A Pilot's History: Chap. 11 -- Being a Corporate Pilot

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[AVweb's reprint of A Pilot's History began with Chapter 1.]

Skywritings

Jeanne and I did some boating and relaxed as a family. I wrote a letter to Arthur Vining Davis letting him know I was free from any contracts and, if he cared to speak to me regarding employment, I was readily available. I soon received a phone call to come to his office. If I came to work for him, he would see to it I would never be sorry for having done so. He also had a problem with his pilots, who were not getting along together in the cockpit. Maybe I could work out the problem. Pete was interested in flying helicopters and took care of the chopper work. They used the chopper to look at properties in the Miami area. His duties also consisted of flying Mr. Davis to the Boca Raton Club, which he owned, about 50 miles north of his home in South Miami, for his bi-weekly haircut with his favorite barber. When he purchased the club and adjoining land, it was the costliest real-estate transaction in Florida history. For his personal use, he had two executive DC-3s, two Aero Commanders, a PBY, and two helicopters. I realized going to work for Mr. Davis was going to be a great change from the nitty-gritty work of commercial aviation, to becoming a personal pilot. I would miss the ever-changing activity and growth of technology in the aviation field, and I would be totally dependent on the good will of my employer. Would this be another dead-end experience? I did not think so. If I had to work for a single person, I could not think of anyone that I respected any more than this man. I remembered him telling me how he and Charles Martin Hall, fresh out of college, teamed up to develop a means to extract aluminum from bauxite. Charles was the scientist and he was the teammate and organizer. In Pittsburgh, where they set up their reduction plant, they worked the vats 24 hours a day and, after a few months, extracted a piece of metal the size of the end of his thumb. As their success multiplied, one man would watch the vats at night while the other sold pots and pans made of aluminum from door to door, to skeptical housewives. This man had enough prestige in the world to be visited by the Queen of England and entertained on his yacht for a period of time while in the Bahamas Islands.

The Bahamas

Eleuthera Island Harbor

Besides the occasional business trips in DC-3s, I would fly him to the Bahamas for a few days at the Rock Sound Club to relax. He usually took a lot of guests including his nurse and doctor. He would also take his attorneys, interior decorator and their wives. The first time I flew him to the island, he signaled me to get into his car with him. The driver took us several miles over a primitive road to his cottage on the beach. It was located on a circular bay with a half-mile of white-sand beach to the right and another half-mile of sand beach to the left. In addition, there was a break in limestone cliffs where the Atlantic Ocean joined the crystal waters of the bay. The cottage was beautifully furnished with paintings and crystal, ready for occupants. A native couple had separate quarters and was taking good care of the place. He took a lot of pride in showing me around his place. With a sad look on his face, he turned to me and said, "I have never stayed here. They think it is better for me to stay at the club with my guests." That was sad. I knew what I would have done. A few days later, with swim fins, goggles and a spear gun, I went swimming with one of the attorneys not too far from the cottage. Returning to the lodge, Mr. Davis was delighted to see the lobsters and the selection of fish we brought to the club's kitchen. One nice thing about spear fishing there: You could pick out the type and size of fish or lobster you wanted for dinner. Better yet was the help to clean and cook them! The club was a congenial place to be. When Queen Elizabeth visited the Bahamas, the government asked Mr. Davis' permission to use his yacht to take her around the islands. Being 167 feet long and drawing 17 feet of water, it was "fit for a Queen." During her stay at the club, many dignitaries came to pay their respects to her. Not only did he own the club, but also the water works, the electric power company, the golf course, the cotton Bay Club, the airport and half the island. These developments were put in at a tremendous cost, under primitive conditions, on this hard, coral-rock island. In later years, he was to sell a lot of this to a group of investors headed up by Juan Tripp, who was also head of Pan American Airways. Mr. Tripp was supposed to update the airport for jet aircraft and bring in direct Pan Am flights from New York. I had the job of flying Mr. Tripp and his operation manager to the islands from Florida. I thought it a little strange he did not have his own executive Pan Am plane. Davis also owned a bank in Nassau. I flew him there for a director's meeting and, during the trip, he confided to me they wanted to change the banking rules from American to English. He was not going to allow that to happen. He knew a lot about banking, having been married to Mr. Mellon's daughter, and being a director in the Mellon Bank. His trial attorney, who had worked for him many years, told me Mr. Davis probably had one of the best executive minds in the U.S. On a return flight from a board meeting of Alcoa, he was the lone passenger and seemingly wanted to talk, so I asked if things had gone well for him. He shook his head. "You know, U.S. Steel's labor contract comes up before Alcoa's, and they set a precedent for us. Their chairman had called me and said labor was pressing hard for benefits. I told him not to sign anything until you know exactly what it's going to cost. He called me back later and said, 'I signed it and it's going to cost a lot more than I thought.' " Davis was banging his head in his fist to emphasize: "I told him not to sign until he knew the cost!" I thought about how much power must reside in this man if he can advise the head of U.S. Steel what he should do. I quietly asked, "What percentage does labor play in the cost of producing a pound of aluminum?" He gave me a very searching look, "I don't know, but by damn, tomorrow I will know!"

