Going Direct: Airplanes, Mentors, Sweatshops And Father’s Day

Aviation lessons, the hard way, from my father

Much of what I know about flying and about airplanes comes from a small number of people I’ve worked with over the past 25 years. Some were mentors, some were friends and colleagues, and some were heroes. By far, the most important of all was my father, Norm Goyer, who was all of those things to me. Dad died last October at the age of 89. Sunday will be the first Father’s Day holiday since his passing, so I’ve been thinking a lot about him and, unavoidably, the remarkably and often insane times we shared doing aviation, and aviation journalism, together.

Going Direct: Airplanes, Mentors, Sweatshops Father’s Day
Norm Goyer and his Maule
Courtesy of Robert Goyer

My dad was an outlier in any number of ways, one of the most striking of which was his freakish knowledge of pre-1960s aviation. He could hold forth on everything from Menasco engines to Roscoe Turner’s pet lion. He could tell a Wildcat from a Hell Cat from a thousand yards and opine on the wisdom or lack thereof of engine swaps in warbirds not built for 50 years. It was like being around a walking, talking edition of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft . . . but with much color commentary to sweeten the deal.

For five years, I worked alongside my dad, and in the process I managed to amass a remarkable amount of aviation experience in a very short time, much of it thanks to his guidance. It was a family business. We worked together, dad and I, along with our remarkably talented editor, Tina Goyer, my mom, also gone, and turned out as many as three full-length aviation magazines a month. We didn’t do it all by ourselves; we had the help of a few stringers and photo pilots, but it was largely a mom-and-pop-and-son shop.

While home was our regular workplace, our official place of employment was a sweatshop of a publishing house in a depressing concrete tilt-up in Canoga Park, California, a sprawl of a city north of Los Angeles in the “Valley,” as they still refer to the San Fernando Valley. The owner-proprietor of the company was a chain-smoking, Sansabelt-wearing self-promoter born without a discernable conscience, but who happened by some quirk of fate to be in love, as we were, with airplanes. The depressing, windowless industrial wasteland of a place was his kingdom.

Luckily, it wasn’t an everyday place for us. We’d travel there once every week or two to attend to the business of physically putting out the magazine. This was just before the advent of desktop publishing; workers in a darkened room amidst yellowed girlie posters and with grunge rock blaring would cut out film, cut it into shapes with their razor knives and paste it on a long table into a photographic version of the magazine that the printers would use to produce the magazine.

It was even seamier than that. Not too long before my time, the place had turned out a number of low-grade soft-core pornography titles. I discovered this history when I stumbled upon boxes of them gathering dust in the warehouse, where I’d gone in search of back issues of our own aviation titles in a last-gasp attempt to find a missing detail for a story that was due the day before. The discovery of the low-rent skin rags explained so much about the man and the place.

It was a creepy place to be, for sure, but from the get-go I looked at it as an opportunity for a kid with little flying time and zero aviation journalism experience to get immersed in the game. The pay wasn’t terrible, when we did get our checks, but the work was backbreaking, at least the journalistic equivalent of that. There was little competition for the job, which is how I landed the gig, because there weren’t any established aviation journalists who would do business with the company, for good reason, too, having been repeatedly stiffed of their fees for writing services rendered, even despite promises made that payment was on its way. It wasn’t. A few journalists had the company on a cash-in-advance-only status, and would wait until the check had cleared before sending the story in. They were the exception. Most freelancers would get paid a few times and then get stiffed a few more times than that. It was a clear pattern.

We didn’t want to get caught in the middle, so from early on we decided never to put freelancers through that ordeal, so the few writers we did work with we simply paid out of our own money and tried to make up for it in volume. Our checks were relatively predictable, not because the big boss cared any more about us than he did about anyone else, but because he needed to get the next month’s issue out so he could get paid. His contempt for fairness and labor law was an open secret. A few editors at the company were known to withhold the contents of the coming issue until they got (and cashed) their check for the last one.

