A Celebration of a Life Well Lived
"United 56 Heavy You are cleared for takeoff on Runway 27 Right."
By Charles Chandler
On Tuesday, February 15, 2022, United Airlines Captain Melvin E. Volz made his final flight.
Most know that the “Captain” was a former resident and favorite son of White Cloud. His family lived in the area and Mel attended White Cloud Public school. The local folks knew that Mel’s passion for aviation began at an early age. Often, they would see him and his school pals, Claire McCombs and Ward Sanders out flying rubber band power models from the high hills at the nearby Sanders family farm. As soon as Mel was old enough, he graduated from flying models and began pilot training at Big Rapids Airport. There must have been some special factor in White Cloud at that time because Mel and his two Buds would go on to great careers in the aviation and aerospace industry. Ward Sanders took a position with Aerojet, a contractor to NASA. Ward would go on to become a significant contributor to the Apollo Program. Clare McCombs became a decorated and distinguished Air Force U 2 pilot. Must have been something in the water at the Sanders Farm.
After High School Mel joined the Army Air Corps in 1944. After additional flight training in Texas and with WWII winding down he, like many other trained pilots, was soon discharged. Using his G.I. Bill money, he was back in pilot training receiving both his Commercial and Instrument ratings. In 1947 he married Ms. Ellie Decker his high school sweetheart. With these two ratings in hand, he began a small aerial spraying business with jobs in Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Next Mel took a position as Experimental Engineer with Continental Motors Aviation Division. Then in early 1950, a friend of the family from Chicago that worked for United Airlines mentioned to Mel that United Airlines was looking for pilots. She insisted that he should apply, he did and on March 26 1952 was hired by United Airlines. It was a great day and a family affair because the day Mel took his Flight Instrument Check Ride his son Chris was born. A few years later Chris would become a Computer Specialist for United Airlines.
After that check ride, Mel began his impressive rise in rank, responsibility, and recognition in the aviation industry. Mel began flying the line for United starting with DC 3s and retiring as a DC 10 pilot. He was promoted to Captain in 1966 and over his 35-year career was qualified to fly eight different aircraft types. Many in the aviation industry would argue that Captain Volz’s greatest contribution was made away from the flight deck. In addition to being a successful pilot, he developed expertise in many areas of United’s operations and the larger commercial air carrier industry. On March 25, 1976, the Board of Directors of United appointed the Captain as both Vice President of Maintenance Services and Regional Vice President of Station Operations for the Central Division. As a senior executive, the Captain would go on to become a recognized expert in engineering, flight, cabin and aircraft safety, air traffic management, airport operations, flight dispatch, meteorology and facilities, and aircraft maintenance operations. The Captain was twice presented with the United Airlines Public Relations Award. In 1986 he was presented with United’s highest award, the Distinguished Service Award. After official retirement but yet not ready to head to the hanger, Captain Mel became a Senior Safety Consultant and an international public relations ambassador for United Airlines. This position took him to every major city in the U.S. and internationally working with the media and many dignitaries.
The Captain still thought of White Cloud as home as his last residence in White Cloud was the beautiful rustic log home on North Webster Street.
Soon after moving to White Cloud my neighbor Eric Rudert learned that my wife Dianne had retired from American Airlines. He asked if I knew Captain Mel Volz and that he had retired from United Airlines and had a home up the street at 148 North Webster. At that time, I did not know the Captain but I knew of his work and was looking forward to meeting him.
I had worked at the American Airlines Maintenance Operations facility in Tulsa Oklahoma for many years and our performance numbers were always compared to United’s. Every day in our maintenance operations center the analysts for the Airlines would post the three important figures, on-time departures, maintenance delays, and maintenance cancellations. The FAA and all other airlines would watch those numbers because we were all competitors and these numbers were available for all the world to see. These numbers were the daily report card for maintenance operations. United’s numbers were always better than ours and this was most likely because of some of the Captain's handiwork. Dianne and I did get to meet the Captain and Chris and tour his exemplary home. At that time, he was transitioning between White Cloud and his home in Florida. We stood on the front steps and chatted a bit. He was, as I expected, unpretentious, humble about his career, friendly with a sense of humor. As it has been my experience with most airline pilots and executives.