Isle of Pines

Beach on Isle of Pines

Davis owned the southern third of the Isle of Pines [Isla de Pinos, renamed Isla de la Juventud in the 1970s], about 284,000 acres, located off the south coast of Cuba. It was a beautiful, tropical island with coral reefs and forests on the southern coast. The island was about 38 miles in diameter, with the southern section divided from the northern part with a fresh-water swamp. There were no roads connecting the two sections. The northern part was beautiful, rolling country with low hills of marble in some areas. Tropical palm trees were prevalent, especially the unique bottle palms. Davis also owned some gorgeous, black-sand beaches from early volcanic activity on the island not far from the town of Nueva Gerona on the north coast. In addition, he owned the airport in the north section, with paved runways and a very small terminal. We had a delightful, Cuban-style house on the airport property that we could park our plane along side, unload our baggage, prop up our feet in the breezeway and -- with a Cuba libre in our sweaty hand -- let the trade wind blow! There were a few workers on the payroll looking after the properties that would join us and bring us up on the current news. We heard about the revolutionists in the hills of mainland Cuba that wanted to unseat Batista. The leader's name was Fidel Castro. Usually I flew there in the six-passenger Aero Commander. It was a delightful plane to fly, fairly fast, and had a fuel range good enough to fly from Miami and return without refueling. J.J. looked after some of the property holdings for Mr. Davis and needed to go down often. Besides, he liked the fishing and so did I. On the southern coast, we had a grass landing-strip right along the coastline, with a bay on one end of the runway. There we kept an island-built skiff of 20 feet and a 10-hp outboard engine. It was used for travel and fishing by the natives as well as ourselves. Two workmen kept the weeds cut on the primitive airstrip with hand scythes until we brought them a small, gasoline, push mower. They were more cheerful about mowing after that. There was a small village of a dozen thatched huts with elevated wooden floors populated by people who migrated in the year 1900 from Grand Cayman Island. They had light-tan skin with a soft, old-English speech. I loved listening to them talk in their soft, calypso-style voices and their choice of words. They cooked on iron charcoal stoves and sold fish, lobster and excellent charcoal to the northern part of the island for cash and, in turn, bought rice, beans and flour. When Hollywood wanted to film "The Sharkfighters," they used this site and had the natives on film with Victor Mature on a marvelous stretch of white-sand beach in a tropical setting. I would usually bring down items from the U.S., such as clothing, dishes, etc., to distribute here. My friends in Florida got into the act of gathering surplus items for me to take to the Isle of Pines. I would enjoy seeing the locals in familiar clothes. When Jeanne came down and we spent the night in our own thatched hut with J.J. and his wife, every native lined up at our front door to walk through the house, to greet the wives, shake hands and walk out the back door. The children were so well-behaved and so happy with a gift of the smallest toy. Their big smiles have long been remembered. Jeanne's father came down with me one day to fish. I rigged a mangrove pole with a clothespin in the outboard skiff to make his bait skip on the surface and he caught a seven-foot sailfish within 100 yards of the shoreline! It made our day. When returning to the north part of the island, we would usually find a gift of wild honey in old rum bottles under the wing of our plane.

