Jumpseat: A Tale of Flying Legacies, Part 2

Tim Knutson’s son, Owen, soloed in the same J-3 Cub that Tim flew on his first solo 32 years earlier. Courtesy Les Abend

One of the most valued intrinsic benefits to having contributed to this publication for almost 15 years has been the opportunity to interact with some special and unique people. Individuals that were the subject matter of this column have remained a fond and integral part of my writing.

On most occasions, we part ways with a smile and a handshake, and then our lives move forward. But in some circumstances, I am fortunate enough to develop a relationship that endures past this column. Tim Knutson and his family are one of those relationships.

The February 2004 Jumpseat column was a story that focused on an event that involved Tim, Tim's 3-year-old son, and a 92-year-old former World War II instructor pilot. As a brief recap, I had been invited to witness the former WWII instructor fly Tim's N3N biplane after a 60-year time lapse. It was a magical experience.

But the story morphed beyond the nostalgic event into a tale of flying legacies. David Niven, the 92-year-old flight instructor who helped save the lives of many WWII pilots through his tutelage, was an integral part of the story.

Tim’s dad and best friend, John Knutson, who had succumbed to stomach cancer at the young age of 56, was part of the story. It had been an afterthought for John to consider an airline career because he originally thought of flying airplanes to be just a fun activity. The fun activity progressed through North Central Airlines, Republic and then Northwest.

Owen, Tim's son, also became part of the story simply because he would inherit the opportunity. With 12 years having passed in a flurry, the baton was now being handed to the same child who had persevered as a toddler despite an early predilection for airsickness. And the same child, who hadn't even attended nursery school yet but could recite the entire dialog of The Great Waldo Pepper, was to solo on his 16th birthday.

Tim Knutson with his son Owen, who is continuing the family's flying legacy. Courtesy Les Abend

Once again, I was invited to participate in another lifetime experience. On this occasion, the invitation was not presented to me as a magazine writer, but rather as a friend and unofficial member of the Knutson family. Having experienced the selfless nature of this family, I could not have been bestowed a higher honor.

When I first met Tim, he was a B-737 copilot for my airline. He eventually transitioned to the B-777 as a first officer. More recently, he added a fourth stripe to his uniform as an MD-80 captain. In his spare time, between managing the family farm, supervising the lives of two 
children with his wife, contributing to his local church, helping his neighbors, promoting aviation in his community, maintaining contact with his friends, volunteering time to our pilots union, and flying for the airline, he squeaked out a few moments for fun.

Among the stresses of the past decade’s trials and tribulations involving our airline’s future, Tim’s career was almost cut short with the discovery of a serious medical issue. He was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, which intermittently causes an irregular heartbeat rhythm. With the potential to be grounded forever, he opted for a relatively new surgical procedure with the support of his wife, Dawn. Fortunately, the surgery has proved successful.

I mention this medical crisis not to evoke empathy for his plight, but rather to note how it defines Tim. Despite the fact that he was confronted with the possibility of never being able to fly, he maintained a stoic resolve throughout the entire process. To understand his character, I highly recommend watching the five-minute YouTube video that describes Tim’s circumstances. But be forewarned: Have a box of Kleenex nearby.

Moving ahead to present day, Owen’s solo event became the catalyst for a weekend with friends. Jay and Sandy Rud had flown their 172 to the Knutson farm from their home in Illinois. Jay was a former chief pilot and is currently a B-787 check airman. Interestingly enough, we all had civilian backgrounds, and we were all airplane owners with taildragger experience, an untypical combination for airline pilots.

My wife and I were told that for the evening of our arrival, pizza was on the menu. Ordinarily this would not be worth mentioning, but when it is baked in an actual industrial-size pizza oven located in your friend’s hangar, it tastes just that much better. Tim had endeared himself to the owner of a pizza restaurant in Queens, New York. When he was not being called out on a trip, Tim had waited out his days away from his crash pad at our New York crew base as a reserve 777 first officer learning how to make pies. Does it get any better than that?

Although it had been a relatively mild winter, February in Wisconsin was true to form. Temperatures barely hovering in the teens with a stiff breeze and good 8 inches of snow had me thankful for thermal underwear.

On a positive note, the conditions allowed me the opportunity to try out a pair of skis — attached to Tim’s J-3 Cub, of course. Despite my humbling performance, no ice fishermen were harmed in the process. As a matter of fact, they were rather nonplussed, most likely an indication that they were accustomed to such antics.

The day of Owen’s birthday solo arrived with only one hitch. In anticipation of the event, Tim had brought his son to the local AME a few months prior. Unfortunately, a stipulation within the FARs doesn’t allow the medical certificate to act as a student pilot certificate unless the applicant is within 30 days of his or her 16th birthday. The medical exam couldn’t be undone.

The solution: A designated pilot examiner (DPE) had to issue a separate student pilot certificate. The original plan was to fly to the airport where the DPE was located, but low ceilings in the morning thwarted the effort. Instead, the mission became a road trip — an hour and a half each direction. The soon-to-be student pilot demonstrated his stress level with a nap on each leg.

Most of us have fond memories of our first solo and our first solo airplane. Owen got the opportunity for just a little more. Not only did he solo off his own farm airstrip like his dad, but he also got to solo five airplanes on the same day. His conquests: a C-172, Aeronca Champ, C-150, C-182 and J-3 Cub.

The Cub possessed an important sentimental value. Recently restored, it was the same airplane flown by Tim on his first solo 32 years earlier. Using Tim’s words, “In a sense, Dad soloed both of us.”

Tim Knutson with his dad, John, in the J-3 Cub Tim flew on his first solo. Courtesy Les Abend

All of Owen’s landings were well executed. Despite the cold, his audience cheered every landing. The muted claps of gloved hands greeted all five solo performances. But although the day was special, it was just the official checkmark for the FAA. It wasn’t Owen’s first rodeo.

Despite the 16-year-old’s casual coolness and nonchalance, his grin betrayed him. Owen was well aware that he had accomplished something significant, not only for him but also for his dad. Perhaps because the day involved a multitude of cameras with a multitude of shutter clicks, Tim successfully fought back tears. But we all knew they were there.

I had asked Owen if he was considering an airline career. He didn’t respond with overjoyed enthusiasm, but the idea was certainly a possibility. Perhaps having his dad absent at football games, not present to light the tree on Christmas morning, or hearing him discuss pay cuts and bankruptcy made Owen wiser than his years. Regardless, Owen admitted, in his own words, airplanes were in his blood.

Owen Knutson, with dad, Tim, concedes that airplanes are in his blood. Courtesy Les Abend

At the end of the day, there is no mistaking Owen for Tim’s son. For the moment, high school, the Green Bay Packers, hunting and fishing with his Uncle Scott, making his grandmother shake her head with a smile, and flying airplanes for the pure joy of it are Owen’s priorities.

It is my sincere hope that no matter Owen’s course, he will strive to be at least half the man his father has become. Once again, quoting singer/songwriter Dan Fogelberg from my February 2004 Jumpseat column, both Owen and Tim are “a living legacy to the leader of the band.”

Les Abend
Les AbendAuthor
Les Abend is a retired, 34-year veteran of American Airlines, attempting to readjust his passion for flying airplanes in the lower flight levels—without the assistance of a copilot.

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