December 1, 2003
Julie K. Boatman
Johnny Miller defines the term do-it-yourselfer. He mows his own lawn (no mean feat for someone closing the book on his ninety-eighth year), he taught himself how to repair and time a magneto in his late teens (among other mechanical tasks), and he hasn't had a cold in 25 years. He takes charge of his health: He's never smoked or drank alcohol, and he takes "a good, brisk walk up and down hills every day when the weather is good." He claims the same weight and blood pressure as when he was 18.
That shows enough self-sufficiency for most New Englanders who survived the Great Depression — except for Miller, perhaps. "I taught myself the touch system of typing when I was 17, just before teaching myself to fly in 1923," he says.
"I never met my flight instructor," Miller recalls as he sips a chocolate milk shake — the hearty man's only vice. His uncle gave Miller his shelf full of books on flying. When Miller was in high school, a pilot named Swanee Taylor kept his Curtiss JN-4 Canadian near Miller's home in Poughkeepsie, New York. "Taylor was more interested in speakeasies. He was a good pilot but not a good mechanic," and his airplane had been sitting outside since the war. Miller crewed for him as Taylor gave passenger hops during the summer of 1923. "There were holes big enough for a cat to fall through them" in that airplane, Miller says.
Taylor gave the JN-4 to Miller with a promise to teach him to fly come springtime, but the young man couldn't wait. He spent the fall sneaking hours in the airplane, first taxiing around the farm field where the Jenny was stored. One day while taxiing at high speed (called "grass cutting"), he got too close to the fence at the end of the field and had to go over it. Because the field had tall trees on both approach ends, it took Miller "three or four attempts" to land the Jenny. And he went right back up again.
After that second solo, Miller coasted to a stop and a local farmer walked up to the Jenny asking for a ride. In return for the man's pocket change ($1.50), Miller took him up. After that ride, in which he made his first commercial hop and his third landing ever, two more willing marks awaited, and Miller flew them too, for $5 apiece. It was December 15, Miller's eighteenth birthday. Inspired by Glenn Curtiss' flights (Miller witnessed one takeoff of Curtiss' in Poughkeepsie when he was four and a half years old), he embarked on a barnstorming career after graduating from Pratt Institute in 1927 and getting his transport license in 1928.
Miller mailed penny postal cards to families near each weekend stop to whip up enthusiasm for the incoming airplane. He wedged up to four passengers, at $1 a head, into one of two D-25 New Standards he would own, and made between 250 and 350 hops a day. "I'd start flying when the sun came up and not get out until dark."
He purchased his first Pitcairn PCA-2 Autogiro in 1931 for $15,000 and set out on a cross-country flight after five test hops in his new craft. He had planned the transcontinental trip all along, but he learned that Amelia Earhart had plotted the same. (Earhart took delivery of the serial number originally reserved for Miller, number 12, because she was superstitious of the one assigned her, number 13.) Miller scooped Earhart by landing at North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego on May 28, 1931, nine days prior to Earhart's arrival in California. The trip took less than 44 hours, during which Miller flew at 90 mph to conserve fuel and break in the new engine. Later, Miller wowed airshow audiences in the PCA-2 with his loop and roll performed at the top of a loop. He established an airmail service in 1939 using the Kellett KD-1B wingless autogiro to transport 350-pound mail sacks from the roof of the Philadelphia post office to the airport in Camden, New Jersey, six miles away. "The roof was about 100 feet wide, with 20-foot-high 'ridges' on either side," says Miller. After a year he returned to his jobs flying as a test pilot for Kellett Autogiro Company and as an airline pilot for United on the Boeing 247D and then for Eastern Airlines.
With Eastern, Miller flew the DC-2, -3, -4, -6, and -8 (from which he retired in 1963), as well as "four models of Connies [Constellations] and the Lockheed Electra." After his retirement, he operated a charter service flying a Bell 47G helicopter. He has owned either a Beechcraft Bonanza or Baron for nearly 50 years.
This charter director of the American Bonanza Society, honorary member of The Society of Experimental Test Pilots, and founder of the United Flying Octogenarians keeps his latest Bonanza, N19WC ("which stands for 'wild cowboy,'" says Miller), ready to fly. He completed a solo trip last summer to Oshkosh, and plans to fly himself to the Centennial of Flight celebration in North Carolina this month. He'll celebrate his ninety-eighth birthday there, as one of the few pilots left who has witnessed nearly the entire history of powered flight.
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