Politics Intrudes

It was Davis' intention to build a new small terminal building on the airport near Nueva Gerona and turn it all over to the Cuban government in return for permission to build a tourist hotel on the beach. As the political events evolved, that never happened. Meanwhile, we had made friends with a wealthy Cuban that was close to President Batista. He had an 8000-acre ranch, 6000 head of Brahma crossbreed cattle, and a lovely home on a hill overlooking the ranch. When staying there, I experienced first-hand how the old cattle barons in Texas must have lived. This island was taken over by the U.S. after the Spanish-American war at the turn of the century. To reward the veterans of the war, the U.S. let them homestead the island. Of course, most of them soon sold out. Fred's grandfather kept his land, built a lovely, old-style home and planted orange and grapefruit groves. Fred became the owner of about 2000 acres and stayed with it. In later years, the island had been traded back to Cuba for Guantanamo Bay, which the U.S. now owns and uses as a military base. Most Americans left the island when that happened. But Fred's family stayed. Fred and his wife, with their two boys, were real pioneers and one of the few American families. They had a home in Miami but appeared to prefer the lifestyle in the Isle of Pines. I brought my son, age 14 at the time, to the island to ride horseback in this beautiful country. Castro was gaining a following. The local Cuban people here did not like Batista and were sympathetic to the young Fidel. Even the men on our payroll thought things would improve with Castro in control. One thing of local influence was Batista's prison for political prisoners. I paid it a visit to see what it was like. I found a round, cement building with iron bars around the outer wall, making cages for the prisoners with the armed guards in the center of the building, protected by another circular area with iron bars. Some of the prisoners worked in pits on the small hills near the prison, cutting marble for building material. Some prisoners used their time to carve various small articles, which they were permitted to sell to visitors. They had over 3000 inmates in a prison built for 1500. They were all rooting for Castro to defeat Batista. I saw no sign of physical abuse, but I got cold prickles on my neck when I saw freedom restricted with iron bars, cement walls and armed guards.

PBY Checkout

Mr. Davis' PBY with boats

There was never anything hectic about working for Mr. Davis. If he wanted me to fly somewhere, it would be his voice saying, "Captain, would it be convenient to fly me to such and such place next Friday?" That was a lot different behavior than some people I had been associated with in the past. One day I called a friend at the FAA to give me a flight check in the PBY. He was happy to get out of the office. This was the amphibian Mr. Davis had in case he wanted to fly to an island in the Caribbean that did not have an airport and would have to land on the water. He never did fly in it. This day with the inspector I got a good workout on Lake Okeechobee. The interior was dressed out with settee/berths, a nine-cubic-foot refrigerator, our own power plant and galley. We could lower two 14-foot, outboard, fiberglass boats, one from each wing. I found my takeoff run, without the boats, to be 35 seconds. With the boats, it was 55 seconds. Just a small bit of information a pilot should know. When the inspector gave me an Airline Transport rating for a PBY on land or sea, he said I was probably one of 10 people in the world to hold that rating. We kept the airplanes belonging to Mr. Davis near a company he owned by the name of Riddle Airlines, later to be known as Airlift International. It was strictly a cargo carrier. He never stopped there for a visit that I know of, but he stood by his aircraft with me and talked about them. One time it was, "I just lost seven million dollars with them," and looked at me with a "What are you going to do about it?" I did not know what could be done without upgrading everything, including aircraft, and developing new customers and routes, an expensive proposition. He had indicated he was tired of putting money into the company. Perhaps I should have put my neck in a noose, but I was a little weary of fighting against the odds.

