How to Become an Airline Pilot

By James H. Keeton

About this transcription

Fall 2011 Jared Yates

This is Captain Keeton's own story of how he became an airline pilot. He delivered this story as a speech that he also recorded on audio cassette and distributed among friends and family. We owe special thanks to Bob Soule' for tracking down this copy!

With regard to the facts and the history, I've maintained as much fidelity as possible to the original. However, since the original was a live verbal delivery and this is a written version, I've removed some of the unnecessary interjections, just as I suspect Captain Keeton would have if he were to produce a written version.

(Recording Begins with a Click)

Now, OK. That's so that I'll be able to hear the speech too someday.

What I'm going to say with these prearranged extemporaneous notes...

The name of this is "How to become an airline pilot"

And I think I should warn you to start with, that this talk, the contents of it is probably "X" rated, but in view of the quality of our audience I have upgraded it to what I consider "PG." Now there may be some of you who would, upon hearing it, think it should be more appropriately rated "R." Dr. Caldwell last month started off his talk with a joke. I'm not going to try to top that, because my whole presentation is going to be a joke.

I'm going to talk about the period in aviation, and it's been said by the old folks, and they knew that they were talking about, and I quote, The greatest danger was that the flier would starve.

Up in Meridian MS in 1931, I was persuaded by Algene Key, one of these gentlemen, to take a ride in an airplane, and it went something like that barnstorming expedition that you saw there. And I was just as breathless and just as scared as that lady was. But before it was over, he had very sneakily suggested that I take hold of the stick and fly the airplane myself. Of course, he was also on the stick and nothing really very serious happened, but that was the way to get one hooked. And so, I became hooked. My interest was slow to start, it kindled slowly. I had no objective and no money with which to advance it if I had it. It cost 15 dollars an hour for instruction in an Eaglerock OX-5. And $15 was more than I could earn in a week, so things went very slowly. But, fate has a way of intervening and fate did intervene and where someone profits, someone else must suffer. The Key brothers, Al and Fred, operated the Meridian Airport, and they had two airplanes. One was a Fairchild FC2, which was an aircraft that they used to carry passengers. And times were tough, and a buck was a buck. The airplane was not lighted and the airport was not lighted. It was strictly illegal to fly from it at night, but if anybody had any money, and the moon was bright, and they wanted to fly, they got a ride. And one night there was a horse show going on at the fair ground at Meridian, and a couple showed up at the airport and they wanted a ride in the airplane and they wanted to fly over the horse show. And so Al accepted their money, and the moon was bright, and they took off. Unfortunately, somewhere over the fairgrounds the engine quit, and Al made a beautiful approach to the landing, and he knew that on the inside of that racetrack was the baseball diamond for the Cotton States League that Meridian was in, and the thought he could set the airplane down inside of the baseball diamond. He made a beautiful approach, though the only thing he didn't calculate on was that the lights from the show did not show him the billboard (scoreboard). And so the aircraft tangled itself with the scoreboard and wrecked itself in the diamond. Well, the grandstand emptied itself, people poured out to see this great catastrophe out there, and this couple who had bought the ride, they were a married couple, but they were not married to each other. So as the people gathered around, they were able to just sort of disappear into the crowd, and it was never anything serious that happened from that score.

But, one half of the Key Brothers Flying Service was destroyed- the airplane. They had to have another airplane, they didn't have any money, and so they approached me. They said that they would teach me how to fly to the extent of guaranteeing me a private license for the sum of $500, which was far less than the usual rates, and what could be expected of me of the number of hours required to get that license. When I was a high school boy, I had put aside some money which I had earned by exhibiting fancy bantam chickens at fairs and poultry shows. The evidence is the ribbons along the wall. I had put that money aside, and I didn't intend to touch it except in the last resort. Well here it was, the last resort was staring me in the face.

So I went into what one might say was my "nest egg." I produced the $500 and they diligently worked on me to keep the number of hours required to the minimum. They finally did succeed in getting me a private license. By that time I had become much more interested in flying, and I began to think that maybe I should have some objective. And the objective of course was to become an airline pilot. Well, very proudly having my private license, I wrote to 10 airlines of the country and told them that I would like to become one of their pilots. Most of them didn't even bother to answer, but United Airlines had a policy, I suppose, of answering everything. They wrote me a form letter, and said that I of course did not have the qualifications required, and they were sorry, but if anything should happen to change the picture, to please let them know. And I'm sure that that form letter went out to everyone who wrote them a letter requesting information.

So, I then began to see that I needed further qualifications, and the first objective was to build up flying time to qualify to take the examinations for further licenses. The Key brothers had a small pusher type Curtiss airplane, I believe there is a picture of it right here, and they rented it for very small amount for solo practice work. Laurel MS was having a barnstorming expedition, and I persuaded my brother to help me to pay for the cost of what it would take to fly this little airplane down to Laurel to see the show. We went down there, he and I, I in the front seat, the pilot's seat, and he in the back with the engine right behind him. We saw the show and then we took off to come back to Meridian. It was only 50 miles. The airplane had a habit of having its gas valve vibrate to the off position if it wasn't exactly in the right spot. We had achieved an altitude of about 500 feet and the valve vibrated to the off position and the engine quit, just like that. There was great silence then. I spoke to my brother then- I knew what had happened, and I told him to turn on the valve again. Well, he had not been properly briefed on the operation of things, and he reached back and got ahold of the propeller and tried to crank the engine in the air. Of course nothing happened, and being 500 feet or so in the air we had about 2 minutes to do something, and so we did it. We landed in a contoured cotton field, with the contours going this way, and the airplane had to be banked in the opposite direction of the turn. But, as you can see by my standing here we did accomplish it, and got away with it. I called the Key brothers and told them that I was sorry but their airplane was down in the field and they would have to come and get it, and they said "no, you bring it back." Which was probably one of the most irresponsible things that they had ever done, but they did a lot more irresponsible things later on. So I got my brother out and took everything off and out of the airplane that could be taken out, and did succeed in flying it to an airport and starting over again, and we got home. That, by the way, was the only forced landing that I ever experienced in 39 years of flying.

