Capt. Joe Kimm
Quiet Birdman

Air Line Pilot, May/June 2002, p.24
By Susan Duxbury

Capt. Joe Kimm’s career with Northwest Airlines spanned 41 years. Starting as a steward in 1929 on the Ford Trimotor, he ended his career in 1971 at the age of 60 flying Boeing 707s. He was just short of his 18th birthday when he began working for the airline, and the year before he retired, Northwest took possession of its first Boeing 747. Capt. Kimm continues to regret that he was not given the opportunity to check out in the B-747.

Ninety years have been physically good to Capt. Kimm, and his quick mind remains engaged in the matters of the world. At a recent Retired Northwest Pilots Association (RNPA) banquet in Vancouver, Capt. Kimm’s eloquent invocation addressed the fears and concerns of all present over the terrorism that had just shattered the United States. His continued involvement in aviation comes not only from his participation with the RNPA, but also as a member of the Quiet Birdmen, an organization of pilots that predates most airlines.

Amelia Earhart flew as a passenger on Northwest Airways' "proof" flight from the Twin Cities over the Rocky Mountains to Seattle, Wash., in January 1933. From left are Joe Kimm, copilot; Hugh Rueschenberg, captain; Earhart; and Mal Freeburg, system chief pilot.

At the age of 9, Capt. Kimm received a model airplane kit as a Christmas gift from his parents. When completed, the model hung from the ceiling of his classroom at school. Eighty-one years later, he recalled the model, an NC-4, as being covered in Japanese silk. The model airplane was a harbinger of Capt. Kimm’s future career.

A year later, Clarence Hinck, a local Minneapolis aviator, invited Al Kimm and his two sons, Joe and his older brother, Herb, to join him on a flight from the Robbinsdale Airport. They flew in an open-cockpit Curtis JN4 Jenny. "It was a thrill," Capt. Kimm remarks, "to be up in the clouds." Few people flew in those early days of aviation. Who could have imagined on that day in 1921 how many hours Capt. Kimm would log as a pilot in the future on ever newer, more sophisticated, and faster airplanes?

Joe spent his free hours as a teen carving model airplanes from discarded wooden Kraft Cheese boxes, carefully forming spars from quarter-inch green pine. He joined a model airplane club in his neighborhood, where he distinguished himself by winning the Minneapolis Journal’s 1928 model-airplane tournament at the age of 17.

Walter Bullock, a pilot for the newly formed Northwest Airways, was the club’s advisor. Bullock was notable as one of the nation’s pioneer aviators even before signing on with Northwest Airways, having made his first solo flight at the age of 17 and being the youngest pilot to be certified by the Aero Club of America. Bullock was a barnstormer and flew exhibitions over Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. He carried the distinction of having taught the legendary Charlie "Speed" Hollman how to fly. Bullock would prove a worthy mentor for the young Joe Kimm.

After graduating from Minneapolis Central High School in January 1929, at 17, Joe hoped to continue his education by studying aeronautical engineering. But the Kimm family lacked the money to send him to college. Fresh from high school, Joe took a job at a candy and ice cream parlor, earning $12 a week.

As a sideline to his flying, Bullock had started a business out of the basement of his house assembling model airplane kits for sale. He invited Joe to come work for him. Joe readily accepted, agreeing to work for the same pay he earned at the ice cream shop. The work was physically less demanding, but of more importance—it was better suited to the young man’s aviation interests.

One day as the two worked side by side, Bullock made the suggestion: "If you can sell your folks on the idea, Northwest could use you as a steward on our Trimotor flights to Chicago." Joe’s parents, caught off guard by the sudden offer, demurred to each other before granting the permission their son so eagerly sought. In 1929, Joe signed on as a steward for the hometown airline and stepped across the threshold to an enduring aviation career.

