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Flying Without a License: A Look at Three of History’s Pilot Conmen

Former Monsanto chief pilot Ralph Piper recounted his experiences with a pilot who purported to have a pilot's license that had been issued by the FAA with an “Unlimited Rating.”
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Pilot conmen such as Tom Salme, Jimmie Lane, and Tom Cook are a dark but interesting side of our pilot fraternity.

For the most part, pilots are a pretty straight-laced bunch. Pilots tend to be self-controlled and disciplined. Pilots play by the rules and try to strictly adhere to limitations and good operating practices. For the most part; but once in awhile…

Now, we can’t talk about this subject without a mention of Frank Abagnale. Abagnale is best known because of the 2002 movie, “Catch Me If You Can.” Abagnale posed as a pilot for Pan American International Airways (Pan Am) in order to get jump seats and free employee travel privileges. He never actually flew a plane and this was the extent of his con. He also posed as a doctor and an attorney, served 13 years in various prisons, and today runs a consulting company serving banks and businesses to help them uncover fraud.1

Pilot Conmen – Thomas Salme

Tom Salme flew as a captain for several airlines for 13 years and accrued 10,000 hours without having a pilots’ license. He forged a Swedish pilot certificate and applied to Italy’s Air One airlines and was hired as a first officer.2 He then applied and was hired by Corendon Airlines in Turkey. Although he left briefly to fly for Great Britain’s Jet2, he returned to Corendon after ten months and flew a captain on a Boeing 737. According to Salme, “it was surprisingly easy. The documents look different everywhere in Europe. An Italian airline doesn’t know what a Swedish license looks like. And you can forge all the IDs you need.

A friend who worked for Scandinavian airline SAS let him use their flight simulator at night and he trained there for two or three hours at a time, around 15 to 20 times over 18 months, to gain proficiency.3 In March 2010, Salme was sitting in the left seat of his Boeing 737 running through the checklist as 101 passengers boarded. Following a tip from an anonymous Swedish source, police entered the flight deck while still at the gate at Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport and arrested him. He later said,“I got the crackpot idea to apply as a co-pilot at a real airline so I made myself a Swedish flying permit with a logo out of regular white paper. It wasn’t laminated, and looked like something I’d made at home.

Salme was fined the equivalent of what would amount to $10,300 of today’s US dollars. He’s now a professional photographer and says, “The moral point of view is that I feel ashamed that I did lie but I didn’t ever feel, not once, that I put passengers in an unsafe position.

Pilot Conmen – Tom Cook

Former Monsanto chief pilot Ralph Piper recounted his experiences with a pilot who purported to have a pilot’s license that had been issued by the FAA with an “Unlimited Rating.” With great aplomb, Tom Cook was hired to teach pilots in the Link trainers and ground school and serve as a check pilot at a St. Louis FBO. He had signed off hundreds of pilots for their Instrument Rating check-rides but in every case removed the hood from a student’s head in time to permit the student to land the airplane.

His professed military background was sterling as a commissioned officer with gallant tales of cool handling of B-17 and B-25 emergencies preceded by a career flying Hollywood superstars of the day. Upon completion of his military service, the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) (predecessor of the FAA) conferred upon such a pilot of grandeur a pilot license containing an “Unlimited Rating.” Wow. He MUST be an extraordinary pilot! When St. Louis-based Monsanto needed a co-pilot, their chief pilot thought hiring a local super pilot like Cook would be a good idea.

Once in Monsanto’s pilot rotation, chief pilot Piper noticed that it was evident Cook suffered from poor eyesight and terrible judgment and was unable to land an airplane…at all! Even though the approach to an airport might be completed without Piper’s needing to assume control of the airplane, Cook would set up to land way short or way long of the runway and the chief pilot would take over on the controls. So disturbing was Cook’s performance that Piper removed him from the general rotation and Cook only flew with Piper so he could watch him.

One night at 4,000 feet, the Monsanto DC-3 was in the clouds and began picking up ice. As the propellers threw the ice against the fuselage, the resulting noise was augmented with severe engine vibration due to their imbalance caused by uneven shedding of ice. When Piper told Cook to request a different altitude, there was no response and when looking over at his co-pilot, Piper saw that Cook was white as a sheet, sweating profusely, stiff as a board and in shock. Piper landed the airplane alone as Cook remained catatonic. The wake-up call that night was made and Piper never used Cook again on a flight.