The Key brothers now having purchased another airplane still felt like they needed more airplanes. They persuaded me that if I would buy a used Curtiss Robin that they would operate it. They would fly it, and I would be able to fly it myself and build up time to achieve my licenses. And so I went to my nest egg again, got out some more money, and bought this used Curtiss Robin airplane. <From the crowd: "Some chickens!"> They were real good chickens. Then, the next thing that was achieved was that I got what was called a limited commercial license. The limited commercial license allowed me to carry passengers up for hire within a 50 mile radius of my base, which was not enough to really do much, and neither could I give instruction. The Key Brothers were always hopeful, but they were also prudent, and so about that time another fellow came along named Bill Ward. The persuaded him to buy a used Curtiss Robin aircraft, and they would operate it for him, and so it watered the amount of use that my airplane got, and I wasn't able to make ends meet. Also, I had learned about this time that the airlines were not interested in pilots who had learned to fly other than with the military services, either the Navy or what was then the Army Air Corps. So I right away made application to the Army and to the Navy, to be enrolled in their schools for flying. Well, they said I was hopelessly under-educated and that I couldn't get in. But I learned that by taking US Army extension courses (correspondence courses) and then taking the examination equivalent to the one that the graduates of Brooks and Kelly Field took, that I might be able to get a reserve position in the Army Air Corps. So, I set about to achieve this, and it took a good bit of time, but knowing the airline's attitude about it, I informed United Airlines about what I was doing. I also informed them when I got my Limited Commercial License. Well, about this time I had the Limited Commercial and could fly within 50 miles, the Department of Commerce inspector-

Those of you who have seen the movie Waldo Pepper will recognize that back in those days, everybody was trying to pull together, and although they were enforcing the law, they were also hoping that you would make it. They got a complaint that the Key Brothers had been flying at night, without lights, without parachutes, without flares, and without anything much. So, Mr. I. K. McWilliams, who was the inspector for the area, came around. He knew all of us very well, and he said to Al and Fred (I happened to be there), that "I have a complaint that you folks have been flying at night. You know that you are not qualified, that the airplane is not qualified, and that the airport is not qualified. I'm just going to ask you, and I'm going to believe whatever you tell me: are you guilty, or are you not guilty?" They said, "Well, we're guilty." He said "You know I'm going to have to penalize you." Times were tough, and they said "Yes, we know." He said "Well, OK. Here it is. Al, you are grounded from the first to the fifteenth. Fred, you are grounded from the fifteenth to the thirty-first." If per chance one of them was busy, they could still call Keeton. I had a motorcycle, and I could run out to the field and do a little local flying if need be. So we got by that real problem time very well.

We were trying to barnstorm. If you don't know what barnstorming means, or what it did mean in those days, you flew to areas in the country, small towns where people were not familiar with flying, and you offered to take people up for a ride for so much. I had gotten as much as five dollars a ride, most of the time I got one dollar, and it got down to where I got 50 cents a ride. American Airlines had a route through Meridian, and Meridian was a layover point. Pilots stayed overnight there. They were flying Stinson tri-motored planes. They carried mail express, and supposedly passengers, though there were practically never any passengers. There were three pilots- one was Earnest Petteway, Gene Sanford, and Dave Hisong. Now those are name drops, but you aren't expected to know who they are. But to me, they were just the ultimate. They came to town and they just took all the girls away from us, if we had any, and they spent money like water, and we just thought that it was great to have something like that to shoot for. They were very kind and helpful people too. Since I couldn't do my own flying with my airplane for pay if I was more than 50 miles away, when we found ourselves barnstorming in an area more than 50 miles away, if it was anywhere along the line of that American Airlines route and one of those fellows was flying that day at that time and didn't have any passengers, he would land and fly my airplane for me. Then he would get back in his Stinson tri-motor and fly on to Atlanta or Houston, whichever way he was going, and report that he had been delayed by the weather. One of those places was Forest MS, which happened to be right on the way. With Ward's airplane on hand, and my airplane on hand, the pickings were mighty slim, especially with me not being able to fly mine more than 50 miles.

About that time, Bates Field (that's where Brookley is now, not where Bates is now) lost its fixed base operator. A young man named Jimmy Parker, who was a transport pilot, but had no money, heard that I had an airplane in Meridian. He came to Meridian and persuaded me that I should go in with him, and that we should go to Mobile and attempt to get the contract to operate the fixed base services on Bates field. So, I went with him. We were interviewed by the airport manager, whose name was Oscar Barney (now I dropped some names that you don't need to remember, but you do need to remember Oscar Barney). He was also the station manager for Eastern Airlines, and he had working for him Billy Johnson and Herbert Duke. We spoke with Mr. Barney (and I called him "Mr. Barney;" he was a very stern looking fellow, and he seemed to be ultra conservative) and we set out to persuade him that Keeton and Parker could properly operate those services for mobile. He said the first thing that we would have to do is get a training airplane, as having only the Curtiss Robin was just not good enough to turn the services over to us. So I went back to the nest egg once more, and I purchased a Fairchild 22. That was a high-wing monoplane, here it is right here with Helen and me and my sister right next to it (it's not the one that was upside down). So I went to Hagerstown MD to bring the airplane home. Just before I left, one of the fellows there handed me a map, and said this is to help you get back home. I looked at it and it was a railroad timetable map. He said "If you get lost, follow the railroad and that will take you back home." I got up there, and we had one of those changes of the weather such as we've had here recently. When I started out I had all of the clothes on myself instead of in my bag. I could hardly move, and I'd only gotten about a hundred miles and I realized that if I didn't land, I was going to freeze to death. So I landed. That was sort of an anti-climax; you thought I was going to have an accident, but I didn't. Finally I did get the airplane home.

We set up shop and started to operate at Bates field. We taught students to fly, we took aerial photographs, and we put gasoline in airplanes. I took another correspondence course and became and airplane and engine mechanic. We offered those services, and I wrote to United Airlines and told them all about that. In the course of this time we purchased a E2 Cub, and a J2 Cub. At that time they were called Taylor, and later became known as Piper Cubs. Mr. Barney, realizing that we didn't have any money, and we had to have some place to sleep, assigned a room in the terminal building for the two of us, Parker and Keeton. We became known as Keeton and Parker flying service. He gave us an office, about as big as two of those tables. Helen will remember it well. We set up our training, barnstorming, and what-not from there.

