November 1, 1998
By Alton K. Marsh
Let's say that you want to write an adventure novel about flying and need a name for the leading character. Can't use Jack Ryan; that's already been taken by Tom Clancy. Jake Grafton? No, Stephen Coonts owns that one. How about Hunter H. Harris? That says it all; it's alliterative, and adventurous, like Indiana Jones.
All you'd need now are some adventures, a string of plots to support a series of books.
How about this: A farm boy from Maryland's Eastern Shore has, like many youngsters in the 1970s, little idea about what he wants to do in life, other than surfing. He is fiercely dedicated to the monster wave. When his research at the local movie theater indicates there are perfect waves off South Africa, he leaves high school for two months without the necessary approvals to travel alone in Africa.
Then he comes home, gets a diploma by writing about his adventures in lieu of classwork, and leaves for a community college in Ocean City, Maryland. Still without focus, he is a devotee to a free lifestyle, a hippy. Aviation appears on the horizon like a lighthouse, dim and distant at first, when he hears about a ground school offered for college credit at the Ocean City Municipal Airport. It takes an aerobatic ride with a flight instructor, though, to turn him on to flying.
Hunter converts from college hippy to airport bum but still wears the hairstyle of a rebel. One day a flight instructor looks at Harris with his long, flowing hair, sitting on his Harley motorcycle, and says, "I don't know if you've noticed this, Hunter, but you don't fit in around here." It's an epiphany. To get into flying, he must become more establishment. The rebel has a cause and visits the barber.
The only thing holding him back now is money. Harris, a gifted mechanic from his days on the farm, sells an old Jaguar that he restored and buys a Citabria aerobatic airplane. He doesn't even have his pilot certificate. He learns just enough to solo and remains on student-pilot status for the next 100 flying hours. Students can't carry passengers — human ones, that is — so he flies with his Chesapeake Bay retriever, Rex.
The need for a job finally forces the issue of the certificate. After passing his commercial checkride, he joins a banner-tow company, scheduling flight operations and occasionally carrying messages to sunbathers on Ocean City's beach.
In 1976 the banner-tow aircraft being used for an evening fun flight suffers a structural failure, stalls, and spins to a crash. A friend flying with him is killed and Harris survives, but with injuries that require the fusing of his ankle. The doctor says that he will never fly again.
Oh, yeah? Harris takes the opinion as a challenge. With encouragement from his family and the father of the friend who died, Harris is flying again within a year.
He becomes a corporate pilot flying a Cessna 310. Now, the real adventure begins. One day, when the Cessna 310 is in the shop for an extended maintenance stay, he sees an ad for a blimp mechanic.
It's a heavy-lift airship of a new design that rotates about its longitudinal axis, and it is intended for use in logging. Arriving for an interview with the employer, he sees what looks like a set from a James Bond film. Technicians wearing white smocks rush about, carrying clipboards. He is shown the drawings for the Cyclo-Crane — an airship he will eventually fly. In the corner are four crates from Lycoming with aerobatic aircraft engines in them. A mechanically inclined person is needed to modify the oil system because the engine must continue to operate in any attitude. The operation moves to Oregon, and it's goodbye corporate flying job.
Because Harris, by this time, has seaplane, glider, and helicopter ratings, he is added to the flight test crew. He has never flown a blimp. Two are built and one is successfully flown, but it turns out that it is not practical. Suddenly, Harris is almost without a job again.
His blimp activities have led him to involvement in the helium purification business, an operation conducted from a truck. Just as Cyclo-Crane operations close down, a blimp operator from Florida calls in a purification order. That chance encounter leads to a job flying blimps full time.
From 1986 to 1995 he flies blimps for McDonald's, Sea World's Shamu the killer whale blimp, the Met Life Snoopy blimp, a blimp named Pink Floyd, and one decorated with a Gulf Oil logo. He soars above Super Bowl games, major stock- and Indy-car races, World Series baseball games, and golf and tennis tournaments.
At such slow speeds, Harris is in the air hundreds of hours. Fellow pilots around the country give him a nickname, Catfish, after baseball player Catfish Hunter. His radio crackles periodically with a call from other aircraft: "Catfeeesh!"
Two hundred days a year on the road turns out to be 199 too many, so Harris gives up blimp piloting in 1995 and moves home to the Eastern Shore. Ever the adventurer, he starts a sightseeing business with a 1942 300-hp Boeing Stearman.
The boy with few goals has become an achiever. The Society of Experimental Test Pilots makes him the only blimp pilot to be awarded full membership. More than 3,600 of his total 7,300 flying hours are in airships.
So, do you think people will believe our tale of Hunter H. Harris, barnstorming blimp pilot? They should. It's all true.
AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.
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