Recording the Living History of Aviation

This year at AirVenture, EAAlaunched one of its largest projects yet: to permanently record the stories of those who contributed to the first 100 years of aviation. AVweb's Russ Niles caught up with some of those being interviewed at AirVenture, and he filed this report.


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It’s a memory that is so clear, so indelibly ingrained, John Miller can describe every sense, as if his whole being was alert for this life-changing moment. “I was four years and five months old,” said Miller, who can smell the wind and hear the roar of that day, the day almost 92 years ago when Glenn Curtiss landed a fragile contraption of fabric, wire, and hope in the field across from the Miller family’s Poughkeepsie, N.Y., farm. Curtiss was on his way to a $10,000 prize from a New York publishing magnate for flying from Albany to New York City. Miller was on his way to a storied life in aviation, one that isn’t over even though he’ll be 97 this year. “I’m still IFR current,” said Miller, who flew his own Bonanza into EAA’s AirVenture 2002 last month in Oshkosh. He’s a friendly, confident storehouse of aviation lore who remembers the names, dates, places, and feelings of a roguish, adventurous, and sometimes death-defying breed of men and women who not only built an industry, but helped define a nation.

(Click photos for large versions)
Clancy Hess as a Young Pilot
Clancy Hess as a Young Pilot

He’s exactly what EAA‘s John Tennyson is looking for. But, then, so are the women who traded a spatula for a welding torch, and the men who stopped making widgets and started turning out war machines. In what might be its most ambitious effort ever, EAA has launched what it calls the Timeless Voices of Aviation. It’s the international organization’s goal to marshal the considerable forces of its 170,000 members in 1,000 chapters worldwide to record the experiences of a rapidly diminishing generation of people whose jobs and volunteer efforts, from the menial to the heroic, ignited freedom and gave it teeth. Although it’s aimed at providing an electronic record of aviation’s first 100 years (Miller only misses the first seven), the immediate push is to capture the stories of World War II vets and those of the 1920s and 1930s. “We have to preserve these stories, and there are so many we’ve already lost,” Tennyson said. “Of the 16 million men and women who served [the United States] in history’s most destructive conflict, only about five million are left, and we are losing them at the rate of approximately 1,100 a day.”

Pasped Skylark at AirVenture
John Miller, Oldest Pilot, with EAAInterviewer Kermit Weeks

Even more rare are the people like Miller whose aviation experience stretches back to the 1920s. That four-year-old boy in the neighbor’s field never wavered from his dream. “When I saw that airplane take off, that was it,” he said. His father added fuel to the fire, taking him to aircraft expositions in New York City. During World War I, the adolescent Miller watched in awe as daring young men trained to make the airplane fight. It wasn’t until after the war that a young barnstormer gave Miller’s dream wings. In his 17th summer, after putting in a full shift at a machine shop every day, Miller would ride a bicycle seven miles to the barnstormer’s field and lug fuel, help with maintenance, and do anything else that needed doing. In return, he got precious moments in the air, which, far from soothing his addiction, instead further enslaved him to his passion. It was a passion not without risks. “The airplane was an old JN4 and it was in terrible condition; the fabric was torn and it probably shouldn’t have been flying,” said Miller. But the barnstormer had coaxed enough thrill seekers into the cockpit that, by the end of summer, he bought a new plane – and gave the Jenny to Miller. “It would have cost him more to rebuild the Jenny than to buy a new one,” said Miller. Although the value of the plane was probably equal to its selling price, Miller wasn’t about to let such largesse go to waste. He resolved to learn to fly.

The rural folk of that era were a resilient sort, and the lack of available (and affordable) flying instructors didn’t so much as pause the teen’s flying education. “I decided to teach myself,” he said. “But I was not about to tell my parents.” Miller bought a manual on the airplane and spent his spare time, and not-so-spare time, memorizing the construction, flight data, and operational instructions in the thin book. “I wasn’t studying my French and Latin,” he said. His practical training began with taxiing the aircraft across the field, gradually increasing the speed and gaining a feel for the controls. “But I still didn’t know how to turn in the air,” he said. On Dec. 15, 1923, his 18th birthday, he left the power on just a little too long and it was clear he wouldn’t be able to stop before the fence at the end of the field. “I was not about to wreck that airplane,” he said. He pegged the throttle, pulled back on the stick and cleared the fence. “I stayed up for about an hour and a half,” he said. “I started out with gentle turns and experimented with the controls.” He took a paying passenger the same day and launched his barnstorming career, which blossomed into a test pilot job with the Kellet Company, makers of the first “Autogiro,” spelled with an “i” instead of a “y.” Shortly after, he joined Eastern Airlines and retired from the left seat in 1963.

