90 Years of Flying the Line: ‘The Livermore Affair’

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 excerpted from the book’s fifth chapter titled “The Livermore Affair.”

On the night of Dec. 13, 1936, Joe Livermore did something that got him in serious trouble with Bob Mensing, his immediate superior. He abandoned the electronic airway early that night because of static and thunderstorms. Maybe he was right in doing so, and the chances are good that Mensing wouldn’t have made a fuss had Livermore not had a long history of going off the beam.

Livermore worked his flight safely into Missoula. But it was a turbulent trip at low altitude, and Livermore’s passengers were airsick and scared. The night was turning ugly with lots of lightning visible on the horizon. Livermore did what he thought was the responsible thing under the circumstances—he “trained” his passengers. Then he checked into a Missoula hotel to get some sleep and to wait out the weather.

Mensing was furious with Livermore for two reasons: first because he had trained his passengers, thus depriving Northwest Airlines of much-needed revenue, and second because he had gotten off the electronic beam to fly contact, again! Mensing had previously warned Livermore about flying into low turbulence because of the upsetting effect it had on passengers.

So Mensing exercised his managerial prerogative by chewing out Livermore over the telephone. “What in the hell is the matter with you? Is your job too tough for you?” Mensing demanded of Livermore, according to his widow’s deposition. “You bring that section through or I will accept your resignation!”

“You mean I must either take this ship out now or resign?” Livermore asked. But Mensing refused to answer the question directly, according to Lorna Livermore’s reconstruction, thus indicating that the ancient concept of a pilot’s command authority was still basically intact. Nevertheless, Livermore returned to the field and took off into what ground personnel later described as “bad weather.” He successfully made it home to Spokane—for the last time.

Lorna Livermore’s notarized deposition stated that Joe was highly upset by the dressing down Mensing had given him over the phone in Missoula. “Joe came home very late, tired, and worried,” she said. “He didn’t want to talk about it. Finally he told me that he had been ‘given hell’ by Mensing. Joe said that it came down to the fact that he had to fly in any weather or lose his job.”

Days later, Livermore was airborne once more on his regular run. The weather was bad again, a solid IFR night, with a winter storm slamming across the northern Great Plains. Copilot Art Haid might well have been better qualified to fly the gauges, owing to his recent Army stint where he had learned the most up-to-date IFR techniques.

It’s apparent that Livermore, on the night of Dec. 18, 1936, should probably have canceled his flight. But he was so depressed, under pressure, and fearful of losing his job that he didn’t. He and Haid would pay with their lives for that error in judgment.

If it weren’t for the use Dave Behncke made of the Livermore “pilot pushing” case, few would care about it today. But it came at a crucial point in American aviation history. Congress was writing a sweeping new law that would ultimately be called the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938. The Livermore affair became the dramatic centerpiece of Behncke’s campaign to protect pilots from the arbitrary dictates of officialdom, both government and corporate, at least when safety was at stake.”

Next Time: The Century Airlines Strike of 1932 proves pivotal in not just commercial aviation history, but also cementing ALPA’s role in the labor movement.

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Flying the Line is also a podcast! Get your ALPA history on the go with Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app.

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

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