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Ralph Savory, Part 2

This is a continuation of an interview with Ralph Savory on November 8, 2007 by William Schneider at his home in Santa Rosa, California. His daughter, Diane, was also present during the interview. In this second part of a three part interview, Ralph talks about the beginning of the jet age in aviation, training pilots, flying for Pan American Airways, and flying to the Soviet Union. He also discusses his role as chief pilot for Pan Am, the importance of Pan Am to Alaskan aviation, and the demise of the company.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2008-03_PT.2

Project: Pioneer Aviators
Date of Interview: Nov 8, 2007
Narrator(s): Ralph Savory
Interviewer(s): Bill Schneider
People Present: Diane Savory
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
Alaska State Library, Institute of Museum and Library Services
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.

After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.


Ralph talks about the jet age of aviation

A damaging incident with an airplane

Getting the damaged plane back to Seattle

A trip to Moscow

Starting from scratch teaching pilots in San Francisco

The beginning of inter-continental flights with Alaska

The progression of jet aviation

Working for Wien Airlines

Ralph talks about the beauty of a 707 and the demise of Pan Am

Importance of Pan Am to Alaska aviation

Click play, then use Sections or Transcript to navigate the interview.

After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.


BILL SCHNEIDER: Ok, we’re back on. We’re about to start the jet age. So how did you get into the jet age?

RALPH SAVORY: Okay. Well, 1958 Pan Am was due to receive six new 707’s. They were the first order. These particular airplanes were fairly short range, but they -- so the Airline Pilots Association notified the company that they wouldn’t fly the 707 until such time the rate of pay had been established for this airplane, because it was twice as fast as anything that was flying.

That was one of the items that would determine the rate of pay. So one of the vice presidents in New York who was a former line pilot says, “Well, let’s call all the supervisory pilots in and qualify them with the airplane. And fly the airplanes until such a time that we have an agreement with the Airline Pilots Association for the regular pilots.”

So that’s what happened. And I was sitting up in Seattle not knowing anything about this operation. And I got notice to report to New York in July of 1958 for ground school, 707 qualification. Oh boy. Well, of course I went along with it. So we spent -- all these 22 guys spent three weeks in ground school. They told us how to build the airplane, and something about operating it. But mostly how to build it. But anyhow, then we had to get 15 hours in the airplane. Instruction. The FAA determined that.

And so we got that, and then we had to fly and get an FAA rating in the airplane. The FAA inspector sat in the jump seat and watched us perform. Well, I got through that okay. And then I had to spend 40 hours out on the line flying into various airports with a check pilot. Then they, by golly, they turned me loose!

I expected that farmer from Seattle up there, they probably -- I'll never get to be commander. But I got to fly command. Because all the guys didn’t get qualified with that rating. Just about half the group. So I flew from then on from New York to London, and New York to Paris, and down on to Rome. Let’s see, the French decided at that particular time -- their main airport was called Orly, and they closed it down because they were building a 12,000 foot runway down there.

So we had to land in where Lindberg landed in that old airport (Savory added after the interview this was Le Bourget and Lindbergh landed there in 1927). The name of it just went -- but anyhow, we flew off of that.

So that went on into February of 1959, and an incident happened that an airplane got into a dive and damaged the airplane quite a bit. What had happened, they were going from London to Gander -- we had to stop and refuel -- I’ll go back a little bit and describe this. The airplane was capable of non-stop going eastbound to prevailing wind. But on the way back, we had to stop some place for fuel in this short-range airplane.

BILL SCHNEIDER: This is New York to -- ?

RALPH SAVORY: Yeah. New York to Europe. We could stop -- mainly we operated out of Keflavik up in Iceland. We'd go up over the (pole) -- and stop there for fuel, but then we had the privilege of going non-stop to Gander, or Goose Bay in Canada or down through the Azores. Santa Maria and the Azores. So we got -- over the year you got to see all those places at one time or the other.

But anyhow, it was quite an interesting operation. But to get back to this flight where they got into trouble. The airplane -- what had really happened, the captain went aft to visit his wife, she was in the back in with some of the passengers. And the co-pilot which was an old timer had been behind the dash for quite a while, was sitting up there, and he was -- his head was down evidently and he was copying weather. Gander -- they were heading for Gander.

