The Hatless & The Mighty

Posted 04/15/04

By Walt Gunn

With the permission of the author, the following is excerpted from "A Life Aloft from DC-3 to 747" (Wings Publications, 1988), the memoirs of retired TWA pilot Walt Gunn.

In my early days as a co-pilot, while based in Burbank, California, I roomed with Jack Schuler and Bud Jury. After flights, our conversations often centered on which captains would let the co-pilots fly. We lusted for every chance to get a takeoff and landing. Ted Hereford’s name was one that came up often during these informal debriefings. Among his co-pilots, Hereford was seen as an "ace." "Fun to fly with" was the phrase that most accurately described a trip with him.

Hereford was already a legendary pilot when I was assigned to Burbank in 1943. He could have been the model for the hero in one of the classic movies about romantic, derring-do flying. Tall, with wavy blonde hair, an infectious smile and swaggering gait, Hereford reminded one of the role John Wayne played in Ernie Gann’s movie, "The High and The Mighty."

Hereford’s piloting skills were flawless, but something was usually at variance in his appearance. Ted would be seen in uniform with captain’s stripes, but all too often his blonde locks would be seen unencumbered by the customary pilot’s cap. He had an aversion to any head gear except for a helmet, and then only to hold his goggles. Of course, there was little need for goggles in a DC-3.

A rumor circulated (never confirmed by Hereford) that Jack Walsh, Burbank Chief Pilot, reprimanded Hereford for being out of uniform without a hat. Hereford’s excuse that the hat "wasn’t worth the money" was nullified when Walsh offered to buy a hat if he would wear it. From then on, Hereford could be seen in proper uniform. Well, at least some of the time.

The saga of Hereford’s uniform compliance, or non-compliance if you will, continued one evening in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The hotel’s leather, over-stuffed lounges became a favorite vantage point for spotting the arrival and departure of the flight crews. One evening, I was relaxing in the lobby when Hereford meandered in, hatless, with his locks flowing customarily askew. He realized, I’m sure, that Walsh wouldn’t be in Albuquerque that night.

As he strutted past me, I noted the open collar on his tie-less shirt, but, in a blink, I was drawn to the white and tan saddle shoes he was wearing. Today, some would view Ted Hereford as a swinger, but back then saddle shoes were for sports and bobby-soxers. Hereford was indeed a sport.

Ted Hereford’s flare for casual attire could be subtle. Even when he appeared to be properly uniformed, close perusal revealed maroon polka dots in his otherwise navy tie! Ted ambled to a different drummer, which provided levity for his myriad of friends.

Perhaps casual may best describe Ted Hereford in more ways than his attire. In the cockpit he also was described as laid-back, even when the going was spiced with a less-than-routine incident -- stormy weather, mechanical troubles, or passenger problems. His affability never faltered. Hereford exuded an infectious confidence, and his cockpit demeanor helped break the monotony of the flight routine.

A classic example of his laissez faire attitude is demonstrated in a story he told about his first experience with flying. "I was late to school on day," he said, "running up the steps, while a buddy was coming down. I asked where he was going, and he said a barnstormer was in town and that he was headed for the airport to take a flying lesson. I told him to wait for me to get my motorcycle. I was going with him."

At the time, Hereford was a 15-year-old junior high school student in Tucson, Arizona. When he got to the airport and his buddy, Clyde Wallace, had completed his lesson, the barnstorming pilot, Charley Mays, offered Ted a lesson for $35. Ted said he had only $5, to which Mays replied, "That’s enough, kid… let’s go!"

"I went home," Ted continued, "sold my motorcycle and took another lesson the next day."

He continued flying with Mays long enough to join him in barnstorming around the southwest. The rest is history. He started in a Waco-9 and Jenny OX-5 before moving on to his airline career, flying the mail in Northrops, Fokker F-14s and Lockheed Orions.

Hereford joined TWA after a stint as an airmail pilot with Western Air Express. He continued through the Ford Stratoliners, and all of the Constellation models before reaching his greatest love, the Convair 880.

Looking back on his career from mail planes to jets reveals an accomplishment few airline pilots have achieved. He began his career as a captain. Flying the mail was a solo task. When tri-motors arrived, his seniority and experience afforded him the opportunity to bypass ever being a co-pilot.

Ted narrowly missed the jet age, mostly by his own choice. Many companies offered bonus pay to captains over 55 years old as an incentive to remain on propeller planes in lieu of accepting the costly jet training. At that time, retirement was mandated by FAA at age 60.

Ted Hereford so relished the Super-G and 1649 Jetstream Connie airplanes that he declined Boeing 707 training. He was content to retire from the Connies as his peers gave varying accounts of their "giant leap" to jets.

I had flown the Convair 880 for a year or two out of Kansas City when I had a layover in Albuquerque. After landing, I noticed Hereford and his crew deplaning a Super-G charter at the terminal. We shared a crew limousine to the hotel for an overnight stay. Ted was his usual jovial self. He even had his uniform cap…hand-held. We mused about the early days in Burbank.

He and his crew were to deadhead to Los Angeles on my flight the next morning. I sensed the opportunity to impress him with the performance and ease of flying a jet, and invited him to join us in the cockpit rather than his assigned cabin seat. With sufficient time before schedule, I placed him in the left seat as we went through the checklists. Each item was pointed out, with a brief description of its function.

Ted was obviously absorbing the process with interest. For takeoff, Ted resumed his jump-seat position, fixing his stare over my shoulder as we sped down the runway and lifted off with the nose high attitude. I told him what to watch for on takeoff as we climbed out at a 17-degree nose-up angle --doubling the climb attitude of a Connie. I directed his attention to the airspeed acceleration, which I knew would impress him. We moved rapidly to 250 knots from the 141-knot liftoff speed, a far cry from the Connie’s 180-knot climb speed.

Soon after, I turned the controls over to the co-pilot as I ushered Ted into my seat. Ted flew the plane without help from the autopilot to get the feel of his first 600 mph airplane. He beamed when he noted the uncanny, fighter-like performance of the 880. His first jet!

Perhaps the orientation piqued his appetite for jets. After all, they still had engines and wings, and Ted Hereford had yet to meet an airplane he couldn’t fly!

The rest is history. Ted gave in, volunteering to go to 880 training rather than the 707, which was being used for international schedules and held little interest for him. Besides, he now knew the reputation of the 880 as a Corvette compared to the truck-like 707. He tolerated the "pressure chambered" ground school because he knew the prize that awaited him.

Hereford rode out one of the most illustrious airline careers known in the history of airline pilots. His boyish enthusiasm coupled with his skill and love of flying remains a legacy not soon to be forgotten by his peers. When Ted retired in Southern California to enjoy the good beach life, I would have bet he still had some saddle shoes tucked away in a closet waiting for the Adidas and Reeboks to go out of style!

Walt Gunn (1942-1981) served in Flight Operations and was based at BUR, NYC, CHI and MKC.

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