Escape from Isle of Pines

Castro was working his way towards Havana and the Cuban population seemed to be supporting him. On New Year's Day, 1959, we heard Batista had fled Cuba at midnight. A few hours later, Mr. Davis' assistant in Miami received a message: "The fish are biting; please send down a big car." The first part referred to Castro and the call was for help for our wealthy Cuban friend. The "big car" referred to the DC-3, not an Aero Commander. A pilot and I took off for Cuba with Mr. Davis' OK to use his personal aircraft. We had to file a flight plan to Cuba, via Key West, but I requested they hold up notifying Cuba of our flight plan. They must have understood the reason. We did not know who was in power or who controlled the Cuban Air Force. We did know no one would be friendly to a Yankee plane with two American pilots, and I certainly did not want to see the plane confiscated. I picked a course across a sparsely populated area of Cuba to the Isle of Pines, made no radio calls, bypassed the airport, buzzed our friend's ranch and landed on a cleared field I had previously inspected. Very quickly, a caravan of cars started arriving and hurriedly the people got on board the plane. Our friend's entire family, some servants and a stranger filled up the plane. As soon as they were all strapped in, we took off staying low. Our autopilot was inoperative and the plane had to be hand-flown. Fortunately there was cloud cover and I suggested the pilot hide in it. Shortly, things were not going right. My duplicate set of instruments showed we were in a descending turn with an ever-increasing bank and rate of turn. Looking at the pilot's artificial horizon, it was inoperative and showing him an incorrect picture. His eyes were locked on the instrument, ignoring everything else. I suggested I take over, and I brought it up right and on course. I remembered all the times I had been called to take his place when the weather was bad; when we had been flying through any weather, he always put it on autopilot. This time he could not. He was very good at making smooth landings and that was it. Our Cuban friend and I talked about what was happening in Cuba, but he did not know much more than I did. He thanked me profusely for coming to get him and his family. He reached in his pocked, pulled out a few bills and said, "Yesterday I had a beautiful home and millions. Today, I have $150." He made it known Castro would like to capture him. He thanked me once again for the lives of him and his family. I told him it was Mr. Davis he should thank. Immigration gave them special status, with the assistance from Mr. Davis' office and J.J.

Quick Trips Back

Aero Commander

Fred had his senses tuned to the Castro movement for a long time, and with his association with the locals, he had known Castro was no small threat. He had been wise to persuade his family to return to the U.S. while he had stayed behind to protect his ranch and cattle. On my subsequent trips to the islands, he told us Castro's troops were demanding cattle to feed their troops and giving him worthless script for payment at a later date. He would see his beef for sale at the local meat market a few days later. He was a man that could become angry quickly at any form of injustice. I became worried he might begin a battle he could not win and offered him safe passage to the U.S. I heard later he did leave Cuba and I assume had to give up his possessions on the island that he had worked so hard to perfect. Mr. Davis' attorneys set up a meeting for him with Castro in Havana, I presume to discuss what would happen to his possessions in Cuba and the proposed terminal and airport he was planning to put up for use by the Cuban people. While he and the attorneys were meeting with Castro, I was requested to talk to Castro's Chief of Naval Affairs about our continued access to Isle of Pines. I was guided to the Naval Office near the harbor that was occupied with soldiers in fatigues fully armed and behaving like anything but trained soldiers or navy personnel. The chief was surrounded by troops in a crowded room while he sat at a battered desk with his boots propped on it. There was no indication that he knew anything about naval affairs or cared what happened on the island. At least I was not told I couldn't fly down to the island. Everyone looked glum flying back to Miami. Castro must have been bad news. There was optimism in the U.S. media that Castro would have friendly relations with the U.S., but the ex-patriots in Cuba knew better. There was no doubt he was on the Communist side and his venomous talk against the U.S. was well known. I never understood why the U.S. withdrew support from Batista, letting Castro gain power. I continued to fly to the Isle of Pines in the Aero Commander to check on the property, do some fishing and get the tempo of the people. One day I was approached by a squad of Castro's armed soldiers at the airport. They wanted to commandeer the aircraft for a flight. Knowing I had to get a handle on this problem, I asked who was going to fly it. The leader pointed at me and I shook my head, feeling pretty sure they would not shoot an American at this stage of the revolution. I asked what they wanted to do, perhaps I could help. An American that ran a fish camp with a couple of boats on the island was trying to escape with the boats and they wanted to apprehend him. I said, "Sure, let's go look for him. Load up. But first, unload your weapons, because we don't wish to shoot down the airplane we are in." No problem. I knew Captain Barothy and I had no intention of helping them to capture him. They had orders to look for him, but did not know where to look. I thought about what escape routes he might take and we flew everywhere but over those routes. We stayed at the wrong altitudes for smooth air or for searching. I made tight, vertical turns and a few subtle, extra movements of the controls, and I found some bumpy air in clouds to help shake up the soldiers. Soon, a couple of the soldiers turned pale and then green with airsickness. They soon asked, but I hesitated until they begged, to get on firm ground. My mission was accomplished. Much later I heard Barothy and his boats were in Belize. Another time I flew to the airstrip on the South coast only to find logs piled across it. After landing on the airport at the north side of the island, the guards approached me to say troops had been firing at an unknown plane where I had crossed the island. We looked but found no bullet holes. Not being able to land on the South coast, in conjunction with the increasing number of Castro troops on the island, and not wishing to have holes shot in the aircraft or have it confiscated, I decided to stop going into Cuba unless I had a compelling reason to do so.