And of course Gander, it’s snowing one minute and foggy the next and everything. And this airplane, they were at 31,000 feet and it slipped off the auto-pilot. I don’t know -- How it happened, no one seems to know. But there’s a switch down on the panel right close by, and he could have knocked it off all right, but a red light comes on when you knock it off the autopilot.

But anyhow, he was flying up there all by himself, and he was copying weather and this thing got knocked off the autopilot, and it very slowly got into the nose down. The airplane very slightly -- and it started picking up speed, and when he realized that they were in a start of a dive, he couldn’t get it out. The G-load got built up.

Well, the captain's back in the cabin, and he had to crawl up on his hands and knees. And we had -- they had a couple of extra flight -- not one -- extra flight engineer, and they physically helped him into the seat. And he couldn’t get his feet on the rudder pedals to release the G-load, gravity.

So they went through -- finally the airplane kind of got itself out at 6,000 feet. They had lost around 25,000 feet of altitude. It had went supersonic. It took all the faring off between the wings, where it's attached to the fuselage. And all the life rafts come down. All the oxygen masks come down. The life rafts inflated in the cabin so it must have scared the passengers half to death. But anyhow, how am I going to get involved in this?

BILL SCHNEIDER: Now, did they land or --?

RALPH SAVORY: They got to -- they got to Gander; they got the airplane out of it and it flew. So well, they had about an hour and a half or something, and that comes into what's going to happen down the line here a little bit.

Well I had just -- I had one of the San Francisco captains with me, he was flying co-(pilot). He was having a little trouble with the airplane and I was kind of helping him out, you know. I could --

We were living out at Forrest Hills Inn in Queens, England, in New York. And we had just come back off a delayed trip and I know we'd been resting all day and so we were -- we had a cottage in this Forrest Hills Inn.

And the phone rang, but however I got to back a little bit. We were just getting ready to go out to have something to eat at dinner time, so we had poured ourselves a libation and the phone rang. And Andy, who was my co-pilot, he answered the phone. He said, “Oh, we can’t do that.” And hung up the phone. I said, “Hey, Andy, what can’t we do?” He said, “They want us to take an airplane up to Gander.”

And I was kind of bored with New York and all this, so I said, “Let’s go to Gander.” So he picks up the phone, and says we’ll take the trip. So we -- for the record, we poured the libation down the sink. Well, I don’t know if -- but it evaporated one way or another. But anyway, we put on our uniforms and we went out to the -- they called it Idlewild then. It wasn't John F. Kennedy (Airport).

And “Well, what’s the dope?” You know, we asked these people. Well, there wasn’t too much information. It's an incident that happened up at the -- So, we took this empty airplane up to Gander and landed. Well, we found out what happened then, but we expected to go back to New York. Well, the captain of this thing, was this vice presidents who set up this whole operation. So they got in the airplane and took off, and left Andy and me up there with that damaged airplane.

So finally a Boeing engineer got up there somehow, real quick. So I didn’t have anything to, so I went out with him and we went through the whole airplane. It was bent here and there, but it looked pretty good. So we decided, yeah, this airplane's still flyable.

And so kind of forgot about them, because this is a New York operation, I’m just a guest back there. Well, about 3 o’clock in the morning the phone rang in my room, the hotel room, and it was some big high-powered guy in New York and he asked me, “Will you fly that airplane to Seattle?” Well, I blurted out, “Yeah, I’ll take it back there, provided that I have full control of the whole thing. I don’t want anybody telling me how to do it.”

Well, he says, “You got it.” So, I told Andy we’re going to go to Seattle. I didn’t even ask him whether he was willing to get into this thing with me or not. But anyhow we went out and set this whole thing up, and things were going alright, and then again a whole load of FAA people from Oklahoma City shows up on the scene.

Well, they immediately started throwing road blocks about why we shouldn’t do this, or what we should do. They wanted me to stop and re-fuel. And I had to -- of course, I had the advantage that I knew more about the airplane than they did. They wanted to stop en-route. And I said, "No, no. Once that thing is airborne it’s going to stay airborne until it gets to Seattle."

