Although he already considered himself a pilot and dreamed of the day he would finally become an airline captain, he would not actually be piloting the airplane at all. The successful completion of an extensive oral exam, flight simulator and aircraft flight tests would earn him his FAA flight engineer certificate – and with it, his official new title as a United Airlines Douglas DC-6 Second Officer (S/O) would take effect.

 

The past two and a half months at the Flight Training Center in Denver, Colorado were a long and grueling way to begin his career as a United Airlines flight officer. He’d spent countless hours learning the aircraft’s normal, irregular and emergency procedures, the various aircraft systems and just as important, the company flight operations manual (FOM). That’s what was expected of each of the twelve “new hires” in his class. And woe was the new-hire flight officer who could not keep up. They called it, “Drinking from the fire-hose,” because that’s just what it felt like, minus the water.

United Airlines DC-6

 

With his new “FE ticket” tucked into his hip pocket, he proudly walked into the Pittsburg (PIT) flight office and introduced himself to his S/O Line Check Airman (LCA) who spent the next three days looking over his shoulder as they flew into nine different airports before heading back to PIT. Under the LCA’s careful guidance, he was introduced to how things really worked on the line. When satisfied the new S/O could cut it, the LCA had signed him off for “solo” and his next trip was assigned the following evening when crew scheduling phoned the “crash pad” he was sharing with five other new-hires.

The first leg of his three day trip was from PIT to Chicago O’Hare (ORD). Remembering his lessons from the flight school in Denver and all the neat tricks he picked up from his LCA, he felt confident but also nervous as he met the captain and first officer in flight ops before the scheduled departure time. The next hour was a busy one for him but he somehow had managed to complete all his required predeparture duties just as the captain called for the before start checklist. With the checklist complete and the passenger loading bridge pulled away from the aircraft, the captain gave the order for the S/O to start the engines. Starting the four big 2,400 horsepower radial Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engines on the DC-6 required the skill and artistry of a virtuoso pianist and this task rested firmly on the S/O’s shoulders. But once again, his good training and hard work had paid off. As the engines purred like four kittens lapping at warm milk, the first officer (F/O) contacted PIT ground control for their taxi clearance.

Before he knew it, the aircraft had already arrived at the runway 28R pad where the captain and F/O would accomplish the before takeoff checklist and engine run-ups while he conducted the mandatory cabin door inspection to ensure that each was properly closed and locked. And since this walk through the cabin would put him in plain view of the passengers, wearing his uniform hat was an absolute necessity, as mandated by FOM policy.

Everything appeared normal until he approached the main cabin door just aft of the left wing. Seeing that the door handle was not fully locked, he raised the handle to first open the door before attempting to re-close it and fully engage the door latches. But by the time he was doing this, the captain had begun running up the outboard (number one and four) engines. Checking two engines at a time instead of all four was the normal practice but the prop blast from the higher power of the outboards created a powerful venturi effect that drew the door away from the fuselage. This strong suction force yanked the door’s handle out of his hands as the door swung open, bringing with it his crisp new hat, while he watched in horror as it sailed out through the open doorway. In his mind, losing his hat fell into the “emergency” category and taking immediate action was required to survive this disaster. After all, how could he possibly complete the rest of his three day trip without his required uniform hat? Impossible!

The obvious solution was quickly envisioned when he spotted the emergency escape line stowed neatly inside the now-exposed door frame. With engines one and four still roaring away, he began his descent to the ramp level. In theory, it was a great plan and he was already convinced he might actually pull this off without anyone ever knowing about it, when he realized that the prop blast had carried his beloved hat all the way down the steep hill adjacent to the pad. This emergency had just escalated a couple of notches, but going back now, without his hat, was completely out of the question. Failure was simply not an option.

Carefully climbing down the hill, he retrieved his hat and had nearly reached the top again when his foot slipped and down he went, sliding all the way back down the hill in the mud and tall wet grass left by the recent late-winter thaw. The second attempt at ascending the steep hill was more successful but by now he looked like a Pittsburg Steelers lineman at the end of a hard-fought game on a rainy day.

With his soggy hat now stuffed safely into his shirt, he firmly grabbed the escape rope to begin his ascent back to the main cabin. When halfway up, he suddenly began to experience the ride of his life as the captain brought back the power on numbers one and four and advanced the power on inboard engines two and three for their checks. Swinging wildly in the prop blast, he felt his grip began to fade as he prayed that he would get through this alive.

After swinging in the wind for what seemed like an eternity, a stewardess finally noticed the opened door after the unusually loud roar of the engine run-up had gotten her attention. By design, stewardesses were never trained to close doors, only to open them, so she immediately ran up to the cockpit to advise the S/O that the door he was responsible for closing, was still open. Surprised to find the S/O’s seat unoccupied, the now panic-stricken stewardess was frantically yelling her concerns to the captain as he observed the cabin-door-unlocked light illuminated. This brought a look of disbelief to the captain’s eyes as he quickly brought all engines back to idle and sent the F/O back to check on the situation. The F/O arrived at the open door just in time to witness the S/O hand-over-handing it up the escape rope like a marine in basic training, crawling into the cabin, onto the floor, completely covered with wet grass and mud.

With his primary mission finally accomplished and without even a moment’s hesitation, the new hire S/O promptly jumped to his feet, swung around and gripping the door’s handle, firmly closed and locked the offending door. Finally completing this essential pre-departure task, he opened his shirt, pulled out his new, but now battle-scarred hat and placed it proudly, although a bit sheepishly, on his head. As he turned around to face a cabin full of bewildered passengers, they immediately erupted into a hearty round of cheers and applause that would ring clearly in his ears throughout the remainder of his 37-year career as a United Airlines flight officer.

United Airlines DC-6