Clancy Hess
Clancy Hess

It was about the time Miller was donning the Eastern uniform that Clancy Hess took his first – and only – flying lesson. Hess’s father was a well-off chicken farmer and distributor near Chicago, and he was interested in aviation. When the air-racing circuit came to Chicago, the elder Hess found out that many of the pilots had nothing but the planes they strapped to their backs, and he invited them to stay at the rambling ranch house the family owned on the outskirts of town. When a few of them accepted Hess’s offer, the rest followed along, among them the already-famous Jimmy Doolittle. “They were all over the place,” said Clancy, who was 10 at the time and remembers cooking bacon and eggs for men who were regular fare for the front pages. The Hess family embraced the hard-living pilots, and the house became a social center as well. “They sure liked to party,” recalled Hess. “Besides my mother’s home cooking, they enjoyed my father’s home brew.” It was during one of these episodes that a racer named Johnny Livingstone got in a heated argument with a Department of Commerce official (in charge of aviation regulation at the time), which culminated in a bellowed challenge to the bureaucrat. “I can teach any 10-year-old to fly in an hour and a half,” Livingstone roared. As the only 10-year-old handy, it became Hess’s role to prove Livingstone’s point. “We were up for an hour and 45 minutes,” he said. Hess never look another lesson and was soon making his living in the air. He barnstormed for a time (you can see a collage of all the planes he flew) before joining the war effort. Because of his experience, he ended up flying special missions in the Pacific. “I got to fly every darned airplane you could think of,” he said. After the war, he flew for American Airlines for a time before returning to uniform in Korea, where he organized air mail for the Army and flew a Flying Boxcar. After war service, he rejoined American Airlines and retired in 1981. That far from ended his life in the air, however. In addition to being a charter member of AOPA, he helped found the Wings of Hope, which uses donated airplanes for missionary and service work in developing countries.

Dick Stouffer
Dick Stouffer

Although the Timeless Voices initiative was launched at AirVenture 2002, Chairman Dick Stouffer said the real push will come in October when hangar flying becomes more popular. The idea is for EAA members to seek out people with stories to tell, and arrange for them to be interviewed in front of a video camera. The interviews will be transcribed and filed away for posterity. They will be accessible through EAA’s museum and via the internet. The project is also a partner with the Library of Congress’ Veterans’ History Project. EAA will also add interviews with hundreds of historically important aviators recorded by EAA TV over the years. Stouffer said it can be a little tough coaxing the stories out of some people. “People are very modest,” he said. Naturally, Stouffer wanted to set an example by giving current and future generations an idea of life over Germany as the Second World War wound down. “The dates are burned in my memory,” said Stouffer as his eyes cast briefly skyward in remembrance. Stouffer’s tour of duty as a B-17 co-pilot started on Sept. 17, 1944. After training for months for high-altitude bombing, his first flight was a low-level effort aimed at softening up the German defenses for a major Allied offensive. By the time Hollywood screenwriters were finished, it became known as A Bridge Too Far. Stouffer’s remaining 34 missions were more routine. “I was shot at 35 times,” he said. Flak was a bomber pilot’s constant companion, even though Germany’s airborne resistance was on the wane. Axis fighter pilots were choosy about their targets. Tight formations, like those Stouffer’s squadron took pride in, were generally off limits for the Germans. “If you let the formation get loose, you could be a target. They also went after stragglers,” he said. One of the other perils of war, which has earned a legendary reputation among veterans, was something Stouffer enjoyed. “I never learned to hate Spam,” he said, adding that he still whips up some of his favorite recipes with the canned meat. “It’s delicious.”

Hal Weekley and B-17
Hal Weekley with Aluminum Overcast

There must have been times when Hal Weekley wondered whether he’d ever taste that wartime staple again. On his 20th sortie in a B-17, his aircraft was the only one of his squadron hit by enemy fire. He and his crew bailed out at 25,000 feet over France, and what followed would make a good movie; that would be fine with Weekley, as long as he didn’t have to play the lead again. After hiding for a few days, Weekley was found by the French underground. He was given food, clothing, and a new identity. For six weeks, he lived among the French, working in the fields and picking his way toward freedom. Often, he’d work side by side with German soldiers and there would be other Allied refugees among them. The Americans, British, and Canadians were told to keep their mouths shut and pretend they couldn’t hear. “There were an awful lot of deaf and dumb guys who were 22 and 23 years old,” he said. Waiting at home was his pregnant wife and an increasingly apprehensive family, who were clinging to hope after receiving the dreaded MIA telegram. Eight weeks after jumping for his life, Weekley showed up, unannounced, at home. Weekley went on to work for the CAA and FAA, but he didn’t leave the left seat of a B-17 until a year ago, after he turned 80. Until then he flew EAA’s B-17 “Aluminum Overcast,” which still tours the country and flew several times a day at AirVenture. When he retired, he was one of a handful of B-17 check pilots left. “I’d been flying the B-17 for 58 years when I shut it down,” he said.

EAA’s Tennyson said the enormity of the job ahead is eclipsed only by its importance. “We have to make sure we preserve these stories,” he said. “These stories are all over the country.” EAA chapters will be getting information on the initiative in coming weeks and will be strongly encouraged to take part. Updates will be posted regularly on EAA’s web site.