all, a Riverview bloke. Well, kind of.

I lie about my age and he doesn't seem to care. The better wages start at age 21, so for QANTAS purposes, I'm 21.

"You may have to live closer to Mascot. Do you have a bike, or a car?"

He knew I do have a tool box, but a car? A motor bike? Last time I saw my push bike, it was a year ago and it was leaning against the wall of the Public Bar of the Commercial Hotel in Gunnedah. Who knows which drunk had ridden it home.

"Ah, no I don't, but I can get one!"

"Righto then, you can start in a coupla weeks. I'll set it up. Keep your mouth shut, or tell anyone who asks that you worked in Clegg and Tyrell's Gunnedah Garage instead of working in the Parts Department. When you start, I'll check your tool box over so's no-one will question it. By the way, you'll have to join the Union and you might consider taking the evening classes at Ultimo Technical College."

I leave Wentworth House flying just a little higher than those Connies I hope see in two weeks.

Little did I know that this would be the beginning of a career in aviation which lasted over 40 years.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

So Ya Wanna Be an Air Force Pilot?

(The author, Bill Critch, a USAF veteran, lives in Oro Valley, Arizona. Born in California, he and his Australian parents returned to Sydney before the World War ll. His father, a veteran of World War l, died soon after. Orphaned at 13, Bill returned to the United States at age 22.)

It’s 3.00 AM on the Graveyard Shift at United Airlines San Francisco Maintenance Base.

The “Move Crew” is making conversation just to stay awake. We keep one eye on the clock and the other on the foreman, a good guy but a company man. John Blackwell, a tall, quiet, Jimmy Stewart look-alike who has recently left the Benedictine Monastery across the Golden Gate Bridge, is walking on the ramp in the morning chill meditating on the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary; Jerry Mukai, an amateur judo wrestler, is leaning back in his chair staring into blue collar airspace; Jack Brown is reading a crumpled Chronicle he found on a DC-6 coming in for overhaul. The shift's half over and there are no more planes outside on the ramp to move into the hangars. It’s the ugly hour when you don't want to be farmed out for some grunt job with another mechanic who's behind on his work and all that's left is his cleanup – lock-wiring nuts, checking clamps, returning unused parts to the storeroom and tools to the crib or even worse, mopping up the hangar floor.

Todd, who has recently joined the crew is an ex-Air force mechanic. He says to me, "Hey Aussie, 'ave ya seen Don?"

"No," I say. "He's probably sleeping in the seat storage room. He was flying with his instructor this afternoon. He looked beat."

"When's ‘e gonna get his Commercial license?"

Don Sather is another ex Air Force mechanic. He has a fiancée and is looking to the future. The Commercial license with an Instrument rating is the key to a flying job.

“Todd, what's Sather have to pay for his flying time?" I ask.

"I think Cessna 140 time's about $14 an hour solo," Todd says.

Like the rest of us, he too would like to be learning to fly.

Brown, his critical eyes just clearing the top of the broadsheet newspaper and who is always ripe for an argument says, "No way. A guy I know only pays $12." Brown always knows a guy.

"Critch," says Todd, "when I was a mechanic in the Air Force they had a program called Aviation Cadets – they’ll teach you to fly. It takes about 18 months and when you're done, ya got yer wings and they make you an officer."

"Oh yeah? Where do you sign up"

"Nah," interrupts Brown, "you'd never qualify, Todd. You gotta have two years of college and they only take the really smart guys." Once again, Brown knows all about it.

"Bullshit, my buddy in the Air Force didn't have any college and ‘e got in! Dunno if ‘e made it all the way, but I do know that only 50% get through. It's tough - the college-level stuff, the military chickenshit. It's a real 'Tiger' program.”

I wonder what a Tiger Program means. “What’s that, Todd?” I ask.

“Ah, it means there’s a lot of hazing and in-your-face yelling, memorizing stupid stuff, studying college level aerodynamics, Air Force history, public speaking and military law. It’s like being a West Point plebe but doesn’t last as long. They only take the top 2% of applicants and then ‘wash out’ half of them before graduation."

I think, “Well that lets me out. I'm no Tiger and I bailed out of school on my sixteenth birthday to earn a living, so the academics might be a problem.”

"Hey, Aussie, wanna go down and check it out?" asks Todd.

"Sure, why not. I’ve got nothing on after the shift's over."

Don't have anything on? I've been in the USA since Christmas last year and my horizon is empty. What are my chances of getting an Airplane & Powerplant License? Go to college? How and where and with what? I don’t have any money saved but perhaps if I joined the Air Force I could get something out of it without shelling out any dough.

