Monday, November 23, 2009

The Day Airline President Donald Nyrop Tended Bar on a Boeing Stratocruiser

Donald Nyrop enjoys telling the following story on himself. I was reminded of it when I read that effective December 1, 2009, Delta,
the biggest airline in the world and adoptive parent of Northwest Airlines; will no longer accept cash on its domestic flights. Instead, flight attendants will be equipped with credit card scanners. Yup - you will have to pay for your drinks and (pardon the expression) food with your credit card. Just when we are all experimenting with the concept of leaving the credit card at home in an attempt to pare down that unseemly balance.
I won't dwell further on the implications of credit card swiping aloft. Suffice it to say, "Don't Leave Home Without It!"
So . . . back to the day in the 1950s when busy Northwest Airlines President Donald Nyrop had pre-boarded a NWA flight in Washington D.C. for his return to his office in St. Paul, and discovered there would be a delay. It seems one of the flight attendants had become ill and Nyrop's flight would have to wait for another flight to arrive with a substitute. Mr. Nyrop asked the senior stewardess what would be required of the substitute. When he learned that they needed someone to man the Boeing Stratocruiser's lower level cocktail lounge as bartender, he declared, "I can do that! Lets get this flight off the ground."
Mr. Nyrop received a quick course in airplane bartending. The miniature bottles are kept here, water and mix are here, ice is here, and here's where you put the money. In those days, and I have an old beverage list to prove it, Haig & Haig and Johnny Walker Black Label were $1.00; as were Walker's Deluxe, I.W. Harper, Canadian Club, Seagram's VO and Gordon's gin. Martinis and manhattans were 75 cents, and B&B or Drambuie were $1.50. Go ahead - cry!
It seems Mr. Nyrop did a super job. And the passengers loved it, the word having spread through the main cabin that "the president of the airline is serving drinks downstairs." There was a steady stream of curious passengers up and down those spiral stairs.
Back in his office a couple of weeks later, Mr. Nyrop received a memo from the accounting department that his "bank," from working the flight, was $1.00 short, and he would need to make restitution. Nyrop was mortified. He invited his Chief Accountant and the bewildered clerk who had sent the memo out to lunch, where he paid back the $1.00 he was short.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

FAA Computer Glitch Hampers Air Travel . . .

Good grief. Computers again. We're just recovering from the NWA flyover last month, purportedly caused by pilots glued to their laptops instead of making a scheduled landing at MSP.
Now this last Thursday, November 19, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) computer system crashed, failing to upload flight plans all over the NorthEast.
Apparently Atlanta was hit hardest. Atlanta. Home of Delta, the largest airline in the world, and adoptive parent of Northwest Airlines.
I am happy to report that Northwest Airlines, with most of its hubs in the midwest and west, scored 88% on-time flights last Thursday compared with Delta's 56%.
At least it wasn't Thursday THIS week. The Thanksgiving holiday is the heaviest travel time of the year.
I wonder what it will take to get anybody's attention in the halls of Congress and the White House. For years the FAA's antiquated computer system has been an issue.
Oh, I forgot. The U.S. Senate is too busy voting on whether to even consider debating the health care bill and the President is too Far East to be paying attention. And then there's Sarah . . . and Oprah . . . clearly there's just too much other, more important, stuff going on right now.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

What, and give up my Tokyo run?

Yes she did. Phyllis Tack & Charles Curry were wed in 1948
And they stayed "wed" for 55 years until Charles death
Phyllis Curry today with her prized NWA DC-3 model
Phyllis grew up at 51st and 11th Avenue, Minneapolis. She had three brothers, one a Navy pilot. Both her son and daughter are pilots. Charlie has been with Northwest for 25 years and plans to work another five years before retiring. Janet worked for Champion, which unfortunately folded.
Speaking of the DC-3, Phyllis chuckles when she recalls how she and the other stews felt when the airline announced it was buying DC-4s. They would be expected to serve a meal to 44 passengers between MSP and Milwaukee. "There's no way that two stewardesses can serve 44 passengers in one hour and forty minutes," the ladies fretted.
Of course they discovered a "way" and their successors have been figuring out how to cope with each new bigger and better airplane put into service, carrying more and more passengers, ever since.
Thanks to you and other pioneers, Phyllis, we've come a long way!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Shemya to Tokyo on a DC-4 in 1947

Douglas DC-4 on the ground in Tokyo

The Shemya to Tokyo leg of the trip left Shemya at midnight. As previously mentioned, Phyllis says it was an adventure trudging through wind-whipped snow to the airplane, which was parked about a city block away from the terminal. Passengers were mostly wives and children of the occupational forces, joining their spouses in Japan. "There were more baby bottles than refrigeration to store them," Phyllis says. "We had to move them in and out of the little tin ice box to give each bottle equal refrigeration time."

Phyllis Curry with her small Japanese friends.
On layover in Tokyo, the crews stayed at a Staff House, which afforded full food service as well as sleeping accommodations. Shopping was an experience. Vendors set up card tables in a row in front of their bombed-out shops and encouraged Phyllis and her crew members to come further down the line for a "better deal." Phyllis spent some of her free time with local children, helping them make the best of their war-torn surroundings.

Japanese kids playing in rubble left from WWII
All photos are from Phyllis Curry's collection

Phyllis met her future husband, Charles Curry, flying the Orient. They had three trips together. It was a two week trip, so the crews flew only one per month, then added one domestic trip per month to accrue enough hours.
After their third trip together Charles broke his ankle skiing and when she visited him in the hospital he said, "Would you like to get married and go with me to Miami?"
Phyllis answered, "What, and give up my Tokyo run??"

