CEO of the Cockpit #70: Ninety-Seven Metal Keys



The company had issued a call, asking that employees bring in ancient artifacts of an airline gone by — ours. The company’s museum was expanding. Now that we were almost out of bankruptcy it was time to start spending money irresponsibly again before we forgot how.The museum is a wonderful place, situated in a corner of the Maintenance Base on the south side of the airport. I am sure the public is welcome to go there, but I doubt they are willing to go through the security checks necessary to do so. Many employees, including this one, have visited often to see the old airplanes, uniforms, and other airline historical detritus of a time gone by when a pilot was respected and a passenger was comfortable, happy, and fed.Along the lines of gustatory delight there was a rather large display of actual plates, ceramic cups, and drink glasses made out of glass along with metal forks, spoons, and knives. There was even a time that we gave passengers a sharp knife to cut their steaks. That’s right. I said, “steaks.”

Coffee, Tea or … Nose Candy?


Our plastic coffee stirrers used to be in the actual shape of little spoons at the end of long plastic wands that had the company logo on top. One of the first compromises made by the airline to the so-called “real world” was when they changed the little spoon on the end to a flat paddle in the early 1980s. People at parties were using our little spoons to put cocaine up their noses. The spoon was just the right size, they tell me, and the company logo added nothing to enhance our reputation as a stolid, dependable airline.Another display showed something I hadn’t thought about for a very long time. In a glass case was an example of a first-class meal tray from the 1970s. In addition to the real dishes, silverware and drink tumblers, there was a very small pack of cigarettes and a pack of matches sporting the airline’s logo. Also near the meal set-up was an ashtray with the picture of one of our airplanes emblazoned on it. Good times.Flight attendants used to carry lighters to help out passengers who were jonesing for a smoke but didn’t remember to bring Bics to flick. Flight attendants back then were almost always in their 20s and single, and were required to follow a strict makeup and fashion regime (which included wearing nylons) as well as adhere to strict weight limits.Imagine that. A little over a decade ago, flight attendants were required to weigh-in at various intervals in order to keep their jobs. We pilots, of course, were never made to succumb to such a humiliating experience. We had some real porkers, too.

The CEO Contributes

Fred Bogan, the new curator of the museum came up to say hi as I entered the museum. I had flown with Fred years ago when he was a DC-8 captain and I was a mere engineer. Fred had taken over the job of curator earlier this year after his wife Barbara died. Barb was a flight attendant who actually was required to resign her job with the airline after she married Fred. This mandatory resignation was for two reasons: First, flight attendants back then weren’t allowed to be married; and second, husband and wife teams weren’t allowed on the planes.When I flew the DC-8 with Fred, one of my jobs as engineer was to accept shotguns and rifles from passengers who were going on hunting trips. I would give them a ticket and store their weapons in our locked gun case located in the cockpit near the radio rack.”Good to see you again, dumbass,” said a fairly well-preserved former captain. “Did you bring me anything I can use for the museum or did you just come over to make sure you’ll be late for sign-in today?”Yeah, I am wearing my space suit and am supposed to fly 200 plebian vacationers to Vegas tonight. I just thought I’d stop by and drop off my contribution to that wonderful odyssey we all call aviation history.”Gawd, I hope you didn’t bring me another hat emblem or set of wings,” Fred groaned. “If I see one more set of epaulettes, I’m gonna hurl. I need to get some real artifacts from the 1970s and 1980s or all we’re going to have in the pilot section of this museum are chief pilot uniforms that the guys only wore for photo ops, some company pamphlets like the “Can You Wear this Pilot Hat?” and another E6-b with a shoestring tied to it.”

