Azriel “Al” Blackman is a man who has had his talented hands in American Airlines (AA) aircraft for 75 years. This nonagenarian has seen entire generations of equipment, and the talented mechanics that kept them in the air, come and go. Beginning work with AA (then American Export Airlines) in 1942 at the age of 16 after graduating from Aviation High School in Manhattan, he is now not only the holder of the record for the longest career as an airline mechanic, but a walking talking encyclopedia of knowledge about aircraft and aeronautics.
And the things he has seen over 75 years! Setting aside world events over his career, just consider the development of the aircraft during Al’s tenure. He first worked on the Consolidated PBY Catalina, Martin PBM Mariner, and Vought-Sikorsky VS-44 flying boats (the Flying Aces) with American Export Airlines and American Overseas Airlines during the 1940s. American flew a mixture of Douglas DC-3s (or Flagships in AA parlance) along with Fairchild 100s when the company dropped the Export and later the Overseas parts of their name. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s Blackman worked on Lockheed Connies, Boeing 377s, and Douglas DC-4s, DC-6s, and DC-7s along with a smattering of Convair 240s for AA.
When the turbine-powered Lockheed L-188 Electra began flying in AA colors Al smelled jet fuel for the first time. When the Boeing 707 and Convair 990 came into operational service Blackman worked on those too, along with the BAC One-Eleven. From that point on, just about every generation and/or type of Boeing, Douglas, Fokker, McDonnell Douglas, British Aerospace, and Airbus airliner AA flew garnered attention from Al Blackman at some point. 717s. 727s. 737s. 747s. 757s. 767s. 777s. DC-8s. DC-9s. DC-10s. MD-11s. MD-80s. MD-90s. A300s. A310s. A320s. A330s. 146s. And more!
For perspective, consider this: “Blackie” had 28 years in with AA when they bought their first 747s and 45 years in when they bought their first 737s. It’s been more than 50 years since he retired the last reciprocating engine airliner American ever flew. He’s seen revolutionary planes like the 727 and DC-9 come and go. DC-8s flew their entire careers with AA under his care. Same for the 747 and DC-10. Everything AA flies today began operations while Al has worked for AA- from 767s to Embraer 190s. Imagine what it must be like to have worked on many if not all of the former American Airlines jetliners sitting out in the Victorville, Mojave, Roswell, and Goodyear commercial aircraft boneyards.
When Al reached 70 years of service with American he was honored with a mural depicting him on the wall of the AA maintenance hangar at their JFK facility and a ride for him and his family in the Flagship Detroit, a fully restored Douglas DC-3 complete with period-correct American Airlines paint scheme. “These things leak oil all over the place,” Blackman quipped about the DC-3 after the flight. “When they’re not leaking oil, it’s not good. They’re not running well.” Now that Al has 75 years in with AA, the decision was made to honor him with a special livery on one of the 777s flown by AA. The special commemorative scheme was revealed on the 75th Anniversary of Al’s first day at American. The 777 then embarked Al and his family and took off on a flight over Manhattan and Long Island so Al could see some sights…as if he hasn’t already seen enough of them over 91 years!
Every year Al passes his first day Anniversary AA has to make a new pin. They also have to design it because each of his Anniversaries is a first-ever occurrence for an AA employee. Because his nickname is “Blackie” his 75th anniversary pin is adorned with black diamonds. Blackman arrives at JFK airport for work at 0500 every workday. He is a crew chief and as such reviews the maintenance tasks completed by the overnight maintenance shift and coordinates completion of any outstanding work. He does have a few limitations, but they’re FAA mandated limitations because of his age and not his competency or ability. He’s no longer allowed to climb ladders or drive on the airport roads and personal tool use is limited, but Al’s not planning to retire. According to him, “When you like what you do, it’s not work.” As far as his personal preference among the aircraft AA flies is concerned, Al is on record as preferring Boeing aircraft because according to him they’re the easiest to work on.
Al served his country in Korea performing maintenance on Bell 47 helicopters and light aircraft. According to “Age Is Just a Number,” the story he penned for AA’s in-flight magazine American Way, he worked at a facility co-located with the Army’s 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in Korea. Yes, M.A.S.H. Yes, that M.A.S.H. Al worked on the pristinely restored Vought-Sikorsky VS-44A flying boat Excambian now displayed at New England Air Museum. Al works with mechanics whose fathers worked with him for many years; many of them many years ago.
When not working for American Airlines, Al volunteers with the Historic Aircraft Restoration Project (HARP) working to restore vintage aircraft in Hangar B at Gateway National Recreation Area’s Floyd Bennett Field in New York. When Blackie reached 50 years of service with AA he was honored with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Charles E. Taylor Master Mechanic Award, which is only bestowed upon those with 50 years of aviation maintenance experience, 30 years of which must be as a FAA certified mechanic.
Thankfully and in this writer’s opinion correctly, American Airlines is not using Al’s Anniversary story to try and deflect any of the vitriol about the airline industry in general these days. Al is just Blackie, the father of two and a happily married man for decades. His dear wife Delores, who passed away six years ago, knew how much her husband enjoyed his work and his co-workers. Al says she would tell him, “’Go to work, bum,’” she used to say. “`Go play with your friends.’”
Thanks go to Fox 5 for uploading the video of their news story about Al’s 75th Anniversary with AA to YouTube and to American Airline Media Relations for providing some of the biographical information about the incredible career and life of Azriel “Al” Blackman.