I left home at sixteen, looking for me.
There was no pressure on me to leave, although I wasnt happy. The situation on my dual home front hadnt changed. Dad still wanted to win Mom back and Mom didnt want to be won. Dad was still using me as a mediator in his second courtship of Mom, and she continued to resent his casting me in the role of Cupid. I disliked it myself. Mom had graduated from dental technicians school and was working for a Larchmont dentist. She seemed satisfied with her new, independent life.
I had no plans to run away. But every time Dad put on his postal clerks uniform and drove off to work in his old car, Id feel depressed. I couldnt forget how he used to wear Louis Roth suits and drive big expensive cars.
One June morning of 1964,1 woke up and knew it was time to go. Some remote corner of the world seemed to be whispering, «Come.» So I went.
I didnt say good-bye to anyone. I didnt leave any notes behind. I had $200 in a checking account at the Westchester branch of the Chase Manhattan Bank, an account Dad had set up for me a year before and which Id never used. I dug out my checkbook, packed my best clothes in a single suitcase and caught a train for New York City. It wasnt exactly a remote corner of the globe, but I thought it would make a good jumping-off place.
If Id been some runaway from Kansas or Nebraska, New York, with its subway bedlam, awesome skyscrapers, chaotic streams of noisy traffic and endless treadmills of people, might have sent me scurrying back to the prairies. But the Big Apple was my turf. Or so I thought.
I wasnt off the train an hour when I met a boy my own age and conned him into taking me home with him. I told his parents that I was from upstate New York, that both my mother and father were dead, that I was trying to make it on my own and that I needed a place to stay until I got a job. They told me I could stay in their home as long as I wanted.
I had no intentions of abusing their hospitality. I was eager to make a stake and leave New York, although I had no ideas at the moment as to where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do.
I did have a definite goal. I was going to be a success in some field. I was going to make it to the top of some mountain. And once there, no one or nothing was going to dislodge me from the peak. I wasnt going to make the mistakes my dad had made. I was determined on that point.
The Big Apple quickly proved less than juicy, even for a native son. I had no problem finding a job. Id worked for my father as a stock clerk and delivery boy and was experienced in the operation of a stationery store. I started calling on large stationery firms, presenting myself in a truthful light. I was only sixteen, I said, and I was a high school dropout, but I was well versed in the stationery business. The manager of the third firm I visited hired me at $1.50 an hour. I was naive enough to think it an adequate salary.
I was disillusioned within the week. I realized I wasnt going to be able to live in New York on $60 a week, even if I stayed in the shabbiest hotel and ate at the Automats. Even more disheartening, I was reduced to the role of spectator in the dating game. To the girls Id met so far, a stroll in Central Park and a hot dog from a street vendors cart would not qualify as an enchanted evening. I wasnt too enchanted with such a dalliance myself. Hot dogs make me belch.
I analyzed the situation and arrived at this conclusion: I wasnt being paid lowly wages because I was a high school dropout but because I was only sixteen. A boy simply wasnt worth a mans wages.
So I aged ten years overnight. It had always surprised people, especially women, to learn I was still a teen-ager. I decided that since I appeared older, I might as well be older. I had excelled in graphic arts in school. I did a credible job of altering the birth date on my drivers license from 1948 to 1938. Then I went out to test the job market as a twenty-six-year-old high school dropout, with proof of my age in my wallet.
I learned the pay scale for a man without a high school diploma wasnt something that would embarrass the creators of the Minimum Wage Act. No one questioned my new age, but the best offer made me was $2.75 an hour as a truck drivers helper. Some prospective employers bluntly told me that it wasnt age that determined a workers salary, but education. The more education he had, the more he was paid. I ruefully concluded that a high school dropout was like a three-legged wolf in the wilderness.
He might survive, but hed survive on less. It did not occur to me until later that diplomas, like birth dates, are also easily faked.
I could have survived on $110 a week, but I couldnt live on that amount. I was too enamored of the ladies, and any horse player can tell you that the surest way to stay broke is playing the fillies. The girls I was romancing were all running fillies, and they were costing me a bundle.
I started writing checks on my $200 account whenever I was low on fun funds.
It was a reserve I hadnt wanted to tap, and I tried to be
conservative. Id cash a check for only $10, or at most $20, and at first I
conducted all my check transactions in a branch of the Chase Manhattan Bank.
