Henry Kisor

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When Chicago Sun-Times book editor Henry Kisor turned 53, he decided to learn how to fly and take a solo airplane trip across America. He faced the typical challenges of learning at middle age, plus one extra hurdle: He has been completely deaf since age three. Henry got his license, bought an airplane, planned and flew the trip, and wrote a book about it. In this month's Profile, Henry recalls preparing for and flying his cross-country VFR adventure patterned after the 1911 flight of Cal Rodgers's Vin Fiz.

Henry KisorHenry Kisor was born August 17, 1940, in Ridgewood, N.J. Age three brought his first experience in the cockpit of a TBF Avenger, and a bout with meningitis that would take away his ability to hear. Henry's parents taught him to read and to read lips and to find his place in a hearing world. He earned a B.A. from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and an M.S.J. from Northwestern University in 1964. He began his newspaper career in 1964 with the Evening Journal in Wilmington, Del., and has been the book review editor and literary critic of the Chicago Sun-Times since 1978, after five years in the same position with the old Chicago Daily News. Between 1977 and 1982 he was an adjunct instructor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. From 1983 to 1986 he wrote a weekly syndicated column on personal computers that appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, Orlando Sentinel, Seattle Times and other newspapers.

Henry has won many prizes and citations for his work, and was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1981. The Friends of Literature awarded him the first James Friend Memorial Critic Award in 1988 and the Chicago Foundation for Literature Award for Nonfiction in 1991 for What's That Pig Outdoors?— A Memoir of Deafness.

Flight of the Gin Fizz: Midlife at 4,500 Feet is Henry's 1997 account of his re-enactment of a flight by Cal Rodgers's in 1911. Cal flew a Wright Model EX called the "Vin Fiz" which now hangs in the National Air and Space Museum. Henry flew the trip in a polished-aluminum 1959 Cessna 150 he named "Gin Fizz". He flew over a period of five weeks in three separate sorties to minimize time away from home and work. It would be an ambitious trip for anyone, especially so for a low-time VFR pilot who can't hear. Flight is the kind of well-crafted book you might expect from someone who has been reviewing them for 30 years. Henry has the knack for including explanations of the concepts of aviation to a non-pilot audience without losing the audience of pilots.

Author's note: This is the first AVweb Profile interview that hasn't been conducted orally in one sitting and then transcribed. As an editor, Henry often interviews authors via email, so we used a series of emails over a recent weekend to capture his thoughts. —JG


What's your earliest memory of wanting to fly?

I think the seed was planted in 1943 when I was three years old. My dad was a supply officer at the old Fort Lauderdale Naval Air Station, which trained torpedo bomber pilots. I remember sitting in the pilot seat of a Grumman TBF and waggling the joystick, and it was probably at that time the impulse to fly overtook me, though I was of course too young to know what it meant. By age five, I could tell a Me. 109 from a Spitfire, thanks to the aircraft recognition charts tacked to my bedroom wall. "Terry and the Pirates" and "Steve Canyon" naturally were my favorite comic strips.

By 1951 the hook was well and truly set. My dad, who had built free-flight model airplanes and competed in contests all through the war years, introduced me to U-control model planes as soon as I was old enough to handle one. I recalled just recently that someone remarked that I never seemed to get dizzy spinning around and around with the airplane, as many of my friends did. That was because my balance organs had been destroyed by the meningitis that took my hearing. That summer of '51 Dad took me to the local grass airfield at Hallstead, Pa., where the proprietor's son, who had flown in combat during the war, was the proud owner of a Globe Swift 125. For five dollars he took me up for 15 minutes, and we did barrel rolls. I was 11 years old, and I have never forgotten the exhilaration of that ride.

Did not being able to hear deter you from pursuing that exhilaration?

It did at first, owing to my own ignorance. While still a child, I bought the "common sense" that deaf people could not fly because they couldn't use the radio. It wasn't until I was well into adulthood that I met a deaf pilot — an orthodontist from California who owned a Tri-Pacer — and discovered that wasn't true at all; that radio communications were not required in uncontrolled airspace and that there had been deaf pilots since almost the beginning of aviation. Later, a greater deterrent was having to raise a family and send two kids to college. Not until after their schooling was paid for did I have enough money to learn to fly.

