When the judge overseeing Delta Air Lines Inc.'s bankruptcy asked in court recently whether the front or rear wheels touch ground first when planes land, a voice at the back of the courtroom answered with the question: Air Force or Navy?
The response elicited laughter in what has been a tense courtroom as lawyers for the nation's third largest airline have sparred for eight days with representatives of its pilots union over a proposal to slash pilot pay. But it also illustrates that a friendly rivalry exists among Delta pilots, many of whom are military veterans.
Uniformed Delta pilots have been in the audience every day in the cramped seventh floor courtroom in the former U.S. Customs House at the southern tip of Manhattan and have swapped tales of their service backgrounds in the hallways during breaks.
Delta's captains wear four gold stripes on the sleeves of their black uniforms, while co-pilots wear three stripes. Their uniforms are crisp and their hair is trimmed short.
"In a crew lounge there are always jokes going on between Air Force, Navy and Marine pilots," said Bill Kessler, a Delta pilot who lives in Atlanta and is a first officer who flies one of the airline's biggest wide-body jets, the Boeing 767.
"There is a natural rivalry between the Air Force and Navy about who is a better pilot," said Kessler, who studied aviation at Purdue University.
But for all the talk of service rivalries, the issue at hand in the bankruptcy court hearing is one that is testing pilots' loyalty to Delta. The carrier is seeking a 19.5 percent across-the-board pay cut, on top of the 32.5 percent reduction agreed to a year ago.
Salaries for first-year pilots currently are at $55,000 and the 1 percent of pilots at the top of the pay scale make about $200,000, according to Delta pilot union officials. Delta has said in court filings that pilots now average $169,393 in yearly pay.
Judge Prudence Carter Beatty has on several occasions during the marathon hearing expressed wonder at how JetBlue Airways pilot Scott Burke was able to safely land an Airbus A320 jet with malfunctioning front landing gear in Los Angeles on Sept. 21 _ a feat carried live on television worldwide and to the seat-back monitors of the plane's 140 passengers until 20 minutes before the eventful landing.
The pilots in the audience mostly shrug and say it's all in a day's work.
A smooth landing in pilot jargon is known as "greasing it." But a bumpy landing is called "banging one on" and often draws a smart-aleck comment from a co-pilot or first officer, the pilots say.
"If you bang one on, your passengers automatically think you are Navy," said Capt. John Culp, a former Navy pilot and flight instructor who flew F4 Phantom jet fighters off aircraft carriers before joining Delta, where he now flies 767s.
Culp offered, with a wink, his reasoning for the rivalry: "You have either flown off of a carrier or you wonder if you could." Both he and Tom Walsh, a Delta pilot who flew for Marine F4 Phantom jets, described setting a plane down on a carrier as "a controlled crash" because of the shorter landing area and fast rate of descent.
"Both (Air Force and Navy service pilots) are safe, but the Navy and Marine guys are more precise," said Walsh.
The rivalries also extend to fighter pilots and those who shuttled supplies on large cargo planes, according to Jeff Bendoski, a Delta first officer who graduated from the Air Force Academy and flew Air Force cargo planes on relief missions to Somalia and Kenya.
Because of his experience with the cargo planes he is jokingly referred to as a "bus driver," Bendoski said.
"Trash haulers and fast movers," agreed James Gray, a retired Delta pilot from Atlanta. He flew Navy P3 Orion aircraft over the North Atlantic in search of Soviet submarines during the Cold War.
"The fighter guys think they are the elite," he said.