Eddie Reck, a Central Connecticut State College student with a red mustache, paused a moment on the bank of the snake-infested canal that separated him from Miami International Airport and then plunged in. He had walked all the way from the Orange Bowl, and he was afraid that if he walked around the canal he would miss the homeward flight of the Grand Bahama-Super Bowl junket of the Society of Sky Roamers, Ltd., otherwise known as the Country Club of the Sky.
So he provided one of the high points of the trip—which cost only $139 for the slow but eventful round-trip flight, two nights in a good Bahamian hotel, three meals, four cab rides, baggage handling and a ticket to the upset of the year. But when Reck jogged into the airport, soaked and shoeless (since his luggage had already been loaded, he was still barefoot seven hours later when he stepped out into frigid New York), he had time for only a few minutes of prime Sky Roamer notoriety before—there he was, trotting exultantly into Concourse 1! Cocky little grass-stained No. 24—Johnny S....
No, on closer inspection it wasn't Johnny Sample, it was another Sky Roamer—George Attard of Staten Island in New York, who had somehow talked his way into the Jets' dressing room after the game, had somehow become the intended but overthrown receiver of a roll of tape from Joe Na-math himself and, finally, had somehow managed to make off with Johnny Sample's game jersey, which he wore most of the way back to New York.
"It is things like this," said IBM Engineer Bob Kusisto of Kingston, N.Y., who was once left behind in Freeport when he was a few minutes late for a Sky Roamer return but who remains an enthusiastic member, "that make Sky Roamer trips what they are."
Not that spectacular behavior is a requisite for membership. The club, says its management, is open to anyone who doesn't appear obnoxious in the obligatory personal interview. It includes doctors, lawyers, cops, working girls, laborers, entrepreneurs, union officials, Jews, Wasps, Catholics, a few Negroes and parent-accompanied children. During the Jan. 10-12 expedition, there were those who did nothing more unusual all weekend than sit through the Super Bowl holding a wicker bag filled with five different exotic liqueurs. The group included more or less swinging singles—old ones and young ones—looking for relaxation or for romance, or bringing romance along, and also couples who see Sky Roamership as a way to travel and meet nice people now that their children are grown. There were fathers taking their sons down for the football game who decided that for $14 apiece extra (two other Sky Roamer planes went straight to Miami for the weekend at only $125) they might as well stop by the Bahamas. There was one man—one of several nonmembers who were accepted on this trip at $25 extra—who looked to the Sky Roamers not for economy or for adventure but for security. "Number one," he said, "I don't trust the Communists; number two, I don't trust the Cubans; and I don't trust airplanes in the first place. But I figure nobody is going to hijack a DC-7, these days."
The Sky Roamers own three DC-7s, which cost them only about $370,000 in all. The club, and eight or 10 others like it around the country, became possible when these still-serviceable prop planes, each of which cost around $2 million new, were phased out by commercial airlines after the advent of the jet carrier.
On Super Bowl weekend, the three planes held 280 junketeers who, during the four-hour flight south, drank 102 bottles of liquor, mostly quarts. On the Bahama flight, at least, they also sang "Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall," milled convivially up and down the aisles, sat on each other's armrests, dropped into the cabin every now and then to chat with the pilots and the flight engineer, and broke into general cheering when the wheels touched the West End landing strip. At least seven marriages and one divorce have grown out of these trips, "This is what you don't get on a commercial flight," notes one member. "The fellowship."
After cabs took the travelers to the Grand Bahama Hotel and Country Club Friday night, they were on their own—except for a Saturday-night cocktail party—to swim, lounge on the beach or around the pool (which had piped-in island music and a bar and was more popular), sail, ride horses, stand in the Caribbean looking down at the fish or ride into Freeport for the gambling. On Sunday morning they bundled back into the plane, and just as the pregame ceremonies began they reached their seats (good ones) in the Orange Bowl. There they rejoined members of the Miami contingent, who were complaining of terrible hotel accommodations—not too surprising, perhaps, considering the scarcity of rooms in Miami that weekend, but highly unusual, by all accounts, on Sky Roamer trips. After the game everyone found his own way—by land, canal or dressing room—back to the airport.