Well, they finally bought that. Then they said, “Well you’ve got to go VFR.” Well, then I had to tell them that you don’t fly a jet VFR because you’re above 29,000 feet. They didn’t know the rules. Well, I shot them down on that. And they argued about other things. Finally they said -- well, getting back to this fuel load. They wanted me to stop for fuel. I said, “Boeing tells me that the wings are stronger full of fuel than they are empty.” So they forgot about that deal.

But anyhow, we had to take off several -- “You got to take off VFR.” So we set this trip up full tanks, just the three of us, the flight engineer, Andy and myself. They took all the seats out of it so it would be light. The morning we were supposed to go, it was blowing snow, and everything down to about a half a mile.

So I went up in the tower and told the tower what the situation was, that we had about a mile and a half. I said we’ll be sitting down in the airplane all ready to go, and when you get you’re mile and a half, let us know. Pretty soon, we were sitting there, and they called out "Clipper, so and so. 712. You got your mile and a half.” So, we fired it up and went out and took off. And about time we got to the end of the runway, we still had a half a mile again.

And fortunately, none of the FAA came out to witness this thing. But anyhow, I had -- and as much as I've said I’m going to handle the whole thing I had to make up my own flight plan. I didn’t have any weather information, but I had experience coming back on the route. The headwinds were oh, about 70-80 knots, so I latched on to 80 knots of head wind all the way. And that worked out just exactly right. We’d sit there right at 31,000 feet, boring along.

Oh, wait a minute. The final thing that really sold the FAA, I said, I told them that the Boeing Company had established a rough air speed which was 270 indicated, or mach 7-2 instead of mach 8-2. We cruise normally at mach 8-2. That’s 82% of the speed of sound that you’re in. I said we’ll cruise it at mach 7-2.

Oh, they thought that was a fine idea, rough air speed. So they were satisfied then. But anyhow, we flew -- Canada was covered with snow from one end to the other, just as far as you could see. And I didn’t realize that those great plains were as far as they got. We flew and flew and flew, and it was all nice and all white. And finally, way out ahead you see a little dark wrinkle on the horizon. It was the Rocky Mountains and the trees and everything showing up.

So finally we landed in Seattle and I guess Diane (may mean his wife, Ida?) was there to witness the whole thing. But the outcome was that we had performed and got the thing in -- and Boeing, they got it back in service. Within two weeks they had to put a whole new stabilizer, the horizontal stabilizer. It was bent back.

But otherwise the airplane was in pretty good shape. It had a little extra dihedral in it, in the wing. But we got it back in service. And I got back to New York, nobody said boo. They didn't say, “Savory, hey, you did a fine job getting this thing.” They just ignored me!

BILL SCHNEIDER: Give me a clarification on that. You said that Boeing had indicated that it flew safer with fuel in the -- full in the wings?

RALPH SAVORY: Yeah, the wings were stronger with the fuel in there than they were without fuel.

BILL SCHNEIDER: I'll be darned.

RALPH SAVORY: Somebody could argue that point. But anyhow, that was one good argument I had with this group of knotheads.

BILL SCHNEIDER: So, the family was living in -- still living out here in -- ?

RALPH SAVORY: Yeah, they were living out there on a ranch, out in the country.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Here on the west coast?

RALPH SAVORY: Yeah. So, I had a brief visit home and back to New York. I finally got out of there in April.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, maybe we should talk about the Moscow trip?

RALPH SAVORY: Well, yeah. That’s another thing I got into. In 1959 -- yeah '59, the United States put on a show in Moscow. A display of everything that United States had. They had “Americana” attached to the name of the thing. And so Vice President Nixon was supposed to be their representative back there.

So the deal was that we were supposed to take delivery of a brand new long range 707 from the factory and fly it to New York. And then we were going to take Nixon and his party non-stop to London. Well, we picked up the airplane, and at that time New York Port Authority got real sensitive on the noise. Noise sensitive, because the jets made a lot (of noise). The regional jets made a lot of noise.