Getting a place to eat was a problem, and if any of you are old enough to remember (this is 1933 or so), food was inexpensive. We found a place, "Malbis Bakery." Maybe you didn't know that Malbis used to operate a bakery in Mobile, but it's the same Malbis as is up here. We could go up there, and for breakfast, we would get orange juice, coffee, one egg, one slice of bacon, and a piece of toast for 15 cents. We would go back at lunch and get a nice, great big wholesome bowl of soup for 10 cents. Then for supper we really splurged. A veal cutlet, a vegetable, potato, desert, and drink for 25 cents. We ate for months on 50 cents a day.

Now a good many things happened, but I'm just going to give you a few of the things that happened. Mr. Barney- I've never known a man who was as intolerant of drinking as he was- had no patience with drunks. But every six months, he arranged for his wife, (charming wife), to go visit her people in upper Alabama, and he went on a terrible binge. His position as airport manager was political. He was appointed by Cecil Bates, who was the mayor. Almost anything would go with Mr. Bates, unless it got in the newspaper. So when Oscar would go on one of these binges, one of us (Johnson, Duke, Parker or I) had to ride herd on him. That meant that as soon as he got to where he couldn't drive his car safely (he couldn't afford to have an accident), we would have to drive for him. We would have to go to wherever he went, because he became belligerent and wanted to fight, and we had to keep him out of fights. After I had been there for a little while, it became my turn to ride herd on Oscar.

The other boys told me "Now when he's gotten to where he's just about out of hand and you don't know what else to do, he'll want to go to Greeno's." Well, OK, give me the address. So they gave me the address, somewhere on Church Street in Mobile. It wasn't very far off of Government. As I had been there in Mobile as a child I had seen those beautiful homes on Government and off of Government a little ways and I had often wondered what it would be like to go into one of those places. So, when it looked like Oscar had gotten around to the point (about midnight) where he had to go somewhere where they would take care of him, I got the address out and drove him to this place. Lo and behold it was one of those big, old, antebellum homes. It was in sort of a seedy neighborhood, but that house was in good repair and it looked very nice. So we went up to the door and knocked on the door, and a lady of color opened the door. She said "Oh yes, Mr. Barney. Ms. Edna is expecting you, come right in." So we went in. I was amazed at the inside of this home. The living room was a third as big as this one, the ceiling was tall, and a staircase went up one side then went across and turned and went up the other way. It was a staircase wide enough for three people to walk abreast. Everything was fine, but there were a good many young ladies sitting around in this place, and it was about this time that I began to remember that this was the first house I had ever been in where the front porch light was red! Well, I met Edna Greeno. She and Mr. Barney disappeared upstairs, and I was left down stairs. There were a number of young ladies down there as well as some other people. It wasn't too long before this lady of color came and said "You gentlemen will have to go back to the breakfast room." I said "Why, what's the trouble?" She said "You have to go back there, we're expecting the judge!"

Well, one of these young ladies- oh, and by the way, at this point I should tell you that I would not want you to expect that I was actually involved commercially with these people, and as a matter of fact, I would go to considerable pains to persuade you that I was not. About the best way I can think to do it is to remind you that I was known at that time as "Chicken Keeton." One of these young ladies had never learned to dance. She had other qualifications and attributes, but she had never learned to dance, and she desperately wanted to learn to dance. They had a juke box in this lobby (living room). Between her engagements, if I was there, and I was a good bit of the time, I would teach her to learn to dance. She had to put 50 cents in the juke box. That's the only place I ever saw in my life that required that much money in a juke box. Of course it couldn't be my money, I didn't have it. That's almost the end of that story, but...

Maybe some of you have heard about North American Aviation. North American Aviation, at that time, owned Eastern Airlines. Eastern Airlines, as well as going between Florida and New York, also had a run from New York to New Orleans. They had a run from Brownsville TX to Mexico City, but the segment between New Orleans and Brownsville was being operated by Wedell-Williams Airlines. That was composed of Jimmy Wedell, who was a famous race pilot, and Harry Williams, who was a cypress lumberman. Jimmy Wedell had been killed in a training accident, but under Harry Williams the operation continued. Eastern Airlines desperately wanted to purchase that segment from Harry Williams. Boots <I think he means to say "Dutch"> Kindleberger, (who was president of North American Aviation), Harry Williams, and Eddie Rickenbacker (who was president of Eastern Airlines) were to meet in Mobile to discuss a merger.

Oscar Barney told me that Parker and I would have to vacate our room so that Kindleberger and Rickenbacker could occupy it. Harry Williams was going to the Battle House in Mobile. So they came in, but they changed all that. They decided they would all go to the Battle House, so I didn't have to vacate, but the end of that conference was that all four of them got into a fist fight at the hotel. Before midnight, the several parties had gotten in their airplanes in a huff and taken off in their several directions.

The next thing that I needed to get and had to get was a transport license. I still needed to build up time, and so one of the ways of doing it was to barnstorm. The barnstorming towel had just about been wrung dry at that time. It was hard to find a place where people weren't already finished with it and who would pay to ride. You had to do something to attract them to come to where you were putting on your flying activity. One way of doing it was to perform aerobatics. I had a training plane which was fairly well qualified to do that, and since I wasn't carrying anyone for hire with my limited license, I could do aerobatics. We called it "stunting" at that time- they developed the name "aerobatics" later. But I would do that and try to get people to come, then my partner Parker would carry them up if they would go. You had to get a crowd of people, and the best way to do it was to get where there was already a crowd gathered. I made an arrangement with a carnival operator who was operating in this territory. I would do aerobatics over his carnival and he would sell tickets to fly in my airplane. This carnival operator was a pretty canny sort of a fellow, and he knew that he had to go where the money was. The only money that was available in this part of the country at that time was when the people were harvesting the potato crop. They didn't have a multiple crop situation here then- it was just maybe two crops, but not three like they have now. So the potato crop ripened first further south, and also further east. It started ripening in northwest Florida, then progressively moved west and north until it got up into mid Alabama. They still had at that time the transient workers, and they came in to pick the crop. Most of them didn't hold onto their money very long. The carnival operator and we would follow that potato crop from week to week, weekend to weekend, and get there to reap the benefits of it. We started at De Funiak Springs, and in Fort Walton Beach, we barnstormed right off of the beach. And Florala-by the way, there was an incident at Florala that almost did me in. It was about as close as I ever came to "buying the farm" as they say.

