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Thursday, August 9, 2012

Trains, Planes and Automobiles

That could be me in the above photo if I would have stuck to my first career choice. Of course I was only seven when I thought being a locomotive engineer would be a cool job. But a couple of years go by and, well, you know, a guy grows up. One warm winter afternoon in 1959 dad parked at the end of a runway near Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix. In those innocent days you could do such things. It was cheap entertainment, and quite thrilling, to watch passenger jets take off into a fiery western sunset. It became a favorite pastime for dad and I, and it spawned second thoughts about my first career choice of becoming a train driver.

Once every month or so dad and I would sit on the hood of our Oldsmobile de jour... fingers in ears... just for the experience of feeling jumbo jet's sonic thunder liquify our innards. It was like an internal microwave... an intestinal earthquake. I remember the odor of spent fuel, how skies darkened from plume after plume of exhaust trails, and the shimmering wrinkles of heat that made South Mountain quiver on the horizon of our "valley of the sun." Newton's laws of gravity seemed violated. How could something so ponderous rise into the sky?

In the good old days of Roger Miller, Captain Kangaroo and Andy Griffith, when flying was a luxury and gasoline was 24.9 cents a gallon, passenger jet pilots put all throttles to the "metal" upon take-off. I'm not sure why, maybe for the thrill, maybe just because they could. Later, I would fly for the first time and fall in love with being treated like royalty... and the feel of "blasting off" like Buck Rogers, G force pinning me against the seat. It was a wonderful sensation, being pampered by pretty stewardesses and pinned to my seat by acceleration. I think I would fly more often if flying was still like that. I carried my love for G force and pretty girls into my teens, where a hopped up 69 Camero provided similar effects from acceleration, and several chicks wanting to ride along.  

To me, there was something unnatural (thus suspenseful) about take-offs back in the 60's. Passenger jets seemed like big fat farm turkeys with little bitty slender wings. Dad and I watched plane after plane... loaded with trusting passengers, baggage and fuel... lumber and flap headlong toward barricades and the rocky spoils of Salt River's gravel pits. Seemingly, at the last second, beyond "failsafe," the bird's nose would gently rise and point so skyward as to defy logic and drag tail feathers on pavement. Like middle schoolers departing assembly, a plethora of little round feet left the ground row by row. It seemed so tentative and dangerous, liftoff. A bold point of no return. I would use every single horsepower available, too... when I became a pilot. 

It was at this point... liftoff, a mere stone's throw overhead... that I got a snapshot view of passengers. Some had noses pressed against windows, maybe out of fear, or delight, or, perhaps, both. Passengers; supposedly intelligent beings; stacked in a flimsy tube like human Pringles... assuming that a million mechanical parts and some stranger at the "wheel" would do what they were supposed to do at the most critical juncture of flight... the point of no return. As ground quaked underfoot, thunder turned internal organs into worms, Dad would grin like a kid at a carnival. My eyes, wide with awe, suggested that planes look ridiculous hanging in the air at 45 degree angles... especially at still plod-along speeds that I'd wager a weeks allowance as being insufficient to support flight.

We'd sit there, dad and I... sipping Dr Peppers and eating sun-softened Longhorn cheese with saltine crackers... marveling at miracle, after miracle, after miracle. The miracle of flight. It never became ordinary. Those were the days of full throttle, fuel-be-dammed take-offs. We heard the miracle through plugged ears. We felt it in hollow chests. We saw it through disbelieving eyes, squinting into a setting desert sun. Roll over in your grave, Mr Newton: Sheer Thrust overcomes a multitude of gravitational sins.

Here is some information to remind you of what it was like to fly in the 1960's... 