Shortly afterward, Cook was joy-riding in an airplane and buzzed a farmer to the point that he had to leap off a moving tractor to safety. Cook went to pull up but hit some trees, totaled the airplane and the farmer filed a lawsuit. In the trial, it came out that Tom Cook held no pilot’s license and, in fact, had used the pilot license number of a commercial pilot in Pennsylvania on his forgery. He was convicted, but the story ended three weeks later when he died peacefully in his sleep.4

Pilot Conmen – Jimmie Lane

Perhaps the most interesting of the “pilot conmen” to me is Jimmie Lane. Lane held only a Private pilot’s license but hoodwinked Eastern Air Lines into hiring him in 1958.

Jimmie Lane wanted to fly and he talked his way into cadet training for the Navy and, later Marines. He actually flew as pilot on bombers during the Korean War, being discharged in 1955 with two Purple Hearts from shrapnel wounds during combat. He returned to his native Texas and wangled a crop-dusting job, still holding only a Private license. He then moved to Guatemala and crop-dusted until being called in for an interview with Eastern.

He successfully trained and became line-qualified for Eastern as a co-pilot on Martin 404s, Douglas DC-4s, DC-6s, DC-7s, Lockheed Electras, Lockheed Constellations and Convair 440s. Not once in all of this training nor during the required check-ride events did anyone ask to see his license. During the Eastern interview, he told them he had a Commercial license which was partially true. He had a Guatemalan Commercial which was neither an ICAO recognized “real” pilot license nor acceptable by Eastern and his only recognized license was still was a Private.

After 11 years flying for Eastern, he stopped by the chief pilot’s office one day and mentioned he had just obtained a DC-9 type rating on his own. The secretaries updated their pilots’ master list and soon Lane’s seniority made him eligible to upgrade as captain on DC-9s. Because he feared that the paperwork at Eastern’s type rating school might tip off the FAA, Lane chose to schedule the check-ride without the benefit of any training. In the coming weeks, he consumed all he could from the DC-9 manual. On February 26, 1968, FAA examiner Clay Cairl administered the check ride to Jimmie Lane. At the completion of his exhausting check-ride, he felt good about his performance, proved he was master of the airplane and has passed the check ride. Then the examiner asked him for his pilot’s license. His little deception was over.

Photo: Cory Watts, CC2

DC-9, Photo: Cory Watts, CC2

Inspector Cairl later stated that Lane could fly the airplane “well enough” although there were minor stumbles with some of the avionics. Immediately afterward, the FAA examiner contacted the FAA’s pilot records branch in Oklahoma City and Captain Lane’s record came back as “Airplane – Private – Single Engine Land.” He was called into the chief pilot’s office and described the meeting with somber-faced “suits” as a “kangaroo court.” He was fired and advised that the FAA would investigate (which they did and revoked his Private pilot certificate a couple weeks later). He appealed to the NTSB but the FAA decision was upheld although reduced to a one-year revocation with probation.

Jimmie Lane ultimately obtained a legitimate commercial license and worked for several companies as a corporate pilot. He then got hired by Atlantic Southeast Airlines in 1973 and achieved a legal type rating but the airline soon folded. Bouncing around from corporate job to corporate job in the southern part of the US, Lane next obtained a legit ATP and flew a Turbo Commander and a Hawker for a Louisiana corporation. From there he returned to his native region in Texas and contently settled into legally flying an MU-2 single pilot for a local company.5 He now is nearly 84 years old, still lives in Texas and has turned his attentions to God, providing daily devotional and inspiration messages to an Internet following.

Final Thoughts

Jimmie Lane had to intersperse his aviation career with numerous other jobs: garbage truck driver, convenient store manager and numerous corporate and regional airline pilot jobs. No doubt his resume looked like a crazy quilt of disjointed careers as so many pilots’ do. Lane even was offered a job by the FAA as an inspector but chose to accept an offer of a corporate flying job that came at the same time. But he overcame the obstacles and distrust that his mistakes, impatience, deception and shortcuts created and balanced it with legitimate achievement. His deep passion for flying won out and no matter how embarrassing the condemning national news coverage of the day was of his behavior, he stuck with it…righted himself…and made for himself a career doing what he loved.

We might not agree with the ways and means of these aviators as they are considered “scoundrels,” but their perseverance deserves a degree of admiration. You, as a pilot, believe in abiding by the rules of conduct and laws that govern aviation. Even so, you will probably encounter discouraging hurdles as you claw your way through your career. What we might infer from these men is, if they can do it, you as a “non-scoundrel” should never let impediments along your way throw you off course.

Featured Image: Adrian Fallace, CC2

References and Footnotes:

1 – Time magazine – Top 10 Imposters, Frank Abignale

2 – Air One ceased operations when it was merged into Alitalia Airlines in 2014.

3 – Fake Swedish air pilot flies passenger jets for THIRTEEN YEARS without a license … and is fined just £1,700

4 – Professional Pilot Magazine, September 1980.

5 – Professional Pilot Magazine, September 1980.

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