Saturday, November 21, 2015

Drinking and Flying: “Are You Kidding Me?”

This post begins with a personal story.  During the summer of 1957 while working on a Northern Wisconsin weekly newspaper, I was told by my boss to take aerial photos for a prominent resort owner of his place.  When I arrived the owner clearly was drunk but he proceeded to tell me how he would fly his Cessna sideways with me leaning out to take the shots.  When he picked up the phone to call the local airport, I figured on running away to join the circus.  Then he put down the receiver, explaining: “I never fly if I have been drinking.” The photos never got taken.
This incident caused me to follow up on my last post about “drinking and driving” as captured in pre-Prohibition beer advertising.  It is evident beer and liquor interests have also linked drinking and flying in their merchandising — not only in the early days of flight but even more recently.

Wilbur and Orville Wright flew the first airplane in 1903 at Kitty Hawk and it quickly sparked many innovation so that by 1914 the first commercial passenger service was established.  Beer manufacturer were quick to seize on public interest in flying as an advertising gimmick.  
Falstaff Brewery appears to have embraced the idea of advertising its beer with flying early on.  It issued a postcard that showed a comely young woman, an early aviatrix, holding a bottle of beer.  The caption is very clear about the purpose:  “A bottle of Falstaff as a ‘bracer’ before the flight.”  The message was “drink before flying.”

The brewery returned to this theme by issuing a trade card showing a Gibson girl sitting in something that looks vaguely like an airplane.  She is quaffing a glass of Falstaff poured from a bottle beside her.  Her seat bears the brewery logo.  Women had begun participating in aviation about 1910.  The first woman to be given a flying license was a French baroness.  Shown here is Lillian Todd, an early flyer and the first female aeronautical engineer.  Ms. Todd had designed the plane she is posing on.  She is not known to have had a beer before taking off.
The Miller Brewing Company also saw the benefit of advertising via the airplane.  Theirs is a cartoon.  The pilot, a little old man, is drinking from a stein while surrounded by large bottles of Miller High Life Beer.  He is said to be experiencing the “High Life in Milwaukee.”  The pilot may never be able to land; his struts are actually sausages.

Charles Lindbergh’s flight from New York to Paris in May 1927 had made him a national hero.  His popularity extended beyond the repeal of National Prohibition in 1934 prompting Haffenreffer and Company to use his image and associated message to promote its Pickwick Ale and Stout.  According to the ad, Pickwick has experienced a “flight of popularity.”  The public is assured: “And you will have no fears for safety when you’re navigating with Pickwick.”  Maybe, but I suspect that if “Lucky Lindy” had been navigating with a few drinks in him he might have landed in Chicago.

Fast forward to more recent times.  An ad from Guiness shows its toucan mascots flying over a military airfield with glasses of stout balanced on their ample beaks.  Two military chaps are looking at them and while clearly startled seem to be thinking, “Lovely day for a Guiness” just before they take off into that “wild blue yonder.”

Powers Gold Label Irish Whiskey seems to be conveying a similar message, showing a man dressed for flying who is drinking an Irish coffee made with Powers.  The drink is said to “Warm the cockles of your heart….”   It also may warm up other bodily organs, some of which are better left cool in flying.

The illustration here of a stewardess holding an Foynes Irish Coffee in front of a airplane needs some explanation.  As one author has put it, “Foynes and flying boats will be forever connected with the Irish coffee.”  Foynes was an airbase near Limerick and the main airport for flying boats — fixed wing planes that landed on water — traveling between Europe and the United States.  Weather conditions along the West coast of Ireland can be notoriously bad, and after taking off for New York, on one occasion the pilot had to return to Foynes.  To warm up the passengers an airport restaurant brewed some coffee, added some Irish whiskey and brown sugar, topped it off with whipped cream — and the rest is history. 
The last example of linking strong drink and flying appeared in a Smirnoff Vodka ad in 1969.  It features a group of picnickers who are drinking the potato alcohol,  two of them equipped with helicopter backpacks.  Two women also seem dressed for flight.  The caption should have been:  “Don’t try this at home.”
The last illustration is a cartoon that indicates my close scrape with a potentially drunken pilot narrated above was not so far-fetched.  Back in 1990, all three members of a Northwest Airlines flight crew were legally intoxicated when they flew 91 passengers from Fargo, North Dakota, to Minneapolis, Minnesota, roughly an hour-long flight whose landing came without incident. Authorities had received a tip from someone who had seen them drinking in a bar the previous evening. The three served prison sentences.

I escaped making a decision to bolt if the inebriated resort owner had actually order up his airplane.  The passengers on that Northwest flight probably never knew — until they read of the arrests in the paper the next day.  All of us were lucky but luck should be nothing to count on when flying.  

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