Shift over, dead tired, coveralls dirty and sweaty, we hit the morning commute traffic on Bayshore Freeway and head north toward the City in Todd's new Ford Victoria. After a quick breakfast somewhere in the Mission district, we climb the wooden stairs to the Air Force Recruiting Office at the corner of Market and Van Ness Streets.

Todd takes over.

"Good morning sergeant, we'd like to take the exam for Aviation Cadets."

The six striper in razor sharp khakis, condescendingly eyeballs us the way Burt Lancaster eyed Private 1st. Class Prewitt in “From Here To Eternity.” He figures if he can talk us into signing up as enlisted swine, he just might make his weekly quota.

"Aviation cadets? No way," he thinks.

"Well, you have to fill out the detailed application, take a physical and pass the written test. It'll take all morning, do you have the time? Can you two stay awake?”

"You bet," we say.

I look at Todd, he’s half asleep and his eyes are like two pissholes in the snow.

Now, thanks to the good sisters of St. Joseph, I've always been good at tests. All you have to do is figure out what the test writer or the prospective employer wants and give it to him. I always been a quick study and smart enough to stay out of trouble.

I begin filling out the application.

Education: Hmm. My first high school in Australia was called a college, so I fill in the blank: three years at St Ignatius' College Riverview, Gunnedah High with passes in Physics, Chemistry, Math I and II, English, History, Geography and Latin.

Work Experience: Mechanic, Clegg and Tyrrell (well that's stretching it a bit because all I did was pump gas and fetch parts, but they'll never check that out,) QANTAS Sydney, Aero Engineer and Mechanic (another job I talked myself in to but I have a certificate proving that) and finally, my current employer United Airlines – Airplane Overhaul Mechanic.

"Here y'are sergeant."

I hand him the application he is surprised. Perhaps he thinks I’ll enlist as a mechanic.

He hands me a multiple choice test, twists his head and points to a small, wood framed and windowed room nearby.

“O.K. Complete this and bring it back when you’re done.”

The test looks fairly straightforward. It’s mostly general knowledge, basic math and science; identification of small, black silhouettes of recent and historical Air Force airplanes; questions on world geography – what’s the capital of Chile; what’s a magneto and a distributor, ‘How do you drive on a bumpy road.’ There are also some basic arithmetic calculations and a few trigonometry questions on sines and cosines; some elementary algebra; interpretation of graphs; a puzzle in interpreting train schedules. This is really fun stuff and not too hard. I’m sure I could have done it in the 8th grade.

An hour later, I emerge from the test room. Ex Airman 2nd Class Todd is still in there chewing on his scoring pencil.

The sergeant runs the test through the scoring machine. ‘Zip’, and it’s done. He is impressed but tries not to show it. I’m smarter than he thought I was. Perhaps the Aussie accent had him confused.

"Take this paper over to that office across the room and give it to the nurse. We'll give you a physical this morning."

A physical at this hour? I don't know if I can even make water. The white-uniformed Air Force nurse hands me a bottle and I manage to drain my sump. I fill out the medical form: Childhood sickness? The usual. Parents? I'm not sure of the details of their illnesses and cause of death, but I’m truthful about their passing in their fifties. Venereal Disease? No, never.(I’d be embarrassed to tell the Air force that except for a couple of quickies, I'm almost a virgin.) Physical restrictions? Nope. Strip off down to my shorts, see the doctor, turn, cough, get a 'finger wave up the rear. Touch the toes, look left, look right, can you see my fingers? How many? Say aaah!

Back to the Recruiting Sergeant and still no sign of Todd.

"Am I in?" I ask.

"Well, no. Your physical is O.K. but this is just the beginning. You'll have another two day written exam up north of here at Travis Air Force Base and another more extensive physical. You'll get a letter setting it up."

He smiles and wishes me good luck as I head out and to find Todd. He’s in the waiting area sitting in the cheap chrome and leatherette seats.

"How'd you make out?" I ask.

"I didn't pass the written test. Aww. I really didn't want back in the Air Force anyhow. Wanna beer?"

A spur of the moment decision in the early morning hours, a little prompting and your whole life is changed forever. And I never really got to thank him, for when I returned to United Airlines after I was commissioned and flying one of those DC-6s, Todd had left the Move Crew and moved on.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

DITLIP or a Day In The Life of an Instructor Pilot

A Day In the Life of an Instructor Pilot

The instructor pilots in this story are not the usual ones that hang around your local airport trying to build up time to get a ‘real job’ flying for an airline or a corporation. No, these instructors have many thousands of hours and mostly flew in the United States military, or for an airline that went ‘belly-up’. They are true professionals who would look great in a full-page advertisement for an airplane manufacturer. These instructors in this story flew for what was at the time, the Boeing Commercial Airplane Company. The story is set in the mid Nineties and is a composite of many of the situations that they found themselves in: at home, on a foreign ‘Line Assist’ or instructing in the simulator in a non-U.S. country.

