Proficient Pilot

No. 300

February 1, 2006

Retired airline captain Barry Schiff hopes to reach his lifetime goal of flying 400 types of aircraft.

I established the goal of flying 300 different types of aircraft when I went through my logbooks in 1991 and discovered that my then-recent experience with the LoPresti Swiftfury was number 233 on the list of types that I had flown. I knew that it would take a while to reach 300 because 39 years had been required to accumulate 233 (an average of six per year).

Flying 300 types probably is not a world record. It might not even be close to one. Nor would there be any way to determine who might hold such a record. For me, it represents a personal milestone.

I told my close friend, Hal Fishman, about my flight in type number 300, and he said, "Well, at least you won't have to worry about developing a topic for your next column."

I disagreed because I did not think that reaching a personal goal would interest those who read my column. I still feel that way, but he convinced me to write about it anyway.

"Remember," he asked, "when you wrote about this goal a few years ago?"

"Of course," I said.

"Do you also remember how many of your readers volunteered the use of their aircraft to help you along the way? This proves that your readers do care."

I will never forget that heartwarming response. The interest and encouragement of 203 aircraft owners overwhelmed me. They volunteered such diverse aircraft as a de Havilland Vampire, a Pietenpol, a Focke-Wulf 149D, an Aeronca K, a Cameron O-77 balloon, and a Polish TS-11 Iskra. I shall always be grateful for such generosity, but could not find it within myself to take advantage of such kindness.

Good fortune has smiled on me during my quest to fly 300 types. It is fortuitous that my tenure as a writer, a test pilot, an aviation consultant, and an airline pilot has given me the opportunity to fly so many different aircraft. Every time I climb into the cockpit of an aircraft that is new to me, I feel the same awe and exciting sense of discovery and adventure that I felt when I was 13 years old in 1951 and took my first airplane ride in a North American Airlines' Douglas DC-4 that whisked me off in the night and hopscotched its way across the country.

I have often been asked if there were any airplanes that I did not enjoy flying. Paraphrasing Will Rogers, I never met an airplane that I did not enjoy in one way or another.

My only requirement has been that it take me aloft and bring me back gently. Every airplane has taught me something of value, even if that something was not to climb into it again.

Such experiences have enriched my aeronautical life and given me what I think is a personal perspective that is worthy of passing along to others. My greatest joy is sharing these experiences, feelings, and love of flight, and I hope that this somehow manages to come through in my writing.

The planets must have been aligned last December 17 when a very special airplane became number 300. The Lockheed 12A Electra Junior is owned and was volunteered by Ruth Holden, of San Luis Obispo, California. NC18137 is the only Model 12A to have been owned by TWA, the airline from which I retired at age 60 in 1998. It was used for executive transportation and high-altitude research during the late 1930s and early 1940s. (It is called a Junior because it is slightly smaller than the Model 10E Electra in which Amelia Earhart attempted to fly around the world.)

Curt "Rocky" Walters, Holden's pilot, offered me the captain's seat even though that was the only seat from which one could operate the toe brakes. "The bad news is that the airplane has poor brakes," he cautioned. He then added with a smile that "the good news is that it has poor brakes." I understood what he meant; ineffective brakes made it less likely that I would ground loop or cause the big taildragger to nose over during a botched landing.

I slid into the seat that decades ago had been occupied by my predecessors at TWA, including its most famous one, Howard Hughes. (Hughes never flew a passenger-carrying flight on TWA, but he did fly several of our airplanes whenever and wherever he wanted.) The cabin of the Lockheed seemed filled with ghosts, and I could almost hear a TWA graybeard with four gold stripes whispering to me during my first approach, "We're watching, kid. Don't screw up the landing."

There was something magical about that flight. I immediately and inexplicably felt at home in the Lockheed. It fit like a pair of old gloves and seemed as familiar as any airplane I had ever flown. I fell in love. Again. But enough about the Electra Junior for now. A report about this wonderful airplane will appear on these pages later this year.

Will I try for 400 types? Probably, but only because I am goal oriented and motivated. I doubt, however, that there will be enough time to complete the journey, but simply heading in that direction will be worth the effort. Every airplane along the way will provide another lesson, another experience, and another reason to appreciate why those of us with wings are privy to a magical world unknown to our ground-bound brethren who are not so endowed.

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Topics Pilots