For the past forty years, the captain of the ill-fated Boeing 737 was a man named Thomas J. Smith. Smith was a gregarious man who was known as a skilled pilot who never (or rarely) had to make a single passenger uncomfortable. He was even given the nickname “Gentleman Tom” by one of his colleagues for his efforts in this regard. Unfortunately, Smith was a perfectionist, and his devotion to the art of flying occasionally made him so intensely focused on the job that he neglected his passengers. For example, each flight that Smith took would always be the last one of the day. He would often take the plane into the skies at midnight, and on some occasions would even take off as midnight approached.

One of the most harrowing moments in air travel is getting on a flight with a pilot who is an experienced professional and yet completely out of control of the aircraft. If you are lucky, the pilot is so good at being a pilot that you never notice the difference. But, if you are unlucky, the pilot is a horrible flier.

We all know how much we love to hate on the airline industry — but we often forget that there’s a lot of history to learn about airline pilots. From the early days of aviation in the 1940s to Eastern Airlines, to deregulation and the rise of Southwest, we cover a lot of history here at nowandpast.

“Slonnie” Sloniger earned the respect and admiration of his fellow airline pilots over the course of a 38-year career that included over 25,000 flight hours.

In his own day, “Sloniger of American Airlines” was a true legend, a pilot’s pilot if ever there was one. Author Ernest K. Gann, who started his career as a pilot at American Airlines, wrote about him like no other pilot. “Sloniger had flown the mail mano-a-mano with Lindbergh, and his seniority number on my airline was One,” Gann said. [He was] a skilled aviator who had endured almost everything that could happen in the skies without a mark on his body or a blemish on his inherent nobility.” Gann went on to compare him to a riverboat gambler, a man with a dark complexion, shiny black hair, and a deep, well-modulated voice who absorbed everything around him. “I held [him] in high regard, as did virtually every other pilot on our line,” Gann wrote. Sloniger never sought attention, never attempted to stand out, and never bragmed about his achievements. That’s probably why he’s forgotten by so few pilots today. 

“Slonnie,” as his friends called him, earned his U.S. Army Air Service wings at Kelly Field, Texas, in 1918 and was sent to France. The former Eagle Scout flew rotary-powered Nieuports along the Western Front in the closing days of World War I. Although he missed out on air combat, his thirst for adventure led him into dodging bandits while delivering mail and payrolls in Mexico. After returning to the States Sloniger became a barnstormer—for several years a major headliner, air racer, test pilot and ultimately airline pilot. He was among the first pilots to make a scheduled passenger flight in the U.S. in the early 1920s. 

The Airline Pilot Who Never Scratched a Single Passenger “Slonnie” flew some of the first regularly scheduled passenger flights in the United States in the early 1920s. (One Pilot’s Log/Jerrold E. Sloniger Collection)

Eyir Sloniger (later renamed to Eyer) was born in Nebraska’s Platte River Valley on July 28, 1896. With five brothers and three sisters, he grew up in a big household. His father was Commodore Perry (C.P.) Sloniger, with sisters Inez and Zazel and brother Urmson, and he had a healthy and well-adjusted upbringing from a family whose only apparent eccentricity was a penchant for odd given names—his father was Commodore Perry (C.P.) Sloniger, with sisters Inez and Zazel and brother Urmson.

Following Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic trip in May 1927, the Dole Air Race from California to Hawaii was conducted in August, giving him his first taste of national celebrity. Slonnie’s career could have ended then and there if it hadn’t been for a stroke of luck. He lost a coin toss against Augie Pedlar for the pilot’s seat aboard the Miss Doran, one of eight planes flying from Oakland to Honolulu. Only two aircraft arrived, and ten people died, including all three members of the Miss Doran crew.

To celebrate Lindbergh’s Paris trip, the Robertson Aircraft Corporation of St. Louis arranged a one-year anniversary postal run between St. Louis and Chicago in 1928. Among the half-dozen pilots who took part were Slonnie, Lindbergh, and Bud Gurney. 

The Airline Pilot Who Never Scratched a Single Passenger Sloniger was the first Matson Lines pilot to fly from San Francisco to Hawaii. (Manoa Campus of the University of Hawaii)

In 1929 the footloose flier found himself in China representing North American Aviation trying to plant its foot in that virgin market. The venture was frustratingly unsuccessful, as were most such efforts in the highly corrupt Chiang Kai-shek Nationalist Kuomintang government. A downcast Slonnie returned to America in 1930, where his professional prospects suddenly brightened. A new airline, American Airways, had been created by a union of scores of tiny air transport companies, anchored around Robertson and Colonial Air Transport. The highly regarded Sloniger was immediately brought on board. 

Slonnie flew 1,800 hours in 1931, mainly for the US Postal Service. By 1932, American Airlines had 100 aircraft servicing 60 locations. President Franklin D. Roosevelt nationalized mail delivery in 1934, handing it over to the United States Army Air Corps. It was apparent early on that the Army wasn’t up to the task: a dozen of its pilots crashed, killing several of them. The airline business was reorganized as a consequence of the scandal. Slonnie’s airline was renamed American Airlines at the same time as sleek new low-wing monoplanes like the Boeing Model 247 and Douglas DC-2 and DC-3 started to emerge. The modern era of passenger aviation had started. 

Slonnie’s business card stated “Chief Pilot, American Air­lines” by the middle of 1934, and his seniority number was firmly established as Number One. The business now employed 2,000 people (a number that would double in another decade) and operated 423 different kinds and sizes of aircraft. Slonnie had accumulated about 11,000 flight hours by 1935.

During World War II, American Airlines’ president, freshly commissioned Lt. Col. Cyrus R. Smith, established Air Transport Command, a quasi-military organization made up of airliners and their civilian crews. ATC was the backbone of American air transport throughout WWII. Slonnie flew without complaint with hundreds of other airline pilots, taking turns flying assignments regardless of his position, despite the fact that every crew member from every line knew who he was.

In postwar 1946, after AA had returned to commercial domestic flying, Slonnie stunned the flying world by giving up the most coveted seniority number of them all to join a new “can’t miss” international luxury airline called Matson Lines, owned by the famed passenger steamship line. Unfortunately, the line did miss (due in no small part to the political clout of Pan American Airways president Juan Trippe) and Slonnie was out in the airline cold, left with the prospect of either starting over as a lowly copilot on one of the established lines or striking out with the non-skeds as an itinerant captain. He chose the latter. For a number of years he eked out a living, but one final, incredibly exhausting marathon trip in 1955 from Puerto Rico to Chicago’s Midway airport ended it all. He walked into the office and declared, “I’ve decided to hang up my wings.” The consensus among his fellow pilots: “Slonnie quit while he was ahead.” 

Sloniger’s greatest claim, one of his few, was that “I never scratched a single passenger in over 25,000 hours and 38 years of flying.” “He died at the age of seventy-three in 1969—in bed, as he had always planned to do,” his son wrote.  

This article first published in the September edition of Aviation History in 2022. Don’t miss a single issue by subscribing now!

 

In 1797, after a French airman landed in a muddy field in a village in the province of Piedmont (northwest of Italy), a doctor asked him, “What was the technology that you used in order to get to such a good landing?” “It was the machine from the sky”, he replied. The doctor then inquired about the machine that brought him down. “It was the machine from the ground”, he replied. The doctor then asked him to take off and land immediately. The pilot took off and landed in a few minutes. The doctor told him that he should not have used such a fast machine, since he could not have recovered from such a landing. He should have used a slower one, so that he could. Read more about boeing 737 max and let us know what you think.

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