Northwest Airways was barely 3 years old when Joe went to work for the company. Col. Louis Brittin, backed by Henry Ford and a consortium of Detroit businessmen, began the airline in 1926 after securing Air Mail Route 9 between Chicago and the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn. Speed Hollman and Dave Behncke were hired to fly the mail in rented airplanes—a Curtiss Oriole and a Thomas Morse, each powered by an OX-5.

Incorporated as a Michigan company, Northwest Airways established an operational base at Wold-Chamberlain Field in the Twin Cities. That same year, the company purchased four Stinson Detroiters and in 1927 began to carry passengers. The Stinson SB-1, a single-engine biplane with room for three passengers, flew between the Twin Cities and Chicago, making stops in La Crosse and Madison, Wis., and Milwaukee. The one-way fare from Minneapolis to Chicago was $40.

The airline expanded service into Canada in 1928 and became the first airline to establish an air–rail network. Connections were formed with the Rock Island, Great Northern, Northern Pacific, and Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroads. Northwest Airways also added an air route to Green Bay, Wis., by way of the Wisconsin towns of Fond du Lac, Oshkosh, Neenah-Nebasga, and Appleton. In May 1929, passenger service was started to Rochester, Minn. Service to Elgin and Rockford, Ill., was added to the Northwest Airways route map in 1930, as were weekly flights to Sioux City and Iowa City, Iowa, and Omaha, Neb.

A group of Minnesota businessmen bought control of Northwest Airways in 1929, elected Richard C. Lilly of St. Paul as president, and moved the operation base from Wold-Chamberlain Field to the downtown St. Paul airport.

Northwest was an expanding regional airline when Joe joined it as a steward. He worked 130 hours a month, earning $78. His duties were to help fuel the airplane, sell tickets, board passengers, meet the mail truck, and load the mail and baggage onto the airplane.

Joe quickly realized he was in the wrong job. "I thought I was working harder than those in the cockpit," he says. "I wanted to fly the plane." He borrowed a WACO 10 biplane from the company, and Chad Smith, hired as chief pilot by Speed Hollman, led Joe to his first solo in 4½ hours of flight time, an effort generally requiring 10 hours to accomplish.

Shortly after Joe qualified for his transport license, the U.S. Department of Commerce Division of Aeronautics, forerunner of the FAA, passed a ruling requiring two pilots on aircraft weighing 12,500 pounds or more. The ruling was implemented with the Ford Trimotor in mind. If not for the good timing in acquiring his license, Joe would have been furloughed; instead, he moved from the back of the airplane to the right seat of the cockpit.

At that time, there was no debate over arming the flight crew of an airplane. Recently, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., Capt. Kimm was asked his opinion about pilots carrying guns on flights.

"From 1929 to 1932, I carried a .38 revolver Wyatt Earp style on each flight," Capt. Kimm replied. "Then from 1932 to 1942, the company policy changed, and copilots carried revolvers in their flight bag." Postal regulations required those responsible for carrying the mail to be armed.

Air navigation was a rudimentary affair in 1929. Numbered searchlight beacons were spaced every 10 miles along the course to mark an air route. Morse code flashed the number of the beacon to the airplane where the pilots would coordinate the number on a map to establish the aircraft’s position. Flying in cloudy weather was restricted with a ¼-mile visibility required. Radio had not yet made its way into the cockpit of most airplanes before 1932. A pilot who ran into bad weather would seek a farmer’s field and circle to determine if it had adequate room and no obstacles (such as haystacks) to landing. Assured, the pilot would put the airplane down.

"Farmers were more than happy to see us," remarks Capt. Kimm, "and were glad to give us a ride to town, where we dropped the airmail off at the local train station and used Western Union to advise the home office in St. Paul of our whereabouts. We would remain in town until the weather cleared and the flight could resume. Rarely did we have passengers, but in case we did, they would continue by train."

