Living Legends of Aviation

The ingredient that makes aviation special.

Donald Douglas statue
Paying tribute at KSMO to Donald Douglas, the aviation pioneer who gave wing to the legendary DC-3.Courtesy Martha Lunken

For what seemed like forever—OK, so it was four weeks—I was housebound late last winter, hobbling around with a humongous cast on my right foot. Weather was consistently gray, cold and brutal in the Ohio Valley and moping around the house isn’t my style, but I got through, reasonably sane, thanks to some great memories. I’d flown my Cessna 180 and a magnificently dirty, oil-dripping, belching DC-3 in the fall. And in January, I mingled with the “beautiful people” at the Living Legends of Aviation Awards event in Los Angeles. Life is very, very good when you can move easily from oil-stained T-shirts and jeans flying a ’Goon in Knoxville to a “smasher” evening gown, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous of the aviation world in Beverly Hills.

Which memory was better? Oh, heck, you know.

But Tinsel Town was pretty special. Barry Schiff, himself a “Living Legend,” invited me to the annual black-tie gala recognizing notable aviation accomplishments of extraordinary people—entrepreneurs, innovators, astronauts, record breakers, pilots who have become celebrities and celebrities who have become pilots. Barry’s nominee, musician and pilot Kenny G, regularly flies his Beaver on amphibious floats back and forth across the country, and I was there to honor my friend and hero, Col. Joe Kittinger. Both were among this year’s inductees along with uber-entrepreneur Jeff Bezos, who received a “Freedom’s Wings Award.”

(Sadly, I couldn’t wriggle through crowds of dinner-jacketed, beribboned men and gorgeous, plunging-necklined women with my pitch, “Hey, Jeff, I’ll cut you in with me on this DC-3 deal.”)

The weekend—playing dress up, chatting with aviation elites (and not-so-elites, like myself) at Clay Lacy’s hangar party and the formal evening at the Beverly Hilton—was great fun, but the best part was a visit with Capt. Schiff to his beloved Santa Monica Airport. He showed me where he’d pumped gas as a teenager to pay for flying lessons and pointed out the site of the original Douglas Aircraft plant. I insisted he take my picture paying homage at the statue of Donald Douglas and his dog, Bar.

Legends of Aviation funds the Kiddie Hawk Air Academy, formed to spark children’s interest in aviation and create the next generation of aviators and aviation legends. Kids across the country pilot colorful little “trainers” to become familiar with basic flight principles and learn about aviation and aerospace careers. They also learn about the importance of good grades if their aviation dreams are to come true.

“Their aviation dreams…”

Back in Ohio and grounded, I had plenty time to dream about flying airplanes. While I was obsessing about my 180 and the DC-3, I was also asking myself if kids still dream about flying airplanes like I did. A little digging reveals a staggering number of aviation programs and sources for mentoring, support and financial aid. And yet, even as the need for airline pilots becomes critical, statistics paint a pretty dismal picture of how many people actually earn pilot certificates. So many who begin training never get student certificates and, of those who do, only about 20 percent actually earn pilot certificates.

The “hook” or pitch used by universities, flying schools and even airlines is a career—the big salaries, easy work schedules, generous time off and prestige guaranteed any air carrier pilot. Maybe it’s working because, as an MIT study shows, there’s a distinct downward trend in people who chose, “I always wanted to fly” as a reason for becoming a pilot and “a shift in the allure of flying over generations.”

I don’t understand learning to fly solely for the chance to be an airline pilot. But I know plenty about flying because it’s fun and exciting and useful and a life-altering experience.

Somebody said, “Aviation isn’t so much a profession as a disease,” and EAA’s Jack Pelton wrote, “[while] the market says we need more people who fly for a living, I say that we need more people who love to fly.”

I found this rather chilling: A friend recently testified as an expert witness in an aviation-related litigation. As the trial progressed, he and the attorney agreed that they needed an airplane model or toy to illustrate a point to the nonflying judge. So at a recess they frantically searched the toy departments of nearby Target and Walmart stores for an airplane…any airplane. Returning empty-handed was telling and disappointing; obviously, kids don’t buy toy airplanes anymore.

We’ve all heard the explanations: Preferring computer games to flying real airplanes; unfriendly airports with locked gates; old, tired-looking trainers; inability to accept risks; cost; lack of time; fear of maneuvers (stalls); too much bookwork; poor instructors; training interruptions and plateaus in learning.

Read More from this Author: Martha Lunken

But these are lame excuses to a kid—or anybody—who dreams about flying airplanes.

Informally, I surveyed a bunch of pilots—old, young, professional, sport, student, accomplished and inexpert. I asked how old they were when they got hooked on airplanes…what fired their interest…were they encouraged by families, teachers, friends…how did they pay for training?

Most answers were similar: was fascinated with airplanes as far back as I can remember; started building stick airplanes at age 10; it was something I always dreamed about; always drew and built models as a kid; after seeing an aviation movie at age 9; watching the Red Devils fly on TV at 10; riding in the back of a Cessna on a penny-a-pound ride; seeing a crop duster spraying rice in Arkansas at age 5—I think at conception.

Encouragement or formal programs? Replies included: Sometimes my parents took me to watch airliners at the airport; talked to a high-school janitor who flew; parents absolutely forbade it; my father said to stop asking “because you will not take flying lessons.” Programs? There were none.

Responses about how they paid for training varied: worked at a grocery store; sold car; sold aluminum siding over the phone; cut grass; shoveled snow; painted the inside of the school one summer; worked at grandpa’s drugstore; swept hangars; washed airplanes; pumped gas; worked double shifts as a psych RN.

Accepting his Legends award, Kenny G said that being a pilot is a lot like being a musician…it’s hard-earned and demands dedication, commitment and practice. He embraces joy in creativity and finds freedom in the sky is like the freedom of a jazz improvisation solo. “Flying and playing,” he said, “I’m always learning.”

Charles Lindbergh put it this way: “It’s the greatest shot of adrenaline to be doing what you have wanted to do so badly. You almost feel like you could fly without the plane.”