There was a WPA airport. You know what a WPA airport was: back in Roosevelt's time they decided that there should be a small airplane in every garage, just like there was a small car in every garage, and they would build these little airports all over the country. The Works Progress Administration would furnish the labor, to give people jobs. As soon as an airport would be completed (it was nothing but a smoothed over field with a fence around it and some markings) there would have to be a dedication. A dedication always produced a crowd- the chamber of commerce would promote it and help get it out, and we would go there and barnstorm. One of the things that we did to attract attention was to ask the Men on the Flying Trapeze (that was the Army Air Corps equivalent to the Blue Angels that you saw performing tonight) to come and provide an aerobatic exhibition. It was a first-class exhibition! The people involved were Major Claire Chennault (there's a name that I drop that you certainly ought to remember- he became General Chennault in World War Two in the Asia Theater), Williamson, Hansell, and McDonald. These were the performers. They enjoyed going out and helping us to dedicate these airports, because there always was a big party that night, and they were great party people. They would come at the drop of a hat and help us to dedicate these airports.

Oh yes, this incident that I was almost about to tell you about- we were at Florala and there was a big Masonry convention, Masonic Order of some kind, and people came from all around. I think maybe they were Shriners- they spent their money like Shriners. We stayed there for the whole weekend, and all the time that we were there, there was one man- he wore overalls, and was a pretty seedy looking character. He was leaned up against the fence, and I asked him repeatedly if he wanted to take an airplane ride. His answer always was "If the Lord had wanted me to fly, He'd have given me wings." I always responded "If He'd wanted you to roll, He'd have given you wheels." But nevertheless he resisted my approach for quite a time. Finally on the last day, it was nearly dusk and we'd dug holes to drop our wheels in to tie the airplane down at night, and he came out and said he would like a ride now. Well, I said "I'm sorry, but it takes two, or at least it takes the price of two." He said "what makes you think that I haven't got the price of two?" I said "if you've got it, let's go." So he got in the airplane, and I reached around and was fastening his seatbelt for him. I noticed that he had an envelope in his hand, but I didn't pay any attention to it. So my airplane was this one- it had a cabin, and to ventilate it, you would pull the window back just a little bit. But it made very much of a whirlpool of ventilating air inside. It was summertime, and hot, and we were using the ventilation. So I got him in, and I was in a hurry to go, because it was getting dark. I put the power to it and started down the field and just about broke ground, then I couldn't see, I couldn't breathe, I was coughing, and I just didn't know what was going on. I grabbed the window, pulled it open, and stuck my head completely out. I turned my eyelids all the way reversed, but nevertheless was able to see enough to continue the takeoff and finally to get back and land the airplane. I guess you have guessed what happened- he had decided that his nerves needed a little stabilizing, and he had taken himself a dip of snuff. At least he started to take a dip of snuff, but the snuff got loose in the wind, and it almost did me in. I do believe that that may have been the closest that I ever came.

As I have mentioned, it was pretty tough going, and the most competition that I ever had was from (and you wouldn't believe it) Ford Tri-motors. A Ford Tri-motor could land and take off in a shorter distance than I could, or almost any other airplane could. The whole idea was to get into a community that had not had a place that was sufficiently flat, long, and unobstructed for an airplane to get there before. But everywhere I went, they didn't want a ride because the Ford had been there. So my friend Al Key, having cracked up his Fairchild FC2, had some parts left over. His propeller wasn't damaged, and neither were the wheels. It was a considerably larger plane than mine. It had a larger engine, larger propeller, larger wheels, and larger tires. Al said I could put his propeller on my engine, which was smaller than his had been, and flatten it out (flatten the pitch out) so that it would turn up (revolve) the same speed as mine. It would be just like it was in low gear at all times, and would take off in a very short distance. Also, if I would put these big wheels and big tires on there and let part of the air out, it would have a big footprint and wouldn't sink down in the sand or in the plowed fields and would be able to take off. Well, we did that, and thereafter not even the Tri-motored Ford could operate in a shorter airport than we could. We figured we needed only about 500 feet between fences if we didn't have an adverse wind and if it wasn't too boggy.

We went to Samson, Alabama and that was the most unlikely place to barnstorm that you can imagine. I was the one who scouted out the place, and I found the field and landed in it, taxied up to the fence, and here comes a car from town. It was a very little town, no bigger than Magnolia Springs I think. The car was coming at a great rate of speed, with lots of dust. The guy comes up and puts on his brakes, and slides to a stop. It turns out he is the rich man's son- the town's sport. He was the one that had the automobile and the money, and I needed to go to town to arrange for somebody to agree to pay for the gasoline and the hotel in which to sleep, and a restaurant in which to eat. All of this I hoped to get by printing these advertisements on these hand flyers, such as Paula has had made for the flea market recently. We would fly back after we got those, over the town, and drop them off. It littered up the whole countryside, but nobody objected to litter in those days. The idea of course was to get everything paid for that we could. So we did that, but this guy nearly scared me to death going into town. I guess he figured that somebody who was flying an airplane 100 miles per hour would feel let down if he had to go into town in anything accept as fast as the car would go. So I arranged to barnstorm there, and I got a place to stay, a hotel and board, for one dollar per day. No sooner had we gotten all of these arrangements made, then it began to rain. And it rained for the entire weekend, and we didn't get to make a single flight. We just sat in the airplane and listened to the drip. We thought we might try for the next weekend. We had nothing better to do, so we stayed over, at a pretty good rate of hotel and food. We had a pretty nice mid-week but nobody wanted to fly then, and then the next weekend it rained some more. By that time we had (there were three of us- myself, my partner, and a young fellow who was selling tickets for us) run up so much bill at the hotel that we couldn't afford to leave. We couldn't pay the bill! So we had to stay for the third week. But at the end of that weekend the weather cleared up, everybody had gotten to know us by then, and we've never had such a successful barnstorming experience, any place ever, as right there. But I had gone hungry for several days and the hotel people had decided that we could stay but we couldn't eat. So it was several days that we'd had practically nothing to eat. All the time I was flying, and thinking about how nice it would be when we got through flying and could eat again. Whereas we had just been eating the regular hotel fare, which was very good and very plentiful, I wanted to have something special, so I was dreaming of a steak. Well finally it got so dark that we couldn't fly, and we went in and got to a restaurant (not the hotel) and I ordered a steak. And you know, I couldn't eat all of the steak! I had shrunk!

