Celebrations surrounding an American Airlines maintenance crew chief’s stunning aviation career culminated on July 18 with a special flight from New York JFK of the world’s oldest flying Douglas DC-3.
The flight, which routed over Manhattan and other parts of New York City and which gave passengers a close-up, bird’s-eye view of the new, still-unfinished One World Trade Center building – the so-called ‘Freedom Tower’ – celebrated the 70th anniversary of Azriel (Al) “Blackie’ Blackman’s service with American Airlines and a forebear company.
Blackman, who at the age of 87 is still a full-time aircraft maintenance crew chief with American at New York JFK, occupied the cockpit jump seat on the special flight. The aircraft operating the flight had had an even longer career than the honored guest: built in 1937, the DC-3 in question was 75 years old.
The July 18 flight followed a gathering the previous day of some 300 American Airlines colleagues, dignitaries and guests who convened to honor Blackman’s astonishing career achievement with American and associated companies. His career had been interrupted only by U.S. Army service in Korea as an aircraft mechanic during the Korean War.
American held the ceremony in Bay 2 of American’s Hangar 10 at New York JFK, Blackman’s workplace. During the gathering, a huge mural was unveiled on the hangar wall showing Blackman with several of the American Airlines and other aircraft types he had worked on over the years.
The mural had been painted by colleague Al Oyague, Jr. in daily 15-to-20-hour sessions over four days from July 13 to July 16 on Blackman’s days off and his off-duty periods. Before Blackman came on duty, Oyague would cover the mural with swathes of fabric so that Blackman would not see the work being performed in his honor.
During the ceremony, also, American officially renamed Bay 2 of Hangar 10 the Al ‘Blackie’ Blackman Bay.
Colleagues in American Airlines’ maintenance division told reporters they believed Blackman held the record for having the longest aviation career ever.
Accordingly, they had submitted details of his career to The Guinness Book of Records, which accepted the submission. Now American is awaiting the editors’ decisions regarding possible ratification of Blackman’s career as an official record and his potential inclusion in the book as a record-holder.
Blackman reckons he has worked on “easily over 50” different aircraft types during his phenomenally long career. During his U.S. Army service in Korea, Blackman repaired and maintained helicopters at a facility located across the road from the 4077th M.A.S.H., later immortalized in the famous 1970 film and subsequent TV comedy series.
The Korean War provided Blackman’s most memorable maintenance-career moment, he says. He and a crew of fellow aircraft mechanics had been sent up to the front line to try to retrieve and repair a helicopter which had auto-rotated to a crash landing on the other side of a hill, just beyond the front.
While the unit’s officer and the local commanding officer were involved in a heated discussion over how safe it was to send the crew of mechanics beyond the front line to the site where the helicopter had landed, the crew heard large explosions on the other side of the hill, very close to where they were. This indicated that Chinese forces had begun shelling the helicopter. The question of the skilled maintenance crew’s safety was moot and they moved back to their base.
Ironically, during Blackman’s career – which started in 1942 before his 17th birthday with a company called American Export, later purchased by American Airlines, servicing Sikorsky VS-44 flying boats – he had little involvement with DC-3s. The DC-3s on which he did perform work did not include NC17334, the former American Airlines aircraft which performed the July 18 special flight in his honor.
Declaring that the aircraft he likes working on best are Boeing types, which American has purchased in large numbers over the years, Blackman says he has no plans to retire.
Blackman says he regards every day as a new learning challenge and chuckles that his wife Delores – who he met at Fort Dix during basic military training and married in 1954, two years after returning from Korea – used to tell him to “Go to work – go play with your friends”, so great was his love of his job. His beloved Delores passed away two years ago, when they had been married 57 years.
An American Airlines maintenance crew chief since 1960, Blackman spends much of his spare time working on restoring vintage aircraft for the Historical Aircraft Restoration Project at Floyd Bennett Field, a few miles west of New York JFK on the other side of New York’s Jamaica Bay.
The special flight honoring Blackman was operated by NC17334, a DC-3 built in 1937 specifically for American Airlines and named ‘Flagship Detroit’ by the carrier during its service with American, which lasted until 1947.