By Capt. Brian Thometz (FedEx)
Air Line Pilot, June/July 2003, p.55
My father, Don Thometz, died recently at the age of 81, after an almost 5-year struggle with cancer. He was a quiet, proud man who never wished to burden anyone. I know that during the course of those years of chemo and radiation therapy he suffered greatly, but he seldom complained. He would simply wander over to my house about 2 weeks after starting a new chemo regimen and say it was time for me to take out my clippers and buzz what was left of his normally thick head of hair.
"I will wear [my father's] pin proudly for 8 more years and then pass it on to the next airline pilot in my family."
My mother had passed away 12 years earlier, leaving my brother, my sister, and me to prepare for the funeral services. As we struggled with our loss, we had many decisions confronting us. He left no instructions regarding his service, so we decided on a Mass at his church. He wanted to be cremated, but we felt it was important for his family and friends to have one last chance at closure so we decided on a viewing before the service. That decided, we had to make a choice about the clothes he would be dressed in for the viewing.
Because he was a pilot—the first in our family and the influence that led his brother, his son-in-law, and me to become pilots—burying him in his uniform seemed appropriate.
My father’s history in aviation spanned the better part of 40 years and covered a myriad of airplanes from the Stearman to the Boeing 747. His type ratings cover three pages of pilot certificates.
He was an Army Air Corps instructor during World War II and a United Airlines DC-3 copilot in United’s early years. He flew nonscheduled cargo operations to Alaska and flights that supported the building of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line in the Arctic in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He finally landed a job as a test pilot for Boeing in the KC-97, B-47, B-52, and KC-135. When production of military air planes slowed down in the mid-1960s, he transferred to Seattle as a senior flight instructor in the B-707, B-720, B-727, B-737, and eventually, the B-747, instructing pilots around the world.
By the time my father retired, he held airman certificates in 23 different countries, including some that are very unpopular these days.
He retired at the age of 60 and spent the next 21 years playing golf and enjoying his hobbies of stamp collecting, boating, fishing, and woodworking. He had experienced the golden age of aviation as few people ever had or ever will again. It was quite a leap from the Stearman to the B-747.
The flight I arranged for him in an AT-6 for his 80th birthday was the first flight that he had taken since he had retired and the last time that he flew an airplane.
When we went looking for his Boeing uniform, the one he wore in a picture on my wall, we were unable to find it. We were ready to concede that we might be placing too much emphasis on his aviation career and not enough on his life as a husband and father and perhaps we should consider a simple suit and tie.
Then I found a small box in his dresser that contained all his wings, pins, and tie tacks. In that box, I found a set of wings from his early days as an Army Air Corp instructor at Ryan Field in Santa Maria, Calif., during World War II; a set that came from the uniform he wore when he flew the B-747 line for Olympic Airlines while its pilots went through training on their new B-747s; his Boeing wings; and another set with an "ATA" insignia. I was looking for the pins I knew he had, the ones I had seen him wear during my life: his Society of Flight Test Pilots pin, his QB pin, and his Boeing 25-year pin.
What I found surprised me. Along with those pins, I found another—an ALPA pin.
The reason I found this so surprising was that in my 52 years of life, 30 years of flying, and many years of union work, he never once talked to me about having been an ALPA member himself. Even after I became a member of the first in-house union at my airline and spoke to him often of my increasing involvement in union work with it and later with ALPA, he never mentioned this.
As I pondered this, we spent some time looking through some of the papers we had found in an old file cabinet in his house. I came across a file that was old, worn, and barely readable but had a familiar name: a file labeled "Alaska—ALPA."
I have a vague memory of a story of my parents’ early days, before I was born, when he flew for United Airlines. In a family history he had sent me 10 years earlier, his chronology mentioned that he left United Airlines in 1948 after 2½ years for what he characterized as "a better job" with a new airline called Mt. McKinley Airways, which flew from Seattle to Alaska. I remember my mother, before her death, speaking of a problem he’d had with a captain regarding his union involvement that led to his leaving. This was sometimes coupled with her comparison of their life with those of friends who had remained at United throughout their careers.
The world was different then, and companies would often use any reason to shed themselves of a person who was involved in an organized labor union on their property. Even worse, an individual pilot who didn’t agree with another pilot’s union politics could affect that pilot’s career. Many of our brave predecessors risked their careers for our future security, and some continue to do so today.
