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Recollections of Oakland

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Long ago and in an airline galaxy far, far away, I was a young man starting out in my airline career.  The year was 1977, and I had been with Delta Air Lines just about a year (I was a young and skinny, naïve 24-year-old at the time) when I transferred to Oakland (OAK) and helped open our station.  When I realized that today is Southwest’s 20th Anniversary of serving OAK, I began to get nostalgic.  Ask anyone, I get nostalgic often—it’s a condition.  All kidding aside, OAK is where my airline career came of age.

The airport was very different 30 years ago.  Terminal one was the only structure on the South Field, and we had a single-level concourse with outside boarding via stairs--none of those fancy jetbridges.  For most of my time in OAK, Delta had three flights a day.  The biggest airlines at the airport were United and the two California intrastate carriers, PSA and Air Cal.  Other airlines serving the East Bay were Western, TWA, Hughes AirWest, American, and toward the end of my stay, Braniff.  A tiny, startup freight airline, FedEx, operated little Dassault Falcons.  Of all those airlines, only United and FedEx still serve the airport under their own name, and the Delta Connection flies to Salt Lake City.  In fact, only United, Delta, American, and FedEx even exist today.

For aviation geeks like me, the airport was heaven.  Air Cal had their main maintenance base at the airport on the North Field, and besides 737s, they still flew Lockheed Electra turboprops to serve Lake Tahoe.  TWA had a daily 707-300 flight, and half the time, it was a straight turbojet example.  United flew a DC-8-62 to Hawaii, besides mostly 727-100s on mainland routes, Western’s one daily flight was a 707-300B to Honolulu, and Delta had DC-8-51s and 727-200s.  On several occasions, Delta sent ship 800, the world’s very first DC-8, to operate our flight.  Hughes AirWest had a wide variety of DC-9-10s.  PSA was all 727, all the time.  .

OAK was the charter destination for the Bay Area, and the charter airlines really made the place interesting for an airline geek.  In years past, Trans Ocean had been the main charter carrier in OAK, and parts of my favorite airline movie, The High and the Mighty, were filmed here.  When I arrived in OAK, the two big charter carriers headquartered there were Trans International (TIA) and World.  Both flew DC-8-63s and for wide-bodied aircraft—World had a 747 with a nose that lifted to accommodate cargo and TIA had DC-10-30s.   In addition, we had charters from Laker, British Caledonian, Spantax, Finnair, Capital, LTU, and British Airtours, just to name a few.  The types of aircraft operated ranged from DC-8-33s, 707-400s, Convair 880s and Convair 990s, to brand new DC-10s and L-1011s.  At the time, General Motors had a big assembly plant in nearby Freemont, and a constant stream of cargo charters from Willow Run Airport outside Detroit would visit the airport.  The cargo flights were operated with anything from TIA C-130s, former PanAm 707-321s, to DC-6s.

As I said, it was a different place and time, and because everything was so informal, we would often go onboard other airline’s aircraft during their ground time.  I remember that on World’s 747, they had backward-facing passenger seats mounted on the forward bulkhead.  TWA let us go onboard their vintage 707-300s with the turbojet engines, and we went up inside a DC-6 freighter while the Flight Engineer walked out on the wings to add oil.  If they didn’t have a classified aircraft inside, World let us go into their hangar.  On one hangar visit, they were refitting a former PSA L-1011 TriStar that had been mothballed in the desert with less than 100 hours of flight time.  We went into the cabin, and all the PSA seat literature had just been left in the seat backs for the trip to the storage yard. I still have one of the safety cards. From time to time, we carried the British Caledonian Flight Attendants from the terminal out to their aircraft on our bag tugs—hey, I was single at the time and very much an Anglophile. 

I briefly mentioned the North Field, but it is probably one of the most historic aviation facilities in the country.  The North (general aviation) and South (commercial aviation) Fields are actually run as two separate airports,  The North Field was the departure point for the first Mainland to Hawaii flight flown by Lester Maitland and Albert Hegenberger, and Charles Kingford Smith’s Southern Cross made the first flight from the US to Australia from OAK.  Amelia Earhart is closely identified with the airport.  In 1935, she was the first person to fly solo from California to Hawaii, and her star-crossed, around-the-world flight left from there.  By some authorities, the first airport hotel was built at OAK, and the building still stands.  When I worked at OAK, a trip to the North Field was an adventure, and you never knew what kind of vintage aircraft you would see.  Even today, it is still an interesting place to visit, and you can easily feel the flying tradition in the air.

Most of all I remember the people, those I worked with and those who worked in the airport.  It was a small community and a close-knit community.  I’m not the only Delta employee from that time to now work for Southwest.  My buddy Jerry, with whom I would also later work when we opened Delta’s operation in Portland, Oregon, is a Las Vegas-based Captain for Southwest.  Since Delta only operated three, later reduced to two, flights a day from OAK, we had a lot of idle time.  And yes, idle minds are the "devils playground."  We found that we could use our bag tugs and belt loaders to “corral” some of the airport's native bumper crop of rabbits. (We never actually caught a rabbit--they were much too smart for us.) The bunny roundups lasted until we got a bag tug stuck in the mud, and then we got the big pushback tug stuck in a rescue effort.  The Airport Fire Department came to our rescue and had to use heavy chains hooked to a big fire truck to move the pushback.  I also got to fly on the Goodyear Blimp, Columbia, twice, and on the second time, actually got to control it.  The blimp folks checked in their sight-seeing flights next to our desk.  When someone failed to show, they would use an airline employee as ballast at the last minute.  Thankfully, it was faster to have a human board the blimp rather than load sand bags.

Just as soon as it began, Delta closed its OAK operation in the fall of 1979.  Even though my time there was relatively brief, I consider it to be one of a few personal aviation “homes.”  As you can see, my OAK roots run deep, and I am so honored that Southwest has served the airport for 20 years.  It’s gratifying that Southwest recognized the potential of this convenient, easy-to-use airport, and that over time, we have made OAK the Bay Area airport of choice for so many people.  I wish I were there for the big celebration, but I will be there in spirit.

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