Then I learned that stores, hotels, grocery markets and other business firms
would also cash personal checks, provided the amount wasnt overly large and
proper identification was presented. I found my altered drivers license was
considered suitable identification, and I started dropping in at the handiest
hotel or department store whenever I needed to cash a $20 or $25 check. No one
asked me any questions. No one checked with the bank to see if the check was
good. Id simply present
It was easy. Too easy. Within a few days I knew I was overdrawn on my account and the checks I was writing were no good. However, I continued to cash a check whenever I needed money to supplement my paycheck or to finance a gourmet evening with some beautiful chick. Since my paycheck seemed always in need of a subsidy, and because New York has more beautiful chicks than a poultry farm, I was soon writing two or three bad checks daily.
I rationalized my actions. Dad would take care of the insufficient checks, I told myself. Or Id assuage my conscience with con mans salve: if people were stupid enough to cash a check without verifying its validity, they deserved to be swindled.
I also consoled myself with the fact that I was a juvenile. Even if I were caught, it was unlikely that Id receive any stern punishment, considering the softness of New Yorks juvenile laws and the leniency of the citys juvenile judges. As a first offender, Id probably be released to my parents. I probably wouldnt even have to make restitution.
My scruples fortified by such nebulous defenses, I quit my job and began to support myself on the proceeds of my spurious checks. I didnt keep track of the number of bum checks I passed, but my standard of living improved remarkably. So did my standard of loving.
After two months of cranking out worthless checks, however, I faced myself with some unpleasant truths. I was a crook. Nothing more, nothing less. In the parlance of the streets, I had become a professional paperhanger. That didnt bother me too much, for I was a successful paperhanger, and at the moment to be a success at anything was the most important factor in the world to me.
What did bother me were the occupational hazards involved in being a check swindler. I knew my father had reported my absence to the police. Generally, the cops dont spend a lot of time looking for a missing sixteen-year-old, unless foul play is suspected. However, my case was undoubtedly an exception, for I had provided plenty of foul play with my scores of bad checks. The police, I knew, were looking for me as a thief, not a runaway. Every merchant and businessman Id bilked was also on the alert for me, I speculated.
In short, I was hot. I knew I could elude the cops for a while yet, but I also knew Id eventually be caught if I stayed in New York and continued to litter cash drawers with useless chits.
The alternative was to leave New York, and the prospect frightened me. That still-remote corner of the world suddenly seemed chill and friendless. In Manhattan, despite my brash show of independence, Id always clutched a security blanket. Mom and Dad were just a phone call or a short train ride away. I knew theyd be loyal, no matter my misdeeds. The outlook appeared decidedly gloomy if I fled to Chicago, Miami, Washington or some other distant metropolis.
I was practiced in only one art, writing fraudulent checks. I didnt even contemplate any other source of income, and to me that was a matter of prime concern. Could I flimflam merchants in another city as easily as I had swindled New Yorkers? In New York I had an actual, if valueless, checking account, and a valid, if ten years off, drivers license, which together allowed me to work my nefarious trade in a lucrative manner. Both my stack of personalized checks (the name was real, only the funds were fictional) and my tinseled drivers license would be useless in any other city. Id have to change my name, acquire bogus identification and set up a bank account under my alias before I could operate. It all seemed complex and danger-ridden to me. I was a successful crook. I wasnt yet a confident crook.
I was still wrestling with the perplexities of my situation several days later while walking along Forty-second Street when the revolving doors of the Commodore Hotel disgorged the solution to my quandary.
As I drew near the hotel entrance, an Eastern Airlines
flight crew emerged: a captain,
I walked on, still enmeshed in the net of their glamour, and suddenly I was seized with an idea so daring in scope, so dazzling in design, that I whelmed myself.
What if I were a pilot? Not an actual pilot, of course. I had no heart for the grueling years of study, training, flight schooling, work and other mundane toils that fit a man for a jet liners cockpit. But what if I had the uniform and the trappings of an airline pilot? Why, I thought, I could walk into any hotel, bank or business in the country and cash a check. Airline pilots are men to be admired and respected. Men to be trusted. Men of means. And you dont expect an airline pilot to be a local resident. Or a check swindler.