To their wives (and girl friends), their supervisor and their stock broker, they are often a will-o-the-wisp frequently seen only at Oh-dark thirty hours. This gives rise to the belief that they are closely related the North American sasquatch.



ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzz Rrrrring!!!!!!

4.00 a.m.

Wife: “Honey, would you catch that alarm before it wakes the baby! Who do you have this morning? Same class? Well, I’ll see you around five. And DON’T FORGET OUR DATE TOMORROW NIGHT. It’s been weeks since we went out together.”

Arrgh! Friday morning, way to go! Nearly finished with this bunch and it’s been an interesting class, or maybe I should say, challenging. First time I’ve had a compressed schedule in a long time and it sure was a short night. Well, Monday they get their check rides. My captain is really sharp but the FO is slow. Hope he improves today. Hmmm. I wonder if he is someone the airline customer wants Boeing to pass judgment on. Just my good fortune to be Program Lead and no one to lean on.


In Flight over the South China Sea

Who was it said that ‘the dawn comes up like thunder out of China ‘cross the bay?’ This dawn is right in my eyeballs and I’ve been fighting sleep all night in the right seat of this little bitty jet. The newly checked-out captain is really catching on fast to the ‘glass cockpit’ and the Flight Management System. He’s using concepts rather than rules. Line Assist can be fun, but sunrise in the eyes is the same the whole world over.

I think I’ll celebrate by rinsing out my mouth with some Vee-Eight. We’ve got a very light load; I hope the airline’s Sales and Marketing Department can drum up some more passengers, then with luck they’ll buy a few more Boeings. Hmm, I’ll better drop a note to Boeing Sales and let them know more about this operation.

Lessee, next stop we’ll have Customs and Immigration. I hope they’ll have the proper forms. The last Line Assist I was on bogged down on arrival because the official form had only shown boxes for three models of the 737. They insisted that the airplane couldn’t be a 737-800; as far as they were concerned if it wasn’t on their form it didn’t exist.

Ahh. The smell of the islands. Salt air, clear skies – not too many contrails in this part of the Pacific. This island looks like a throwback to the Fifties – motor scooters and litter and still relatively undeveloped. Well, not for long. Breakfast! Fresh fruit and what IS that stuff? Better get some ‘tho. It’s going to be a long day.




Boy, sometimes you get lucky. A late sleep-in and a limo pickup. The high tech Orient has some advantages I don’t get at home - a nice room on the fourteenth floor and still fairly quiet at 7.30 AM. Funny but I don’t hear the birds at this elevation but the ‘flavor’ of the Orient surely rises with the humidity. Fruit for breakfast. The Flight Surgeon would definitely approve of that and with the customer picking up the tab - what the hell!

Down to the lobby for pickup. No graffiti in these elevators. Very nice place. (Thanks Boeing Travel Department! Better take them a bottle on the way home.)
And a limo – a Mercedes? Smooothe, and the driver’s taking the scenic route; this must be the tourist road. I wonder where the poor people live? What’s this? The Training Center? The driver opens my door in the training center porte cochere and the students are there to greet their new simulator instructor.

We brief for the lesson and, Omigawd! they are letter perfect – let’s hope they understand the concepts. And that’s my job to make sure they do because there’s several different ways to work a Flight Management System and all of them are correct.

Who are these guys? The captain is just off an older, short-range Boeing with no ‘glass cockpit’ experience. The First Officer is transitioning from the Airbus A-320. Wonder why he’s going on the Boeing? Maybe he likes our airplanes. Did his A-320 have a side stick? Have to watch he doesn’t try to outsmart the captain and show him how clever he is. Crew management is a key concept that is sometimes difficult to get across to Asian crews. Ah well, as long as he can type 40 words a minute on the keypad……..



10.00 a.m. and it looks like my day is just beginning. The First Officer needs more than additional training - the captain has been ‘carrying’ him and saying nothing about it. It’s hard for me to tell when there is a language difference. We do have a Standard Operating Procedure for slow students. Let’s see. What did the boss say?

“Work ‘em, guide ‘em, but don’t baby ‘em. My family may be on their flight someday.”

