Panagra -Part Six of Seven - April 13, 2017

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April 12, 2017
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Panagra -Part Six of Seven – April 13, 2017

Robert Novells’ Third Dimension Blog

April 13, 2017

Good Morning,

Today is Part Six of seven in the series on Panagra.If you missed Part Five Click HERE.


Chapter Ten – Jack Ottiker

At age nineteen, not long out from England, I was hired in Lima by Mr. Paul Thommen to start work as an accounting clerk on March 1, 1934.  I believe my Oxford University School Certificate , with four honor subjects, gave the impression that I had studied at that university which was not the case.  However, I did have a marked Oxford accent and Captain (in those days) Harris liked to start his day in good humor just hearing me say “Good morning, sir”.

Within two or three years I had gone from accounting clerk to cost accountant in Limatambo to central division accountant (also handling the small movement in the books of Aerovias Peruanas and CADA, Compania Administradora de Aeropuertos).  With the centralization of all Panagra accounting in Lima under Jack Nelowet as Comptroller, I was moved into the Budget Department with Eddie Spencer.

In August 1941 Panagra entered into a five-year contract with the Bolivian government to reorganize and manage Lloyd Aereo Boliviano (LAB), a former Lufthansa subsidiary.  I was sent to Cochabamba for a week to take a look at their accounting system and stayed five years, becoming their Commercial Advisor.

During Panagra’s administration of LAB many new airports and buildings were constructed and new routes inaugurated.  An entire new communications system was installed, maintenance shops were improved, considerable new equipment purchased and an inspection department organized.  Also, traffic procedures were remodeled, an adequate accounting system established and, when the contract ended, their finances were in a very healthy condition.   Even though in the beginning we had met with resistance and hostility we had converted Lloyd Aereo Boliviano into a model airline.

In October 1946, I returned to work in Lima.  Panagra had by then built a large maintenance base in Limatambo and was having serious labor troubles with the Aprista-dominated workers’ union.  Few of the American maintenance supervisors spoke Spanish or had any knowledge of Peruvian law, so I was appointed Administrative Assistant to the Maintenance Superintendent, not knowing one end of a spark plug from the other.

Directly under my supervision were Planning, Purchasing, Stores, Ground Transportation (we had a large fleet of buses, trucks, station wagons, which my children thought I owned) , and, taking up most of my time, Industrial Relations.  Despite the strain of tedious hours spent arguing trivial points with the Union leaders, who in this way avoided work, I was able to get along with them pretty well.

By 1952 much of the overhaul work had been transferred to the PAN AM maintenance base in Miami and the Limatambo staff greatly reduced.   I was then appointed Superintendent of Passenger Service, reporting to the Regional Manager in Lima, but allowed a pretty free hand in running my own department.

Panagra enjoyed a high esteem for its ground and in-flight services – the food on board under the supervision of Mike Clavarino was first class.

Every year I travelled on the leading international airlines and on U.S. domestic flights to keep up with innovations and to add the latest worth-while gimmicks to our own service.

From 1943 through 1966 Panagra suffered no fatal accident, which enhanced the excellent reputation of the airline and was one of several factors for our obtaining the bulk of the international passengers between the Argentine and the U.S. and up the west coast.  Frequency of flights and the “Esprit de Corps” which existed over the whole line were the main reasons for our success.

In 1967 Panagra was bought out by Braniff Airways and I was named Customer Services Vice-President for South America – a nice title but with far less authority than I had had in Panagra.  I must say that Braniff always treated me with the utmost respect and consideration, even after I retired in October of 1968.

A Salomonic Appointment and Knockout in La Quiaca

 Panagra’s incredible Dutchman, Bill Peper, was preparing an emergency landing field in the highlands of Bolivia.  The only labor available were the soldiers of a border garrison who Army Headquarters had authorized Bill to recruit for the work.  However, every time Bill requested the use of the men the major in charge of the garrison said that they were required that day or days to participate in military maneuvers.

Fed up, Bill travelled to La Paz and complained to the top general.  After some thought a solution was found.  Bill was appointed a “temporary” colonel of the Bolivian Army in charge of the border garrison.  Since he then out-ranked the major the emergency field strip was soon ready  and fortunately never was needed.