Northwest Airlines, to celebrate its 30th birthday in 1956, flew the famous Ford Trimotor coast to coast, from New York City to Seattle, Wash. The crew of this nostalgic flight was, from left, Walt Kollath, mechanic; Capts. Deke Delong and Joe Kimm; and Coral Yule, cabin attendant.

Capt. Kimm had some memorable experiences during his years of flying with Northwest. One of these happened on April 12, 1932, a beautiful day with fair winds following. Flying as copilot, he was at the controls of a Ford Trimotor flying from St. Paul to Chicago with 12 passengers. Mal Freeburg was the captain. As the airplane passed over Wabasha, Minn., the pilots heard a large thump that came from the position of the No. 1 engine. Grabbing the controls and dipping the wings to see what was wrong, Capt. Freeburg discovered the left engine had broken loose from its mounting and was wedged in the landing gear struts. He faced a crucial decision of whether to dump the engine over the Mississippi River or to fly on and land at Wabasha Airport. The risk with the latter alternative was that neither pilot knew how the Trimotor would handle unbalanced by the displaced engine, or when the engine might break loose. Capt. Freeburg turned the airplane and flew it over the Mississippi River, where he banked to the left before whipping the controls back and forth to shake the engine loose.

The engine, rather than landing in the river as the pilots had planned, dropped on land 200 feet from a farmer building a chicken coop near the banks of the river. Capt. Freeburg then landed the Trimotor at Wabasha Airport. Within minutes, the airport received a phone call from the "chicken coop man" reporting he had found an airplane engine. A prized possession gracing Capt. Kimm’s home is an ashtray made from a piston salvaged from that engine. Capt. Freeburg received the first Congressional Medal of Honor given an airline pilot for skillfully handling the emergency, and Collier’s magazine published an article on the incident.

Mountains and severe winter weather provided obstacles to establishing a northern transcontinental route. Western regional airlines lobbied heavily against Col. Brittin’s desire to expand Northwest’s routes to Montana and on to Puget Sound. Brittin set out to prove the doubters wrong about a northern transcontinental flight by planning a "proof" flight between the Twin Cities and Seattle. He placed Croil Hunter in charge of publicizing the flight. Hunter, with keen instincts for the advantages of good press, invited a friend he had met during his days as a student at Yale to fly as a passenger on the flight. The friend, the media darling of the day, Amelia Earhart, had recently assured her place in aviation history by being the first woman to cross the Atlantic solo in an airplane.

On Jan. 28, 1933, with a brisk snowfall swirling around the St. Paul airport, Hugh Rueschenberg at the controls, with Joe Kimm as copilot, guided the Ford Trimotor down the runway for its takeoff on the historic proof flight. Accompanying Earhart in the back of the airplane were Col. Brittin and Hunter, whose wife joined him. Capt. Freeburg, the airline’s system chief pilot, and a mechanic, Heinie Wahlstrom, completed the passenger list.

The first leg, from Minneapolis to Bismarck, N.D., went without incident. It was capped off with a reception at the North Dakota Governor’s mansion. The two pilots, Rueschenberg and Kimm, left the party early to study their charts and plot the course for the next day’s leg.

The second leg was from Bismarck to Billings, Mont., where the Billings Chamber of Commerce gave a reception for the members of the flight; in Helena the next day, the Governor of Montana hosted another banquet.

At the reception in Helena, a wealthy Montana sheep rancher introduced himself to the crew, claiming to know every pass, stream, and salt lick in the area like the back of his hand. He volunteered to go along and guide the pilots across the Continental Divide. The next day, with this self-appointed guide on board and another snow squall swirling about it, the airplane took off.

"With Rueschenberg at the controls, and following the rancher’s directions, the flight headed west," recalls Capt. Kimm. "Shortly, the rancher appeared in the cockpit and said we had to turn around immediately as we were in a blind canyon. A turn was impossible at that moment because of the snow squall we were in. Hugh continued on until a letup in the weather permitted enough visibility to make the reversal. Again directed by the rancher, the plane flew into another blind canyon. Rueschenberg, ever the gentleman, suggested to the rancher with polite firmness that he return to his seat in the cabin and enjoy the flight, that we would find our way okay."