If your balance organs are destroyed do you still perceive positive and negative G forces?

Henry Kisor
Henry and CFI Tom Horton

Of course. I can feel the pull of gravitation throughout my whole body in a turn or a sharp dive or climb. The most important consequence of losing the balance organs is, of course, losing one's inner sense of balance. In practical terms this means I can't keep my balance with my eyes closed, or when it's completely dark. At home I need a night light, else I'd fall flat on my face heading for the bathroom. In the cockpit I need a visual horizon — or an attitude indicator. I suspect that people who have lost their balance organs don't suffer from the misleading "seat of the pants" feeling that up is down and down is up — we simply have no idea where up is until we can see it. Perhaps that makes it easier for us to recover from "unusual attitudes." I've never tested this theory, however.

What was the process of picking a CFI for your training?

A private pilot named Bob Locher, who got me off the dime at last when he gave me a ride in his 172 during the fall of 1992, urged me from the get-go to train with his old instructor, a corporate Citation pilot named Tom Horton, who instructs out of Westosha Airport (then WI10; now 5K6) at Wilmot, Wis., about an hour and five minutes north of my house in Evanston, Ill. Horton, he said, had trained a deaf student to the private certificate some time before, so we wouldn't need to reinvent the wheel. At first I didn't cotton to the idea of driving all that way once or twice a week, so called the local office of a famous national flight school at Palwaukee Airport (PWK) in Wheeling, Ill., using the deaf phone relay service and my TDD (Telephone Device for the Deaf, a kind of laptop).

The factotum who answered said sorry, there were no openings. I asked whether there might be an opening for a student six months later. She said oh no, they were full then, too. Yeah, sure. Briefly I considered siccing the Justice Department on the school courtesy of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits such discrimination. But that game did not seem worth the candle, partly because a lawsuit wouldn't smooth the way to the mutual trust I thought a student and instructor ought to share.

So I called the FBO at Galt Airport (10C) near McHenry, Ill., about 45 minutes away. "Sorry, we're not set up to train the handicapped," the chief instructor said. I suggested we try an introductory flight and see what the possibilities might be, whether we thought we could communicate well enough, before giving up on the idea. He thought that was reasonable and said okay. But before we could take the flight, I suffered an attack of good sense. Westosha and Tom Horton weren't much farther away than Galt, and it there would be no need to go through that awkward and sometimes time-consuming negotiation of proving to him that deaf people are perfectly capable human beings. I took an introductory flight with Tom, and at the end of it said, "Hey, I can do this." He shrugged and said, "Why not?"

That was one of the smartest moves I ever made. Tom didn't need to instruct — he's a full-time corporate jet pilot, and teaches on weekends and his days off not just for extra money but because he loves to teach. He wasn't one of those bored time-builders I kept hearing about who took no interest in their students as people. But he also had — and has — a reputation as a tough taskmaster. I knew he wasn't going to cut me any slack but hold me to the same standards he held his other students. After that first lesson, I knew I was in good hands.

In retrospect, it probably was a good thing that the Palwaukee school turned me away. Palwaukee is a very busy Class Delta airport, and I'd have had trouble making solo takeoffs and landings there. An instructor would have had to fly with me to an uncontrolled airport for me to do solos, and that would have been hard to arrange.

How did Tom critique your performance during the lessons?

Henry KisorIn the usual way, for the most part. If he had just a sentence or two to say, I'd glance over at him to read his lips. (He's very easy to understand.) If he had more to say, he'd take the yoke and speak while scanning the sky so that I could devote my undivided attention to him.

Only in landing-pattern drills did we have to do things in a different way. The workload in the pattern made me just too busy to look over at Tom, even briefly. After every landing we'd pull off onto a taxiway while Tom explained what I'd done wrong and how to correct it. This technique was time-consuming, but there was no other solution. It did further my confidence in Tom — clearly he was making certain I understood everything.

There was just one miscommunication in the whole enterprise — when one day, just as we were about to touch down, Tom reached up and pointed down the runway. I thought he was telling me to do a touch-and-go, but he was trying to tell me to keep my eye on the far end of the runway. Once we sorted that out it never happened again.