I shook off the spell. The idea was too ludicrous, too ridiculous to consider. Challenging, yes, but foolish.
Then I was at Forty-second and Park Avenue and the Pan American World Airways Building loomed over me. I looked up at the soaring office building, and I didnt see a structure of steel, stone and glass. I saw a mountain to be climbed.
The executives of the famed carrier were unaware of the fact, but then and there Pan Am acquired its most costly jet jockey. And one who couldnt fly, at that. But what the hell. Its a scientific fact that the bumblebee cant fly, either. But he does, and makes a lot of honey on the side.
And thats all I intended to be. A bumblebee in Pan Ams honey hive.
I sat up all night, cogitating, and fell asleep just before dawn with a tentative plan in mind. It was one Id have to play by ear, I felt, but isnt that the basis of all knowledge? You listen and you learn.
I awoke shortly after 1 p.m., grabbed the Yellow Pages and looked up Pan Ams number. I dialed the main switchboard number and asked to speak to someone in the purchasing department. I was connected promptly.
«This is Johnson, can I help you?»
Like Caesar at the Rubicon, I cast the die. «Yes,» I said.
«My name is Robert Black and Im
«Yes, what can I do for you, Mr. Black?» He was courteous and matter-of-fact and I plunged ahead.
«We flew a trip in here at eight oclock this morning, and Im due out of here this evening at seven,» I said. I plucked the flight times from thin air and hoped he wasnt familiar with Pan Ams schedules. I certainly wasnt.
«Now, I dont know how this happened,» I continued, trying to sound chagrined. «Ive been with the company seven years and never had anything like this happen. The thing is, someone -has stolen my uniform, or at least its missing, and the only replacement uniform I have is in my home in Los Angeles. Now, I have to fly this trip out tonight and Im almost sure I cant do it in civilian clothes.... Do you know where I can pick up a uniform here, a supplier or whatever, or borrow one, just till we work this trip?»
Johnson chuckled. «Well, its not that big a problem,» he replied. «Have you got a pencil and paper?»
I said I did, and he continued. «Go down to the Weil-Built Uniform Company and ask for Mr. Rosen. Hell fix you up. Ill call him and tell him youre coming down. Whats your name again?»
«Robert Black,» I replied, and hoped he was asking simply because hed forgotten. His final words reassured me.
«Dont worry, Mr. Black. Rosen will take good care of you,» Johnson said cheerfully. He sounded like a Boy Scout whod just performed his good deed for the day, and he had.
Less than an hour later I walked into the Well-Built Uniform Company. Rosen was a wispy, dour little man with a phlegmatic manner, a tailors tape dangling on his chest. «You Officer Black?» he asked in a reedy voice and, when I said I was, he crooked a finger. «Come on back I followed him through a maze of clothing racks boasting a variety of uniforms, apparently for several different airlines, until he stopped beside a display of dark blue suits.
«Whats your rank?» Rosen asked, sifting through a row of jackets.
I knew none of the airline terminology.
«First officer, huh?» he said, and began handing me jackets and trousers to try on for size. Finally, Rosen was satisfied. «This isnt a perfect fit, but I dont have time to make alterations. If 11 get you by until you can find time to get a proper fitting.» He took the jacket to a sewing machine and deftly and swiftly tacked three gold stripes on each sleeve cuff. Then he fitted me with a visored cap.
I suddenly noticed the uniform jacket and cap each lacked something. «Wheres the Pan Am wings and the Pan Am emblem?» I asked.
Rosen regarded me quizzically and I tensed. I blew it, I thought. Then Rosen shrugged. «Oh, we dont carry those. We just manufacture uniforms. Youre talking about hardware. Hardware comes directly from Pan Am, at least here in New York. Youll have to get the wings and the emblem from Pan Ams stores department.»
«Oh, okay,» I said, smiling. «In L.A. the same people who supply our uniforms supply the emblems. How much do I owe you for this uniform? Ill write you a check.» I was reaching for my checkbook when it dawned on me that my checks bore the name Frank Abagnale, Jr., and almost certainly would expose my charade.
Rosen himself staved off disaster. «Its $289, but I cant take a check.» I acted disappointed. «Well, gosh, Mr. Rosen, Ill have to go cash a check then and bring you the cash.»
