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“He’s not heavy, he’s my brother”: Jim Worden wheels Al Worden around at Al’s 50th birthday party in 1982. The wheelchair was a joke. The party took place at a “home for seniors,” with Al being wheeled in by a nurse. Photo Credit: Jim Worden
Earlier this week, readers found out what it was like to be the family member of an astronaut strapped into a Saturn V, on the way to the Moon. In this second part of Jim Worden’s unpublished memoirs, Jim discusses what made his older brother have “The Right Stuff,” and his own run-ins with a cast of interesting characters, including the King of Rock and Roll, and “a very popular but nasty rock band.” Many, many thanks to Francis French and Jim Worden for making these excerpts available.
The Making of an Astronaut
Many people have asked me about the path Al followed from his early years to going to the moon as the pilot aboard Apollo 15. I can’t answer that question with any real knowledge or detail. There is an eight-year age gap between us. Although we have a great relationship now, in our younger days that age difference was huge, and did not support a brotherly relationship. Although Brother Al and I come from the same beginnings, we are very different, but somehow found our individual paths to aviation.
I can, however, provide my opinion on Al’s journey in life. First, I don’t believe Al had Apollo 15 in mind as a career goal. I think he realized early in life that education was the key to his future. His entire life has been focused on learning. Al has always been a very high achiever, from graduating from West Point to attending several universities and collecting an armful of degrees, earning his wings as an Air Force fighter pilot, then moving on to flight test and ultimately to his moon mission. Through all this, there was no master plan that I know of. I can say that whatever challenge Al has faced, he has devoured the subject with fervor.
An astronaut at work (Dave Scott and Jim Irwin are in the background). This photo would become the cover to Al’s 2011 book, Falling to Earth, written with Francis French. Photo Credit: The Project Apollo Archive
I, on the other hand, strongly disliked formal education in all its forms. My approach to life challenges has always been to learn what I needed to overcome a challenge. I was a high school drop-out and although I have tried college on occasion, I always quickly lost interest and wandered away. Throw a challenge in front of me that stood in the way of my interests and I will find a way.
But here is a thought. With what I have achieved in life, I can claim to have flown to an altitude of 52,000 feet on occasion. Al has flown to 240,000 miles. The fastest I have ever flown is a little over Mach 0.92 or around 600 knots/hour. Al has attained speeds upwards of 21,000 knots/hour. I have participated in a few flight test programs, even having the privilege of performing a first-flight (although that did not end well). First-flight means just that: a new and unproven aircraft design that looks good on paper has to be flown to verify the engineers got it right. There is always some level of risk in first-flight. Most first-flights are successful. Sometimes, not so much. This experience scared me to death. My teeth wouldn’t stop chattering for days. Al, on the other hand, could do 2 or 3 first-flights before lunch then go play a round of golf. These differences are attributable in no small way to having nerves of steel and a good education, or lack of either.
In retrospect, Al has always exhibited the attributes NASA finds desirable, at least in my opinion. At some level, he has always been an intellectual. He thrives on solving difficult problems and has never allowed his emotions to sway his thinking.
Jim at left, and Al at right (their niece is in the center), 2015. Photo Credit: Jim Worden
Al does have a great sense of humor, but in the past he seldom allowed it to come out and play (these days Al laughs much more easily and enjoys a good joke). Many people, including myself at times, have held the opinion that Al is a bullet-proof iron-man and unreachable. My earliest recollections of him are that even as a kid he was always all business. Now I am not suggesting that this is good or bad. That’s Al. Take it or leave it. Recently, however, I have seen first-hand that the iron man does have a heart, just like every one of us. I am very proud of Al for what he has done in life. As a brother, he is the best. Even if he had not achieved his particular place in life, I would still be especially happy that he is my brother.
Adventures In The Air
I am really not a name-dropper, but during my own piloting career, I did have my favorite customers to fly. At one point in my career I was living and flying out of Las Vegas. That led to meeting many well-known people. One of them was Elvis. We did a lot of trips for him. As everyone knows, Elvis had a wonderful talent. When he played Las Vegas his shows would be sold out a year in advance. He had a contract with the Hilton International so always appeared there. He used my company for trips back and forth to Memphis when he was working and occasionally for personal trips. We also did some tours for him. Joe Esposito, his road manager, would normally accompany Elvis whenever we flew him. Vernon Presley, his father, went along on occasion.
Let me tell you, Elvis was one of the Great Ones. Most people know that, I suppose, but we had an opportunity to get to know him better than most folks. He liked to whip up meals while flying and he would bring the pilots plates of salads or whatever else he was in the mood for. He was always very friendly and interested in what we were doing in our lives. Now, don’t get the idea that we were pals. That is not true. I will say that Elvis was something of a friend, but not a close friend. He always offered a warm handshake and he called me “Jimbo.” Why, I don’t know, but who cares? He was just a very nice person to be around.
I remember on one trip we had picked him up in Memphis the day before his opening night at the Hilton International. He had a large box of some incredible Memphis-style ribs for the ride west. Man, that was a good meal. While standing in the vestibule, chatting with us through the cockpit door, he asked how my family was doing. I gave him the update and told him my Mom and Dad were in town from Michigan for a few days.
So he says, “What are you doing tomorrow night?”
I told him we didn’t have anything special going on.
“Look,” he says, “Why don’t you bring them to the first show tomorrow night as my guests? Nobody is using my booth and you’re welcome to it.”
Wow. A person couldn’t even buy a ticket to an Elvis show. This was really cool.
“I think my parents would really like that. If you’re sure, we’ll be there.”
