Proficient Pilot

It's good to be king

May 1, 2004

Barry Schiff has visited many airports around the world in more than 50 years of flying.

General aviation airports are more than places from which pilots can enter the sky and wash their wings in the wind.

They also are oases where one can escape the problems of everyday life. Airports typically are devoid of violent crime, discrimination, and many of society's other problems. They provide wide-open spaces where one can find people representing, without conflict, a cross section of race, religion, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Aviation is a club for which the only price of admission is a love of flying.

Aviation brings together those who have a common interest and share a common enthusiasm. We happy few are indeed a band of brothers, and at the risk of being erroneously perceived as elitist, I would like to share some of the more unusual examples of aviation's camaraderie that I have experienced.

In 1975, I was sitting in a sailplane waiting in line with other glider pilots to be towed aloft at Elmira, New York. The pilot ahead of me apparently grew weary of the wait, climbed out of his cockpit, took a swig of bottled water, and walked toward me to pass the time and chat about soaring. It was not until later in the day that I discovered I had been hangar flying with rocket pioneer Wernher Von Braun.

One of the rewards of writing for such a widely circulated aviation magazine is that it provides access and exposure to those who might otherwise be inaccessible.

Last March, for example, a reader wrote to comment on "Good Old Days" a column in which I discussed some of my early instrument training (see " Proficient Pilot," March Pilot). He noted that our prop wash had unwittingly crossed during the late 1950s when he obtained training from the same Link instructor that I had used (Charlie Gress in Santa Monica, California).

The reader's letter was chatty and reflected the enjoyment a pilot gets when sharing his experiences with another. Were it not for the letterhead, I would never have known that the writer was Michael, the exiled king of Romania, the only surviving head of state from World War II. (Michael assumed the throne in 1927 at the age of 7, was forced to abdicate in 1947 during the Communist takeover of Romania, and currently lives in Geneva, Switzerland.)

King Michael made his first solo flight on September 28, 1943, in a Klemm 35, a taildragging trainer similar in appearance to the Fairchild PT-26 Cornell. Following his abdication, he worked as an avionics test pilot for Bill Lear in Switzerland.

"Operation Peace Flight," a fly-in that I organized and led in 1995 between Jerusalem, Israel, and Amman, Jordan, was the first time that anyone had been allowed to fly between these neighboring countries. The flight probably would not have been permitted had King Hussein of Jordan not been a pilot with a soft spot for others who fly.

An interesting aside occurred the night before our flight. The telephone jarred me awake after midnight, and a thick Hebrew accent identified itself as belonging to Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's prime minister.

"I understand that you have permission from His Majesty to fly to Jordan. Don't you think that you should ask for mine?"

I had committed an international faux pas, but Rabin quickly explained that he was kidding, calling only to wish us bon voyage.

King Hussein (who died in 1999) and King Michael have been the only two people to learn to fly while serving as heads of state. (Hussein also taught his son, Prince Faisal, to fly.)

During a brief audience with King Hussein, the monarch asked if there was anything he could do for me during our 24-hour visit to Jordan. His offer caught me off guard, and the only thing I could think of was that I would very much like to have a Jordanian pilot license.

"Would that be possible?" I inquired innocently.

"Certainly. That is no problem at all."

"Really?" I could not believe it would be that easy.

"Barry," Hussein said with mock indignation. "Of course you may have a license. I am the king."

After returning home, I received a letter from Ahmad Jwei-ber, director general of Jordan's Civil Aviation Authority. He wrote that His Majesty had "commanded" that I be issued a Jordanian private pilot license. To comply with bureaucratic requirements I first had to submit photocopies of my U.S. pilot certificate and other documents as well as a check for $22.

I became the first American to hold both Israeli and Jordanian pilot licenses. Sadly, recent events in the Middle East would make it almost impossible to exercise either of them.

In a speech to the 135 American, Israeli, and Jordanian participants of our historic fly-in, King Hussein said, "We [who fly] belong to a very special group of people. We have the same privileges, and we face the same challenges. We undergo the same disciplines, and there is an affinity between us all. Yet it always comes as a surprise when we realize that you and me, we are all the same. Our hopes, our aspirations, and the challenges we face are all the same."

His Majesty was expressing what all aviators feel. A common love of flight and devotion to the sky bonds all of us together, whether we be king or commoner.

Visit the author's Web site (