Rosen shook his head. «Cant take cash, either,» he said. "Im going to have to bill this back to your employee account number and itll be deducted from your uniform allowance or taken out of your paycheck. Thats the way
^.".**? ~C,,----_ _...._ 1------1-
we do it here." Rosen was a veritable fount of airline operations information and I was grateful.
He handed me a form in triplicate and I commenced to fill in the required information. Opposite the space for my name were five small connected boxes, and I assumed rightly that they were for an employees payroll account number. Five boxes. Five digits. I filled in the boxes with the first five numbers that came to mind, signed the form and pushed it back to Rosen. He snapped off the bottom copy, handed it to me.
«Thank you very much, Mr. Rosen,» I said, and left, carrying the lovely uniform. If Rosen answered, I didnt hear him.
I went back to my room and dialed the Pan Am switchboard again. «Excuse me, but I was referred to the stores department,» I said, acting confused. «What is that, please? Im not with the company, and I have to make a delivery there.»
The switchboard girl was most helpful. «Stores is our employee commissary,» she said. «Its in Hangar Fourteen at Kennedy Airport. Do you need directions?»
I said I didnt and thanked her. I took an airport bus to Kennedy and was dismayed when the driver let me off in front of Hangar 14. Whatever stores Pan Am kept in Hangar 14, they had to be valuable. The hangar was a fortress, surrounded by a tall cyclone fence topped with strands of barbed wire and its entrances guarded by armed sentries. A sign on the guard shack at each entrance warned «employees only.»
A dozen or more pilots, stewardesses and civilians entered the compound while I reconnoitered from the bus stop. I noticed the civilians stopped and displayed identification to the guards, but most of the uniformed personnel, pilots and stewardesses, merely strolled through the gate, some without even a glance at the guard. Then one turned back to say something to a sentry and I noticed he had an ID card clipped to his breast pocket below his wings.
It was a day that threatened rain. I had brought a raincoat along, a black one similar to the ones some of the pilots had draped over their arms. I had my newly acquired pilots uniform in a small duffle bag. I felt a little like Custer must have felt when he chanced upon Sitting Bulls Sioux.
I reacted just like Custer. I charged. I went into one of the airport toilets and changed into the uniform, stuffing my civies into the duffle bag. Then I left the terminal and walked directly toward Hangar 14s nearest entrance.
The guard was in his shack, his back toward me. As I neared the gate, I flipped the raincoat over my left shoulder, concealing the entire left side of my jacket, and swept off my hat. When the guard turned to confront me, I was combing my hair with my fingers, my hat in my left hand.
I didnt break stride. I smiled and said crisply, «Good evening.» He made no effort to stop me, although he returned my greeting. A moment later I was inside Hangar 14. It was, indeed, a hangar. A gleaming 707, parked at the rear of the building, dominated the interior. But Hangar 14 was also an immense compartmented office structure containing the offices of the chief pilot and chief stewardess, the firms meteorology offices and dozens of other cubicles that I presumed accommodated other Pan Am functions or personnel. The place was teeming with human traffic. There seemed to be dozens of pilots, scores of stewardesses and innumerable civilians milling around. I presumed the latter were clerks, ticket agents, mechanics and other nonflying personnel.
I hesitated in the lobby, suddenly apprehensive. Abruptly I felt like a sixteen-year-old and I was sure that anyone who looked at me would realize I was too young to be a pilot and would summon the nearest cop.
I didnt turn a head. Those who did glance at me displayed no curiosity or interest. There was a large placard on a facing wall listing various departments and with arrows pointing the way. Stores was down a corridor to my left, and proved to be a military-like cubicle with a myriad of box-holding shelves. A lanky youth with his name embroidered on the right side of his shirt rose from a chair in front of a large desk as I stopped at the counter.
«Can I hep ya?» he asked in molasses tones. It was the first real southern drawl Id ever heard. I liked it.
«Yes,» I said and attempted a rueful grin. «I need a pair of wings and a hat emblem. My two-year-old took mine off my uniform last night and he wont, or cant, tell me what he did with them.»
The storekeeper laughed. «We got mo» wings on kids «n gals n we got on pilots, I «spect,» he said drolly. «We shore replace a lot of em, anyway. Here you are. Gimme yore name and employee number. He took a form from a file slot on his desk and laid it on the counter with a pair of golden wings and a Pan Am cap badge and stood, pen poised.