One of the things we did to make things go was to trade. Helen Henderson's husband, Andy Henderson, was the Department of Commerce Flight Examiner/Medical Examiner. He liked to fly too, and I would persuade a student to learn to fly, and he had to have a physical examination which cost $10. I would collect the $10, then I would sell Andy $10 worth of airplane time. We had a man who ran a laundry and dry cleaning place, and he liked to fly, so we got our laundry and dry cleaning done there and he took it out in flying time. We took care of our automobile maintenance that way- we also had a service station operator, Buck Lennon, who provided gas and oil and we taught him to fly. By that time I had become a little knowledgeable about the way things were, and Edna's young ladies, sometimes when they finished their day's work (which was usually 2-3 o'clock in the morning) would come out for an airplane ride. But there was no trading there- they paid cash.

We went over to Picayune MS to barnstorm, and we had done all of the advertising and arranged for the field and everything. No sooner than we had landed there than in comes a young fellow in a Waco F. The Waco F was one of the most appealing looking airplanes ever. This young fellow invited himself to enjoy our hospitality and to participate in the trade. So he was taking up passengers, and we were taking them up. We had no exclusive, so we had no way of keeping him from doing it, so that was the best we could do, just tolerate it. I was up on one of my flights and coming around about to land and I noticed there was a terrible lot of dust around on the airport. It looked like a dust devil down there. But as I looked I could see that there was an airplane around in the middle of this dust. So I landed away from it a little bit, and when I taxied up, it was still producing this great cloud of dust. I stopped, and I could see then what had happened. Or at least I was told what had happened, I could see what was going on. The young man had put a young lady in his airplane, and the engine had not been running, so he fastened her in, then set the throttle to the proper place. There was a throttle in the forward cockpit where she was, and a throttle in the rear cockpit where he was going to be. He went around to the front to start the engine, which meant that you grabbed it by the propeller like this and gave it a big whirl, and it started, most of the time. So he did this, but the young lady got a little excited and some way or other she managed to accidentally push the throttle a little forward. As she did, the engine started with a little power and it started to move. He tried to get from in front around to his cockpit, but he didn't quite make it. He got as far as the outer strut of the wing, and then he grabbed ahold of that. The airplane was still moving, so he dug his heels in to try to hold it. He couldn't hold it, but he could make it turn. So it was turning round, and around, and around. The crowd of people, not really knowing what was going on exactly, made a big circle around it. They wanted to see what was going on. He had many many motives not to turn loose. As soon as I could, I got my airplane stopped and jumped out, and ran over there, but then it was a problem to go in to do something without complicating the thing or making it worse, or getting in danger myself. So I finally made enough of a run to get where he was, then I was able to take his place and dig my heels in, and he was able to work his way in to his cockpit and his throttle, and get it stopped. That also resulted in no serious damage.

At Brewton Alabama (I'm going pretty fast with these incidents) we had made all of the arrangements there, and all of a sudden in comes a fellow with a Stinson airplane, which is a much better airplane than I had; much more appealing to the passengers. He had his own ticket seller, and he was out really mopping up and we were principally just sitting there. That went on for several hours, and then all of a sudden I saw his ticket seller come running to him, got the passengers out. The ticket seller jumped in, and away they went. About that same time the sheriff showed up in his car. The airplane had been stolen! He had no overhead at all!

This Fairchild 22, the trainer, was one that you could pick up the tail and throw it over your shoulder, and walk away with it. One day in Mobile airport, the day was about done and I decided that it was time to put it away. Always around airports and operations like that there are young boys, usually high school age, who are just taken with aviation- they just eat it up. They'll do anything to stay around the airport. They want to be helpful. This young fellow went with me- I didn't say anything to him, I just started toward the airplane. He decided that my propeller, being in the vertical position, was going to drag the ground when I picked the tail up. Well it wasn't, it never did, and I knew it wasn't, but I didn't know that he was going to do anything about it. The first thing I knew I was still walking toward the airplane, and I heard the engine start. He had gone around, taken the propeller, and turned it like this. It had what was called an impulse mag, and it started. The throttle was wide open, and we never knew exactly why it had started, because it had been stopped by letting the engine run dry of gas. Anyway, the airplane started very fast. I made a dive for the cockpit to get the throttle. I just barely got my fingers over the edge of the cockpit, but the next thing I knew the horizontal stabilizer knocked me down. I was flat on the ground- I looked up like this in time to see my airplane go straight into the exterior chimney of the airport manager Oscar Barney's home. Bricks fell all around, the airplane of course came to an immediate halt, and I went up to it and I could see my future lying there on the ground. Mrs. Barney at that moment comes out of the door of her house holding fragments of two vases, crying. Here's my whole future lying there on the ground, and she's crying about the vases having been broken!

We had to get that airplane fixed- we were out of business if we didn't. So I decided that the best place to go was to Wedell-Williams's shops in Patterson LA. So I called them, and they sent a truck over and got the airplane and took it over there. We were pretty much hard up not having a training airplane, and time went on, and they weren't reporting any progress, and I was worried about it. About that time, an airplane called a Curtiss Condor showed up at Mobile Airport. It was a big airplane, and it appeared that the pilot was lost. He didn't know where he was, or hadn't known where he was until he had gotten to Mobile. He was trying to get to Patterson LA also. It turned out that even in those days we were furnishing military hardware to other countries. There were four of these Curtiss Condors and they had a commission at Wedell-Williams to convert them into bombers. I agreed (they didn't have to argue much) to navigate them to Patterson. So I went with them to Patterson with a stop in New Orleans. You talk about airline pilots in those days having money- these military pilots that were going to Patterson to have these Condors converted into bombers for the Bolivian/Paraguayan war really knew how to spend money. We stayed at the Monteleone Hotel that night, and I've never seen any such thing as that.

But anyway, we finally got to Patterson the next day, and that was the reason that my airplane was not being worked upon. Williams decided that until he got that bomber contract out of the way, he wasn't going to work on anything else. Fortunately by that time I had acquired this mechanic's license, and so he put me to work (he was short of mechanics) and I worked as a mechanic. I lived in a Cajun home- that was an education in itself. Harry Williams had married a person named Marguerite Clark. If I had said Mary Pickford all of you would have known who I was talking about, but at that time, Marguerite Clark was just about as well known as Mary Pickford is as a movie actress. She was very fond of the young pilots working for Wedell-Williams and would lend them her car. She loaned some of them her car one night and I went with them. We went up to a little town called Jeanerette, and we noticed that they were having a dance at the Knights of Columbus hall, a place about as big as this room. So, with four of us in the car, we decided we would go in there and do some dancing. When we got in we saw that they had a little orchestra, and they had chairs all along the side. There would be a young lady in a chair, then next a mature lady, then a young lady and a mature lady. Finally we started asking these young ladies to dance, and invariably the answer was "I don't believe we've met." Finally one of these guys decided that he knew the answer, so he went up to one of these young ladies with another one of our fellows. He had never seen her before, and he said "I'd like to introduce Mr. Jones." The introduction was acknowledged and Mr. Jones said "Can I have this dance?" She turned to her duenna or whatever and she nodded, and they danced. Thereafter we danced all evening.