First the paperwork. Gotta be objective. “The FO could not find the correct page in the Quick Reference Handbook.” Maybe he doesn’t read English as well as he can speak English. That’s unusual, it’s usually the other way round. “FO gets lost in the middle of the Hydraulic Leak or Loss procedure.” Is this language or logic? Or maybe the procedure isn’t clearly written. Y’know, the captain is being very quiet about this guy which may confirm my suspicion that the airline has some doubts and is looking for us to pass judgment. Perhaps he’s politically connected and they can’t pull out the rug?

O.K. Paperwork’s done. Now, let me get a hold of the class leader. One thing’s sure, I’ll miss my day off on Saturday. Let’s check Saturday’s schedule. Gotta time slot for an extra simulator schedule? Yep. Call the leader.

“Hello Captain. I’d like to discuss the FO’s performance today. Can I come to your hotel? Sure. See you in thirty minutes.” Oh boy. Up and down the superslab to his hotel.


Kuala Lumpur




These guys are sharp! Nice contrast to the last program I had. Some classes are just smoother than others. The Captain must’ve burned the midnight oil, or maybe spent time with his buddies. He’s sure got flying experience. All it takes is hangin’ new stuff on the old hooks he has in his head….. and he’s doin’ it! The FO has that great quality I see in so many Asian youth - smart, energetic, coordinated and a mind like a sponge. Guess they aren’t as coddled as many of their U.S. contemporaries.

Nice afternoon. Think I’ll take the captain up on his invitation to play a short nine at his club. Sounds exclusive and very ritzy. Such is life for the rich Asian.

Back to the hotel. Fill out the paperwork. Hmm. Looks like the Ground Training Department back home could use a little help in smoothing out the flight profile. Better redline this puppy. Then I’ve got an article to write for the Ops Review Board. Paper, paper, paper. If I was a real airline pilot, all I’d do is collect a bigger paycheck and the heck with the paperwork!

Life ain’t too bad in the tropics, sometimes!



Well, my guess was correct. The F.O. can’t hack it without extra time. I gotta be a diplomat here, but maybe I’ve got to ‘let him out gracefully’. The airline knew he was a ‘slo mo’ but wanted an outside opinion. Hmmm, I’ll have to find some extra time for him in the simulator tomorrow and see if that helps. If not, I’ll have to let him go. But, who’ll be his simulator captain? It can’t be one of their guys and his real Captain doesn’t need the time nor does he want to miss his weekend off in Seattle. Lessee, what does our Black Book say….. Nada. That’s what I get paid for – decisions that make everybody look good.

Wait a minute, we have some up-and-coming Ground School instructors that are fully qualified in real airplanes and just longing to be upgraded. That new guy is really sharp, I think he is in the Reserve. Maybe he’ll work on Saturday. Better call the ground School Supervisor and get his O.K.

Now the hard part, what am I going to tell the wife about to-morrow night?

Instructor B

At the Hotel.

Well it IS better than the Da Nang BOQ – no bugs, no drugs, less noise and the air conditioning doesn’t smell of cigar smoke. A hurried sleep at best with the 5 AM alert. Well, it’s a short ride to Operations. Breakfast? Oh yeah. Wonder what the in-flight meal will be? Not Asian, I hope. I can handle just about anything but sushi. Still, it’s a no-fat diet.

At the airport.

Lookin’ good, just like we left it and it still SMELLS new. Boy, these cabin attendants are really attentive. I believe that if they had a real kitchen, I could have a real breakfast of steak and eggs.

The captain is very much in command during the briefing. If all their pilots are like him, they’ll make it on the Ops side for sure. This sure is a funny little island. Japanese War graves and still some rusted stuff in the lagoon. No American graves ‘tho. Guess the Commission must’ve moved ‘em after The War. Lots of Japanese tourists ‘tho making offerings at the gravesites. Beautiful beaches. Pity I didn’t have time to swim and snorkel. Guess this is a pretty good Line Assist trip after all.

Not like the one I had in Europe several years ago before the EU spread its influence. The customer airline was assisting in the deportation of two foreign nationals whose travels had originated from a third country, not their homeland. On arrival back at the third country where they were being returned, the Immigration Department wouldn’t let them off the ramp and the guards on the customer airline wouldn’t let ‘em back on my airplane. Impasse!

After lots of hard stares and stiff jaws, the customer airline captain said, “Well, if they return to XXX, there is no food for them to eat and they’ll starve!” This loss of face by the locals was sufficient to satisfy any backpedaling by the officials who replied, “Well, of course they can stay.” I wonder whatever happened to those guys?

In Flight

At least the sun ain’t gonna burn my eyeballs on the way home.

Instructor C.


A typical day in the life of a commercial airplane manufacturer’s IP?

Yep, they’ve got to be diplomats, psychologists, philosophers, proficient pilots and good human beings. And oh yes, have an encyclopedic memory.