Another time Bill was working on the Villazon airport across the border from the small Argentine town of La Quiaca.  Due to his being popular on both sides of the border he became involved in a boxing tournament between the two rival towns.

This match was held in La Quiaca and the Argentine fighters were being awarded all the victories.  The Bolivians claimed this was because the referees were all Argentines.  The big event was the heavy-weight bout, which the Bolivians felt they had a good chance of winning.  For this they insisted on a neutral referee.  Bill was in the audience and was known to have boxing experience, so he was unanimously elected to referee this particular match.

The fight began and it was obvious that the Bolivian was the better boxer, but he was being worn down by the Argentine constantly hitting him below the belt.  Bill warned him that the next time he did it he would be disqualified. Angered, the Argentine lost his head and aimed a hay-maker at Bill who dodged the blow and promptly knocked the boxer out cold.  Bill was carried across the border on the shoulders of the Bolivian fans, a hero for their folklore.

Olympic Record

 When Bill Peper started out to investigate the feasibility of an emergency landing strip alongside Lake Titicaca, he went loaded with tent, foodstuffs, equipment, some dynamite to clear underbrush, and went to work.  He had picked up along the way a small mongrel dog who followed him everywhere and kept him company in that rather desolate spot.  He taught the dog to retrieve thrown sticks for his and the dog’s amusement.

One evening, Bill thought a fish or two from the lake would be a change from his usual pressed beef. To save time and trouble he took a stick of dynamite to throw in the water. The dog, considering this his old retrieving game, jumped high and caught the lighted stick in his mouth. Then he raced toward Bill full of a sense of achievement. This was when Bill, who had run for Holland in the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, broke his own and everyone else’s running record.

I forget the end of the story but lets hope the fuse was extinguished before the dog was,

Carte Blanche

 On one of my flights through La Paz, Bolivia, I met the LAB lawyer whom I had known when Panagra managed that airline and who was now Chief Justice of Bolivia.  He was bound for Washington to attend a meeting of Chief Justices from various parts of the world.  We were very pleased to see each other since we had been good friends in Cochabamba, and greeted one another with strong “abrazos”.

It was shortly after take-off when he came rushing to my seat, looking very upset to tell me that he was in terrible trouble.  Bolivia was then going through one of its periodic economic crises with the dollar quota for travel sharply curtailed by government decree and the Chief Justice had obtained, (through what means I did not inquire) an additional thousand dollars for expenses.  He had put the money in hundred dollar bills between the pages of a Reader’s Digest.  Then in the rush of early morning departure he had left the magazine behind in his hotel room!

In those pre-hijack days, I was able to race immediately into the cockpit and ask the pilot to contact the La Paz tower for them to contact the hotel manager to pick up the magazine before the room was cleaned.  Then to forward it to me that evening on a cargo flight scheduled from La Paz to Lima.

By the time our plane was out of range of the La Paz tower the message had gone through and they had promised to advise the Lima tower of the results before our arrival there.

My friend sweated it out for two hours, nervously inquiring for news every little while.  Minutes before arrival in Lima we received word that the Reader’s Digest had been found, complete with contents, and would be sent that evening to Lima.  We agreed, on receipt, to advise our Washington office to reimburse the Chief Justice.

Of course, $ 1,000 was a lot more money then than now, so it was not surprising that there were tears in my friend’s eyes when he said: “Jack, as long as I remain Chief Justice of Bolivia, you can be sure that if you are ever accused of any crime in my country you are already innocent.”

I never did avail myself of the opportunity.

A Qualified Superintendent of Passenger Service

During the time when I represented Panagra in the management contract it signed with Lloyd Aereo Boliviano, I found myself one day in the town of Cobija.  Half of LAB’s fleet had had to overnight there due to late arrival. LAB’s other plane was in Cochabamba but unable to fill all the next morning’s scheduled flights, so our plane was required back in Cochabamba as soon as possible.