Robert Black, first officer, 35099, I said, affixing the hat emblem and pinning the wings on my tunic. Im out of Los Angeles. You need an address there?
He grinned. Nah, damned computers dont need noth-in but numbers,» he replied, handing me a copy of the purchase form.
I loitered leaving the building, trying to mingle unobtrusively with the crowd.
I wanted to pick up as much information as possible on airline pilots and airline operations, and this seemed a good opportunity to glean a few tidbits. Despite the number of pilots and other aircrewmen in the building, they all seemed to be strangers to one another. I was especially interested in the plastic-enclosed cards, obviously identification of some sort, that most of the pilots sported on their breasts. The stewardesses, I observed, had similar ID cards but had them clipped to their purse straps.
A couple of pilots were scanning notices tacked on a large
bulletin board in the lobby. I stopped and pretended to look at some of the
notices, FAA or Pan Am memos mostly, and was afforded
Obviously/ I reflected as I left the building, I was going to need more than a uniform if I was to be successful in my role of Pan Am pilot. I would need an ID card and a great deal more knowledge of Pan Ams operations than I possessed at the moment. I put the uniform away in my closet and started haunting the public library and canvassing bookstores, studying all the material available on pilots, flying and airlines. One small volume I encountered proved especially valuable. It was the reminiscences of a veteran Pan American flight captain, replete with scores of photographs, and containing a wealth of airline terminology. It was not until later I learned that the pilots phraseology was somewhat dated.
A lot of the things I felt I ought to know, however, were not in the books or magazines I read. So I got back on the pipe with Pan Am. «Id like to speak to a pilot, please,» I told the switchboard operator. «Im a reporter for my high school newspaper, and Id like to do a story on pilots» lives-you know, where they fly, how theyre trained and that sort of stuff. Do you think a pilot would talk to me?
Pan Am has the nicest people. Well, I can put you through to operations, the crew lounge, said the woman. There might be someone sitting around there that might answer some of your questions.
There was a captain who was happy to oblige. He was delighted that young people showed an interest in making a career in the airline field. I introduced myself as Bobby Black, and after some innocuous queries, I started to feed him the questions I wanted answered.
Whats the age of the youngest pilot flying for Pan Am?
Well, that depends, he answered. We have some
flight engineers whore probably no older than twenty-three
or twenty-four. Our youngest
I see, I said. Well, would it be impossible for a copilot to be twenty-six, or even younger?
Oh, no, he answered quickly. I dont know that we have
that many in that age bracket, but some of the other airlines do have a lot of
I was finding a lot of nuggets for my poke. When do you hire people; I mean, at what age can a pilot go to work for an airline, say Pan Am?
If I remember correctly, you can come on the payroll at twenty as a flight engineer, said the captain, who had an excellent memory.
Then feasibly, with six or eight years service, you could
«If s possible,» he conceded. «In fact, Id say it wouldnt
be unusual at all for a capable man to make
«Are you allowed to tell me how much pilots earn?» I asked.
«Well, again, that depends on seniority, the route he
flies, the number of hours he flies each week and other factors,» said the
captain. «I would say the maximum salary for
«How many pilots does Pan Am have?» I asked.
The captain chuckled. «Son, thats a tough one. I dont know the exact number. But eighteen hundred would probably be a fair estimate. You can get better figures from the personnel manager.»
«No, thats okay,» I said. «How many places are these pilots?»
«Youre talking about bases,» he replied. «We have five bases in the United States: San Francisco, Washington D.C., Chicago, Miami and New York. Those are cities where our aircrews live. They report to work in that city, San Francisco, say, fly out of that city and eventually terminate a flight in that city. It might help you to know that we are not a domestic carrier, that is, we dont fly from city to city in this country. Were strictly an international carrier, serving foreign destinations.»
The information helped me a lot. «This may sound strange to
you, Captain, and its more curiosity than anything else, but would it be
«Very possible, even more so with
«Therere so many pilots in the system, in fact, that no one pilot would know all the others. Ive been with the company eighteen years, and I dont think I know more than sixty or seventy of the other pilots.»
The captains verbal pinballs were lighting up all the lights in my little head.
«Ive heard that pilots can fly free, I mean as a passenger, not as a pilot. Is that true?» I prompted.