A Change of Life

After a quiet period, I was requested to come to Mr. Davis' office, which occupied an entire floor of the First National Bank Building, with his corner office overlooking Biscayne Bay. He introduced me to Mr. Kendall, president of American Marc, a company listed on the American Stock Exchange. Mr. Davis also owned the majority of the stock. The company was engaged in the manufacture of small diesel engines to drive generators and irrigations pumps. In addition, they were trying to develop a 10-horsepower, diesel, outboard motor. Mr. Kendall wanted the company to enter the small-boat business by opening a large manufacturing plant in California. Davis, being a booster of Florida, said there should be a plant in Florida. Kendall mentioned they did not have anyone to head it up. That is when Davis brought me into the act with the words, "My doctors are restricting my flying, and perhaps you can help Mr. Kendall." Mr. Kendall then told me he wanted me to build 6000 fiberglass boats within the first year and distribute them east of the Mississippi River. I asked how much of a staff could he supply me. "None, but we will supply the designs, molds and handle the sales force from the West Coast." "How about the manufacturing plant?" Mr. Davis spoke up, "I'll put up a plant here." From that day forward, I was totally immerged in building boats. Flying to Pittsburgh, New York or the Bahamas became infrequent for Mr. Davis. My conversations with him were not less valued, but seldom occurred as his office force took greater command of his affairs. In particular, I remember inviting him to "his" boat plant to watch the extraction of the fiberglass hull from the mold and his pleased expression of delight. I continued to build the rag-tag boat designs as demanded by the California home office, knowing very well they would not be suitable for the abuse of salt water conditions. The whole company, including the diesel-outboard development program, was a losing affair. The new plant, one of the largest fiberglass plants in the area, was up and operating when I was asked to close it down. As Mr. Davis' illness took hold of him, the company personnel managing his vast affairs sold American Marc to an investor, who, in turn, broke it up into segments. I managed to purchase the physical assets in Miami by out-bidding several hopeful people. This included raw materials, tools, molds and 80 boats, finished and unfinished. I was not about to give up on this career.
It was now 1961, and after spending more than 20 years in the air, I was about to embark on a new route that would take me to the sea. I was locked into building boats with my body, soul and a small checkbook. I had a lot of knowledge of the aircraft industry and skills that could be transferred to the boating industry. I applied these to the design of the boats I built under the name of SeaCraft. But even after all the time that has passed, I will never forget the man that brought forth aluminum that is used in every aircraft that flies.
[Carl Moesly's story concludes with Chapter 12.]
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