When the commuter airlines were just beginning to fly, Lycoming aircraft engines of Williamsport were used in a variety of their aircraft. One of my duties for Lycoming was to assist the new organization with the proper operation of the engines.
Although the commuters surviving today are doing a good job, that was not the case in the early years. Seeing their problems, I urged the new commuters to affiliate themselves with the major airlines in order to benefit from their expertise and long experience. However, in the early years, most insisted on their own trial and error methods. The well-managed organizations eventually associated themselves with a major airline and were able to survive.
I found a copy of my memo dated March 1968 titled, “Commuter Type Airline Visitation” with copies to the company general manager, service manager and chief engineer. In it, I listed 10 domestic commuter airlines that I had visited and flown with that year. In addition, I visited and flew with two Australian airlines and one commuter in Canada. The aircraft used in that period were mostly powered by two engines. Two others were converted to four Lycoming power plants.
During those early days, some commuter planes were permitted to fly the small twin-engine models with a single pilot. As a result, the co-pilot seat was vacant. Invariably, there was an aggressive type of passenger who would make a beeline for the empty co-pilot seat. I never observed a lady passenger do that. The co-pilot seated passenger would engage the pilot in conversation about his enthusiasm for aviation, and his willingness to help the pilot.
The type usually bragged about a few hours in a Piper Cub or single-engine Cessna. He tended to be a distraction to the busy pilot during flight. The unfortunate pilot couldn’t tell the talkative passenger to keep quiet because he also had a customer relations responsibility. The result was that he made the best of a distracting situation. I helped that situation by taking the co-pilot seat. I also remember a passenger who wanted to be informed precisely where they were during the flight. On the early commuter planes the pilot was easily available to passengers.
Our flight had been on top of an overcast for some time. Finally, there was a break in the lower clouds, at which point a nervous passenger spotted a small town below. He hustled forward and tapping the pilot on the shoulder asked, “What town is that?” Flying by reference to his instruments, the commuter pilot merely shrugged and replied that he didn’t know. We heard the passenger, in a loud voice telling another passenger that the pilot didn’t know where he was and must be lost. I had to laugh but assured the worried fellow that the pilot was not lost and explained the helpful use of the aircraft instruments and radios.
A commuter based in Phoenix complained to Lycoming about high fuel consumption on their two planes converted from twin engines to four engines. I visited the organization and offered to fly and determine how to help. After flying a couple of their routes, I had a recommendation. We changed their power settings to more practical ones. Then we asked that inexpensive exhaust gas temperature gauges be installed on the engines. With these gauges, the pilots could more precisely control their fuel consumption. On their very first trip, excellent fuel economy was realized. A happy commuter airline president bought me a ticket back to Lycoming.
In retrospect, although the commuters had a questionable early life, and I have dwelt on some of their initial problems, the current surviving organizations have made commendable progress. They have gone from mostly small twin-engine, piston-powered aircraft carrying seven or eight passengers to turbine-powered twins, transporting an average of 30 passengers.
When the major airlines with their larger jet planes found it financially sound to serve the smaller cities, the commuters stepped in to do the job. Many such cities would no longer have air service but for the commuter. Finally, the commuters ceased trying to survive by trial and error, but attached themselves to the major airlines, benefitting from their long experience in operation and maintenance as well as their financial backing. Today the commuter airlines fill an important role in the transportation needs of our nation.
Joseph A. Diblin, of Northumberland, was a four-engine pilot during World War II and has worked as a test pilot and civilian flight instructor. He is also seaplane rated. If you are a veteran and would like to share your story, contact him at 570-473-2594.