  • Flying was expensive.  For example:  A round trip ticket between Cleveland and Washington D.C. was about $75.  This doesn't sound like a bad deal, until you adjust the fare for inflation:  That's over $400 in today's dollars!  By contrast, a recent airfare was less than $100 for a round trip between Cleveland and Washington on one of today's low-cost deregulated carriers.
  • There was no point in shopping around for the best deal, because all airfares were controlled by regulation.  If a roundtrip ticket between Cleveland and Washington was $75 on one airline, it was $75 on all the airlines. 
  • Because it was so expensive, flying was rare, and it was an "event."  The expectation was that you would wear nice clothing onto the flight.  Anyone who had strolled onto an airplane in the 1960's or early 1970's in a sweatsuit, or ragged jeans and a tee shirt, would have caused a major buzz among the passengers.
  • No security procedures of any consequence.  You walked up to the ticket counter, bought your ticket, showed no identification, walked out unsupervised onto the tarmac, and climbed up the stairs and onto the plane.  Meeting an arriving flight?  Just stroll on over to the gate and greet them as they walk off the plane. 
  • There were observation decks at many airports.  With little concern about security, some airports allowed you to stroll outside, take a seat, and watch the airplanes come and go.  On a warm summer night, it was actually rather pleasant.
  • No little television screens scattered throughout the airport to tell you where your flight was.  There was only one big board in the main lobby, like a bus station.  Forgot your gate?  You had to go find the big board to look it up.  
  • The vast majority of the passengers were white male businessmen.... occasionally families, and very few minorities. Seldom did women travel independently.
  • The stewardesses were pretty young women in ever shortening skirts.  "We have the sexiest stewardesses" seemed to be a major advertising theme among the airlines.  Their tiny skirts were designed to ride way up when they reached into the overhead compartments, or when they bent over to serve drinks to the passengers seated near the windows.  This was intended no doubt for the entertainment of the largely male segment of passengers.


  1. Oh such wonderful memories. My sister was a stewardess for Frontier Airlines (remember them?) I always thought she looked so beautiful in her tight uniform and cap. I got to fly with her when I was a teenager and it was the experience of a life time. However, I love trains. Always have, always will. Loved this post.

  2. My first "REAL" job was with Pan American in 1961 out of Kennedy (Idlewild) Airport. You are right. Flying was an event and passengers were expected to dress appropriately.

    A terrible crash happened on March 1, 1962. I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, to this day, when I think of it. Family members watched the crash from the observation deck (it was common for families to watch takeoffs). It was as though it just fell out of the sky. No one survived. Horrible.

    It was amazing how many close calls there were back in those days. Once they made the mistake of announcing, on the radio, that a plane was in trouble and was circling Kennedy--the highways were so packed with ghoulish people trying to get to where they could watch the crash that off site emergency crews couldn't get to the airport. Fortunately, the plane managed to land safely.

    There was also an Eastern Airliner crash in 1962. The fog was so thick that the rescue units couldn't see the flames. Quite a few people lost their lives in that crash as well.

    Many memories of those days.

  3. One of my jobs years ago took me in & out of Pearson Intl Airport in Toronto. Like you, I spent much of my waiting times there at the ends of a couple runways watching the planes coming & going. Amazing how those 747's just kind of float their way to the ground. And how about all the sideslipping those big jets do landing in tricky crosswinds. Think my first commercial ride on a big jet was a DC8 flying out of Toronto in the mid to late 50.s. Walked across the tarmac & climbed the long stairs up into the plane as I remember. Well written article with lots of great old memories spent with your Dad.

  4. Great post, have always enjoyed airplanes
    My Father was an employee of Northwest Airlines and one of the benefits as a dependent was flying standby for $10 round trip to any domestic location. As a child, we flew to our Grandparents in prop planes but at age 16 my brother and I flew to Seattle from Detroit in a 727 jet. We rented a '67 Mustang and "Light My Fire" by the Doors was on the radio as we toured Mt. Rainer NP. I can't remember what I enjoyed more: the car, the plane, the music, or the long legged stewardess?

  5. " throttle to the metal"? I've always heard "pedal to the metal" (cars) and "balls to the wall" (airplanes). But I'm old. I drove a '57 Chevrolet and flew a J4 Cub. Maybe you can't say "balls to the wall" on this site because of possible misinterpretation?

  6. When I was in high school, I flew Frontier many times from Montrose to Denver to see my older sister. It cost $25 one way.

    I used to love flying but prefer not now, unless it's private.

  7. Jim and Sandie,
    Yes, I was a "regular" (once a month, for three years) on Frontier's Convair 580 prop planes back and forth to Denver. Talk about heavy... it took a lot of fuel to keep those things in the air... and a lot of maintenance :))
    But they did the job; I'm still here in spite of some bad weather flights.

