During the Ice Capades at the Oakland Coliseum recently, four blue-white spotlights followed a remarkably buxom woman as she skated unsteadily across the ice. Would she stop short of the barrier? THUNK! WHIZZZ! And she flew bottom over bosom smack into the lap of a silver-haired gentleman in the front row. As she struggled to get away, the gentleman, as cool as the ice, ripped off her crimson skirt. The "lady" turned out to be a man! And the gentleman, who that night was hosting 3,000 crippled children and orphans whose laughter echoed down from the peanut gallery, was Edward J. Daly. The fact is that Daly is often surrounded by kids he is trying to help. But the world remembers him in a much different setting.

Just a few weeks earlier, Danang Airport was surrounded by Vietcong, and 1,000 South Vietnamese men, women, children and soldiers were desperate to board the last aircraft to sanctuary in Saigon. With a .38 revolver in his hand and a measure of booze under his belt, Daly—president and chairman of World Airways—pushed his boot into the face of a soldier who had just elbowed an old woman off the ramp of the taxiing jet. Then he laid out another soldier with a right cross. The World Airways plane, overloaded and damaged by a grenade, limped back to Saigon. For his effort to perform an act of humanity, Ed Daly received (besides a bruised kidney, loosened teeth and a chewed-up and bleeding forearm) reprimands from AID and the U.S. embassy, who had ordered him not to fly to Danang. But Ed Daly does not listen well to what he does not want to hear. After two days of roistering R&R, he alerted his crew that it was time to move out some orphans. Stopped at the Saigon airport by red tape that smacked of official recrimination, Daly herded the squalling babies aboard a DC-8 anyway. Even though the runway lights were extinguished and permission to leave denied, the plane took off for Japan. When the pilot radioed for landing instructions, the tower operator told him, "Gee, you can't land here, because you never left there. So welcome to Yokota!"

Daly is a 52-year-old, florid-faced man with a gruff voice and the demeanor of a movie tough guy. He is partial to garish outfits and straight talk. He has been described as cruel, kind, ego-maniacal, generous, humane, impulsive, a savior, a hero and a boor. The rare few who have had a glimpse into his life-style know that he is a very rich man—with a self-made fortune that tops out at around $200 million—as well as a generous one to causes which interest him. According to the Wall Street Journal, World Airways—of which Daly owns 80.6% and rules the whole with a clenched fist—is the most profitable airline in the country. (In 1974 World had a net profit of $20 million on $100 million gross business. Daly insists it is the only profitable airline in the world.) He is an extremely complex man whose flamboyant business tactics carry over into his private life. Daly has been known to disappear for days, running the airline via long-distance telephone and Telex. And since his last spectacular exit from Vietnam, he has hidden behind a screen of awed, loyal executives, successfully avoiding scores of insistent talk-show hosts, movie makers and journalists. Why? "I'm tired," Daly says, as he brushes the lapel of his cerise safari suit and slips two pearl onions off the toothpick from his double Gibson. "And I resent being depicted as a heavy drinker." He smiles slightly and leans against a private bar stocked with fine spirits and Waterford crystal sufficient to slake the High King of Ireland. "I don't like the idea of reading that I was reared in poverty, either. And I'm not a hero. I'm a catalyst. None of those bureaucratic bums in Saigon or Washington would have gotten off their butts if someone hadn't defied them and gone in after the refugees and orphans."

All that might possibly be true. Other things are certain: in just 25 years, Edward J. Daly, son of a Southside Chicago fireman, has built a debt-ridden business into the largest nonscheduled airline in the world. (It is also the third largest U.S. air carrier operating worldwide.) Daly has repeatedly pushed Congress for innovative types of low-cost mass air transportation, while advising the State Department on foreign policy objectives in the field.

"I started this industry," says Daly of supplemental air carriers, with a familiar lapse of humility. "I founded and developed it." No one who knows the business and Daly's involvement in it will gainsay his claim.