So unbeknownst to us, we took off headed for New York, and New York had sent out a sound measuring crew off the end of the Boeing field in Seattle. Well, we got over Cleveland or someplace and they said, "Hey, The company said you can’t land here. New York Port Authority said that plane's too noisy. Continue on to Bermuda.” Well, Bermuda is 800 miles out in the ocean. So we continued on to Bermuda. Set it down there. I got a nice hotel and all set to enjoyed myself.

And the phone rang, and they said, “Take this airplane to Miami.” So we took it to Miami and Pan American started turning the galley out, replacing the galley. So time was approaching to go to Moscow, and finally the scheduling New York put us, the crew, on an Eastern Lockheed Constellation, an old prop-job.

So it was five hours on that thing, rattling to New York. In the mean time, they sent a crew down from New York to fly our airplane up. All this was done so that we would not exceed the duty time on our trip to Moscow. But anyhow, it’s kind of crazy.

But anyhow, we got out of New York about midnight or something like that. But instead of having Nixon and his crew, we had the press. The whole press, all these big names in the press. So we took them there. And then we were -- we had about three days in Moscow. We stayed in the Hotel Ukraine. It was one of those big fancy high-rises, and I remember they had eight elevators in this thing. And you pressed a button for the elevator, and not one, but all eight would show up!

But anyhow, it was kind of interesting. And we ate in the dining room and the service was borsch and so forth. The only thing, the service was not very good. A waiter would take your order, and bring your meal and then he'd disappear. And it's be maybe an hour before he’d show up. But anyhow, we got invited to all this activity that --

I got to see Nixon argue with Khrushchev in the Kitchen Cabinet Debate and then we went back to this thing. And at night I remember we went out, and I was with this other crew member and we were strolling down among this little park. A pretty little park. And pretty soon, two big black Zeus limousines showed up. Nixon steps out of one. And Khrushchev, (Mikioven) the guy with the mustache, the head of the K -- the spy one. KGB, or whatever. And Molotov, the guy that throws the cocktail. Four of them.

So pretty soon here they come. Nixon was following them, and we had to step aside and let this foursome go by, plus Nixon. I could have reached out and touched him. But anyhow, we got down to where they had some speeches and they had two flag masts. So they struck up the Russian national anthem, and the flag went up, and the flag hung up there. Didn't even make it in. -- And then they rung up the Star Spangled Banner and a breeze hit it and boy oh boy it looked great up there!

So they got into these arguments and I was real proud of Nixon. Nixon started telling people about what was good about our system of government. Democracy. Khrushchev got all red in the face, and standing up shaking his fist. Nixon turned around and said, “Mr. Chairman, I have the floor. Sit down.” By God, Khrushchev sat down.

Oh, we got over that pretty good. But then -- what else happened on that.

Well, we were supposed to take that airplane and go down to London and then operate a proving flight over the polar route with a jet because it was not assigned that route. So that happened. And I remember getting all set at the airport, loaded up, and everybody was aboard and the KGB comes aboard and picked up Mr. Trippe’s passport. And come to find out that some public relations guy had tossed the rolls of film into the cargo hold and somebody was watching him. And said, “We want this film.”

So, they got their film, passenger Trippe got his passport back and went on down to London.

And then we fired this thing up and we went up, way up over Greenland. Iceland, Greenland way up -- almost up to Thule. And I remember we were outrunning the sun up there. We were cutting the longitude lines too close together. We were getting younger every minute. Finally, our course took us down and finally we started losing ground. But we had departed Moscow at 10 o’clock in the morning and with all this operation in London, we arrived in Seattle at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

BILL SCHNEIDER: The joy of polar flying.

RALPH SAVORY: Yeah, well anyway it was a great experience.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, then you were involved in training pilots in San Francisco for a litle bit.

RALPH SAVORY: Yeah, I --well, they had to start out from scratch down there, because nobody had ever seen a jet out there before. So I didn’t expect to be involved in this thing, but they hauled me down there. And so I conducted training right from scratch with the guys toward their rating. And I got two guys all completed and in the meantime Pan Am was qualifying their regular instructors. So I got rid of that.

But then I had to ride 40 hours with these guys on the line before they -- could turn them loose. So I was involved in that. So I got to ride with a lot of my old buddies and check them out in a jet. So it took -- it was over a year that I -- we were down there doing that.

