Monday, September 16, 2013

Jack Frye Plays Howard Hughes Hand...

Since December 1934, our young, energetic, fiercely competitive 30 year old President of TWA stood at the crossroads of aviation history. He had helped steer the DC aircraft revolution, was the first to offer passengers a new way of life in travel, and he made air transportation respectable, safe, comfortable and on time. Jack Frye pioneering through the 30’s saw the beginning of major technological advances in aircraft and many logistical ground support operations. The discovery of calm flight above the clouds and the discovery of 150 mph winds up there we now call the jet stream were Frye firsts. The first pressurized cabin airliner, the 307 Stratoliner. The advancement of radio communications from ground to air crew that enabled great scheduling efficiency. And the introduction to the new Sperry Auto Pilot system. These are just a few innovations that occurred during the Frye legacy. Then onto the 40’s, Jack Frye helped conceive the new Constellation aircraft that opened up International travel. His service as president in working with the US Government during WWII was superior and generously rewarded by President Harry Truman with the Medal of Merit, America’s highest civilian decoration. The huge expansion of travel routes and eventually the establishment of shorter global air routes, Jack Frye was on the cutting edge of airline development.

Standing at the gate of a new frontier in air travel, Jack Frye owned it, loved every minute of it, consumed it 24 hours a day with extraordinary skill and style for 13 courageous pioneering years as TWA’s chief. His modus operandi was always forward thinking and committing to growing TWA and airline travel as a whole, and this cost money. We must remember the airline industry was seeing new advancements and new ideas on a daily basis during the 30’s through the 40’s. This fact couldn’t be helped being an immerging industry since the dawn of powered flight at Kitty Hawk. But to Jack Frye’s demise as TWA’s chief executive, there was and is always the case in any large corporation, bean counting lawyers that were constantly at his coattails. One Noah Dietrich, Howard Hughes chief council just couldn’t stomach Jack Frye spending his client’s money on airplanes and staff. He couldn’t and wouldn’t see the silver lining beyond the clouds with his business management style. Dietrich was about protectionism, Frye was about growth and expansion and so was Hughes. But, as has been recorded, Dietrich got into Howards ear and for the most part convinced his master that Frye needed to go.

Through the pilots strike in 1946 amidst plunging revenue during the recession, Howard Hughes was still loyal to Jack Frye and he still favored Jack’s business style and bravado though guardedly. According to George Spater, “Hughes wanted to retain Frye on the condition that Dietrich have a greater say in the running of the airline” (Serling 1983). This alleged notion was flatly denied by Frye. It has been recorded that Jack Frye during this tumultuous time of friction between him and Howard, he installed long telephone extension cords in his Washington residence that would enable him to have hours long conversations with Hughes while walking from room to room or preparing a meal or a drink without interruption. Some of the private conversations of Jack and Howard was known to have been recorded by Frye, but to this day no one knows what happened to the tapes. My suspicion is Jack either destroyed them or packed them away in a box of many that ended up in a storage facility, somewhere.

Before Hughes could fire him, Jack Frye played his hand and resigned from TWA, February 17, 1947. He had no ill will toward Hughes, and likewise of Howard. In fact Howard really wanted him to stay on condition he take some of Dietrichs financial advice. Hughes was obviously tentative but Jack being the visionary pioneer type refused. And for good reason. Obviously by Jack Frye’s incredible track record of achievements up to 1947, his career was dedicated and purposeful and made fantastic headway in the globalization of air travel. Did Howard forget that? Was he such a whiner and a small man not to see what Jack Frye had achieved for his investment? Sure the company was in the red but was about to rocket into the black if Jack Frye stayed on board and on course. It was Noah Dietrich that saddled Hughes into succumbing. One of the last persons Jack Frye saw before officially leaving TWA was Hal Blackburn. With unbelief he asked Jack, “Are you really leaving us?” Frye sadly replied, “Blackie, I don’t know.” “Under the circumstances, unless things change, I can’t stay.”

The following are some employee memories of Jack Frye from Serling's 1983 book – Howard Hughes Airline.

Buy it here

George Spater – “I don’t know if he’s ever gotten the credit he deserved. He was a great believer in high standards of service. He’d go over the TWA advertising copy word by word to make sure it was in good taste and honest. He insisted that the airplanes be clean. He was a great originator and innovator.”

John Collins – “It was Jack Frye who thought up the idea of putting a red carpet down between the boarding gate and the airplane. I laughed at this and talked Jack out of it by claiming the carpet would blow away the first time there was a high wind. But later United adopted the idea and so did TWA.”

Carter Burgess – “God he was a bright guy. He was a great writer, a remarkable master of the English language. Some of his memorandums were masterpieces. I remember one he wrote to John Collins about the size of the cinnamon buns on morning flights. ‘They look like cow pies’, Frye complained. He could be ruthless yet he was a very decent guy, and he could fly an airplane about as well as any pilot who ever lived.”

Bob Rummel – “Easygoing in appearance but very tough and determined underneath.”

Jean Phillips – Frye was reputed to have Indian blood and Jean believed it. She told Jack, “When you come down the corridor I know it’s you before you step foot in my office.” But I never hear Frye coming. I think it’s because he walks on the balls of his feet like an Indian.

Image courtesy Eric Johnson collection

Jack Frye left a huge part of himself with TWA,
                                                 the airline he loved so much...
All that I have read, and the former TWA employees that I have spoken too unanimously concur that Jack Frye was a beloved president. To this day for those who remember him and his story, every single memory and perception of the man who trail blazed TWA into the history books express - Jack Frye was the aviators aviator, the employees favorite boss, and the passengers fondest memory of a man who delivered them the best travel service with style and a pleasure knowing they were in safe and comfortable hands. It was Jack Frye that originally conceived and delivered the idea of safety, on time schedules and comfort for his guest travelers. And it is recorded that many employees in management and in the rank and file truly wanted Frye to return as their chief through his remaining 12 years of life. He constantly put himself in the travelers position to find out what pleased them as America's most personable airline executive... What a Legacy! May he continue to be remembered and honored as such.
We have covered most all of Jack Frye's incredible career pioneering the airline industry, but there is much more to tell of this great American. Stay tuned...

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