My father never spoke to me of the circumstances of his leaving United and, even with my prodding, refused to place blame or speak of it further. He was of Idaho farm stock and didn’t complain or blame anyone else for his circumstances; he just moved on.
I carefully leafed through the nearly transparent onionskin sheets. I may never be able to verify the story regarding my father’s departure from United Airlines, but I had in my hands evidence of the trail he began blazing immediately upon arriving at his new company.
Mt. McKinley Airways was a small company flying DC-3s to Alaska. As I read the letters, I began to visualize the story of protracted struggles with management at two companies.
His first letter was dated October 1948 to then ALPA President David L. Behncke. Knowing that the few pilots at his current company would be unable to secure representation by the Air Carrier Pilots Association, ALPA’s affiliate then for the pilots of nonscheduled airlines, he offered to set up a council to represent all the Alaskan nonscheduled pilots. Behncke liked the concept and sent the information my father needed to start the process.
The next letter from my father explained that he was no longer with Mt. McKinley Airways, that he had moved on to a new company, Air Transport Associates. He wasted no time, requesting help in a campaign to bring representation to his new company with correspondence that started in early 1949. It was a small company that grew over the 3 years they fought for representation of the 39 pilots flying DC-3s and C-46s. His letters over the next 3 years chronicled the struggle with management for rules regarding safety of flight and scheduling in the early days of airline history. As was so often true at the time, management refused to recognize the Air Carrier Pilots Association as legal representatives for the group until the National Mediation Board forced a vote, which was finally held in May 1952. The vote was in favor of representation by a slim margin, but management continued to contest the vote until the NMB gave its final opinion. That was the last ALPA carrier my father flew for. I suspect that the pin was retired on his last day at that company and never saw the light of day again until I discovered it buried among the rest of his tie tacks.
Four years later, after leaving ATA, my father continued his efforts in this arena. In a letter to the management of his new company, he offered to give up a percentage of his new pay raise to be given to his mechanic as my father continued striving for better working conditions for his co-workers. The offer shamed his company management into giving the mechanic a raise without penalizing my father.
We never found his uniform, so I gave him one of mine. On the breast of the jacket, I placed his Boeing wings. On the lapels, I placed four pins—his QB pin, his Society of Flight Test Pilots pin, his 25-year Boeing pin, and his ALPA pin.
It was a fitting service; I recited High Flight by John Gillespie McGee, Jr. while unsuccessfully holding back tears of pride and sorrow. Family and friends joined in our memorial to his life. Many of the pilots he represented in those early days followed him into jobs and companies and retired before or after him to lives of golf, fishing, boating, grandkids, and such. Many have made their "final flight," but some are still with us. They continue to share stories of the old days and old brethren when gathered in groups of two or more, as we always will. We share a common lineage of proud, courageous men dating back to Orville and Wilbur Wright. I count my father among this group and hope I can measure up the same to my friends, family, and brothers, for this is perhaps one of the few professions where we truly are a "Band of Brothers."
The funeral home returned all the pins after he was cremated. I opened the small velvet bag, emptied the pins into my palm, and studied them. I carefully returned all but one to the bag. I now had the time to study the remaining pin carefully. It was more of an antique gold now than bright gold. Its luster had dimmed over the 50 some years it had remained buried in a velvet-lined box with the other tie tacks and pins, but I knew its meaning would never lose its luster as long as people like my father continued to wear it.
I removed the comparatively new, lustrous ALPA pin from my ID badge and replaced it with this one, now almost 60 years old. As I did this, I took another moment to compare the two pins. Then I noticed that the worlds on the two pins looked different. It was a different world back then. Having heard of the struggles, read the histories, and leafed through my father’s papers, I feel that the worlds on these two pins being different is an appropriate statement. To me it serves as a reminder that the past of our brethren is closely linked to our present and the hopes for the future.
I will wear that pin proudly for 8 more years and then pass it on to the next airline pilot in my family. It won’t be waiting in a box with my other tie tacks for someone to find when I die. I intend to wear it proudly and herald the stories of the courageous men of the past and present like my father who, without thought to their own circumstances, risked their careers and their families’ security to ensure the safety and job security of their fellow airmen, both those they flew with and those of the future.