“The union wanted me gone,” Chuck Hosmer says. “I was 60 and didn’t want to go.” He’s a former American Airlines 777 captain, aged out of the left seat after 31 years. Commercial pilots, active and retired, are well represented on the OBPA roster. After a stint as an ex-pat pilot for Air India, Hosmer now works as a contractor for Citation, training pilots. One of the younger regulars at OBPA, he exudes the lean intensity of the pilot in command. While many of the bold and older feast on high-calorie breakfast combo plates, Hosmer orders a spartan bowl of oatmeal and trades terse insider talk about today’s commercial cockpit.
“My real heartache,” he says, “is aviation safety and where it’s headed.” Hosmer considers the June 2009 Air France 447 crash, in part attributed to inexperience and lack of cockpit communication, an inevitable result of how pilots are now trained. “You tell someone to intercept a course and the first thing they do is drop their head and start typing on a keyboard. They need to look out that window first and see what’s over there.” Getting even an interview at a major airline used to require a minimum of more than 2,000 hours of flight time, but with today’s new multi-crew license, candidates can qualify as commercial copilots in just 14 months of training with a minimum of flight hours—none of it solo. “They’ll give you a total of 12 landings in a real airplane—everything else is in simulators,” Hosmer says. “Then you walk out the door and you’re supposed to be qualified to sit in the right seat of a 737 and fly passengers. What you’re not qualified to do is go across the street and rent a Cessna 172 and fly alone. To me, that is just bizarre.”
He worries that the profession is losing its appeal to avid aviators, and becoming just another not-too-well-paid gig for people with no better option. In the cockpits where Chuck Hosmer and others around us put in thousands of hours, pilots practiced the skills required to be an airline captain and react capably in a crisis. “And that’s what we’re losing,” he says. “What we’re gaining are computer programmers.”
“I told them I didn’t care,” Charles Huebsch says. “I just wanted to fly a P-38.” This was his answer when asked “You do understand that a photo recon plane has no guns to defend itself?”
The Japanese called the aircraft “Photo Joe.” Huebsch’s recon flights targeted air bases in the south Pacific as well as troop emplacements, anti-aircraft batteries, and potential landing sites. “Soon as the smoke cleared, I was there taking pictures,” Huebsch says. “The bomber pilots would come back and say, ‘We wiped them out.’ Then we’d say, ‘Hey, look at our pictures. The damage was not complete.’ The bomber pilots just loved us.”
Low on fuel after photographing a large Japanese air base, Huebsch saw a glint on the island of Biak northwest of New Guinea. Once he realized what they had stumbled upon, he told his wingman he was going for the shots—low fuel or not. “I told him, ‘These pictures are too valuable. I’ll belly the thing in. I’ll lose the plane but I’ll get the shots. Search for me on the south side of New Guinea.’ ” It turned out to be a recon photo-thon. More than 100 Japanese Zeros and a number of Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers were laid out along an airstrip, like sunbathers under the cloudless Pacific sky. “Nobody even fired a shot,” he says. After the final shutter click, he flew as far as his fuel would take him, found an island with a hard coral beach—“about the length of the flight deck on the Midway”—and landed wheels-down instead of bellying in.
Local residents greeted him, fishing spears in hand. “All the ladies were dressed like early National Geographic,” Huebsch says. He established an uneasy rapport, and after five days, a search plane spotted his P-38 and dropped K-rations for Huebsch and the locals. He slept in the closed cockpit of his aircraft every night. “They taught us in jungle school: Don’t mingle with the natives.” Instead, he was soon spearfishing with his hosts, but wearing rolled-up shorts: “I was too embarrassed to go naked.” After days sampling the local cuisine of roots and grub worms, he was glad to see a World War I-vintage Australian amphibian that had landed near the beach. “We were only told to pick up your film,” the crew informed him. “We’ll be back for you in a couple of days.”
When they finally returned him to base, an MP was waiting to take him to the commander of the Fifth Air Force. “The general’s aide bawled me out. ‘Why didn’t you belly that plane in? You could have flipped over and killed yourself.’ He poured me a glass of straight whiskey. Well, I’ve been eating grub worms for days and I told him, Sir, I can’t drink this. ‘Don’t pour it out,’ he said, ‘that stuff’s too hard to get!’ ”