Ninety-Seven Metal Keys


The first artifact I’m going to donate to this fine institution is my collection of hotel and motel keys. Back during the beginning years of my career, I got this idea that it would be great to keep every motel key ever issued to me for a layover. I was planning on keeping them all and bequeathing them to my offspring when I croaked. Or perhaps I would melt them all down at the end of my career and cast the keys into some sort of statue commemorating my flying life. A statue of an overweight pilot on a bar stool or a pilot in a La-Z-Boy recliner with a newspaper over his head.Then the motel people went from metal keys to credit-card magnetic-strip keys. Who wants hundreds of those things? I stopped my key collection hobby right then.Fred got right to the point: “Why in the world would anybody want to come here and look at your stupid stolen keys?”You’re kidding, right? There is more history tied up in these keys than in the entire collection at the British Natural History Museum. Let’s talk about some layover history still reminisced over on the line.The first key I grabbed out of the pile made a good example. It was the gold-colored metal key to the San Diego Sheraton. The year was 1984. Reagan was in the White House. Nancy was saying, “No” and this pilot’s hair was still brown. The trips back then were awesome. One leg out to SAN, a 24-hour layover and one leg back home. That was our week.The Sheraton was right on the water across from the Navy. The motel had balconies where I could sit in the warm afternoons and watch the ships come in and go out. Killer Mexican restaurant right next door, and back then the girls (we called flight attendants “the girls”) would always go out to dinner or rent a sailboat with you.The next key I grabbed out of the pile was attached to a plastic credit-card-sized reminder that if I accidentally took the key with me I could drop it in any mailbox. The key was to room 574 at the Omni Hotel in Manhattan. We got discount tickets to Broadway shows. Saw Cats for half price when the play was so new it hadn’t become a clich yet. Believe me, half price is twice what anybody should pay to see Cats.I could go on and on. Each metal key represents an older time when motel doors had real locks. When hotel televisions had six or seven channels and when hotel bars didn’t all look the same and have big-screen sports games always going on.

Fred Wants To See More


Fred didn’t seem too impressed with my key collection so I brought out the big gun — an FOPM (flight operations procedures manual) that I had kept without making any updates from the day I got it in 1978.”How in the world did you keep this so long without making any of the revisions?” Fred asked. “Didn’t you get in trouble for not keeping it up?”Naw … I figured out the whole thing when they issued the book to me on my second day with the airline. The book was only required to be in the flight bag of the captain. Lowly engineers like me weren’t supposed to carry it. I calculated that it would take 20 years to make captain and who wants to do 20 years of revisions on a book? I never did a revision on this book and, when I made captain, I paid the 20 bucks to buy a new, current one.The book I handed to Fred described exactly how the flight operations department of the airline ran itself in 1978. It talked about our three-day-a-week London flight. It discussed how to do weight and balance using a pencil and a piece of paper. It summed up how to fill out something called a “Pay Sheet” and another thing called a “Flight Attendant Time Tab.” It is priceless information from a time when the company owned exactly one computer that took up the bigger part of a big room. The only flaw in the book was a crayoned rendition of He-Man that my three year old son drew in 1985.I could see that Fred was getting a little excited so I brought out a few more artifacts.My toolkit was my next contribution to the ages. Pilots used to carry small toolkits in their flight bags so they could tighten the odd screw or fix something in the galley for the girls. We can’t anymore because the TSA boys think we might hijack ourselves with our adjustable wrenches.My bourbon flask was next to go into the mists of airline lore. Almost every pilot carried some sort of alcohol in the suitcases for those late arrival layovers. Mixers were no problem — we took sodas and snacks off of the airplanes — but if you wanted Jim Beam or Jack Daniels to accompany you to your room, you often had to pack him yourself.My final donation before I rejoined the modern airline flying world and drove my 757 to LAS was a Zippo lighter and a pack of smokes. We pilots didn’t carry butane lighters when we flew. They leaked and could start a fire. Your smokers — and in the late 1970s almost all of us smoked in the cockpit — carried Zippos just like the scratched one I gave to the museum.

Fred Sums It Up

“I can use most of this stuff and I thank you for it,” he said. “I don’t think I can use your wad of metal motel-room keys. I have a feeling that absolutely nobody will understand what they are and what they mean to you.”I had to admit that Fred had a good point. Still, I didn’t want to carry five pounds of metal keys around on my upcoming trip. Just getting those suckers through security would be a hassle. It was Fred who solved my problem with a crystal-clear logic that I remembered he had when I flew with him.”Hey, just drop them all in the mail. The keys all say the post office will return them for free.”Great idea! I can imagine the excitement at 97 different motels when they get their room keys back 20 years or more after they left. It’ll bring airline history alive.

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