«Yes,» said the captain. «But were talking about two things,
now. We have pass privileges. That is, me and my family can travel somewhere by
«Then theres deadheading. For example, if my boss told me tonight that he wanted me in L.A. tomorrow to fly a trip out of there, I might fly out there on Delta, Eastern, TWA or any other carrier connecting with Los Angeles that could get me there on time. I would either occupy an empty passenger seat or, more likely, ride in the jump seat. Thats a little fold-down seat in the cockpit, generally used by deadheading pilots, VIPs or FAA check riders.»
«Would you have to help fly the plane?» I quizzed.
«Oh, no,» he replied. «Id be on another companys carrier, you see. You might be offered a control seat as a courtesy, but I always decline. We fly on each others planes to get somewhere, not to work.» He laughed.
«How do you go about that, deadheading, I mean?» I was really enthused. And the captain was patient. He must have liked kids.
«You want to know it all, dont you?» he said amiably, and proceeded to answer my question.
«Well, its done on what we call a pink slip. It works this way. Say I want to go to Miami on Delta. I go down to Delta operations, show them my Pan Am ID card and I fill out a Delta pink slip, stating my destination and giving my position with Pan Am, my employee number and my FAA pilots license number. I get a copy of the form and thats my jump/ I give that copy to the stewardess when I board, and thats how I get to ride in the jump seat.
I wasnt through, and he didnt seem to mind my continuing. Whats a pilots license look like? I asked. Is it a certificate that you can hang on the wall, or like a drivers license, or what?
He laughed. No, if s not a certificate you hang on the wall. If s kind of hard to describe, really. If s about the size of a drivers license, but theres no picture attached. Its just a white card with black printing on it.
I decided it was time to let the nice man go back to his comfortable seat. Gee, Captain, I sure thank you, I said. Youve been really super.
Glad to have helped you, son, he said. I hope you get those pilots wings, if thats what you want.
I already had the wings. What I needed was an ID card and an FAA pilots license. I wasnt too concerned about the ID card. The pilots license had me stumped. The FAA was not exactly a mail-order house.
I let my fingers do the walking in my search for a suitable ID card. I looked in the Yellow Pages under identification, picked a firm on Madison Avenue (any ID company with a Madison Avenue address had to have class, I thought) and went to the firm dressed in a business suit.
It was a prestigious office suite with a receptionist to screen
Id like to see one of your sales representatives, please, I replied in equally businesslike inflections.
The sales representative had the assured air and manner of a man who would disdain talking about a single ID card, so I hit him with what I thought would best get his attention and win his affection, the prospect of a big account.
My name is Frank Williams, and I represent Carib Air of Puerto Rico, I said crisply. As you probably know, we are expanding service to the continental United States, and we presently have two hundred people in our facilities at Kennedy. Right now were using only a temporary ID card made of paper, and we want to go to a formal, laminated, plastic-enclosed card with a color photograph and the company logo, similar to what the other airlines use here. We want a quality card, and I understand you people deal only in quality products.
If he knew that Carib Air existed and was expanding to the United States, he knew more than I did. But he was not a man to let the facts stand in the way of a juicy sale.
Oh, yes, Mr. Williams. Let me show you what we have along that line, he said enthusiastically, leading me to his office. He pulled down a huge, leather-bound sample catalogue from a shelf, leafed through the contents, which ranged from vellum to beautifully watermarked bond, and displayed a whole page of various identification forms.
Now, most of the airlines we serve use this card here, he said, pointing out one that seemed a duplicate of Pan Ams ID cards. It has employee number, base, position, description, photograph and, if you wish, a company logo. I think it would do very nicely.
I nodded in complete agreement. Yes, I think this is the card we want, I said. It was certainly the card I wanted. He gave me a complete cost rundown, including all the variables.
Can you give me a sample? I asked on impulse. Id like to show it to our top people, since theyre the ones wholl have the final say.
The salesman obliged in a matter of minutes. I studied the card. This is fine, but its blank, I said. Tell you what. Why dont we fix this up, so theyll have an idea of what the finished product looks like? We can use me as the subject.
Thats an excellent suggestion, said the salesman, and
led me to an ID camera that produced
He took several photographs, we selected one (he graciously
gave me the culls) and he affixed it to the space on the card, trimming it
neatly. He then filled in my phony name, adopted rank
Im sure we can do a good job for you, Mr. Williams, he said, ushering me out.
