Friday, February 12, 2016

Nick Tramontano; An Aviator's Legacy of Kindness

Consider this quote from Irish aviation executive Willie Walsh talking about the boss of a competing airline, Virgin's Richard Branson. "I don't like him, I don't admire him, I don't buy his bullshit." Or consider Michael O'Leary of Ireland's Ryanair, "I don't give a shit if no one likes me. I'm not a cloud bunny or an aerosexual. I don't like aeroplanes. I never wanted to be a pilot like those other platoons of goons who populate the airline industry."

The world of aviation is full of arrogant, combative individuals who may be providing a service to a world growing ever more reliant on air travel. But they are at the same time helping the industry’s descent to ever-lower levels of respect.

Then consider Nick Tramontano, who, along with his long-time friend, retired Sikorsky president Jeffrey Pino, died in a crash on Feb 5th in Arizona. He was a class act.

Called the “Mayor” of Connecticut’s Oxford Waterbury Airport by the airport’s actual manager, Matthew Kelly, no one has anything but nice things to say about Nick.

“He was wonderful,” Kelly told me. “You always left a conversation with him, with a smile.”

I met Tramontano last summer while working on my book, The Crash Detectives which will be published by Penguin in September. I had a theory related the crash in Northern Rhodesia that killed UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold and 15 others. The accident has been the subject of many investigations since 1961 and remains clouded in uncertainty. I wanted to suss out whether a mechanical malfunction on the DC-6 might have played a role.

“Talk to Nick Tramontano”, more than one person advised me. “He is such a wealth of knowledge” pilot and plane builder David Paqua told me.

And so I did.

It was late August and what was supposed to be an hour interview turned into a half a day. We toured the airport and a crawled around inside the DC-3 he maintains for Tradewinds Aviation. We had lunch and the interview morphed into the beginning of a friendship.

During our time together, two teens came into the hangar where Nick keeps his beautiful silver Twin Beech. Garrett Fleishman, then 16 and a student pilot wanted to show the plane to his younger brother, Zach. Then he asked to go to another hanger to show Zach something else.

“I would go play with you,” Nick told the two after tossing them the keys, “but we got business here.”

I had no doubt then that the 73-year old would have eagerly spent the day with the kids and enjoyed it as if he too were just starting a life in aviation. In fact, Tramontano had a half century both flying planes and fixing them.

“Anything you wanted to know about war bird aircraft and radial engines, he was a master at the radial engine,” Paqua said.

Tramontano started as a mechanic, his friend and former co-worker Ken Kahn told me, but in 1967 became a pilot. Tramontano and Kahn worked together at Seaboard Airlines, now a part of Fed Ex. “Everybody gets experience but not everybody gets good judgment. He had good judgment about operating an airplane,” Kahn said.

Photo of Pino's P-51 with permission by Curtis Fowles 
Last Friday night, Garrett’s phone rang as his boss at Tradewinds called with the news that Nick and Pino had been killed in the crash of the P-51 Big Beautiful Doll in Arizona.

“I was in shock I didn’t believe it at first,” Garrett said.

A few weeks earlier he and Nick had flown to Florida in a 1948 Cessna tail dragger. “It’s slower than a car,” Garrett told me. It was one of many flights they’d made together in many different aircraft. The two had lots of time to talk.

“He would say, ‘Don’t do this, I’ve lost friends, don’t do that’.” If it sounds in the telling that the older pilot was lecturing the younger, that’s not how Garrett heard it. He welcomed the advice telling me, “I learned more visiting his hangar in an hour than in 2 months at school.”

On September 20, 2015, Garrett’s 17th birthday, he got his private pilot’s license; credit going to his instructors at the Oxford Flying Club. But outside of his official lessons, there was Tramontano.

“I’ve learned a lot of things,” Garrett said, including how big is the responsibility of aviators. “You can impact or hurt a lot of people,” he told me. “It’s a big deal.”

In an email, Fed Ex pilot Ed Ruhl, another friend of Tramontano wrote that with his death, “There’s a hole in the world.”  To those who knew him that’s undeniably true. 

But if you look at Garrett Fleishman, you will see Nick’s contribution was bigger than any hole left with his passing because he set such a good example for the next generation. At a time when it is sorely needed, Nick Tramontano left a legacy of  responsibility, civility and kindness. 
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