Things got a little shaky during hood work. Tom had to write instructions on a pad of paper and shove them under my nose. His handwriting is almost as bad as mine, and once or twice I pushed up the hood and said, "What the hell are you trying to tell me?" But we coped.

Tom would often tell me in detail what the day's lesson would be before we took off. Knowing what was coming made things a lot easier for me. (Tom never told me in advance when he was going to snake the throttle back and say, "Engine failure! Now what?")

Otherwise, I believe teaching me was like teaching any other middle-aged student who wasn't as quick to grasp concepts as he might have been in his 20s. I even received a liberal dose of what Tom's former students fondly call the "You're Going to Kill Yourself, But Not with Me in the Plane" lecture, after I pulled up the nose on final instead of adding power when I perceived us to be too low.

Looking back on our instruction, I can't think of anything Tom might have done better. He treated me like any other student pilot, expecting me to live up to the exacting standards he set for them.

What was different about your private pilot exam?

Nothing much. The most unusual aspect was that because a medical flight test was part of the usual checkride, an FAA safety inspector, not a designated examiner, had to perform the checkride.

The medical part of the test consisted of two parts. First, the examiner had to satisfy himself that I could discern a stall; deaf pilots can't hear the stall warning horn. That was easy. The controls go mushy, the aircraft judders and the airspeed indicator drops below 40 knots. Second, I had to be able to discern the change in engine note when the examiner snaked back the throttle for a simulated engine-out landing. That was just as easy: Deaf people are very sensitive to vibration and a drop in RPM can be felt through the yoke as well as through the seat. (It's also easy to see that the propeller has slowed down.) That took all of five minutes.

I had an exceptional safety inspector — Jimmy Szajkovics of the Milwaukee FSDO. During the flight test, the wind picked up unexpectedly to about 20 knots with higher gusts, and during one landing he had to take the yoke from me when a gust caused the airspeed to bleed off too much on final — and I froze uncertainly at the controls. I thought I'd blown the flight test right there, but Jimmy kept me going, and after that I managed to nail a couple of tough crosswind landings. Jimmy said he thought I was a good pilot and would have the sense to stay home if the winds were beyond my competence, and so he signed me off.

How did you prepare for your first visit to a towered airport?

Henry Kisor
Gin Fizz and Manhattan with water on the side

With a TDD, I phoned the tower — JVL, Janesville, Wis. — and asked clearance to enter the Class Delta airspace for a light signal landing. They gave me an ETA, an altitude and an approach course, and I announced my presence on the radio, as arranged, as I entered the airspace. I used what I call a "Locherometer" after its builder, Bob Locher, to avoid tramping on other people's transmissions. This is a little box — technically a radio level meter — with a bright LED that I plug into the headphone socket. When there's traffic on the frequency, the LED lights up. When it's dark, I can speak into the radio.

Those light signals aren't easy to see — I missed them the first time and had to get back into the pattern. The second time around, I saw them clearly.

What factors went into your selection of a Cessna 150 as the airplane for your trip?

1. Money. 2. Money. 3. Money. A common two-seater was much more affordable than a four-seater like a 172, and I wanted an all-metal airplane because I'd be keeping it out on a tiedown during a Wisconsin winter. The one I found, a 1959 model, had just been refurbished by the Westosha mechanics, who worked there part-time (the fellow who did the airframe was American Eagle's maintenance chief at O'Hare and the guy who overhauled the engine was American Airlines' foreign maintenance boss, also headquartered at O'Hare). They gave it a year's guarantee against defects — and they honored that guarantee when one of the mufflers had to be rewelded.

Map of the flight of the Gin Fizz

Flying coast-to-coast is a pretty ambitious trip for a newly-minted VFR pilot. How did you plan to handle changes in weather and in-flight emergencies?

Any time MVFR or winds exceeding 15 knots were forecast, I was going to stay down and read a book. This was my plan. Of course, I did not stick to it. On the way out to New Jersey to start the trip, I foolishly took off into absolute minimum conditions and had to land shortly afterward just a few miles from Westosha to wait out passing low clouds. But the God that watches out for fools and low-time pilots was with me the rest of the way — the weather was for the most part excellent. Only in hot and moist Texas was the visibility lousy, and it still generally was comfortable enough.

