90 Years of Flying the Line

By Christopher Freeze, Senior Aviation Technical Writer

This year marks the 90th anniversary of ALPA’s founding, when 24 “Key Men” pledged themselves to a higher purpose, bettering the working conditions and compensation of their fellow airline pilots.

Air Line Pilot is highlighting chapters from Flying the Line, the Association’s unofficial history written by George Hopkins, that chronicle ALPA’s founding and the early days of airline flying. Why? To remind or inform members/readers that hard-earned gains in safety didn’t happen by accident, that the “safest place on the earth” isn’t an empty motto, and that ALPA has paved the way for 90 years to advance the airline piloting profession to where it is today.

The following is excerpted from the book’s 11th chapter titled “Wartime.”

In July 1941, Eastern Airlines became the last major domestic airline to sign an employment agreement. Only National, among domestic airlines, lacked a contract. Panagra and Pan Am presented special negotiating problems because of their unique status under federal law, but in October 1941, Panagra signed. Pan Am would not sign a contract until June 1945, and its 1,000 pilots lagged nearly five years behind their domestic contemporaries.

And then came Dec. 7, 1941—the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

For Dave Behncke, ALPA’s president, the first few months of the U.S. involvement in World War II held bitter personal disappointment. He was so ready for the call to active duty that he had prepared himself for it by requalifying as an Army pilot in the Reserves. The new Air Transport Command (ATC) was going to war, with desk-bound executives like C. R. Smith of American Airlines, who had no previous military experience, claiming high rank and important positions. During the first few weeks of the war, Behncke anxiously awaited his call to serve, expecting a job commensurate with his civilian experience: a colonelcy and personnel duties billet in the ATC.

However, when his orders to active duty finally came, they were shattering—a measly promotion to captain with orders to a flight instructor’s billet in Texas.

Once more Behncke enlisted the aid of Fiorello LaGuardia, who managed to get the offensive orders canceled. In fighting them, he learned that his old enemies in management had contrived the orders to get him out of the way.

So Behncke embarked upon his great crusade—to protect airline pilots from the use of what he called “war hysteria to tear down our hard-won gains.” The first battle would be over extending the limitation on pilots’ hours from 85 to 100 “for the duration.” Publicly he went along, while privately he did everything he could to sabotage it.

Behncke had to float with the prevailing antilabor tides that were then at flood stage in Washington. Franklin Roosevelt, in order to win the war, had to allow a free hand to Behncke’s old enemies.

Believing that it was the airline executives who were the villains, Behncke resolved to fight a subtle, behind-the-scenes guerrilla war. His object was to protect the pilots working for the ATC in the various companies’ military contract operations from being excessively exploited.

The airline managers who flocked to Washington after Pearl Harbor expected to eliminate the federal 85-hour law entirely, while Behncke was willing to extend the limit to 100, but no farther. The crunch came in 1942 when a committee of airline executives invited Behncke to Washington to confer on an “intercontinental supplement” to cover pilots working overseas for various airlines under contract to it.

Behncke smelled a rat. He began the meeting by warning the assembled executives that they would get nowhere with him talking of sacrifices and weeping “crocodile tears,” because he knew they were making a ton of money on their contract operations. Furthermore, he said that if they tried, he would go public with a campaign to have everyone drafted for the duration of the war—executives, pilots, and whole corporations. They would all draw military pay, Behncke said, with all profits going back to the government or to the families of those killed and wounded.

The meeting was off to a rocky start and got worse.

Next time: Clancy Sayen becomes ALPA’s second president, charging forward to democratize and “reform” the Association.

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