(Whining and Complaining section I.) Our aircraft maintenance types and Pilots have always had a symbiotic but unequal relationship. In America, it started in the early 1900s with the Wright Brothers. These two designed and built a magical wooden propeller and a controllable airframe and named it the world-famous Wright Flyer. We, mechanics, called it Wreck #1. Charley Taylor the Wrights Brothers mechanic built the engine for the contraption. It was a lightweight 12-horsepower gasoline engine with a chain driver, all built from scratch, mind you. Our lament is that the literature is resplendent with the tails of Orville and Wilbur and their wonderful flying machine. There is scarcely a footnote that mentions ole Charley. The guys upfront and looking out the little airplane windows get all the glory. When people learn that I retired from the airlines they always ask “were you a pilot or did you know so and so he was a pilot for such and such an airline.” They never ask, were you the guy at the gate so and so on the flight so and so that was out there in the snowstorm changing that giant tire? If you were, you made us late? We always say the pilots know how to operate the airplane and we techs know how the airplane operates. We always appreciate it when the pilots make a good landing especially if we can use the airplane again on the next leg. The pilots always appreciate it when we remember to put gas in the plane. They often leave us funny little notes in the maintenance logbook, for example, “there appears to be a rodent in the cockpit.” To which we investigated and made a subsequent correction action taken logbook entry. “Did find rodent droppings in the cockpit but could not locate rodent. Apparently, said rodent was after abundant crumbs and stale dinner roll found under left seat.”
Make no mistake, we airline folks appreciate our pilots. Generally, they are exceedingly intelligent, well educated, courteous and totally dedicated to their flying public, their fellow crew members, and their aircraft. They are courageous hardworking professionals that will give their life to save yours if the need arises.
In my distant past I had cockpit jump seat privileges and, on some occasions, had to use that seat to get to or from an assignment. I did not want to be up there because it was their office and they did not need me to be there. My job while there was to be as quiet and inconspicuous as possible. There is no chit-chat on the flight deck. It is a busy place and these professionals have to do the right things at the right time and nothing else is ever acceptable. I have watched these pilots fly holding patterns near O’Hare at night and in a snowstorm. I was not brave enough to look outside because I knew there were dozens of aircraft out there flying those holding patterns. Besides I was too busy saying Our Fathers and making promises that I could never keep. I have also watched the Weather Radar scope light as we approached a line of massive summer thunderstorms between Wichita Falls and Dallas Ft Worth. And hear the crew announce “we may encounter a little chop on the way into DFW.” This was my cue to begin the Our Fathers.
They can have the glory because they surely earn it.
(Whining and Complaining section II) We, airline people, are like a big extended family and always seek each other out. We work crazy hours, move a bunch and develop good people skills because we serve the flying public. I think the Captain and I as ole timers would agree that our beloved industry has changed dramatically. We worked for the airlines when folks generally enjoyed flying, made travel arrangements with a travel agent, and had favorite airlines. If you recall, that was when people dressed up and wore suits and ties when they flew. This was before the airlines started choosing volume, rather than value and a pleasant flying experience for their customers. In my opinion, these business choices resulted in the hub airport systems and the mergers and acquisitions of smaller and regional carriers. This move was then followed by the disastrous two-tier wages systems. On September 11, 2001, the hijacking and subsequent crashing of American and United Airlines Flight 175 was a truly tragic day for all airline folks. I am sure Captain Volz felt this greatly and grieved deeply for his fellow flight crew members and passengers. After that event cockpit doors were armor-plated and strict safety and security protocols were implemented.
Now the twin troubles of partisan politics and the Covid pandemic have brought a new plague to the airlines. It appears that some folks now consider flying on a commercial airplane akin to going to a local town hall meeting, Frat party, or a Major League Wrestling event where you can act out, curse, scream, or hit a fellow passenger or flight attendant. Or if they get really worked up try to rush the Cockpit or open the emergency exit doors. A tip from an ole timer. You pay the price for a ticket and the airlines will rent you a seat and fly you from point A to your destination B, safely, and weather permitting, on time and with your baggage. You agree to behave yourself and be considerate of the staff and your fellow passengers. If your life is not going as expected and you are angry, depressed, had too many drugs or alcohol, or simply a wingnut just take the bus, Gus. Or better yet stay home and chill until things get better for you. I am truly glad that the Captain was retired and did not have to deal with this current stuff.
Good books could be written about the Captain's incredible career and contribution to our aviation industry. I would be remiss if I did not try and emphasize what an unimaginably challenging job Captain and Vice President Mel E. Volz had and how truly successful he was. The scope and scale of airline operations are just crazy to think about. For example, today United Airlines has about 96,000 employees and flies about 858 aircraft.
These good folks operate approximately 4,900 flights a day to 362 airports across six continents. That youngster flying model airplanes out at the Sanders farm became that unpretentious Captain and Vice President that successfully managed a good chunk of United’s complicated business. During his career, he flew the line and managed the logistical nightmare of airport and maintenance operations all the while developing new industry-leading safety and operating procedures. Melvin E. Volz, you were truly a great Ambassador for Commercial Aviation and a remarkable man.
Captain Volz of Punta Gorda, Florida was 95 and passed away quietly with family and friends. Commissioner Dale Twing and his brother and my good neighbor Charles Twing were nearby when he passed. Commissioner Twing said that arrangements are being made and there will be a service on April 9th for the Captain here in White Cloud.
Three cheers for a Captain of Captains.
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