BILL SCHNEIDER: So that must have been kind of fun to see your old buddies.

RALPH SAVORY: Yeah, some of them -- the one guy I had to turn down and I felt bad about that.

BILL SCHNEIDER: And then, I guess the final thing we should talk about is in the ‘60’s returning to the Seattle and the Pacific. When you were a chief pilot.

RALPH SAVORY: Yeah, I got -- Well, I had always maintained my rating as chief pilot even through all this thing when I -- just detached for temporarily. So when I got back here, I went back into the -- maintained an office job and then flying, too.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, tell us about that operation in the ‘60’s when the flights that you were flying up to Alaska and then out to Hawaii, and London, Paris.

RALPH SAVORY: Yeah, well Seattle ended up with a pretty good operation. We had the Seattle, Portland, Honolulu route. We had the Alaska route. And we had the trip-a-day to London and Paris. So that was the mode of operation until I had to retire.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Tell us, for those of us who don’t know, tell us what a chief pilot does.

RALPH SAVORY: Well, he sort of rides the herd, so to speak on a group of pilots, all well qualified people. We'd take care of their complaints and everything they --

Some people will complain, you know, and somebody has to listen to it. So that’s one of your duties, and if a pilot's doing something he shouldn’t be doing, you call him in and tell him he’s not doing it right, and how to do it right.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Does a chief pilot fly?

RALPH SAVORY: Yeah, you bet he flies. He’s got to be the best qualified pilot in the country. Usually.

BILL SCHNEIDER: So you would have regular flights that you'd be assigned to?

RALPH SAVORY: No, I was allowed under the way that the pilot’s contract was written, I was allowed 350 hours of flying time a year. But that’s not enough to maintain your skills and making low-level approaches and everything. So I used to -- I had the privilege of taking somebody else’s flights and pay him for them.

But I had two or three of the pilots that would like to stay home at night time, so when I felt like I needed to fly a little bit, I’d say, “Hey John, I’ll take your trip tonight and pay you for it if you would like to. So your choice.” "Yeah, sure. " So I’d take his flight, mainly to Fairbanks and back, we had night flights up there. And then I would take those polar trips quite often to keep my navigation skill up. You lose those skills very easily if you sit around at a desk.

BILL SCHNEIDER: I would think that'd be a danger with chief pilots.

RALPH SAVORY: Yeah, it is. That’s why some of those guys didn’t qualify in the jets. They’d been behind that dog gone desk too long. Incidentally, the sad thing of this -- remember the story I told you about the airplane that went into the dive? Well, the FAA prosecuted the two pilots who were aboard that plane. They fined them each $1000 dollars.

But then the guy that was the co-pilot who was largely responsible for the thing, he quit. He went home, resigned his job, and went up here in California in Paradise or someplace, and in six months he was dead. It just shattered him the whole thing. A nice guy. It was a shame. But he’d been sitting behind that dog gone desk too long.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Are there any incidents as chief pilot that you want to talk about that came up, that would give us some understanding of that job. Without disclosing a lot of personal stuff.

RALPH SAVORY: Well, I don't know what I -- I have some interesting experiences along that line, but the pilots were doing something they shouldn’t have been doing.

BILL SCHNEIDER: So then if the pilot's doing something they shouldn’t be doing, then you had to get involved as chief pilot?

RALPH SAVORY: Yeah, and you can fine them. You can fine them if you do something you shouldn’t be doing. Make a check out for $500.00 to your favorite charity. Oh God -- You hit them in the pocket book and it gets their attention.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. Right. So Pan Am, you had said Pan Am was the first to fly the large propeller planes to Alaska and also the first to fly the jets.

RALPH SAVORY: That’s right. We put the first jet operation was Seattle to Fairbanks. And e operated that for quite a little while. Then in February of ’63 then we got authorization to take it into Juneau.

Yeah, we made the first flight and we landed at Ladd Field. What do they call it now, Fort Wainwright? That’s a new name. It used to be Fort Richardson. Or wait minute, Ladd Field. You know how they got the name of Ladd? How that got it? BILL SCHNEIDER: No.