The club's first trip, in Jan. 1967, was to Freeport, and weekend trips to the Bahamas and other islands or beach resorts have become the club's specialty. But last year's 34 trips also included six days and five nights in Mexico City for $169, four days and three nights in Haiti for $159 and visits to San Francisco-Honolulu-Las Vegas, Quebec, the Grand Canyon and Madrid-Lisbon. The air fare portion of the Madrid-Lisbon package (you can sign on for only the flight if you prefer) cost $198. Comparable air line tourist fare would have been $483.55. This year trips are planned for Cura√ßao, Barbados, Mexico City-Taxco-Acapulco, Lake Louise, Copenhagen-Ireland and, quite simply, Around the World (a 30-day trip in the fall, itinerary yet to be determined). Membership costs $155, and annual dues are $80. You can take as few or as many trips as you like.
Sky Roamers, Ltd. was conceived when Jack Plumly, the club's president and one of its copilots, sat down beside a girl in a bikini on the beach in Acapulco in the summer of 1966. At some point in their conversation the girl revealed that she was there as a member of the Emerald Shillelagh Chowder & Marching Society of Washington, D.C.—the first of the plane-owning clubs and still among the most prominent.
Plumly had made his way to that encounter through 19 years of experience in aviation. He had learned to fly as a boy of 17 in Beaumont, Texas, had flown Army transport planes during the Korean conflict, started a flying school, sold airplanes, piloted a Louisiana state senator's private plane and hauled lobsters out of a Mexican fishing village.
That last venture had just folded—the villagers, he recalls, "made enough money to live on for 10 years, so they all quit and got drunk," and one of the scuba divers he then imported "turned up mysteriously dead"—when the girl told him about the Shillelaghs. That sounded better than flying shellfish, so, on learning that there was no such club in New York, Plumly went there, bought an Eastern Air Lines plane for around $150,000 and hired Jim Shaw, an energetic New York sky diver and aviation insurance man, to be vice-president and tour leader. Soon thereafter Gail Cuddihy joined the staff as chief stewardess and club secretary.
The first jaunt to Freeport carried only 36 passengers, and there weren't enough Sky Roamers to fill the plane until the following Thanksgiving. Now there are 1,500 members in the New York area, a 500-member branch in Boston and in Detroit 1,000 former Voyagers-Detroit, whose membership the Sky Roamers took over recently. Last summer they bought their second plane, from Saturn Airways, for $160,000. They bought the third plane in November for only $59,000. "Prices are going down," says Plumly. "There are DC-3s still flying that are 30 years old, and planes don't depreciate very rapidly, but most of these DC-7s, only eight or nine years old, will be scrapped. We think we now have the world's second-largest fleet of them."
Some members of the club take a certain pride in owning a share in an airplane, but they have neither interest in nor liability for the business. Sky Roamers refers to itself as a no-stock, nonprofit corporation. It can't declare a dividend, and any surplus is to be distributed in the form of cheaper rates or club cocktail parties. The original investment was put up by Plumly and a friend and is still outstanding in the form of a loan. The club is now breaking even on a day-to-day basis, according to Shaw, and is applying to the Internal Revenue Service for nonprofit status. Members determine its policies to the extent of voting for the places they want to go.
Sky Roamer captains, crews and mechanics are moonlighting airlines people. The airlines don't mind, says Miss Cuddihy, so long as the stewardesses aren't paid. They get the package free and $10 per diem. At one point in the Bahamas flight, a Sky Roamer handed a stewardess half of his seat belt, which had come off. "Isn't it attached to anything?" she asked, holding both ends of it in her hands. And one of the three planes had, as even commercial airliners often do, mechanical difficulties when time came to leave Miami, contributing to a three-hour delay that caused a great deal of understandable grousing (if the club were any more democratic there might have been a coup), and forcing the management to pay the fares of that plane's passengers back to New York on commercial flights. But the planes are duly maintained at the Marine Air Terminal and inspected regularly by the Federal Aviation Administration. And as of Feb. 1 they will be governed by regulations similar to those for commercial airlines. This will mean no more passengers in the cockpit, unfortunately. It also means that the club must demonstrate to an FAA inspector that it can evacuate a full plane in two minutes. That will be accomplished some time this month, when 104 members will assemble for an evacuation party, followed by cocktails. And who knows what else.