The next night we arrived at the Hilton a little early because I knew the crowds would be huge. We battled our way to the ‘invited guest’ line and were soon seated in Elvis’ booth, front row, stage right. My mother didn’t seem to be too excited beforehand but as the show got started, so did she. One of the songs Elvis did was ‘Love Me Tender,’ of course. But, guess what? He sang it to my mother. If you can imagine a 60-something year old woman about to wet her pants, you have a good idea how she reacted. I do believe that this was a life-highlight for Mom. She became an Elvis fan after that.
We did a lot of rock tours, which was not easy work, even with a lot of patience. The groups could be somewhat difficult at times but I can remember only one instance when it was so bad, we terminated a trip early. I was flying a three-week tour with a very popular but nasty rock band. We were heading for Los Angeles, leaving Portland about 45 minutes before.
This particular group had already given us a lot of trouble. They were constantly arguing among themselves. Only one superlative adequately describes that particular group: “Animals.” They were maniacs, rotten to the core. Their body odor would knock you out, it was so bad.
They had treated the flight crew like something that was stuck to the bottom of their shoe. An opportunity was never missed to jibe us with reminders that we were the hired help. This was true of course, but being ridiculed and referred to as “stupid a–holes” and “bus drivers” was uncalled for. On the other hand, maybe I was just being overly sensitive.
On one previous late-night stop for fuel, some of the group left the airplane to stretch their legs. They were told by the flight attendants to stay close at the bottom of the stairs. The next we knew, the tower called us on the radio to ask why our passengers were wandering around on the active runway. Airport security and the road manager had to go retrieve them.
During the flight from Portland, one of the flight attendants anxiously entered the cockpit to tell me that the lead singer was carving his name in one of the seats. We had just finished improvements to the interior and the seats had been redone in very nice leather.
I got up and walked back to the front cabin to see what was going on. Sure enough, the leader of the group was busy with a knife, carving up his seat. I told him to stop and to give me the knife. He replied that maybe I wanted to take it away from him. Without further conversation I returned to the cockpit and picked up the enroute chart. We were not far from San Francisco, about 150 miles ahead of us. I called the cabin crew to the cockpit and we locked the door. We asked for a reroute, landing at SFO. I also asked air traffic control to inform the airport we had a threatening passenger onboard with a knife and we would need assistance when we landed.
When we arrived on the SFO Butler Aviation ramp, there were several police cars waiting. We opened the door and extended the air-stair. Soon the passenger was off the airplane and on the way to the county lockup. I gave the FAA and the police a report and signed a complaint, then we loaded up and headed home. Empty.
We left the rest of the band standing in the Butler terminal. I have no idea how the group may have finished their tour, but it was not with us.
On one tour we had another group on board and they were heavily into dope. Their name was ‘Bad Company’ and boy, was that an appropriate name.
We had warned them about carrying their goodies on the airplane, but they didn’t listen. At the start of every tour we briefed all the passengers about the airplane and the rules. We also made it very clear in a written contract that bringing anything illegal on our airplane would be grounds for immediate, early contract termination. If that happened, the penalty would be forfeiture of the total paid for the tour. We always got our money up front.
Our BAC 1-11 was set up with only 24 seats in a split cabin. The seats were more like big recliners and there was a side table at most of the single seats. There was a dining table in the rear cabin and it would seat six people. The middle and front cabins offered a few three-place couches with coffee tables and several single seats. This arrangement offered a lot of room in the cabins. In airline configuration the BAC provides around ninety seats so with just 24 seats there was a lot of room.
We departed Pontiac, Michigan very late at night for the west coast. Not long after departure, the cabin crew was putting out a meal. We normally operated the BAC with two flight attendants. We had hired a new girl and had her with us on this tour for training. She was not the brightest bulb in the string, if you know what I mean. She was busy, running trays out from the galley, when she came to a table with some kind of white powder on it. One of the band members had evidently laid out a line of coke, then I guess decided to go to the bathroom or something. Our new girl, seeing this white stuff, figured it must be foot powder, so she brushed it off before setting the tray down. The powder landed on the carpet.
I heard a little commotion coming when the cockpit door burst open and the road manager stormed in. Boy, was he pissed. He told me in a loud voice what had happened and that he wanted this girl fired. He was not going to put up with this kind of thing and did I realize just who we were dealing with? After he ranted for a minute, he paused.
I asked, “Wait a minute here, you telling me you have drugs on this airplane?”
“Yes, of course we do!” he said.
“Hold on now,” I said, “if you are serious, we are going to land at the next available airport and you guys will be put out on the ramp. We go home. You know you signed an agreement that says drugs are absolutely not allowed on this airplane and that we have the right to terminate any trip and keep the up-front money.”
His attitude changed immediately.
“Well, maybe it wasn’t drugs,” he says.
“I figured you made a mistake, now get out of the cockpit. You better talk to your group and leave the girls alone.” He left and things settled down in the back. We did not have any further serious problems with this group for the rest of the tour.
When we finished the tour and returned to Las Vegas, one of the mechanics discovered that a bag of pills had been hidden and left behind a panel in the forward lavatory. We pitched the pills and considered ourselves fortunate that we were the ones to make the find.
More of the infamous birthday party, 1982. Photo Credit: Jim Worden
Once again, many thanks to Francis French and Jim Worden for making these excerpts publicly available.
Emily Carney is a writer, space enthusiast, and creator of the This Space Available space blog, published since 2010. In January 2019, Emily’s This Space Available blog was incorporated into the National Space Society’s blog. The content of Emily’s blog can be accessed via the This Space Available blog category.
Note: The views expressed in This Space Available are those of the author and should not be considered as representing the positions or views of the National Space Society.