RALPH SAVORY: Well, before the war started, they had -- the air force had an old bi-plane in a Pan American hangar up there. And they had 13 second lieutenants or something up there, pilots. And Ladd was one of them. I remember one guy by the name of Yarbrough. They -- all except one, all except Yarbrough got killed down in the Aleutians after -- they started to (half sell things) down out there. Now I’m sure they didn’t get shot down. The weather problem down there. The poor guys, no experience with weather and there’s a lot of weather in the Aleutians. One of the top people in that group there was named Ladd. They got Ladd Field named after him.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. Hm. Well, I guess maybe two more questions before we quit for the morning. The first is you had also a short stint with Wien.

RALPH SAVORY: Yeah, after I retired they propositioned me to come up and help them with an operational problem up there. They had had a merger between Northern Consolidated and Wien or something. And then they had two pilot groups not fighting, but had a little bad blood between them. And they didn’t have a chief pilot. So they wanted some help in getting somebody to take the job of chief pilot.

And so I went up there for about 4 months, I guess. In Anchorage. I had a pretty good time. I rode all over the airline and checked their bush operation out. I finally got -- Eddie Siger? Stiger? He’s a Fairbanks boy. I kind of convinced him that he was the man for the job. In other words, he was likeable, and he could get along with people. I don’t know it didn’t last very long though, because -- I don’t know what really happened to that operation. Household Finance Corporation or something got a hold of it. HFC.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, the other question is what -- what was your favorite airplane?

RALPH SAVORY: That 707. It was a beautiful thing to fly. You push that power on that thing and its 4,500 feet a minute. And you climb right up there. You really go. Of course, it’s no faster than any other jet. They all cruise at around the area of mach 8-2. Of course, they have to with the present traffic control you have to have them all -- got to have them uniform in speed.

BILL SCHNEIDER: But it had that power, huh?

RALPH SAVORY: Oh boy, yeah. Yeah, a real hot rod.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, one other question. What happened to Pan Am, from your opinion?

RALPH SAVORY: Well, when Juan Trippe moved out of the picture, he was the one individual that could hold the whole thing together. And after he retired a most senior pilot took his place. He’d become ill and he finally passed on. And there was sort of a bum management area in there.

And then they got Halaby (Najeeb), he was from Jordan. As a matter of fact his daughter is married to the king, or whatever it was. He was in there. He was a great guy, but he really didn’t -- in other words -- and then they got a general in there.

So, things began to deteriorate. And then they had this -- they blew that airplane up over Lockerbie (Scotland). And that was the nail in the coffin there.

Of course, people were afraid because Pan Am was flying on this heavy route that there nobody would fly with them. Not everybody, but the business went way down. And they were in bad shape financially. And they finally they just ran out of money.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, I guess I got to ask you one other question, too, before we quit. It seems like, from what you’ve said, and what little I know, that really Pan Am was incredibly important in terms of Alaska.

RALPH SAVORY: Yes, yeah, they brought in modern equipment, they set up a communication system within the territory, all their own. They built airports up there. And down at Tanacross, put an airport in there. And they built an airport at Kluane Lake over in the Yukon Territory. The Bethel and the Nome route. We had communications. There was a station at Nulato and one in Koyukuk and Nome. Keep us advisded.

We had to fly VFR in those days, and that little getting across those mountains from the Yukon over into Norton Sound was kind of hairy. Sometimes we’d have to go down -- there was kind of a natural pass from Unalakleet to the end of the -- So we’d go down around that way. And that was wildly -- The Koyukuk because it was just over the mountains from Nulato.

And then on the Kuskokwim River we had station at Minchumina, and a station at McGrath, and at Bethel. And then at Flat, we had an individual there that fitted in -- he was an operator on his own. He took care of Pan Am’s communication center.

And then for a while we had the military network, the old army network at Flat. And I forget where -- but anyhow, that was the size of all the communication.

And then there was the mukluk telegraph in the Kuskokwim area. All those guys down at Mountain Village, they had a radio telephone. They'd all get together and communicate.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay, well, I think this has been good. We should probably quit for while and take a rest and then --