Sadly, we weren’t completely immune to the abuse. One year while in Florida at the Sun ‘n Fun airshow, we were alarmed to learn, when we called home after the festivities one evening, that our checks had come in but for far less than we’d expected. Even though we already suspected the essential nature of the problem, we called the office to learn the details of it. It turned out that our boss, he of the bad comb-over, decided to fire us from one of our gigs without telling us, and he’d seen fit to withhold the portion of our pay for that title. Here’s the kicker, though. We’d done the work, taken the pictures, written the stories and paid our freelancers—and the company had published the magazine, thereby getting its take in the deal. Despite our protestations, we never saw a dime for the work. Such was the true character of the guy.

As a young person completely new to aviation journalism, I was in an interesting position: I’d need to sound competent as I wrote about the airplanes I would feature, and I needed to get work done fast. There was no such thing as a wasted word in our little backwater of airplane publishing. We had inches, hell, linear yards of space to fill. Being concise was counter to the mission.

At the same time, my knowledge of the subject was so sorely lacking that it wasn’t easy for me to improvise and wax expansively. So almost immediately I learned to listen, in theory, not an easy thing for a young person to pick up on the fly, but in my case, it couldn’t have been easier. Often I didn’t know the first thing about the subject I’d just been assigned—like World War II troop transport gliders—and the time needed to research a subject much in advance was time we didn’t have, so I shut my mouth and let my interview subjects do the talking. I learned to ask open-ended questions and I scribbled notes as fast as I could.

For the first year or so, my dad would go over every word, which, again, took time and was counter to our mission of producing as much content as quickly as possible. But I needed to be closely read. While I had been a pilot for several years and had been around airplanes for ever, there was much I didn’t know about this new world, and Dad would find and fix embarrassing errors and fill in even more embarrassing gaps in my understanding. He wasn’t much of a teacher, except by example, and he admitted as much. That was okay with me. The sheer volume of writing and flying and photography I was doing greatly accelerated the pace of my education.

After five years of that dance, I lucked into a new, entry-level job at what was then a world-class publication that employed more than a dozen people on the edit side of the house alone.

My dad knew I was looking for another job, somewhere as far away from Canoga Park as possible, and when I got it, at a real, respected and professionally run aviation magazine, he was nothing but proud of me. And he was proud of how I left, too.

When I got the new job, situated on the other coast, I waited until payday to give my notice. I waited, in fact, until after I got my check. I waited, truth be told, until I’d gone down to the local branch, cashed the check and put the stack of bills in my wallet. I then returned to work and gave my immediate notice. A few days later, I learned that once our boss learned of my resignation, he had his accounts payable person immediately call the bank and put a stop payment on the check, the check, he didn’t realize, I’d already cashed. I like to imagine he was fuming about it.

When people find out that I’m a pilot and my dad was, too, they often ask if he taught me to fly. He didn’t. He never went for his instructor’s ticket (as I haven’t), preferring to fly than teach flying and delighting in the fact that there are people out there who are really good at doing something neither of us had the native talent to do ourselves.

So there were good people to teach me to fly steep turns and perform engine-out approaches, and I’m grateful to them. But the deeper lessons my dad taught me were even more precious.

He taught me about hard work, about putting up with difficult people, about taking your reward in ways that money can’t measure, and about the value of community—I still count as good friends many people I worked with in aviation all those years ago. But more than that, he taught me truths about flying that few, other than pilots, will ever know: That airplanes are the most fascinating machines ever invented primarily because flying them allows us to connect with the earth and the sky in a way that only pilots can really understand and that (and this is the big secret among us pilots) somehow changes everything for the better.

And, yes, I’m going flying on Sunday. Hope you go, too.

One thought on “Going Direct: Airplanes, Mentors, Sweatshops And Father’s Day

  1. Gosh, what a baptism in journalism. It seems it was good for you! I wish I had shared a passion with my late father as you have. You are very lucky for that, though you’ve clearly worked hard. Enjoy that flight, Robert. 🙂

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