A Legacy of Aviation Safety

By Capt. Wendy Morse, ALPA First Vice President

It seems fitting that this year’s Air Safety Forum is taking place in Chicago, Ill. ALPA’s history is closely connected with the city. The Association traces its origin and early years to Chicago, where ALPA’s first president, Capt. Dave Behncke, and 23 of his “Key Men” met in secret in the ballroom of the Morrison Hotel on July 27, 1931, to found what’s become the world’s largest pilots union. The Morrison Hotel, which was situated at the corner of Madison and Clark Streets, is now long gone. It was demolished in 1965. But the union it gave birth to just celebrated its 92nd year.

ALPA held its very first Air Safety Forum in Chicago at the Hotel Sherry in April 1953. That hotel, which was converted to apartments in the 1970s, and later to condominiums, was located at 1725 E. 53rd Street (now 5300 S. South Shore Drive), just a short six-mile drive south of the Hilton Chicago, the site of this year’s Air Safety Forum. In addition to hosting that very first forum, the hotel also served for a short time as a temporary base of operations for ALPA under Clarence “Clancy” N. Sayen, who took over as the union’s president following a difficult period of transition from the Behnke era.

That first three-day Air Safety Forum, which took place April 1–3, 1953, was conceived by members of ALPA’s Engineering & Air Safety Department, who had long felt that air safety issues deserved more attention than was possible at ALPA’s biennial conventions. The idea to establish the forum was approved by the Association’s 12th Board of Directors at a meeting in 1952 as a way to foster greater cooperation among pilot safety advocates, airline industry representatives, and government regulators and to identify viable solutions to persistent aviation safety challenges.

Records from that first gathering show that approximately 50 pilots representing 30 pilot groups attended the conference. Among them were the Central Air Safety chairs from each of the pilot groups, as well as members of various ALPA committees. There were also representatives from a number of stakeholder organizations, including the Civil Aeronautics Administration, Republic Aviation Corporation, Boeing Airplane Company, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the Air Transport Association of America, the Civil Aeronautics Board, the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics, the Flight Safety Foundation, and the Air Carrier Flight Engineers Association. Members of the press were also on hand. Journalists Alexander McSurely of Aviation Week and Wayne Thomis from the Chicago Tribune showed up to report on Forum proceedings.

Participants heard from committee representatives, who gave updates on various ALPA special projects and discussed important air safety topics, including performance standards, airport noise abatement, aircraft exterior lighting, cockpit standardization, emergency evacuation, fire hazards, approach lighting, cockpit procedures, and the status of radar in airline operations. On the second day of the forum, an evening banquet was held featuring guest speaker Ben O. Howard, an aviation consultant and test pilot who was also one of ALPA’s earliest members (No. 46). In his remarks to banquet attendees, Howard expanded on a paper he had written on the “Greater Attainment of Safety.”

The forum was so successful that the Association later organized several regional Air Safety Conferences to promote interest in ALPA’s air safety program and make the information discussed at the Forum available to a wider audience. Local Civil Aeronautics Administration representatives were also invited to these regional conferences to promote closer liaison between the federal regulatory agencies and pilots.

In the intervening years, ALPA expanded the scope of the forum to recognize those individuals who made significant contributions to aviation safety and security. In 1956, ALPA’s Board of Directors voted to establish the annual Air Safety Award. Capt. Ernie Cutrell (American) received the first such award in 1957 for his work developing standards for a centerline approach lighting system—standards which were adopted nationally. In later years, additional awards were added to recognize individuals for their contributions to other areas of work within ALPA’s Air Safety structure, including Security, Pilot Assistance, and Jumpseat. The first Superior Airmanship Award was presented in 1984. Awards for Airport Safety Liaison of the Year and Airport of the Year are also presented, along with various presidential citations.

The work of ALPA volunteers has been present in every major achievement in the evolution of aviation safety and security. They were there when the “Basic T” instrument panel was created, and they’re still here today as pilot safety advocates try to determine how advanced air mobility initiatives will change the airline industry and what role artificial intelligence will play in the future of aviation.

So if you’re planning to attend this year’s Air Safety Forum—in person or virtually—or you just happen to find yourself in Chicago on this 70th anniversary year of the very first Forum, take a moment to contemplate the many decades of hard work and commitment that prior generations of ALPA volunteers have dedicated to advancing aviation safety and security. Their combined contribution has helped to build ALPA’s Air Safety Organization into the world’s largest nongovernmental aviation safety advocacy group, and established a legacy of safety and security that’s at the very core of your union.

This article was originally published in the September 2023 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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