Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Mystery of the Missing Organist Solved!

In the chapter titled "Organic Stratocruiser" in my new book Fujiyama Trays & Oshibori Towels, Recalling a time when passenger flight was an adventure and the Boeing Stratocruiser ruled the skies, a story is told of a flight from New York's Idlewild (now JFK) airport to Minneapolis-St. Paul on a Northwest Airlines Stratocruiser equipped with a Lowrey organ, but alas - no organist to play it.

George Grim, a passenger on the flight and a popular columnist for the Minneapolis Morning Tribune, saved the day by playing the organ all the way to MSP.  And then wrote his column "I Like it Here" about the adventure!  I wondered when I researched this why there was no "official" organist on board that day.

This week, in talking with C. R. "Chuck" Swanson, Jr., I learned that he was supposed to be playing the organ on that flight. Chuck is the son of C. R. "Swanee" Swanson, owner of Northwest Organ Company, donor of the Lowrey organ to Northwest and chief "airborne organist." Sadly "Swanee" Swanson passed away last fall at the age of 95.  His son, Chuck was listed in a 1959 newspaper account as one of the regular organists. I finally tracked him down. 
I asked Chuck how many times he was the "flying organist."  He replied, "Once."  He was 19 years old at the time, had worked the flight to New York from Minneapolis-St. Paul, found his way in to Manhattan and checked into his hotel.   Unfortunately, ship 709, the only Stratocruiser with an organ on board, was assigned to a return flight different from the one he had been given, and Chuck missed the flight.

Chuck's absence on that flight, and George Grim playing his way home to MSP, resulted in wonderful publicity for the airline when George told his story in his column.  The passengers loved it, George's readers loved it and so did the Northwest public relations department
Next time I talk to Chuck I am going to ask him how he got home that day.

And by the way, Chuck will tell his story on Saturday, February 7 at the Fujiyama Trays & Oshibori Towels book launch party at the NWA History Centre, 8101 34th Ave. So, Bloomington, MN, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.  R.S.V.P. to

Monday, January 26, 2009

The All Nighter

From time to time, Lady Skywriter readers respond to the invitation on my web site to send me their flight stories.  Here is one from another former "stewardess," Dee Savelkoul, who flew for United Airlines from August 1947 to August 1949.

FIRST FLIGHT, By Dee Savelkoul
I was ready.  I had survived the interview.  "One in a hundred," they said.  I had survived the physical.  "Healthy, happy girl," the doctor reported.  I had survived the training: three weeks in Cheyenne, Wyoming.  (I would never have made it through boot camp.)  Then graduation.
I received my first month's schedule.  The first flight was an all nighter, Denver to L.A. with stops at Grand Junction, Colorado and Salt Lake City. Great!  (We would call it the "red-eye" now.)
The airplane was a Douglas DC-3.  Twin engines.  180 mph cruising speed.  21 seats in seven rows; 2 abreast on one side of the airplane and singles on the other.
The passengers boarded.  A pleasant enough looking group.  Before takeoff, I collected tickets.  We had a leather booklet with slots for 21 tickets.  I walked up the aisle, stopping at each seat to take tickets and put them in their appropriate slots.  After checking seat belts and clearance from the pilots, we took off.
My adventure had begun.  My recollection is it was an eight-hour flight.  We must have left Denver around 10 p.m. and allowing for time differences, arrived in L.A. around six o'clock a.m.  
The passengers were experienced flyers.  They had taken this flight before.  What they were interested in was a blanket and pillow and a good night's sleep.  Within an hour the passengers were asleep and the airplane was silent.  I was puzzled.  I had at least seven hours to go.  What was I to do?  I sat on the jump seat at the rear of the airplane (our assigned seat) and thought about it.  And thought about it some more.
When we landed in Grand Junction passengers momentarily stirred as we picked up one passenger, then rolled over and went back to sleep.  I still had another six hours to go.  Six more hours of unrelieved boredom.  This was glamour?  This was exciting?  This was dreadful.
Then the pilots told me we would not be stopping in Salt Lake because there were no deplaning passengers and none getting on.  So we continued into the dark night.
Now I was a healthy girl from the Midwest. I was accustomed to going to bed at a reasonable hour, getting at least eight hours of sleep, in a bed, and getting up at a reasonable time.  I twisted and turned on the jump seat.  I could not have been more miserable.  Finally, as the hours passed, I could not keep my eyes open any longer and I was about to drift off when I heard stirrings and the dark sky was becoming light.  My gosh - could it be morning?  Passengers were still resting comfortably.  I had had no experience in my life at waking people up.  If you needed your rest, you needed your rest.  How gauche to go about rudely waking people.  Yet I knew I was supposed to serve 21 people breakfast before landing in L.A.
I jumped up and plugged in the food warmers containing scrambled eggs, sausage and toast. I trudged down the aisle with trays of food, coffee and juice, and offered cheerful greetings of "Good Morning" and "Did you sleep well?"  I removed blankets and pillows and stowed them in the overhead rack.  The scene was very pleasant, warm and friendly.  
Then to my astonishment, I felt the airplane's wheels touch down on the runway.
The L.A. passenger agent wheeled the rolling steps to the plane (no covered walkways then) and opened the door.  "Where is everyone?" he asked me, accustomed as he was to passengers crowding the door, anxious to get out.  He peered around me to see 21 passengers still in their seats with breakfast trays on their laps.  "They're just finishing their second cup of coffee," I replied.
He looked at me in disbelief and exploded in laughter.  "If this just doesn't beat all!  Well, I won't report you this time, " he said.  It was definitely not "according to the book" to allow passengers to keep food trays in their laps during landing.  
But when the smiling passengers handed their trays to me as they departed, they said "Thank you!" and "Great flight!"

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Ditching Dialogue

  Anne facing camera, second from right, on Lake Nokomis

Felix Perry facing the camera on Lake Harriet, August, 1946

In the wake of Captain "Sully's" flawless ditching of U. S. Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River a couple of days ago, some of us old airline geezers remember experiences of ditching practice, emergency equipment testing and even a real ditching of a NWA Boeing B-377 Stratocruiser in Puget Sound 50 years ago, give or take.
Practicing and testing was mostly done on Minneapolis lakes in those days. Although Captain Sully would have been hard pressed to successfully set his Airbus A320 down on Lake Nokomis, that is exactly where we stewardesses fulfilled the requirement for twice-yearly ditching practice required by the Civil Aeronautics Board (forerunner of the F.A.A.) .
A  few years earlier over on Lake Harriet, Felix Perry was testing life vests and life rafts for Northwest Airlines.  As part of the project, Felix and his crew devised  airplane seat cushions that  did double duty as flotation devices.  I clearly remember the sign on the seat backs "Use seat bottom cushion for flotation," recommended by Felix and his team. 
On April 2, 1956, NWA Boeing Stratocruiser Tokyo, ship 708, ditched in Puget Sound after takeoff from Seattle/Tacoma.  All of the passengers and crew made it safely out of the airplane, but some drowned before rescue teams could reach them. By contrast, the close proximity of so many boats at the time of the U. S. Airways ditching this week was surely providential.