Early the following day I went to the airport to supervise and hasten the loading of our plane.  The pilot was busy in the radio shack getting his flight plan ready.  The Agent/Station Manager was feverishly visiting the different homes of the copilot’s girlfriends where he might have spent the night, to get him to the airport without further delay.

I found two laborer’s loading the bales of crude rubber, the “bolachas”, while a third older one in a dirty overall, sat on a “bolacha” watching the procedure.  I was young, energetic and short tempered in those days, so I soon got the slacker to work with a few mouth-filling remarks about his ancestry, which didn’t seem to surprise him.

By the time the plane was loaded the missing copilot had arrived and we were all set to go.  On entering the cabin for take off I was very surprised to find the fellow in the dirty overall sitting in one of the seats fiddling with the reclining mechanism.  In my most cutting English manner I asked him, was he a passenger perhaps?  He admitted he was.  Swallowing hard I chattily asked him if this was his first flight.  He admitted it was.  So I told him the weather was good and we should have an excellent flight, and as much else I could think of about altitude, speed, etc. He listened intently and seemed to enjoy the flight.

Panagra apparently decided that, if through friendliness and interest I could convince a passenger that helping to load the plane was normal procedure, I was exactly the person they needed to head their Passenger Service Department.

International Diplomacy

Word reached me in Miami that on that night’s El Interamerican flight we would have President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and his entourage boarding in Panama on their way to Santiago, Chile.

Routine called for the Superintendent of Passenger Service to accompany all presidential groups.  I had flown with Presidents of Peru, Bolivia, the Argentine, Brazil, Ecuador and Chile, to name those I can remember.  All those trips had gone without a hitch, so I expected no problems.

When my flight arrived in Panama I found the Station Manager in a cloud of gloom.  There were 25 people in President Kaunda’s group all of whom insisted on first class seats.  There were only 10 seats available.  I asked to talk to their Chief of Protocol in our V.I.P. room.  This gentleman turned out to be expectedly black but unexpected huge – about 6ft. 5 in. and weighing in at around 250 pounds.  And he was quite adamant about first class seating for the entire group.  While I explained that it was against regulations to put two and a half persons in one seat (ha ha!) I observed that he was perspiring freely in the hot weather, so I stopped talking long enough to order plenty of cold beer.  Over a few bottles we soon sorted out the ten most important passengers who would be given first class seats, the Chief of Protocol. himself to sit with me in our Fiesta Lounge where we had a bar, well-stocked with icy Tuborg beer.  Apart from the two of us, the Fiesta Lounge was crowded with Panagra overnight bags filled with the party’s numerous purchases from the Panama Duty Free stores.

We approached Quito, Ecuador, around 6 a.m. and the Chief of Protocol, having lost count of the beers consumed, was of the opinion that there would be some official reception at the airport for President Kaunda. I had my doubts, so I was first off of the plane while the stairs were still rolling.  Sure, enough there wasn’t a soul at the ramp. But near an army plane I caught sight of an Ecuadorian officer in uniform.  As quickly as I could I explained the situation and he agreed to help. He immediately became the special aide-de-camp to the President of Ecuador and accompanied me on board.   There he saluted smartly and spoke rapid Spanish to President Kaunda – who didn’t understand a word – and I translated into English what I wanted him to say. He had come to greet the President of Zambia in the name of his President and to apologize for the latter not being present in person as unhappily he had had to travel to another town to inaugurate a very large government project at that time.

The little ceremony went off fine, with mutual good wishes towards the respective countries, and to the entire satisfaction of the Chief of Protocol.

The Ecuadorian officer’s descendants will be telling the story down the ages.  Still, only when it was over did I breath normally again.

But my trials were not ended.  Prior to arrival in Lima we received word that President Belaunde was at the airport with a guard of honor to be reviewed by President Kaunda.  Figuring that the last leg of the flight could get along without me, I bade farewell to my friend the Chief of Protocol, picked up my briefcase and overnight bag, breezed through familiar Immigrations and Customs, and took a taxi home.

