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An Emerald Land--Portland at Age 15

Aviator C

For ten, all-too-short years, the sight of Mt. Hood passing off the left side of the airplane was a welcome-home greeting to me.  The eternally snow-capped volcano and its Cascade siblings serve as a fortress wall that make Portland and the Willamette Valley an inland island of green. 

The only other places where I have landed that were this green are Belfast in Northern Ireland and Inverness in the Scottish Highlands.   As the airplane would follow the Columbia River toward the Portland Airport (PDX), I used to thank the gods of airline fate that I could live here.  Even today, almost 20 years removed from being a Portland area resident, my soul is rejuvenated and my spirit is carried by the first big breath of Northwest air, as I step outside the airport.

Can you tell that I like Portland?  Well, yeah, and I have to ration my visits “home” because every time I visit, I kick myself for ever leaving.  But, I realize that had I stayed, I probably never would have joined Southwest. However, you just never know what kind of opportunities will present themselves because Southwest began service to PDX in 1994.  In fact on Saturday (June 6), Southwest celebrates our 15th Anniversary of serving the City of Roses.  (When I was writing June 6, just now, I realized that was my anniversary date with my old airline.)  I absolutely LUV my job here at Headquarters, but I will freely admit that I am envious of my PDX Coworkers because the PDX Airport is a great place to work and travel.

Having said all of the above, my initial impression of living in Portland was a perilous one.  I was one of a group of about 30 employees that opened Delta Air Lines’ operation in PDX back in 1980.  My wife and I drove across country, and we had just moved into our duplex (that had a huge picture window with an unobstructed view of Mr. Hood) in the Portland suburb of Gresham on Saturday, May 17.  The very next day was when Mt. St. Helens exploded.  While PDX escaped the devastation of the initial huge eruption, a series of minor eruptions that sent ash showering down on the city followed for ten or so months.  In fact, ten years later, you could still find ash in the crevices of the jetbridge we used.

In spite of the tragedy, there were some funny things about the eruption(s), and they prove out the entrepreneurial spirit of Americans.  Delta began PDX service on June 1, and on one of our first Dallas/Fort Worth flights, a man brought in 50 or small boxes to check as baggage.  This was during the time when there was only a flat $7.00 charge for extra bags, but even so his excess bag charges were $350.  We were puzzled by what he was trying to do and asked him what was in the boxes.  The boxes contained plastic bags of volcano ash, and he was bringing them back to Texas to bottle and sell the ash at $10.00 a pop.  Later, the big local department store, Meyer and Frank, teamed up with the Wedgwood Company in the UK to produce and sell limited edition Wedgwood plates containing ash from Mt. St. Helens. The plates were our Christmas gift to our families one year.  Fortunately, St. Helens quieted down, but for the next ten years, every passenger wanted a window seat on the right side of the aircraft for flights between PDX and Seattle so they could see the devastation first hand.

The PDX Airport is well known for its amenities, and that was true even back then, especially when you consider shopping.  At the time, the shops were concentrated in the main lobby behind the ticket counters.  Now they are everywhere in the airport.  My favorite was the “Made In Oregon” shop that featured fish, fruit, and other Northwest specialties. Today, the Made in Oregon store is still a must see stop in the airport, especially if you are looking to bring back products from the Northwest.  Today's airport has two other stores unique to PDX, the Oregon Pendleton Shop and a branch of Powell's Book Store.  The main and original Powell's store occupies an old car dealership in downtown Portland, and it fills an entire city block--well worth a visit.

PDX also "fed" the airplane geek inside of me.  A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Oakland Airport's amazing airplane offerings.  While PDX lacked the volume of unusual visitors that Oakland offered, it still had some unique, even awe-inspiring sights, starting with the resident Air National Guard base.  The Oregon Air Guard was (and still is) responsible for patrolling the coast off of Washington and Oregon.  In 1980, they were still flying McDonnell F-101 Voodoos, and the F-101 had the longest afterburner flames that I have ever seen.  The F-101s were on their last days, and they soon were replaced by my all time favorite military aircraft, the F-4 Phantom.  When the alert aircraft were scrambled on a night time mission, it was simply indescribable to hear the noise and watch the aircraft screaming into the night sky on tornadoes of flame from their afterburners.  (Now if I can just see a Shuttle launch!)

On the civil side, the biggest airlines at PDX in 1980 were United and Northwest.  Braniff and Eastern had a few flights a day, and at Delta we had four.  Alaska, Hughes AirWest, Western, and Continental had a good number of flights, and in those early days of deregulation, Air Cal had ventured north of Oakland with flights to the Bay Area.  Air Oregon (soon to merge with Horizon) and Cascade were the airport's commuter carriers.  As deregulation took hold during the 80s, Alaska added flights; Delta started international service to Asia, merged with Western; and had nonstops to ten domestic, Alaskan, and Canadian destinations; Air Cal added additional flights and merged with American; PSA came to town and merged eventually with US Air; Republic absorbed Hughes AirWest before being taken over by Northwest; and Braniff, Eastern; and Cascade went out of business.  America West and TWA came to town and stayed (at least until later mergers), but other airlines like Pacific Express and Wien Air Alaska came and went.

Although not to the extent of Oakland, PDX would get some charters too, with the freight flights offering some unusual visitors.  HeavyLift cargo from the UK flew in the rare Shorts Belfast (a former RAF transport the size of a C-141, but with turboprops) with an oversized shipment.  We got to go inside the even rarer, original Pregnant Guppy when it dropped in with a helicopter inside its huge belly, and at Christmas one year, Northern Air Cargo from Anchorage would use their DC-6s on nighttime mail charters.  On another occasion, Conair from Canada used PDX to refuel a fleet of at least eight DC-6s heading south to fight a forest fire.

There were also passenger charters.  Evergreen Airways used a DC-8 to operate charters to Hawaii, and Great American Airways used an ex-TWA DC-9-10 to fly junkets to the Reno casinos.  British Airways sent their entire fleet of TriStar 500s back to Lockheed for modifications.  To avoid California sales tax, they accepted the aircraft in PDX.  We ground-handled a privately owned -500 that Lockheed had used to give a “test drive” to a prospective buyer.  After his family had deplaned, we were allowed to walk through the aircraft that had a king-sized bed in a plush bedroom.  When a Polish-owned ship had its crew defect during a stop in Astoria, Oregon, LOT Polish Airlines flew in a replacement ship crew with a Russian-built IL-62.  During its groundtime, we went up on the aircraft, and our Maintenance Foreman asked the Flight Engineer about what kind of aircraft this was.  His reply in broken English was:  “Ees no Boeing; ees piece of #@$%.”

The same basic terminal I knew in PDX still exists, but the ticketing lobby has grown at the edges to greatly expand the ticket counter areas.  The Concourses have finally all been remodeled and enlarged and they reflect the “Pacific Northwest” style.  Unfortunately, the multi-level parking garage has erased the spectacular view of Mt. Hood from the lobby, but I guess that is the price of progress.  Still, that used to be a million-dollar view.  Definitely in the plus column is that Tri-Met’s MAX light rail line now connects the airport with downtown.

One day, I would love to move back to the Portland area, but I will have to win the lottery to make that happen.  In the meantime, it does me proud to know that Southwest Airlines has been an important part of PDX and the greater Portland community for the past 15 years.  And the welcome-home view alongside Mt. Hood from one of our Red Bellied Airplanes is just as spectacular as it has always been.