What happened next? Stay tuned for next post . . .

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Before we leave Shemya . . .

Phyllis Tack Curry ready to do some wash.
If you're having trouble reading the sign over the door, please allow me:
It says, "Home for Wayward Girls."
Can you imagine that sign being over the door today? I'm also wondering how many of you remember the brand of soap Phyllis is holding in her hands? Lux soap was highly visible when I was a kid. Don't remember the last time I saw it on a grocery shelf. I have searched the web for Lux soap flakes to no avail. There is still a Lux brand, but it appears that today they only produce bar and liquid soaps. There are Lux flakes ads for sale on the net featuring royalty, high level politicians and Hollywood actresses. Fun to see. There is even an unopened box of Lux flakes for sale for a mere $28.00. Reminds me of the time I saw a bottle of Mrs. Stewart's Bluing in an antique store. An antique store. I couldn't believe it. It seems only yesterday that I used Mrs. Stewarts. Okay, okay, at the time we still had a wringer on the washing machine and a washboard in the laundry tub and a mangle to "iron" sheets and tablecloths. Iron sheets you ask? Youbetcha! I think I belong in an antique store!
But I digress.
Back to 1947 and Flight 1 to the Orient, Shemya to Tokyo, next post.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Layovers in Shemya with Phyllis Tack Curry

Shemya 1947
Quonset "Hotel" on Shemya

Phyllis Tack was her maiden name. Her father took the family out to Wold Chamberlain Field in Minneapolis to watch the airplanes when she was a kid. He thought the Ford Trimotor was "the greatest thing." One day when she was about 14 years old, she saw the door open and a stewardess hand some papers out. She decided then and there that that was what she wanted to be when she grew up. She and a friend rode their bikes to the airport and went in the coffee shop looking for a stewardess. Phyllis wanted to stand next to one to find out if she was "too tall."
When she was 19 she went to the NWA offices at the airport looking for a job. She talked to the legendary Rosie Stein, the Chief Stewardess. Phyllis says Rosie put her arms around her and said "you go back home and wait until you are 21. In the meantime, get all the education and social experience you can." Phyllis was devastated. "I wanted it so bad," she says.
Did she dream that just a few years later she would be spending layovers in the far North on a remote Aleutian Island?
The crew accomodations in Shemya were quonset huts. The stews shared a little sitting room and each girl had her own bedroom. The purser, pilots, flight mechanic, navigator and radio operator were in other "hotel rooms." The weather was often so bad a bus had to pick them up at their huts and run them to the mess hall for meals. Phyllis complained, "and they always parked the DC-4 about a block away from the shack." (Shack in Shemya-speak meant the terminal building.) As she lunged into the weather, fighting her way through the brutal winds and stinging snow towards the airplane, Phyllis wondered if her mother would still consider this a glamour job "if she could see me now."
Next post: Rested crews press on to Tokyo.

NWA 's Flight 188 and Page 188 in Sully's Book!

I know, I know. I wasn't going to say another word about NWA Flight 188. But today, at Barnes & Noble, when I picked up Cap't. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger's new book Highest Duty, it fell open to page . . . 188.
The following sentence jumped out at me:
"Whether you're flying by hand or using technology to help, you're ultimately flying the airplane with your mind by developing and maintaining an accurate real-time mental model of your reality -- the airplane, the environment, and the situation."
The irony is inescapable. I just couldn't let this pass without comment.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Leaving NWA 188 behind . . . and welcoming instead a true NWA pioneer, Phyllis Curry

Whenever I grow weary of the incredible events ever-unfolding in 2009-era commercial aviation, I take refuge in tales of earlier times. Today is such a day. Even though newspapers are still publishing cartoons and late-night TV jesters are still poking fun at a couple of hapless NWA pilots, I say, "enough already." Their legacy is cast in stone. They will forever be known as the pilots who overflew their destination and had virtually the whole country looking for them and their clueless 147 passengers and cabin crew, while they dallied on their laptops. Their fate is sealed. They have become, forevermore, a trivia question.

A couple of weeks back I had the pleasure of meeting Phyllis Curry, pictured above in 1947 with her soon to be husband, pilot Charles Curry. She was one of the first NWA stewardesses to work flights from MSP to Tokyo after World War II, shortly after NWA began flying the "Inside Circle"route in July, 1947.
Jessie McCloud was Chief Stewardess at the time, and the company decided to hand-pick the new "Orient" route cabin crews from the roster, not based on seniority. (I wonder how they got away with that?) Initially they were looking for four stewardesses. Phyllis applied, but wasn't accepted. The route proved successful. They needed four more stewardesses. Phyllis was called for the second round of hiring and was selected. The uniform worn by this elite group included a distinctive hat (see above) made especially for the Orient crews. Phyllis admits ruefully that she has been approached by many collectors and museums over the years looking for one of those extremely rare hats and she has no idea what happened to hers. She figures they were given to no more than 20 women in all, who wore them proudly on other NWA flights as well.
There will be more on the MSP-Tokyo route in my next post. For "teaser" purposes, let me give you a peek; the aircraft used on these flights was the venerable, but unpressurized, Douglas DC-4. Flight time was a mere 33 hours. Stops were made in Edmonton or Anchorage, and crews laid over in Shemya; at the end of the Aleutian Islands, the western-most tip of the U.S. (not a good place to over-fly.) Crew layovers were typically two days in a place so barren and harsh the snow was blown horizontally by ceaseless winds. Stay tuned . . .