We wrecked one of our J2 Cubs up at Malbis Plantation. That was because we had a commission to take aerial pictures up there. I was the photographer, and I had asked one of my students if he would like to fly the airplane- that was Billy Johnson. That way we could combine things. I could collect for his flying the airplane, I'd take the picture, and we would come out ahead. When we got up there, (this is Malbis Plantation, right up here) we found that they were burning trash, and the smoke would have ruined the picture. We landed in an oat stubble field. I walked over and asked them to put the fire out, and they said that they would. We went back to take off, and I was sure that we were going to clear the little telephone wire at the end of the field, but at the last moment my student decided that we weren't, and he attempted to duck under it. He hit a little oak tree about that big right at the tip of the wing, and the airplane turned 90 degrees. I distinctly remember seeing the rib break at every rib as it turned up like that. We were left sitting on the ground with airplane parts all around. Neither one of us was hurt, but we didn't get the pictures.

I was coming back from Bay Minette to the airport one morning, and went out over Mobile Bay. The ceiling began to get lower and lower, and finally it got to where I could not safely proceed, so I made a turn to start back to Bay Minette. Lo and behold it was still lower behind me- it was closing down all over. So as we passed over the causeway I decided I had to land right there. At that time the causeway was not double like it is now, but single. It had cane on both sides. Anyway I found an area where there was not any traffic but one truck just ahead of me. I went right over that truck and ducked down, got my wheels on the ground, but the wings were in the cane. Every time I slowed down, the airplane would tend to turn into the cane, one way or the other. I'd have to add more power in order to keep out of the cane. Finally I decided that I was going to run into the traffic up ahead, so I just cut the switch and let it go. It turned 90 degrees and picked up a whole bail of cane in the propeller, but it finally stopped. I stayed there until the fog lifted, and then two policemen came along <Tape Cuts Out> of our students, and he had soloed. He was one day practicing landings at the airport, and Eastern Airlines had one flight a day at that time in a Lockheed Electra. That was the old Lockheed Electra with two engines, and carried 10 passengers. It had a crew of two. They were due in, and they had radio contact with the personnel at the airport. My Cub of course had no radio contact. The Cub was obligated to land into the prevailing wind at the time, and the airliner, since it had radio contact, was empowered by the rules to make a crosswind landing if it did not conflict with other traffic. So the airliner was told of the Cub's practicing its approaches and where it was, and they said yes they had it in view. They continued on their approach to make a crosswind landing, which would enable them to taxi a shorter distance and get to the terminal quicker. Well it turned out that the two aircraft were on converging paths and the Eastern airliner had to pull up and make another approach, but in the process of pulling up he flew directly over the Cub. The Cub was just about to flare out for its landing, with its rather inexperienced Doctor at the controls (Dr. Dowling). When the Lockheed elected to go around, they put their propellers in low pitch which caused a terrific noise. Dr. Dowling was startled and looked straight up, pulling the stick back, causing the Cub to stall out and fall several feet into the airport. Luckily it fell straight ahead, but Dr. Dowling was left sitting practically on the ground and the wheels of the Cub were just flattened right straight out, one on each side, with quite a bit of rupture in the structure of the Cub. Well, we felt like Eastern Airlines was definitely at fault in this and was responsible to help us to defray the expenses of repairing the Cub. But since I had my great ambition to become an airline pilot and I had an application in with Eastern Airlines, I didn't want to do anything that might prejudice my chances of getting on. So we bore the expense, however difficult it was, and did not make any complaint about it.

By the way, I should have mentioned sometime before that all of these incidents I am recording were in the era of pre-Ida. And also I failed to mention that in the following of the potato crop the carnival operator and we were accompanied by some other people. I remember well there was a Baptist evangelist and several prostitutes. By the way, this wreck of the Cub did not cause me to inform United Airlines on that incident. That might have reflected badly on me.

The four or five of us that operated my business and the airport at Mobile had a pretty good working arrangement. We did everything together pretty much. We helped each other out, but the working of a radio at that time was quite a specialized operation. It was long before CB came in, and I had never done any of the radio work. But on one occasion, Mr. Barney was away for some reason, and Billy Johnson was on vacation. Herbert Duke was supposed to work the trip through Mobile, and that consisted of receiving the departure message from New Orleans after the trip had departed New Orleans, to take care of any passengers that were boarding, to take care of any passengers that were deplaning at Mobile, to refuel the aircraft, and after it took off, to send the dispatch message on up the way it was going. For some reason or another, Mr. Duke imbibed too much in alcohol and we discovered (Parker and I) that at the time that the dispatch message was being sent, there was nobody receiving it at Mobile. New Orleans was getting disturbed about it. He was repeating it time and again with still no answer, but we could hear the message coming in. So we got Duke out of his bed, propelled him to the shower bath, and proceeded to give him a cold shower, clothes and all. We got ourselves pretty wet in the process, but we got Duke sufficiently alert to go the radio room and tune in the frequency or at least get close enough so that we could hear it and fine tune it ourselves. Then we pretended that reception was pretty bad but if they would repeat the message several times we would copy it, which we did. The flight finally came in and landed, and we had still not been able to get Duke to where he could function. So the only thing to do was to let the Captain and the Co-Pilot in on the situation, and see what could be done. Fortunately there were no passengers arriving and no passengers departing, so it was really just a matter of doing the paperwork with regard to fueling the aircraft, actually fueling it, sending it on its way, and sending the dispatch message. We conquered that by refueling it, and then the Captain worked out the departure message and left it with us. As soon as he took off, why we got on the radio and sent the departure message. We figured that these two things had put us in Eastern's debt, and so we made use of that later on.

