AIRMAIL CREATES AN INDUSTRY:
On November 18, 1918, with visibility at the
field almost zero, airmail pilot Eddie
Gardner told his field manager he would not fly until
the weather was better. Robert
Shank, ordered to take the mail in his friend's
place, also refused to fly. Citing their employment agreements
to fly or be fired, Praeger dismissed both pilots. His other
pilots got the message. Fly or be fired was the rule. It would
not be seriously challenged again until the next summer.
On July 22, 1919, pilot Leon
Smith, scheduled to fly that morning on the New York to
Washington route, called off his trip. He pointed to visibility
limits of 200 feet as impossible for takeoff. When news reached
Praeger that a pilot had refused to fly, he responded
with a telegram to the airfield's manager that Smith
was to "fly by compass, visibility not necessary."
Smith refused again to takeoff, as did the three next pilots
told to make the trip, Walter
Webster and E.
Hamilton Lee. Field manager Harry W. Powers asked each
pilot to explain his refusal in writing. Smith's written
refusal was an attack on his boss. "It is mighty easy,
Mr. Praeger for you to sit in your swivel chair in Washington
and tell the fliers when they can fly."
Smith and Lee were fired that day. Stevens
and Webster were left hanging while an investigation was
made regarding their refusals. The firings were the final
straw in the animosities brewing between Praeger and his
pilots over flying rules. More pilots refused to fly, and
Praeger quickly had a full fledged strike on his hands.
The pilots took their tales to the press,
and unlike Lipsner before them, were able to get the press
on their side. News stories focused on the hazards of flying
airmail in the U.S., not on the need for schedules to be
kept. One of the fired pilots, E. Hamilton Lee, had agreed
to take the mail if he could use a Curtiss Jenny instead
of the required Curtiss R-4. The latter airplane had a tendency
to over-heat at low altitudes and any pilot hoping to fly
that day would have to fly under the fog bank. Praeger had
exploded over that request, furious that a pilot would question
his orders or selection of aircraft. As Praeger told the
press, "the department will not leave to pilots the
question of when to fly or type of machine to be used."
The autocratic supervisor with no flight experience was
at logger-heads with his rebellious pilots.
On July 26, Praeger and James
Edgerton, Chief of Flying, met with Charles
Anglin who represented the striking pilots. Both sides
claimed victory with the final interpretation of the rules.
Pilots won a concession that field managers would have final
say over flights and bad weather. Undoubtedly, pilots believed
that their managers, looking at the same weather conditions
they saw, would understand the problem. Praeger kept his "fly
or be fired" rule in play. If a field manager deemed
that it was safe to fly, any pilot who refused would be dismissed
on the spot.
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