Tommy L. Harper
I was born in Statesville, NC and lived there until age 6. My family moved to the Olin area in 1945 on Christmas Day. I lived there until graduation from Union Grove school in 1957.
After high school, (1958), I joined the U.S. Air Force. While in service, I was trained as an aircraft hydraulic mechanic. During my four years there, I was stationed in France, Germany, Libya, and Edwards AFB, CA, supporting the fighter jets during the cold war with Russia and in the Cuban missile crisis. I held a top secret clearance and was honorably discharged from the Air Force on September 12, 1962.
Coming to RJR
I went to work for Archer Aluminum (RJR subsidiary) on September 25, 1962, working as an industrial hydraulic technician for 5.5 years. While there, I started flight training and ended up with a Commercial Pilot rating. I applied for a pilot position with RJR at that time and was hired in 1968. During the 24 years there, I had ratings on 5 different company jets: Falcon 10, Falcon 20, Falcon 50, and Gulfstreams II and III.
Memorable Events at RJR
On a flight, CEO Paul Sticht told me that he had been talking to Warren Buffett, and Buffett asked him, “Why are you giving 10% pay raises each year to all company personnel?” Shortly after that raises were reduced to 3%.
On a flight coming out of Ardmore, OK, one executive chewed me out for not having dinner on board for a late flight home. He didn’t understand that the Falcon 20 had no place to keep food in hot weather. He was scheduled to be back to the airport by 3pm, but he finally showed up at 8 pm. Ardmore airport was 50 miles from any place to get food. The crew had not eaten since breakfast. Not a fun day!
Our management was being pushed to cut costs. So, they came up with the idea to cut back on aircraft maintenance and reporting. This would have been a highly questionable practice and a problem with the FAA. I objected, and we never heard another word about it.
Operating in and out of JFK and many other airports, we had to have a reservation to enter and depart. One day, I was there to pick up one of our top executives. On that day, he was three hours late getting to JFK from Europe. On taxi out for take-off to Winston-Salem, he came to the cockpit and asked, “How is it that we could take off being this late.” I replied, “The reservation is good for 24 hours and no limits on time.” I did not know that another pilot had lied to him, telling him that he must be on time for us to make the flight . . .and as a consequence, that pilot was relieved of his job and moved to another department until retirement. I had heard many times that he had told the passengers that they couldn’t take off after a certain time, and they must be at the plane by then. The real reason was that he wanted to be back in Winston-Salem to play cards at his country club.
Another management issue was with this same pilot. The company owned an airplane called the “Jet Star.” One pilot and his first officer were the only pilots with a rating to fly that particular aircraft. The pilot had a horse that he rode a lot. One day, the horse threw him off, resulting in a broken collar bone, taking him from work for six months. Meantime, the Jet Star sat idle. Truth was – none of the other pilots were given the chance to get a rating in it.
Some practices, I considered abuse of company aircraft.
On one occasion, I had Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford on board, going to San Francisco for Kathie Lee to make a “pilot” for an upcoming talk show that she hoped to join. We then took them on to Berkley for their honeymoon. I thought she was very outspoken.
Nathan Sims, an African-American janitor for the aircraft hangar had worked there for more than 30 years. He asked to ride to New York on a flight that had empty seats in order to see family. He was not allowed to go, however one of the passengers took his dog along. Nathan was very hurt, and said to me, “They consider me lower than a dog.” Nathan was my friend all the years that I knew him. He was a Christian and wonderful man. Common sense and good employee relations were not implemented in the flight area.
My total service with RJR was 29.5 years. I was terminated for no apparent reason, December 14, 1987. The entire flight department was downgraded at that time. I suspect my age was a factor, although age discrimination is hard to identify.
Two weeks after I was let go, I started flying for Julio Iglesias as a contract pilot on his Gulfstream III. I also contracted for Glaxo Welcome, a drug company in Raleigh. Between the two companies, I worked for two more years.
Then I took a full retirement at the age of 50. I built our retirement home myself on the family farm where I still happily reside with my beautiful wife of 60 years. We enjoy the peacefulness of living in a pristine setting. Our daughter, Monica D. Harper, also has a career in aviation. She has been with Delta Airlines for 24 years and is currently a Captain, flying the Airbus A320.
332 Dowell Road
Olin, NC 38660
Tommy Harper was a pilot in the “RJR Air Force.” RJR people had so many stories about the use and abuse of all the planes. The extravagance of the hangar in Atlanta was beyond belief. A lady who was an executive with Bell South told me that her company looked at it but decided that they would not take it if it were given to them. They would not want their stockholders to know that they even had such grand aspirations. Tommy takes us “inside” with personal stories that bear out much of the rumors over the years about the excesses of this corporate jet fleet. GAH