Ran into an old colleague of mine recently, a retired hangar foreman for a privately owned charter airline operating a small fleet of B720Bs back in the 70s and 80s. He'd turned old, but certainly not frail, and the meeting sparked some memories that may serve to give the younger crowd a fleeting glimpse, of what some parts of the airline world was like 30+ years ago.
The first time I met Kid brother, which was the nickname of the foreman, I was hanging by the coat tails of my father and can't have been more than 5-6. By the time I was 9 or so, I would regularly be sent by my mom to deliver the lunch box my dad had forgotten when he set of for work. I loved nothing better than doing that job, as it meant I would bicycle to the airport gate and wave at the guard, who'd wave back and open the gate without me even having to slow down. Dad had the good grace to frequently "forget" his lunchbox, so seeing me peddle up to the gate happened quite regularly, and admission by recognition was the preferred method. Can't think of anything safer than that, come to think of it. Then I'd shoot straight across the ramp and into the operations office, around which this small airline evolved, and where dad was one of the duty managers.
It was a small operation, 4 daily departures in the morning mainly to hot and sandy places around the Med, back to base and repeat once more in the late afternoon. Everybody knew everybody, there weren't any shelves packed with ISO, ISAGO, IOSA, IATA and whatnot manuals, and everything was done with pen, pencil and paper. People trusted each other, so when the skipper popped his head into the office he'd get a verbal briefing delivered, and returned, with not the slightest touch of CRM or polticial correctness. Then the joking would start, preferably of the kind where one questions manhood, parentage and fidelity of your wife. This was followed by the skipper signing the load-sheet, which at that point would be totally absent of any information apart from date and flight number, and try to leave having had the last word. Which they managed roughly half the time. About the same time the No. 1 would come and and bark orders high and low about catering, wheel-chairs and newspapers, while simultaneously deflecting off the cuff remarks about the size of her posterior, or innocent inquiries into whether her menage a trois with a couple of beach bums, when Zulu Bravo went tech in Palma, had resulted in any new STDs. New being the insult, of course. I'd usually hang around until the morning flights had gone if it was a week-end and I didn't have to go to school. Sometimes the No. 1 would be male, and back then any male working in the cabin would be batting for the other team, so to speak. They must have had hides made from elephant skin, 'cause the ramp rats especially wouldn't miss an opportunity to pass a joke based on sexual preference, immediately followed by the steward invitating the offending 6ft/200lbs/all muscle to bend over and fell what a real man was like. Or a quick feel of his gentleman sausage if it was within range. If you can give, you can take. And if you couldn't do both, you wouldn't last an afternoon. Any new hire running off to management complaining they'd been insulted by race, religion, sexual preference or general foul look, were given one warning to shape up or ship out, then sent back to the coal face.
The last few minutes before the departure wave always seemed to me like panic infused chaos, and not a few times and I'd be thrown the flight bag with all the documents and sent bicycling "to gate 9 boy, fast as your little legs will carry you". It happened the stairs had already been removed when I got there, so I'd hand over the 20kg bag to one of the big ramp guys who'd throw it up through the door. Delays were pretty uncommon, and almost always caused by a passenger getting drunk in the terminal and forgetting he had a flight to catch. The word "Swedish" fits somewhere in the previous sentence.
It was complex, dynamic, hectic, fun, rough, honest and conducted in the spirit you only find when at highly qualified team, who've known each other for years and have a lot of mutual respect, work together. Sometimes the tension would be too high, someone would mess up, usually followed by someone letting loose. And boy did they let loose, none less than Kid brother.
Being the hangar foreman he obviously had a boss, the technical director who was also in charge of spares and components. Said boss had the intelligence to first of all stay the hell out of his way, and secondly to be prepared for a bollocking of planetary proportions, usually when the foreman came thundering up to his office, bellowing profanities at whatever component had decided to fail and make his life miserable. Rumours had it the foreman was banned from calling the suppliers, following an infamous "conversation" with Pratt & Whitney (or Shitney, in his words) in which he'd mainly shouted down the line in his native tongue, interspersed only by ample and repeated use of the profanities he knew in English. Something about an engine going pop 2 times in a week, can't quite remember. Suffice to say Kid brother was not amused, and according to his belief system that meant the culprit was in line for a few home truths, be damned the fact they spoke foreign and lived half a world away.
Later in life I started working part-time at the airline myself, and Kid brother (something I've never dared call him) was still the hangar foreman, and his attitude towards failure had, if anything, become even more robust. He had the physical presence to match an exquisite vocabulary, and god help the poor sod who didn't perform to expectations, preferably a bit better. He didn't literally punch anybody that I know of, but one feel of his hands around your neck, squeezing your spine to the size of single strand of DNA
, was more than enough to get the point. His hands were so big, I swear he could single handed (well, maybe using both) have bailed the Titanic out using nothing put his paws. He also had the good grace of not limiting his wrath to his own staff; anybody who messed up the operation was liable to be at the receiving end of a dress down. Male, female, young, old, new hire or the boss himself - he didn't care, and I never once caught him calling a spade anything but spade, and not a digging implement.
Being the foreman he had permission to taxi the aircraft around for engine tests and whatnot, having signed the paper permitting him to do so himself, followed by a few lessons from the tech. pilot who thought he'd better make sure he could actually drive the thing. Rumours the chief pilot had let him fly the aircraft on test flights, just so he could prove that pilots were indeed idiots and there was nothing wrong with his aircraft, are unsubstantiated, and my memory is strangely blank on that point. But when he did drive the aircraft around, I'd hike along if possible and sit in the copilots seat. The tests were always done with the his window open (JT3s are very loud by the way), and he'd always have a lit cigarette either in his hand sticking out the window, or hanging from his gob. That mighty not technically speaking have been legal, but so many things back then probably weren't and nobody had neither the time nor inclination to waste energy on small infringements - it's only much later the armada of audtioneers, lawyers, the fun police and inflated regulatory bodies have made themselves busy being irritating knobs.
The airline ended its days in the 90s, having been through several transformations - one of which saw Kid brother having one last go at his boss before slamming the door for good. He's been retired for 20 years now, having spent another decade after leaving the airline building on his reputation in the business as someone who knows his stuff to the marrow of the bone, even made the damn bone in some cases, and who doesn't suffer fools lightly. During his consultancy years he worked for a number of airlines home and abroad, and it's a testament to his skills that two of them awarded him lifetime ID
tickets, with management board priority, despite never having been a formal employee.
Not that he's ever used them mind; being at home minding the garden and his mint condition Jensen Interceptor, but mainly spoiling the grand children rotten, is where his passions are now. I've no doubt the grand children will already have impressed the minders in kindergarten with their diverse vocabulary, more commonly heard spoken by an old school hangar foreman than a pretty little 5 year old girl.
From receips and radials over straight pipes to big fans - been there, done that, got the hearing defects to prove