He already had done a good job for me, save for one detail. The lovely ID card lacked Pan Ams distinctive logo and firm name. I was wondering how to resolve the problem when a display in the window of a hobby shop caught my eye. There, poised on gracefully curved mounts, was an array of model planes, among them several commercial airliners. And among them a beautiful Pan Am jet, the firms famed logo on its tail, and the company legend, in the copyrighted lettering used by the airline, on the fuselage and wings.
The model came in several sizes. I bought the smallest, for $2.49, in an unassembled state, and hurried back to my room. I threw the plane parts away. Following instructions in the kit, I soaked the decal and lettering in water until they separated from their holding base. Both the logo and the company name were of microscopically thin plastic. I laid the Pan Am logo on the upper left-hand corner of the ID card and carefully arranged the firm legend across the top of the card. The clear decals, when they dried, appeared to have been printed on the card.
It was perfect. An exact duplicate of a Pan Am identification card. It would have required an examination with a spectroscope to reveal that the decals were actually on the outside of the plastic seal. I could have clipped the ID card on my breast pocket and passed muster at a Pan Am board meeting.
As a fake pilot, however, I was still grounded. I recalled the words of the captain Id interviewed under false pretenses: Your license is the most important thing. Youve got to have it on your person at all times when operating an aircraft. I carry mine in a folder that also contains my ID. Youll be asked to show your license as often as youre asked for your ID.
I mulled the issue over for days, but could think of no solution short of working my way through commercial aviation school. I started frequenting bookstores again, thumbing through the various flying publications. I wasnt sure of what I was looking for, but I found it.
There it was, a small display ad in the back of one of the books placed by a plaque-making firm in Milwaukee that catered to professional people. The firm offered to duplicate any pilots license, engraved in silver and mounted on a handsome eight-by-eleven-inch hardwood plaque, for only $35. The company used the standard, precut license die used by the FAA. All a pilot had to do was supply the pertinent information, including his FAA license number and ratings, and the firm would return a silver replica of his license, suitable for display anywhere. The FAA did have a mail-order branch, it appeared.
I wanted one of the plaques, naturally. I felt there had to be a way, plaque in hand, to reduce it to the proper size on appropriate paper. And Id have my pilots license!
I was feverish with the idea. I didnt write the firm; I called their offices in Milwaukee. I told the salesman I wanted one of the plaques and asked if the transaction could be handled by telephone.
He expressed no curiosity as to why I was in such a hurry. Well, you can give me all the necessary information over the telephone, but well have to have a check or money order before we actually make up the plaque, said the man. In the meantime, we can start roughing it out and well treat it as a special order. Itll be $37.50, including postage and special handling.
I didnt quibble. I gave him my alias, Frank Williams. I
gave him my spurious age and my correct weight, height, color of hair and eyes
and social security number. A pilots license or certificate number is always
the same as his social security number. I gave myself the highest rating a
pilot can attain, an air transport rating. I told the man I was checked out on
The plaque arrived within a week. It was gorgeous. Not only was I certified as a pilot in sterling, but the license replica even boasted the signature of the head of the Fed eral Aviation Agency.
I took the plaque to a hole-in-the-wall print shop in Brooklyn and sought out the head printer. Look, Id like to get my license reduced down so I can carry it in my wallet, you know, like you would a diploma. Can it be done? I asked.
The printer studied the plaque admiringly. Geez, I didnt know pilots got this sort of thing when they learned to fly, he said. Its fanciern a college diploma.
Well, an actual license is a certificate, but its back at my home in L.A., I said. This is something my girl gave me as a gift. But Ill be based here for several months and I would like to have a wallet-sized copy of my license. Can you do it with this or will I have to send for the certificate?
Nah, I can do it from this, he said, and, using a special camera, he reduced it to actual size, printed it on heavy white stock, cut it out and handed it to me. The whole process took less than thirty minutes and cost me five bucks. I laminated it with two pieces of plastic myself. Id never seen a real pilots license, but this sure as hell looked like one.
I put on my pilots uniform, which I had had altered to a perfect fit, tilted my cap at a rakish angle and caught a bus to La Guardia Airport.
I was ready for flight duty. Provided someone else flew the plane.