Vern Laursen – One of The Best

Posted 03/09/04

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.


Like Bob Buck, Vern Laursen’s career was fostered by an early love for flying. His first flying lessons came at age 16 at his uncle’s private airport in Pella, Iowa.

A tour in the U. S. Navy gave Laursen the opportunity to complete flight training on the GI Bill. With his instructor rating, he amassed 2,500 hours as a trainer at Moberly, Missouri, prior to joining TWA in Kansas City. Vern’s earliest dreams of flight were no longer fantasy. Reality came in 1951 when he began his career as a DC-3 co-pilot, ultimately becoming TWA’s vice-president of flight crew training -- the top rung of professional success for airline pilots!

I first met Laursen on a DC-3 flight from Kansas City to Washington National Airport. He was co-pilot for this all night, six-leg trip. "Milk runs," we called them. A real drag. As we met in the ready room, I sensed his stifled exuberance when he mentioned it was only his second flight. I assured him we would keep it interesting.

I flew the first leg to St. Louis. Routine. Laursen was a model copilot -- monitoring the radio, managing the landing gear, operating wing flaps and cowl flaps on cue -- all the while observing my every move from engine start to engine stop. Weather was a non-factor; it was an ideal night for flying.

After the customary rituals on a stopover -- pit stop in the ramp restroom, signing release clearance and getting weather reports -- we re-boarded the DC-3. As we approached the cockpit, I signaled Vern to take the left seat. He was about to fly the maiden leg of his airline career.

From our first flight together, Vern Laursen’s sincere dedication to aviation left a lasting impression on me. His performance that night was classic in every sense of the word. His stick-and-rudder skills took shape instantly with the slightest instructive hints, which belied his being a novice.

Some things are never forgotten. Others escape from memory never to be recalled. This is true in life and ever so true in flying, which has often been described as "hours of sheer boredom interspersed with moments of start terror." When I’m asked about a pilot with whom I have flown, I can usually remember some aspect, however trivial. As a co-pilot, I can vividly recall every captain with whom I flew during my scant, two years of co-piloting.

Laursen’s first jet co-pilot qualifications were on the Convair 880, which was smaller than the Boeing 707 and the fastest jet transport with the exception of the supersonic transports. The 880 flew like a jet fighter and proved to be a challenge to captains who were upgraded from props. Vern was in an early class of 880 co-pilots.

My first jet training was also in the 880, and Vern had already accumulated several months of experience on the plane when we first shared the same schedules. Fate must have played a major role in our being assigned together once again. Although the scene had shifted from the DC-3 flight we had together nearly 10 years ago, this time I was at once both the captain of the flight and the underling -- experience-wise.

The relationship between a pilot and co-pilot is often depicted as a legendary power struggle. Hollywood portrays these relationships in tense cockpit confrontations, which in reality are a rarity. Rank is seldom flaunted, and pilot/co-pilot relations prevail harmoniously, so long as the captain’s command skills are not overbearing.

The fighter-like characteristics of the 880 were vastly different from prop planes. On portions of the trip that I flew, Vern monitored my every move with timely and relevant comments; he mirrored my style of coaching on the DC-3. Truly, we were a well-coordinated cockpit crew. Our relationship had come full circle.

An axiom of the airlines says, "Be kind to your co-pilot, lest he be your chief pilot someday!" In Vern Laursen’s case, our early affiliation cemented a lasting friendship, which has endured a shift in roles as he became my supervisor.

Now deceased, Vern closed out his TWA career as the driving force in the establishment of TWA’s Lindbergh Flight Training Center in St. Louis. His mark of excellence was readily evident there as "the most advanced flight training facility" in the industry at the time.

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

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