About this time we had a commission from Johny Grisa, who was the manager of the Alabama Dry Docks and Shipbuilding Company, to take some aerial photographs of his dry docks. The pictures had to be taken at the time when the maximum number of ships would be in the facility. So Mr. Grisa informed us several weeks ahead that at a certain date between the hours of two and four in the afternoon, the dry docks would be absolutely loaded with ships. He wanted these pictures for publicity purposes, and so again I arranged to have one of my students (Billy Johnson) to fly the Cub and I was to take the pictures. But fate was against us again, and just at the time when we should have been taking the pictures, a little thunderstorm established itself directly over the dry docks and we just circled around and around. It looked as if we were never going to be able to get in to take the pictures. But finally, before we ran out of fuel, the clouds moved off and we were able to get in and shoot 18 frames of pictures. Unfortunately, by that time, one of the ships that had been in one of the slips had moved out into the river. It was nearby, but not in position in the river, but we took the pictures anyway. We had them developed and enlarged, and I went to Mr. Grisa's office to show him the pictures. This was a big opportunity for us, and had he found them satisfactory, we would have come out quite well on the money part of it. We showed him the pictures, and he said "well that's no good, there's one of the ships that looks like it's just passing in the river. Nobody would assume that it's one that would have come out of our dry docks." So it looked as though the picture taking venture had failed. However, we had our pictures processed by a commercial photographer in Mobile, and when we told him about it, he said "Well, it looks as though we have nothing to lose here, and we might just pull this one out of the hole. I know a young lady who is very good with an airbrush. Let's just cut that ship out and paste it back in the slip where it came from, then have her fill in all the gaps, and maybe we can make it look as if it were still there." So, we had nothing to lose, and we did this. So I had the finished picture again, and this time we framed it and made it look real pretty. I took it back to Mr. Grisa and showed it to him. I was holding it up, he looking from his desk at the picture, and he said "Now, that's more like it. Why didn't you show me that one the first time?" I very truthfully said "I didn't know we had it the first time." Just about that time he said "Hey, wait a minute, hold that up again." I held it up again, and he said "You know, in the picture the sign for the Alabama Dry Docks and Shipbuilding Company doesn't look very good. I don't think that people could read it, and that's the whole idea of the thing." The commercial photographer was there, and he said "what we'll do is just paint you an entirely new sign, so that it will show up like everything." He said "Well that will be a good idea, let's do that." So, he took it back and brightened up the sign. I took it back to him for the third time. Again, he looked, and this time he was very pleased. There was the sign, just as bright as could be, then he looked very startled. He said what in the world have you done? Shipbuilding is one word, and you've got it hyphenated!" Well, I was very depressed at that, because I could see that he was about to reject the contract. But I was standing in such a way that I could look over his shoulder out the window, and I could see the actual sign on the buildings. I said Mr. Grisa, turn around and look at that sign. He turned around and looked at it, and he said "That God-damned sign painter! That hyphen has been in there for five years and I never did notice it. He bought the pictures, and it was a big contract, and it helped us quite a lot.

It was just about 1934 or 1935 that I went to Meridian to my old pals that had taught me to fly, and I flew my Robin as the refueling plane for their two unsuccessful and one successful endurance flights. That flight record still stands. I won't go into that tonight. As I had made the mention before, getting military credentials still seemed to be the thing I needed to become an airline pilot or get consideration from them. I had taken these extension courses and finished them, and at about this time I received communication from the Air Corps that if I were to report to Maxwell Field on a certain date, I would be given the equivalent examination, and if I passed it I would then have a Second Lieutenant's reserve commission in the Army Air Corps. The regular Air Corps was responsible for giving these examinations, and any successful applicants would then be able to requisition aircraft from the Air Corps Stations, and fly them on weekends and other times, sort of like our Air National Guard does now. The regular Air Corps people did not want to have us interfering and giving them trouble, so they had decided (we did not know this) that no one should pass this examination. But 25 of us appeared for it, and we were divided into groups. Each group in succession took a psychological examination, a physical examination, a technical written examination, and a flight examination. We didn't take these in that same order necessarily, they just routed each group around as it fit their program. I took the psychological examination and didn't have to seem any trouble with that. The technical examination was given to us all at once in a classroom, and that was a real struggle for me. I had just not been able to understand most of the terminology. Some of the people took look at it and just threw up their hands in despair and walked out and gave up. Some very few real hot shots went through it right quickly and left. After a while it was just me and the monitor left. Apparently this lieutenant who was monitoring didn't want to spend all day there, but I was determined that I was going to stay with it until I had done everything that I could. He finally said "Mr. Keeton, are you having troubles?" I said "I certainly am, I'm having big troubles." He said "What is your main trouble?" I said "I don't think I understand the terminology." He said "Maybe I can help you with that." So he came over and I asked him what this meant, and what that meant. He told me, and I was able to answer a few more of the questions just by understanding them. He could see that I was still a long way from finishing and also a long way from giving up. I believe that you could say he did a little bit more than help me with the terminology. Anyway, I finally felt like I had done everything I could and I turned the paper in. Astonishingly, I passed that test. The flight part of the examination was in two parts. First, I was given an opportunity to practice for the examination in a Curtiss Wright PT3. There was a Colonel who went with me to give me the practice. So we practiced for a couple of hours one day, and then I was to take the examination the next, presumably in another one of the PT3s. When we came out to take the examination, the PT3s were all either in use or in for maintenance, and the only thing they said they had was a Keystone B6 Bomber.

That was the largest airplane that I had ever seen. It had wheels that were about shoulder high to me. I was told that they were so high because there were lots of forced landings in those days, and the wheels were big enough that they would roll a fence down rather than become entangled in it and trip the aircraft up. I'm not sure if that's true or not, but they were big enough to do it anyway. But the man said that an airplane was an airplane, and told me to get in it. We climbed up this ladder to get into the cockpit. It was a two-person cockpit. There were two big engines. Even one was bigger than anything I had operated before. We went through the test maneuvers, and one of those was what's called a dead stick landing. The instructor pulls the throttle back to idle position and the student must find a suitable place in which to land, and make an approach to that place. When that happened in this case, I couldn't see any place that was remotely within range, but I had to make a stab at it anyway, and I saw a little field that was way out of range, almost out of sight, so I aimed for it. I didn't realize how far this B6 Bomber would glide, but it just flew and flew and flew, and then as we got right up to the edge of the field, much to my surprise, we were still flying but barely. The fence was right in the way, and I could see myself proving whether these wheels would roll this fence down. But I pulled the stick back just a little bit, and the airplane just leaped up over the fence, and immediately landed on the other side. We took off again and went on back- that was the end of the flight test. I followed this Colonel in to his boss while he made a report on my operation. I overheard him say that he was pretty sloppy on all of the maneuvers, apparently because he hadn't ever flown an aircraft as big as this one. But he said, "You know, I never have seen, in all of my experience, a better approach on dead stick than that one. It just was perfect."

