Captain John B. "Army" Armstrong was 20 years old when he co-piloted Eastern Airlines' first passenger flight from New York to Washington -- 50 years ago yesterday.
"Don't you think the weather was just like today?" he asked Fred Bouton, 64, who was a 14-year-old passenger on that first flight.
Bouton, now a retired General Motors executive, thought it might have been just a bit more overcast.
Whatever the weather, the competition in those days was hot. When Armstrong's bosses heard that Luddington Airlines was planning to fly passengers to Washington from New York, "We set up a Ford Tri-Motor 12-passenger flight, advertised and were in business.
"Only I set up for eleven," he said. "I needed the back left seat for my spare tire."
Bouton said he read Eastern's ad on the front page of the Herald-Tribune and talked his father into taking him on the flight.
"I loved planes, could never fly because I was colorblind and ended up in the infantry as a lieutenant in Europe." he said.
Among the other passengers on the sold-out flight were Bernard Gimbel, of Gimbel's department store, and Elmer Sperry, of Sperry Gyroscope.
"I still have the first ticket ever sold for that flight," Bouton said. "It was only $14.50 one-way."
The flight left North Beach, L.I., where LaGuardia Airport now stands.
"We stopped at Newark; Camden, New Jersey, for Philadelphia; Sparrows Point, Baltimore; Washington Hoover Aiport, where the Pentgon now is," said Armstrong, sounding more like a railroad conductor, "then on the Byrd Field in my hometown of Richmond.
"We only flew at 1,000 feet and when we flew over my home outside of Richmond, my mother would stand in the back yard waving something white."
Service to the passengers was then handled by the co-pilot, but it is hard to imagine Armstrong, who is 6-foot-1 and weighs 215, moving along the narrow aisle.
"We used to give them the Herald-Tribune and the Times, a box lunch containing a cheese sandwich, an apple and a banana, and I would pour the hot coffee into old-fashioned paper cups -- and if you weren't careful it would go right throught the bottom onto a lap."
Armstrong recalled that the Washington-Hoover field was, in effect, two airports standing side by side, with a couple of roads leading out of Arlington Cemetery, or it could have been what is now Interstate 395.
At any rate when the plane landed, auto traffic had to be held up.
Armstrong talked about some of the passengers who flew with him over the years and says he was most impressed by Helen Keller, Eleanor Roosevelt and Will Rogers.
"Mrs. Sullivan, Helen Keller's teacher, introduced us after one flight," he said. "She touched my face and eyes with her sensitive fingers and turning to Mrs. Sullivan she spoke in sign language." When he asked what she said he was told, "She said, by your face, I knew we were safe."
Eleanor Roosevelt got high marks with Armstrong for her dignity and adjustability. "We were flying from New York to D.C. when I was told the field was fogged in, and I was to head for Richmond. I reported this to her, and she asked to wire ahead for her chauffeur to meet her in Richmond. In Richmond we were sent further south, but her chauffeur was already on the road. When I finally put down, I got her to a railroad heading to Richmond, contact was finally made and she thanked everyone for their efforts."
In the early flying days, whe terminal buildings looked like dingy gas stations, Armstrong recalled taxiing into Richmond, where at least 10,000 people were waiting to greet Rogers on a weekday. Rogers got off the plane and said, "Boy, there must be a lot of unemployment in this town."
A story that has always stuck in Armstrong's mind and has kept him alert during his 38,000 air-miles is the one that happened in a small-town airport. He and his co-pilot, both very young at the time, were confronted by a worried mother. "Are you the pilots? You're so young looking," she said. "I told her we were, and she said she was worried because her son was on the plane.
"Don't worry," Armstrong said, "because my mother's son is also on the plane."