Excerpted with permission from Bob Gandt’s excellent book, Skygods: the Fall of Pan-Am. Skygods were the early captains who had flown the boats in the ’30s—the legendary China Clippers. By Gandt's time, they were nearing retirement, long in the tooth, often irascible, mostly autocratic, and sometimes in need of looking after. They were not, however, beyond limits for the occasional prank that any ATCer would be proud of.
One of the toughest things about flying with old Bob Farnham was keeping him awake. Another was keeping him reminded of details like where they were going and what day it was.
Farnham was a Skygod, at least by seniority if not by ilk. He had been around since the early boat days. The copilots liked flying with the old gentleman, because he exhibited none of the Skygodly bellicosity and bluster. He had fluffy red-gray hair and looked like Santa Claus. Unlike some of his boat captain colleagues who had been time-warped into the jet age, Farnham could be a very competent aviator—when he remembered to be.
One evening Captain Farnham arrived at the airport, about to depart on a week-long trip to Europe. He was running late, fifteen minutes past his check-in time. He drove his Cadillac—the Skygods’ chariot of choice—directly to the operations office. He parked in the drop-off space in front of the office and ran inside with his suitcase. He left the motor running on the Cadillac. He intended to check in, say hello to his crew, then go park the car.
Captain Farnham chatted with his first officer. He perused the seven-and-a-half-hour flight plan to Paris. With the first officer and navigator he made his way to the gate where the 707 was receiving its passengers. He took off for Paris.
The motor of the Cadillac continued to run.
For a week, Farnham flew around the globe. He flew to Paris, and later to Tehran, and then to Beirut, and on the last night of the trip, to London. For not one instant were his thoughts troubled by the faraway labored chugging of the parked Cadillac.
Meanwhile, some junior pilots removed Farnham’s car to the parking lot. On the day he was scheduled to return, they put the Cadillac back in its space at the operations office. They left the motor running.
Captain Farnham did not notice that there was a bigger-than-usual crowd at the operations office that day. He said good-bye to his crew. Suitcase in hand, he strolled out to the curb where crew members normally boarded the bus to the parking lot.
There was his car. The motor was still running.
For a moment, the old captain stared at his automobile. His eyes narrowed as disconnected thoughts sought union in his brain. Didn't I...how could it...but there’s my car...
The moment passed. He shrugged his shoulders—Oh, well, screw it—got in his car, and drove away.
Last updated: 21 March 2012