Two horses were needed to turn the Hamilton around in Pembina, N.D., in the winter of 1936. Capt. Kimm was unable to turn the airplane on its skis in the heavy winds. Charlie Beauvette, the station manager, hitched up the two horses and towed the aircraft back to the ramp. Capt. Kimm took the picture with his Brownie box camera.

Concerned that weather presented too great an obstacle to continue on, the pilots turned the airplane back toward Missoula. As they made the turn, they discovered a "Y"-shaped break in the mountains northwest of Missoula and flew over the pass into the Clark Fork River Valley. From there, the route took them up the Clark Fork River and over Coeur d’Alene Lake before landing in Spokane, Wash., in the midst of yet another blinding snowstorm.

For 2 days, the flight party was snowbound in the Davenport Hotel in Spokane while Brittin and Hunter met with press and local civic leaders bringing the message of promised civic benefit if a northern route to the West Coast was established.

Hunter put Earhart up in a $75-a-day suite, where she met and was interviewed by the local press. Hunter hosted a private turkey dinner in Earhart’s suite for the members of the flight on their last night in the Davenport Hotel.

The next day, the weather improved; the flight took off and flew over the beautiful, but hazardous, Cascade Mountains before landing in Seattle. The proof flight had achieved its goal. The return trip to the Twin Cities took just 2 days.

Capt. Kimm has fond memories of Amelia Earhart. He describes her as "a competent woman and a fine passenger. She sat in the back without offering advice on the flying." Moreover, he expresses his opinion that her navigator erred and missed Howland Island, causing the mystery that intrigues us to this day.

Northwest, building on the success of its proof flight, invested heavily in establishing a route between Chicago and Seattle. The company began training pilots to fly the mountainous route and ordered new and faster airplanes to put in service between Chicago and Seattle. Thus President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order on Feb. 9, 1934, canceling all existing air mail contracts, was a serious blow to the airline. The order resulted from charges of irregularities in granting air mail contracts that led to monopolies. The Army Air Corps was ordered to fly the mail.

Approximately 80 percent of North-west’s income came from its air mail contracts and only 20 percent from passenger service. The airline was forced to furlough one-third of its 150 employees; those who remained on the payroll were paid at half wages. Joe Kimm was furloughed.

At the urging of a friend, he applied to fly for the Illinois Air National Guard. A hernia, however, kept him from passing the flight physical, and instead he was accepted into the Guard not as a pilot, but as a driver, shuttling Guard pilots to and from the airfield.

Turning the air mail service over to the Army Air Corps proved a national debacle. Flying obsolete airplanes with pilots untrained to fly at the heights necessary for carrying the mail and in bad weather resulted in a series of fatal crashes. The Roosevelt Administration had no option but to return the airmail routes back into the hands of private carriers. Congress responded by passing the Black–McKeller Act of 1934 to address the original charges of irregularity that led to air mail contracts being concentrated in the hands of a few.

Under the Black–McKeller Act, many airlines were forced to reorganize, and in April 1934, Northwest Airways reincorporated as Northwest Airlines, Inc. Passenger revenue did not exceed mail revenue for the airline until 1941.

As routes expanded and flying hours increased, compensation became a contentious issue between the pilots and the owners of the airlines. Any pilot who flew for an airline before 1932 could neither forgive nor forget what E.L. Cord of Century Airlines tried to do to them.

Cord came to represent just how ruthless airline owners could be in dealing with pilots. In confronting his pilots over pay, Cord took full advantage of the Depression that followed the stock market crash of 1929, presenting his pilots an ultimatum—accept a cut in pay to $200 a month or resign. Cord had trouble finding applicants willing to take the place of those who would not accept the cut in pay, and ultimately he sold Century Airlines.