I decided to rest a bit, shower and unpack before going to the office. It was my habit to stuff my overnight bag with my soiled clothing, but when I opened it I was flabbergasted to find the bag full of passports.   I investigated and realized I had taken the wrong bag and what I now had were the passports and tickets of Mr. Kaunda and his whole entourage.  Horrors, I thought, here is where there’s going to be an instant change from black to white when the Chief of Protocol finds his bag full of my dirty underwear!

My one thought was to contact the Los Cerrillos airport immediately, tell them to advise the Chief of Protocol not to worry, that I would be arriving in Santiago the following day with the passports. Actually, I was doing the worrying, particularly as I had been kidding President Kaunda about my really being an English spy (relations between Zambia and England being a little cool at the time).

On arrival in Santiago next day I half expected a clone of the Incredible Hulk waiting for me with clenched fists.  But there was a lttle man from the Chilean Foreign Office inquiring if anyone had some passports to deliver.  I gave him the bag and climbed quickly on board to continue to Buenos Aires, (or anywhere out of there).In B.A. I found my overnight bag in the Station Manager’s office full of my soiled undies.

Not all my Presidential Flights were that interesting.

Honorary Mayor of Tarija

 Following the completion of the Tarija airport I went there on the inaugural flight.  There were big festivities in the little town, and we were invited to a luncheon at one of the typical outdoor restaurants called “picanterias”. The name came from the hot spicy food served there.  All the important personages of Tarija, from the mayor, prefect, bank managers on down, were present. At the head of the table sat the mayor and I was on his left.

One of the fiercest red peppers in Bolivia, called “ulupica”, is small and round and biting into one causes smoke to come out of one’s ears.   In the course of the lunch somehow, I unwittingly put one “ulupica” whole into my mouth.  This was noticed by some of the other guests and everyone stopped eating to watch my reaction.  There was I with this mini time-bomb in my mouth.  Something had to be done.  My mother had carefully taught me that one never spits anything out at table (The King never did it).   So I swallowed the pepper whole.  And then I pretended to be biting into it, occasionally raising an eyebrow and pursing my mouth, with little shakes of the head, as if appraising the taste.  Then finally pretending to swallow the chewed pieces, I went so far as to inspect the serving plate, as if searching for another “ulupica” to bite on.

At this the mayor rose from his chair, beer glass in hand, and announced that since all had seen something done that no Tarijeno could do, he the “Alcalde” proposed I be named Honorary Mayor of Tarija for life.  The idea was enthusiastically approved with many “abrazos” for the rest of the day.

Later I paid dearly in my digestive system for my Honorary title.

Chapter Eleven – Loyal Domning

My interest in flying began in high school, sparked by Lindbergh’s flight.  I had an appointment to Annapolis, but begged off and took aeronautical engineering at the University of Minnesota.  There I joined a group of classmates to revive a dormant Minnesota Flying Club. We contracted with Northland Flying School to teach us to fly for $65 each.

As I neared graduation I applied first to the Navy and then to the Air Corps for flight training. The Navy said my pulse was too fast and the Army said my eyes didn’t cross enough.  So I headed for California so seek work in an aircraft factory.  I found engineers working for $50/mo which wasn’t enough to live on, even in 1934.  I went to the Ford assembly plant and worked nearly a year at $5/day.

One day by chance I opened a newspaper and saw that FDR was building up Naval Aviation and seeking candidates. I headed for the Long Beach Naval Air Station in an OX-5 Travel Air and Hooray! I had a contract which, among other things, forbade marriage for four years. Imagine a bunch of fresh college graduates sticking for that! In about a year the Navy found that cadets were becoming fathers. Rather than lose their investment, the admirals cut the period to two years and nothing was said. Now Mozelle and I were legal.

The next I knew I was on my way to Pensacola to spend 14 months learning to fly every aircraft type the Navy had. Three years of carrier duty followed.  The Navy was good to me. I was assistant gunnery officer for the first year on the carrier Saratoga and got to do some shooting. For the next two years, I was engineering officer and got in a lot of flying because we were getting a new type of airplane that had problems and I did the testing.

Near to the end of my duty time Tom Kirkland, operations manager of Panagra and Annapolis classmate of my squadron commander, visited us on a trip to recruit pilots.  He told me that if I wanted to fly in South America all I needed to do was write a letter to the New York office and they would send me a ticket.  Mozelle said “Hooray!” and we were soon on our way.