    Hobo Pals,
    So you are familiar with the tragic side of flight... when planes fall out of the air. It is a gruesome scene, and people can't seem to help their curiosity... as with car wrecks. There was so much I had to edit out of this post to keep it readably short and stay on point. Unsuccessful flight is another post entirely. Thanks for your perspective.

    Bayfield Al,
    Landing, the other side of the flight coin. The first time I experienced "Slipping," well, it made me uncomfortable. To come in sideways, in buffeting winds, and at the last second correct alignment to something resembling parallel to the runway, is so unnatural. It had me turning in my seat, trying to straighten things out :))

    John Q,
    That trip with your brother sounds memorable, especially at 16 years old. No doubt a harmonic convergence of sensory stimulation... Flight, Mustang car, and Doors Music. That memory will stick with you forever.
    thanks for sharing it with everyone.

    Well I'm always saying "Nuts to Butts," so I guess "Balls to the Walls" is no worse :)) And you're right, it is "Pedal to the Metal." But I struggled with the image associated with a gas pedal on a Jetliner...
    I guess the image associated with "Nuts to Butts" isn't that great either (sigh). I can go "vernacular" once in a while :))

    Spotted Dog,
    And now Montrose to Denver is more expensive than Denver to NYC. I guess they have to pay for that new airport somehow. I'm with you on flying nowadays... the romance is gone. BTW, is the new book out on Kindle yet? Good luck with sales!!!
    Thanks for sharing stories everyone!

  8. Great post, Mark. More like it, please. And it proves what I've always contended: that you don't need to write about pretty scenery in the San Juans (since everybody already knows that), and that you have other things to say that need saying.

  9. When I was 13 I flew to Newfoundland by myself. I was passed off by a stewardess to someone else in Quebec and then my flight was delayed by 4 hours due to fog. After awhile the person in charge of me kind of forgot about me and I wandered around the terminal people watching but never far enough to get myself lost. I loved it...always loved to fly, mostly because of the people watching. Great train photos, Mark, some real beauties!

  10. Mark it's now out and ready. Send me your email and I'll send you a copy.

  11. Boonie,
    (I'm assuming you really are "Boonie," and not some impostor masquerading as His Highness),
    Be still my heart! Could this be a compliment?
    Me thinks it is, albeit a two-edged one...
    You must be up to something. Or maybe spending a summer in Colorado has softened your brown, Land of Disenchantment spirit. Hmmm.

    Pam and Wayne,
    Ah, a young untethered teen enjoying freedom in an airport; your wandering spirit fledged early on, I see :))
    Thanks for the memory.

    Spotted Dog,
    Thank you, Will do… but I want to pay for it… support your "art."

  12. Mark, are your archives available from your long ago travels? I hope we didn't lose them after Apple closed shop because they are priceless to us wannabe folks. Same with Bobbie's archives of her paintings. It would be a shame to lose them.


  13. Gumo,
    It was a most difficult decision... to let the Artful RV adventure slip into the abyss. But alas, it is gone. History gets in the way of progress sometimes... progress (growth) sometimes requires one to not rest on their laurels, but forge ahead into the "unknown."

    I wrestled with letting the past slip away. There were some real insights gained on The Artful RV Adventure. But somehow, someway, I believe they will get replayed with more perspective... 20_20 hindsight, if you will, on the BCB.

    I do have the photos, and will replay them from time to time. But in the interest of "growth," I will attempt to forge new ground, reach for new heights... better understanding. History is in the past, no matter how glorious, or dismal. Looking back is often fun, but often counter productive.

    Yours was an excellent question... I've been dreading this "announcement."
    Mixed feelings here... Mark.

  14. Yes, flying in the 1960s was wonderful, not so much any more.

    My fist flight was out of Sky Harbor in Phoenix in September 1965, paid for by the US Army. I think the flight to Houston was on a Boeing 707 and I then transfered to a DC3 to Ft. Polk, LA. An exciting introduction to air travel.

    In 1967 three of us boarded a plane in Boston to San Francisco carrying our M-16s which we put in the coat closet near the boarding door. The M-16 bolts were removed and kept in our pockets. It was a different time than now that is for sure!


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