While Cord’s actions do not mark the birth of the Air Line Pilots Association, they encouraged membership in the new union. Six pilots representing three airlines met at the Troy Lane Hotel in Chicago in 1931 to discuss concerns that the airlines were collaborating to reduce pilots’ pay. This meeting was followed by another at the Morrison Hotel in Chicago the following July. There, 24 "Key Men" met to discuss the pilots’ diminished relationship with the airline owners in the midst of the deepening depression. Hostility to the pilots’ organizing efforts forced the Key Men to refer to themselves by alphabetical letters. Capt. Kimm’s early mentor, Walter Bullock, known as Mr. C, recruited pledges to the union at Northwest Airways; and because of his successful efforts to convince the pilots of the need for a union, Northwest ALPA became Council One.

Capt. Kimm is a charter member of ALPA. He was the 459th pilot to join the union.

"To be a member of ALPA in its early days," Capt. Kimm says, "was a hush-hush affair." Many national union leaders lost their jobs or were forced to frequently change domicile as retribution for their organizing activities.

The salary of a Northwest pilot in 1928 was $350 a month for five trips per week between Chicago and St. Paul. The Stinson J-4 used on this route flew at only 83 miles per hour, making for long days of flying. Hourly duty limitations did not exist, nor were pilots granted regular vacations. Northwest President Richard Lilly threatened to disband the airline if he had any labor trouble and bragged to the pilots that the airline was merely a plaything to him, that he had wealth and did not need the airline. The pilots assumed he was not about to fold the airline as it was making a 25 percent per year profit over the original investment. The union called Lilly’s bluff, and through continuous pressure from ALPA, the pilots negotiated a pay raise to as much as $775 per month for flying the Ford Trimotors.

Northwest Airlines signed its first contract with its pilots in 1936 and with it established a seniority list for its 45 pilots. Seniority dates were arbitrarily based on date of hire as a captain. Kimm’s date of hire as a captain was Jan. 1, 1935. He was assigned seniority number 13. Thirty-six years later, in 1971, Capt. Kimm retired as the No. 1 pilot on a list of approximately 2,000 Northwest pilots.

Pay continued to be an issue between the pilots and the airlines when in 1938 the pilots sought to be compensated by the miles they flew rather than an hourly wage the companies hoped to maintain. The issue was brought before a hearing of the National Labor Board and was settled in a ruling known as Decision 83, which laid out a formula based on a flat hourly wage augmented by an increase for the speed of the aircraft and a small mileage increment.

When the United States entered World War II, Capt. Kimm joined the Army Air Corps and was assigned to the 20th Ferrying Squadron, flying C-54s and B-24s. He held the rank of major and served for 3 years. The squadron bore the title of "The Brass Hat Squadron," because of its mission flying government and military leaders around during the war. Frenchie Williams, a squadron mate, was President Roosevelt’s pilot and flew the president to his historic meeting in Yalta. Major Kimm was pilot to the Chief of the Mexican Air Force, flying him to Sardinia, Gibraltar, and England. While flying over England, Major Kimm witnessed buzz bombs zooming in on London during the Blitz.

After World War II, Northwest began flying to Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai, and Manila. Again compensation for pilots went through another evolution. Larger and faster planes led pilots to be paid by the gross weight and the speed of the aircraft. Larger equipment led to greater pay. ALPA, according to Capt. Kimm, through its leadership and dogged efforts, was able to keep pilots’ pay at a decent level as the demands of flying increased.

On his return to Northwest after the war, Capt. Kimm was assigned to ferry the airlines’ first four-engine, 50-passenger DC-4 to Minneapolis. He had flown the military version, the C-54, while on active duty. Capt. Kimm, along with John Woodhead, Bill Richmond, and J.J. Corrigan, were assigned as chief flight instructors for the DC-4.

