December 1, 2007
"We were told there was no avgas in Kabul," Lowell Thomas Jr. says of a flight through the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia in 1954. "But a pilot we had met used to fly pilgrims to Mecca and had left two barrels in Kandahar. 'If it's still there, you're welcome to it,' he told us."
As an author and documentary filmmaker, Thomas had researched a trip that would allow him to fly to out-of-the-way places to film and write about cultures the American public knew little about. Not wanting a big crew, he decided the best option was for him and his wife, Tay, to use a small airplane for the trip. "We wangled a 180 from the Cessna company," Thomas says, remembering picking up one of the first 180s off of the assembly line in 1953. The company sold it to him on a line of credit with the understanding that he would deliver it to Australia and the line of credit would be torn up. The airplane was crated to Paris, France, where the flight began. Stops included the Congo where the Thomas' bought 73-octane fuel that was used as cleaning fluid, the Middle East where, "we flew down through the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia," he says recalling the landmarkless landmark, and eventually through Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
After 10 months the couple turned back while in Pakistan's Hunza Valley after learning that Tay was pregnant. Because they didn't deliver the 180 to Australia, they decided to buy the airplane instead (it is now owned by Thomas' daughter).
As a young boy, Thomas' father had a circle of friends that included some of aviation's most famous people. Lowell Thomas Sr., America's original newscaster, chronicled the first-ever flight around the world, the 1924 Douglas World Cruiser trip, and the pilots would often stop by the family home. "Jimmy Doolittle was a good family friend," says Thomas Jr., recalling visits and trips to watch Doolittle race the Gee Bee.
Thomas Jr. learned to fly during World War II. He soloed a Boeing Stearman in 1944. When the war came to an end he became an instructor in B-25s.
Thomas produced many more documentaries, one of which took him to Alaska where he moved his family after filming. In the 1970s he became Lt. Governor of the forty-ninth state but declined to run for governor, instead choosing to become a bush pilot.
Using a Helio Courier he still owns, Thomas flew mountain climbers to the base camp on Mt. McKinley for more than a decade. With turbochargers installed, he also rescued several climbers, landing at more than 14,000 feet on many occasions.
"Flying the Alaska bush, especially the mountains, is inspirational as well as fun and challenging," Thomas says of his years flying in the north. "It makes living worthwhile."
The Upwind Summer Scholarship Program, which gives high school students a chance to earn their private pilot certificate in the summer between their junior and senior year, is accepting applications for its 2015 scholarship.
If only one person had been helped, it all would have been worthwhile. But much more than that has been accomplished over the 25-year life of the National Gay Pilots Association, said its executive director.
A restaurant with a view of Los Angeles International Airport built as a tribute to aviation heroes is poised to land a new lease.
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