Somebody got to counting up and discovered that I had passed everything except the physical examination, which I hadn't taken yet. So of course they assigned me to take that, and they arranged that I should fail it. I was told that I did not pass the Snyder examination and I couldn't see well enough. Matter of fact, they put it that I couldn't see well enough to qualify as an observer. In this situation I had come to Maxwell Field and arranged to stay at the home of Major Chennault. That was mainly because I didn't have the money to stay elsewhere, and since he was a good friend, he seemed to be glad to have me. So when I was told that I had flunked, I decided to go on back and get my things and depart. But Major Chennault wasn't at home. His wife said he was out on the golf course, so I went out on the golf course to find him and thank him for his hospitality. He asked me how I had come out, and I told him, and he said that was too bad. I went back to Mobile, and took up my activities there. Having been away for several days, I got a little busy. A few days later I got a letter from the president of the examining board, and the letter said that due to a technicality it appeared that I might yet qualify for a reserve commission, and if I would return to Maxwell Field at my convenience, they would arrange for a reexamination. Well this seemed highly unlikely to me, since I had failed the Snyder, which was a test of the pulmonary and respiratory systems, and I couldn't see well enough. But since I was busy I stayed there for a few days. Then I got a telegram, and I remember the wording of the telegram exactly <Tape cuts out>

This story by the way, illustrates the importance of skill and how influence really doesn't play much of a part in one's progress.

You remember the Doctor who was flying my Cub in the Eastern Airlines incident. I might say for interest that Dr. Dowling was the house doctor at Edna Greeno's at that time. I never knew whether or not he had some what of trading out his fees or not- he never did say. Shortly after I informed United Airlines of my successfully completing the procedure for becoming, and becoming, a reserve officer in the Air Corps, I had a communication from them to the effect that if I could come to Chicago, I would be given an interview. So I packed up my duds in my Fairchild 22 and I flew to Chicago, and I was interviewed by Mr. E.P. Lott, who was superintendent of flying at the time. He seemed favorably impressed with me, and he decided that he would give me a chance at the job. It seems that they had temporary openings. It was November, or October maybe and the airline was customarily laying off pilots at the beginning of the winter, and they would hire in the spring. But something had happened and he had an unexpected need for pilots. He said that if I passed his flight examination, I would be given temporary employment. The chief pilot at the time, Walt Adams, took me on a little flight around the field in a Boeing 247D, which was the aircraft United was flying at that time. Although I did not feel very much at home in this aircraft, he still decided that I was worthy of a try and reported to Lott that I had passed his test. About this time I had begun to feel a little at home talking to these people, so when they had told me that if I would go back to Mobile and sort of straighten up my affairs there, and then come back I would be put on as a co-pilot. They didn't call us co-pilots then, they called us mates. It was the captain and the mate, a holdover from nautical terms. And so I was emboldened to ask Mr. Lott why he had decided to give me this opportunity. When I did he looked for a moment, sort of startled, and then he pulled open a file drawer in his desk, and he said "Keeton, you see this drawer? I've got 300 applicants for pilot employment on file in there, and every one of them is better qualified than you are, but I just wanted to see if anybody who was poorly qualified as you, and as determined as you, could make a go of it. So it's up to you."

Well, that was good news to me, and I went back to Mobile and arranged to have my business continue because temporary employment was something you couldn't count on, and I wanted to have something to come back to. So at the end of the two weeks, I had arranged for my partner to continue the business together with my sister who was working for us. Then the problem was to get back to Chicago, and I was really desperately in need of funds, but I felt like Eastern Airlines really owed me something. So being very familiar (and Eastern Airlines, by the way, flew from Mobile, with several stops, to Chicago) and knowing the procedure very well, I picked the day that I could tell that there were plenty of seats available by the radio messages that I overheard, and when the aircraft came through Mobile, I stationed myself behind an azalea bush that was right near where it came to rest for servicing, and when the personnel went out front to waive the pilot off, I opened the back door and put my suitcase in and stepped in, and took a seat in the last seat. Then I reclined the seat as far as it would go and put a newspaper over my head as if asleep. Well, shortly after takeoff I could see down under the edge of the newspaper that the captain had to come back and was standing in the aisle. There were no stewardesses, by the way, in those days. He stood there for ever so long, and I couldn't tell what he was thinking. I couldn't see his face, but I knew he was giving the matter some serious thought. But it happened that he was the captain of the flight that had come through Mobile the day that we had had to service it while the regular ground crews were not available, and finally his feet turned and went away. Well, at the first stop, which was Montgomery, I got off with the other passengers, and as soon as I saw something to get behind, I stepped out of the line of people and out of view, and waited. When they came back on board I just got in line while the attendants there weren't looking, and got back in my seat. I'm not sure whether the captain helped me out here with any sort of conspiracy or not, but anyway, there were two other stops and in each case I was able to successfully pursue the same procedure. We got to Chicago finally, and I got off with the passengers, but I didn't know what to do then. I'd made no arrangements for a place to stay. About that time, the crew surprised me and said "Hey, Keeton, what are you doing up here?" As if they didn't already know that I had come up with them. I said that I had come up to be employed as a mate for United Airlines. They said "Where are you going?" I said "I don't know, I haven't made any arrangements for a place to stay." They said "Well Eastern has a contract with United, and we lay over in the United Pilot's Quarters, here on the airport. There are always plenty of bunks in there, why don't you come on and stay with us. They'll never know the difference." I went with them and spent my first night as an unknown guest of United Airlines in their Pilot's Quarters. My temporary employment lasted for just under 34 years, and there's a lot that could be said about that, but we won't say it tonight. I would like to say that I've talked too long, and we can't have any questions, but one question that might be asked, I will answer anyway- that is, that I do not know the address of Edna Greeno's place, and I'm not real sure that it's still (end recording).
Copyright © 2010 - Jared Yates - Web Design