Capt. Kimm also flew the Boeing Stratocruiser as part of his post-war assignments. The Stratocruiser, the commercial version of the B-29 bomber, was the most luxurious airplane in the airlines’ fleets. It could carry 83 passengers and boasted an upper and lower deck as well as a cocktail lounge. In 1949, Northwest, using its Stratocruisers, became the first carrier in the United States to offer beverage service.

"Few airplanes in the history of piston-engine aircraft developed as many devoted fans as the Stratocruiser, and few were as costly to operate," wrote Kenneth Ruble in Flight to the Top. The same year the Stratocruiser joined the fleet, Northwest adopted the carrier’s signature red tail.

Also in 1949, Capt. Kimm became the system chief pilot for Northwest Airlines. This was added to his position as eastern regional chief pilot in Minneapolis. For the increased responsibilities, Capt. Kimm received an additional $25 in his paycheck. Besides supervising the regional chief pilots, one in Seattle and one in Tokyo, his responsibilities included hiring new pilots. While chief pilot, Capt. Kimm hired 50 new pilots, including the nephew of Clarence Hinck, who had given Capt. Kimm his first airplane ride in 1921.

After 2 years behind a desk, acknowledging his real love was flying, Capt. Kimm resigned the office position and returned to flight duty in July 1951. He moved to Seattle, where he flew DC-6s and DC-7s before entering the jet age by flying DC-8s and Boeing 707-320s.

In 1956, Northwest, to celebrate its 30th birthday, planned a nostalgic coast-to-coast flight of the famous Ford Trimotor. Capts. Kimm and Leon "Deke" Delong were tapped to serve as co-captains for the flight. Nine cabin attendants, dressed in native costumes representing the foreign cities that the airline served, added to the festive celebration. The entire entourage, including executive vice-president Malcolm Mackay, was featured on the popular national TV program "Arthur Godfrey Time." The producers had scheduled 15 minutes for the Northwest celebration. But Godfrey, an aviation enthusiast, pilot, and aircraft owner himself, kept the Northwest group on the air for an extended 45 minutes.

The Ford Trimotor took off from New York on its transcontinental flight and made stops at Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago, Madison, the Twin Cities, Rochester, Minn., Spokane and Yakima, Wash., Portland, Ore., and Seattle. At each stop, huge crowds gathered while reams of publicity followed in the local newspapers.

In March 2001, at the age of 90, Capt. Kimm, third from left, set the pace for a climb on the Great Wall of China. He was accompanied by fellow retired Northwest captains John Dittberner and Dino Oliva, left, and Neal Henderson, right.

Capt. Kimm was flying Boeing 707-320s in 1970 when Northwest added the Boeing 747 to its fleet. This 369-passenger airplane was the first of the widebody generation of airplanes. With the B-747’s cruising speed of 555 miles per hour and its load capabilities, it became the premier airliner of Northwest’s international service.

Donald Nyrop, president of the airline since 1954, would not allow Capt. Kimm to check out in this new generation of aircraft. This was in keeping with Nyrop’s reputation as a frugal administrator. Nyrop saw no cost benefit in allowing Capt. Kimm to check out in the B-747 with less than a year before mandatory retirement at the age of 60.

Annoyed at being excluded from the Boeing 747, at the age of 59, Capt. Kimm took up skiing in the mountains surrounding Seattle with the expectation he would use up his sick leave. In spite of frequent falls, he continued skiing without injury until his retirement on Aug. 8, 1971. He had spent 42 years in the air. In skiing, however, he picked an enduring activity to fill his time. Last year, at the age of 90, Capt. Kimm bought a new pair of parabolic skis and is still a regular on the ski slopes of the Pacific Northwest.

On a recent RNPA trip to China, Capt. Kimm’s physical condition was the envy of his fellow travelers. With hardly a rise in his pulse rate, he set the pace for the climb up the Great Wall of China, a physically demanding venture with its narrow, steep stone steps. Capt. Kimm claims he still has lots more to do.