‘Dave Behncke—An American Success Story’

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, 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 an excerpt from the book’s 10th chapter titled “Dave Behncke—An American Success Story”

His goal was to become an enlisted pilot in the Signal Corps, but the closest Dave Behncke got to an airplane was peeling potatoes, and the most thrilling thing that happened to him was rear-area support duty during General Pershing’s pursuit of Pancho Villa into Mexico in 1916. But because he had established a good reputation as a buck private, Behncke was sent to San Diego for flight instruction and he became a pilot.

Thanks to World War I, the gates of aviation opportunity swung wider for young Behncke. He was able to parlay his new piloting skill and native ability into a commission and an instructor’s billet.

Had Behncke had his wishes, he would have stayed in the Army. But his lack of formal education made him a poor choice to the selection boards that determined such things. In 1919, the Army released Behncke to make his way in the world of civilian aviation, no doubt disappointing him.

After the armistice, Behncke, like thousands of other young men, began the familiar pattern of barnstorming and gypsy aviating. He bought a surplus Jenny and did the country fair circuit for a while, joining temporarily with a company of daredevils in a “flying circus” that wowed the locals with wing walking, parachute jumping, and other aeronautical exotica. After the number of people willing to pay five dollars for a ride dwindled, he tried to make it as a freight operator. That didn’t work, so he tried teaching, aerial mapping, and aerial advertising—only avoiding the one that paid best, rum running. Not that he wouldn’t occasionally haul a few gallons when he was really hard up, but Behncke wanted nothing to do with bootlegging on a regular basis.

By 1921, Behncke had fared better than most. He owned a couple of nickel-plate Jennies and had a reputation as one of Chicago’s best airmen and, by 1925, was running Checkerboard Field. But being an independent businessman wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. He wanted desperately to stay in the flying game, primarily because it would enhance his chances of returning to military duty, and got a job with Charles Dickenson, a Minneapolis-based entrepreneur who held the first private contract for airmail service to Chicago, with Behncke topping the pilot list of what would eventually become Northwest Airlines.

Behncke might have ended his career as a Northwest pilot or become an airline executive. Stressing safety, Behncke was ahead of his time, and in direct conflict with pilots like Speed Holman, a daredevil who insisted that every plane should be periodically tested out with a few loops—just to warm it up for a passenger flight later in the day.

Holman on one occasion took a Stinson Detroiter up for such a flight just before Behncke was scheduled to take it out on a regular run. A confrontation followed, with Behncke getting the worst of it—Holman got Behncke fired. It was a shattering blow to Behncke, who expected management to back him up on what was obviously a safety violation.

When you add this set of experiences to Behncke’s natural doggedness and determination, you get a man who was willing to found a labor union.

Next Time: ALPA is tested as the world goes to war for the second time in the 20th century.

Listen Now

Flying the Line is now available on Spotify, Stitcher, Podbean, and Apple Podcasts.

This article was originally published in the August 2021 issue of Air Line Pilot.

Read the latest Air Line Pilot (PDF)