Because I couldn't get weather updates in the air, I knew I was going to have to land frequently and update myself on DUAT or the FBO's weather computer, if it had one. As it turned out, following the Cal Rodgers route across America, stopping everywhere he did, insured that I'd land almost every hour to look about me, talk with people, and get the weather.

That same God must have been watching out for Cal back in 1911, too. You started with a rather low opinion of him — Cal, not God — but it seemed like you gathered more respect for what he had accomplished as you flew along his route.

Yes. At first Cal seemed like a wealthy know-it-all layabout who didn't listen to good advice and got himself in trouble because of his own stupidity. That he was courageous was never in doubt; from the beginning he kept going despite all those crashes he suffered. When the time limit for the Hearst prize ran out before he had made it halfway across the country but he decided to press on all the same — damn the bankers, full speed ahead — his innate tenacious character had become clear. When his engine blew out a cylinder just past Imperial Junction, California, shooting splinters into his arm, he flew back several miles and made a smooth landing despite his injuries. That was coolness under fire. He had become a true pilot.

You filled a book with the details of your adventure, but can you give us a glimpse of the more colorful characters you met in your journey?

Henry Kisor
Henry and CFI Shane Lese seek thermals in a Schweizer 2-33 trainer

Lordy, there are so many. Max Francisco, the one-eyed CFI in Hancock, N.Y. Shane Lese, the Elmira, N.Y., sailplane instructor and member of the Schweizer family. Josephine Richardson, the 80-year-old ex-Powder Puff Derby racer and dynamic owner of Decatur Hi-Way airport in Indiana. Jim Shuttleworth, who rebuilt Gen. Robin Olds' Mustang and keeps it at Huntington, Ind. Airshow pilot Gene Littlefield and his wing-walker wife, Cheryl, at Clow Airport, Plainfield, Ill. Virgil (Rocky) Rothrock, a Stearman owner and proprietor of the airport at Streator, Ill., who keeps a genuine Santa Fe Railway caboose by the gas pumps just because it looks cool. Bob Searfoss, the old B-17 pilot at Mexico, Mo., whose pride and joy is a huge radio-controlled model of the Fortress he flew over Europe during World War II — and whose parents saw Cal Rodgers fly over Missouri in 1911. Barbara MacLeod, the Texas anthropologist who beat a lifelong fear of flying and is now an aerobatic pilot. Jim Newman, the double amputee who never let the loss of his legs keep him from flying. Ray Williams, the flying missionary who led me as a "flight of two" into the busy combined civil airport and Marine air station at Yuma, Arizona. All these and more showed me what diamonds of humanity were to be found scattered among the grassroots airports of America.

Who are your favorite authors?

Usually the last one whose book I've liked, but they run the gamut from pulp to lit — I'm a big fan of both Ed McBain's cop-shop mysteries and William Faulkner's heavy-duty novels. Carl Hiaasen tickles my funnybone. Of the recent aviation books, I liked Stacy Schiff's biography of Saint-Exupery and Scott Berg's life of Charles A. Lindbergh. William Langewiesche is a thoughtful aviation writer I like very much.

What's your opinion of the friction in the community of the deaf about lip reading and sign language?

It's so unnecessary. We're made up of diverse communities with diverse ways of dealing with deafness, and they should all be honored. There's one group that does so cheerfully: the International Deaf Pilots Association. Our next fly-in is at South County Airport at San Martin, Calif., from June 27 to July 1, 2000, and we invite anyone interested to attend.

Last fall Mark Stern, a deaf pilot (and friend of mine) flew to all 48 lower states and posted a running commentary during the trip. He also had a great many culinary adventures on the way — no vending-machine snacks for this fellow. There's also a very good FAQ about deaf pilots on the site.

What's your next challenge as a pilot? A new rating? Another trip and another book?

Just for the additional training, I might go for a commercial ticket, although without the IFR rating it's about as useful as hind tit on a boar hog. Right now I'm concentrating on flying youngsters, deaf and hearing, in the EAA's Young Eagles program. Another aviation book hasn't yet suggested itself to me.


Flight of the Gin Fizz recently went out of print. Plenty of used copies as well as remainders can be found by going to Bibliofind.

Update July 2003:Henry has a new Web site and email address for AVweb readers to contact him.