The amusing part of this story is that a few weeks before Tom Kirkland showed up I had gone to PAN AM’s medical office in Baltimore to apply for a job. I still have their letter rejecting me as probably not able to handle long periods of duty! Some years later Thurman Erickson told me that PANAM was flooded with Navy and Air Corps applicants and turned me down because “they had too many from the University of Minnesota engineering!” Believe what you want. In those days I was at my physical peak, like most of us were then. Ex farmer boy, worked my way through school hand pumping gasoline by the thousands of gallons, could run all day.

We landed in LIM in October of 1939. Frank McGann, Jack Shepard and Bob Fussell were close behind. Tom Jardine was just leaving for a 3-months’ vacation and we used his house and servants while he was gone. We were on a roll.   Four months after our arrival, our son Anthony arrived which was routine. A month later, I had an appendectomy which was not. The next event occurred more than a year later.

Kelly was my captain out of  LIM on a Diagonal trip with a G103 powered DC-3. When I saw the logbook item about frequently scrubbing the oil filter on the previous flight, I expressed my concern and was told to skip it. Our problem became obvious on climb-out. I had to pull the handle on the Cuno filter every few minutes to keep the oil pressure in the green. Kelly wouldn’t turn back.

Things were a bit better when we leveled off, but still needed too frequent pulls on the Cuno. When we prepared for take-off at Arequipa, I tried to sell Kelly on going around by Mollendo and flying down the coast to Arica, but he insisted on climbing over the 11,000 foot mountains “to save time”.

We got off the ground okay but in no time found it necessary to scrub the Cuno constantly. As we turned to head over the ridge, I looked out my window and saw black smoke coming out of the prop hub. Oil pressure was off the bottom of the dial. Kelly suddenly got religion. “Feather it!” No soap, the prop mechanism was too fouled. “Dump gas!” This we did, mixing our smoke trail with gasoline.

There was an uphill wind and Kelly wanted to get high enough over the east end of the runway to land downhill. He headed around on base leg but the old Cyclone couldn’t hold enough altitude to get lined up, so we went across the runway into a pattern for an uphill landing. I’ve never before or since scraped the scenery the way we did on approach. You remember the railroad that ran past the lower end of the runway?  If a train had passed when we came in, we could have flown through it. The DC-2 that was waiting for us in Arica came up to rescue us and we went on to Buenos Aires.

You’d think that was enough for one trip. Guess it was, but FATE thought otherwise. On our return, we had the honor of picking up Harold Harris at Uyuni. He was enroute to LaPaz and in a bit of a hurry.  As we were passing Rio Mulatos, the right engine oil pressure began to shrink. Kelly was being careful this time and turned to go back to Uyuni. Good idea as we had the enormous Uyuni Salt Lake as an emergency out.

We were a bit high for single engine operation and drifting down so “Prop brake on”. Nothing happened. “Dump gas.” I pulled on the dump valve toggle as hard as I could. No soap. The valve was stuck.  It didn’t take long to see that we weren’t going to get there so I suggested restarting the bad engine and using just enough power to hold altitude. It worked and we made a mildly exciting downwind landing at Uyuni. There we stayed for three days waiting for an engine and mechanics to install it.

If that wasn’t enough there’s a sequel. Our stay in Uyuni included Saturday and it happened that the personnel of a nearby mine invited us to their weekly dance. We climbed up to 14,000 feet to enjoy their hospitality. The mine manager’s secretary, a pleasant refugee from Hitler, was kind enough to dance with me. Enamored of her was a young American engineer who resented even such casual competition. The Johnny Walker played a part. Some minor shoving took place and the young lady told me to pay him no attention. He disappeared. Part I.

Part II, about a year later. In the interim, I had gone to Ecuador and checked out as Captain but was now back herding a DC-2 over the Diagonal. Northbound through Uyuni, I picked up one of the miners taking a vacation trip to the US. He remembered me and asked if I knew how lucky I was. “Sure,” I said, “my nickname”. “I’m not kidding”, he said and went on to tell me why. Apparently, the fellow who took a swing at me at the dance went to his room for his .45. Another guest overheard him say: “I’ll kill that G..D… pilot” and informed the mine manager who was waiting for him in the hall and cold-cocked him as he entered. His buddies took him off to bed. Yes, the “L” stands for “Lucky.”

