Al “Blacky” Blackman has reached a milestone few can claim. He has worked for 70 years as a mechanic for American Airlines based in New York, starting when he was only 17 years old.
Surprisingly, he has no plans to retire. “I don’t consider this work. It’s being able to do what you like and getting paid for it.”
On Tuesday last week the folks at AA threw a party for Al, his friends and his co-workers arranged for a painting sufficient in size to make even Al blush, which covered the back wall of Hangar 10 at JFK.
The next day they arranged for a few fellow employees, along with representatives from the media, to join Al in what has to be the most fitting way to mark the occasion, a ride in an original AA DC-3 around Manhattan.
The DC-3, which is operated by the non-profit Flagship Detroit Foundation, is the oldest DC-3 still flying. It is an airplane that AA operated until 1947 – five years after Al started as a mechanic.
Members of the press gathered around and asked Al a few questions before we were led across the ramp for our chance to fly with Al in the vintage airliner.
After he had a slight misstep while boarding, someone offered to hold Al’s cup of water for him. Handing it off, he joked, “You know what they say, If you can’t hold your drink … “
Soon after the 20 passengers found their seats on the plane, some remarked about the lack of air flowing through the cabin. Zane Lemon, the president of the Flagship Detroit Foundation, and our flight attendant for the trip, pointed out the gasper vents that would only supply cool air as we gained some airspeed, and the narrower seats from the time period.
“You have to remember, in the mid ’30s, the average passenger weighed 136 pounds,” he said.
“What was the average temperature?” someone quipped.
I was thrilled to be embarking on such a time-warp, even if the temperature was 95 degrees that day. A flight up the Hudson right by the Freedom Tower in a DC-3? Sign me up.
But my enthusiasm couldn’t come close to that of my friend Sebastian Toovey, dressed in an AA hat and T-shirt, who saw this as the flight of a lifetime. Sebastian’s article will appear in the October issue of Airways magazine, and the assignment was destined for him, as I’m sure you couldn’t find a bigger fan of American Airlines.
As promised, shortly after liftoff the cool air flowed as the view of the New York skyline came into view. It was explained that the flight path would take us north up the Hudson River, giving those on the right side a good view of the city followed by a turn over the George Washington Bridge that would offer the left side passengers an equal view.
The cockpit door was open, allowing those who were interested a cockpit view of the city. We managed to fly past the Freedom Tower, still under construction, which dominated the copilot’s window since we were only at 1,500 feet. It felt surreal to be in an antique airplane while puttering by New York’s newest monument.
Al pointed out the area where he attended school, the Aviation High School in Manhattan. “It was a long time ago!” He shouted over the engine noise.
It was clear that Al was enjoying himself, occasionally talking with pilots over the intercom. Instead of a southerly flight back down the Hudson, air traffic control surprised us with a direct routing from the bridge over Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge before entering the pattern at JFK. The captain later told us that this was extremely rare, and a few of us wondered what it looked like from the streets of New York.
Passing by Central Park heading north
After we parked, Sebastian asked Al to sign an info sheet that described the senior most employee at AA’s career progression. By this time, it wasn’t clear who had enjoyed the event more, Sebastian or Al.
I have to offer Kudos to American for commemorating such an accomplishment, not only of an airline employee, but for anyone who works for a living. Seventy years is nearly three full careers for most people.
And congratulations to Al, who says, “if you enjoy what you do, why stop?”
I couldn’t agree more.
Photos by the author and Nicolas Mace.
“Cockpit Chronicles” takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as a captain on the MD-80 based in New York. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the “Cockpit Chronicles” Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.