Just before I went to Ecuador I was copiloting a DC-2 with Jack Miller and preflighting our departure from Guayaquil on a drizzly morning. When I got on the little ladder to come off the wing after checking fuel, the rope holding the ladder broke and, being lucky, I landed on my head on the ramp. Woke up the next day in a hospital with my hand being held by a sweet little Ecuadorean nurse. Dusty Rhodes was the station manager then and told me that LIM was sending the Stinson with Walt Gray to ferry me home. When we stopped at Talara, the airport doctor told me I had a cracked wrist and acted woozy, so go straight to the hospital. On arrival a skull crack was also found and I spent the next month with sweet little Peruvian nurses holding my hand around the clock. Mozelle was not amused.

After about a year as copilot I was made a captain and sent to Ecuador where PAG was organizing a local airline as a part of the efforts to eliminate the German and Italian airlines from South America. We spent about a year in that beautiful country and then moved back to Lima.

In 1943, the CAA told PAG that having line pilots and chief pilots do the training wasn’t enough and I became an instructor overnight. After a few months it was concluded that a Captain’s pay was too much for an instructor and one was hired.

This was timely and as a man was needed in Bolivia to work there on the anti-German program, I was off again. Panagra had a contract with the Bolivian government to manage Lloyd Aereo Bolivano for 10 years which meant many months in Cochabamba, LaPaz and Santa Cruz which was a very interesting experience. I was a flight instructor again with Lockheed Lodestar, DC-3 and DC-4 helping me to learn the language.

Then came the four-engine era and the need to prove to the FAA that they could carry adequate pay-loads out of the high airports. Douglas calculated the capabilities, but FAA said seein’ is believin’. So, the boss told me go get busy.  We borrowed one Douglas engineer, another from the FAA, and with our own staff we replicated a test program similar to the manufacturer’s procedure for the DC-4. I was the lucky one that did the flying and we confirmed the calculated performance.

Now that we knew the ropes, doing the same later with the DC-6 and DC-7 was equally successful. When we got the DC-8, the FAA did not require the test program, it accepted the Douglas computations and required only that we make demonstration flights at Quito and LaPaz to show that the numbers were valid.  Once we had phased in the jets, life became more routine. Airports were improved and electronics were displacing brain power.

Then came 1967 and the merger. We had changes and variety again and we moved to Dallas to fly the 747. Life became very interesting for a couple of years but age 60 cut off the fun in Jan. 1973.  A few months later a letter came from the South American manager of the International Civil Aviation Organization, whose office is in Lima, asking if I was available for a year’s assignment to act as technical advisor to Lloyd Aereo Bolivano.

Was I ever! Mozelle and I moved to Cochabamba and the one year stretched to six years of fun. I was back to instructing again while we brought LAB into the jet age. I got to fly a DC-3 again and made my last jet landing in a BAC-111 when I was 67.

Shortly after returning to DAL I found the pieces of a Fairchild KR-21 and spent the next ten years restoring it. This is a small Kinner powered biplane and was like one I had flown while training in 1932. Some of you have seen it at a fly-in picnic at Kittyhawk.  When I couldn’t pass the eye test for my license I sold it to the son of a man who had owned it during WWII days.  It lives in Calif. now and has won four trophies including one “Best of Show”. And all I did was to put together a plane to fly around in.

All-in-all, life has been very satisfactory and I tell people that the capital L of my name stands for “Lucky”.  It was luck that put me in a position to participate in the development of an industry that has changed the world. It was luck that put me to work with many of the finest people that I know and to do so in two of the finest airlines anywhere.

I am also happy to tell people the best part of it all- I never had to work for a living- maybe that has something to do with that “L” letter too?

Take care, enjoy the day, and join me tomorrow when I will have the final chapters in our series on Panagra.

Robert Novell

April 13, 2017