This Man Is Having Too Much Fun!

Barry Schiff interviews Harrison Ford

June 1, 2008

Harrison Ford's alter ego

Adventure. Challenge. A passion for flying and acting. In two words: Harrison Ford. But, did you know his favorite movie character is none other then action hero and archeologist Indiana Jones? After almost 20 years Ford has dusted off Jones’ whip and gun in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Glimpse into Ford’s...err...Jones’ new adventure. And yes, there are airplanes involved.

I was making my daily drive around the Santa Monica Airport a couple of winters ago, an inner-perimeter tour that is known colloquially by local pilots as “taking inventory” (of new and visiting airplanes). It was a blustery day with a perpendicular wind sweeping across the runway. The usually busy traffic pattern was empty except for a lone, green-and-yellow de Havilland Beaver ambitiously making circuits and bumps in the challenging crosswind.

I stopped to watch. It was a great day for crosswind practice and the Beaver pilot was putting on an admirable demonstration, although I doubt that was his purpose.

I learned some time later that the pilot of that Beaver was actor Harrison Ford, who had taken advantage of the conditions to hone his crosswind skills. To me, that spoke volumes about him.

Another measure of the man became public when he was master of ceremonies at the Pioneers of Flight Homecoming sponsored by the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio, during the centennial of powered flight in 2003.

Some in his profession might have thought that the audience should have felt privileged to have such an A-list actor speaking to them from the podium, but not Ford. He began his comments by saying, “I feel like somewhat of a fraud.”

This, he said, was because he genuinely felt intimidated by the heroes, aces, pioneers, and other aviation greats in that audience. “What,” he observed, “could I say about aviation to this august group that they didn’t already know?”

Just another pilot

Ford does not have the affectations often associated with entertainment personalities. He says that he is in the “story-telling business” and refers to his work as “just a job.”

Born and raised in Chicago by a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, Ford retains his Midwestern values. He is a humble, soft-spoken individual who believes strongly in self-reliance. Unlike some of the more outspoken members of his profession, he keeps politics to himself.

Ford took his first flying lessons in 1965, when he was a student at Ripon College in Wisconsin. He ran out of money after only four lessons and quit. Majoring in philosophy and English, he was expelled before graduation because of what he refers to as his “academic indifference.”

Flash-forward many years to when Ford chartered and was provided with business jets for personal and business transportation. He enjoyed spending much of the en route time observing and chatting with the pilots. He was fascinated by what they did and what he saw beyond the windshield.

During the late 1980s, he purchased a Grumman Gulfstream, a G-II, the first of the Gulfstream business jets. He hired Terry Bender to be the captain. The pair had met previously when Ford had chartered a G-IV for a family flight around the world. Bender was the captain of that global circumnavigation.

Ford has always been passionate about aviation. He also began to recognize that he had not been involved in a formal learning process for many years and thought that he might be drifting back into academic lethargy. Learning to fly would solve that problem and fulfill a lifelong desire to become a pilot. This also would allow him to devote energy to something other than work.

“Flying provides a relief from my profession, but it is not an escape,” he says. “It is an antidote to self-involvement and provides me an opportunity to be treated as a regular person.”

He asked Bender to renew his expired flight instructor’s certificate and teach him to fly. He took his first lessons at Teterboro, New Jersey, in a Cessna 172 bought for the purpose. Trouble is, the Skyhawk has anemic performance when operating out of the 6,451-foot-high Jackson Hole Airport near his second home in Wyoming. “Density altitude there can climb to 10,000 feet in the summer,” he adds.

He consequently purchased and continued training in a turbocharged Cessna T182, the airplane in which he soloed. He then moved up to a Cessna T206. He took his private pilot checkride in the Stationair in 1996.

He now keeps an Aviat Husky A1B in Wyoming and uses it for backcountry flying and to explore the crags, crannies, and peaks of the nearby Teton Range.

Ford says that learning to fly was, and still is, challenging and exciting. He loves airplanes and how they provide new places to visit and experiences to cherish. He likes the connection, the bond he feels with others who share the same passion.

Movie magic

When Ford was cast to star along with Anne Heche in the 1998 romantic comedy, Six Days, Seven Nights, the airplane slated to be used in the film was a Stinson Reliant. Ford and the film’s aerial director, Steve Stafford, subsequently happened upon John Nordstrom’s de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver in Santa Barbara, California. They enthusiastically showed this rugged bush plane to the film’s director, Ivan Reitman, and all agreed that the Beaver would be a much more suitable co-star (see “ GA at the Movies,” June 1998 AOPA Pilot).

Ford was a 300-hour private pilot at the time and wanted to do the flying in the movie, much of which was filmed in Kauai, Hawaii. The insurance carrier, however, was unwilling to assume the risk. After much negotiating and haranguing, the carrier agreed to allow Ford to fly in the film but only after he obtained 50 hours in type. This he did with the assistance of the film’s aerial coordinator, F.W. “Corkey” Fornoff. (Fornoff was the Hollywood stunt pilot who flew a Bede BD-5J minijet through an open hangar in the 1983 James Bond movie Octopussy.)

Ford became smitten with the Beaver and purchased one, a hulk that had been rebuilt and re-skinned to better-than-new condition by Seattle-based Kenmore Air. In the interim, Ford and Nordstrom became close friends, and Ford used Nordstrom’s Beaver (when it was on floats) to obtain his seaplane rating.

Turbine tough

For personal and business transportation, Ford has a Cessna CJ3. He says that becoming type-rated in the Citation was his greatest challenge. At the time, he had only 25 hours of multiengine experience, and the ink on his instrument rating was barely dry. To make matters worse, he had never flown a flight simulator.

“The most difficult thing I have ever done in my life was preparing for and taking the rating ride in FlightSafety’s Level-D simulator. I really felt over my head during much of the training and needed a tremendous amount of mentoring.” (The examiner who issued the type rating said that Ford did an excellent job during the practical test.)

Ford did not become single-pilot qualified to fly the Citation because of insurance prohibitions. “It is just as well,” he adds. “I enjoy flying as a team with Terry, and I wouldn’t want to fly it alone in difficult IFR conditions. It’s a lot safer this way.”

Bender says, “The boss occasionally gets frustrated because he sets such high standards for himself. He has a great attitude, though, and is developing into a remarkably fine pilot.”

The instrument-rated private pilot now has 3,500 hours of total time, single- and multiengine ratings, seaplane and helicopter ratings, and a Citation type rating. He has his sights set on commercial and airline transport pilot certificates.

Ford’s significant other, actress Calista Flockhart, used to be a nervous flier even when riding as an airline passenger. Ford helped her overcome her anxiety, first in his Beech B-36TC Bonanza, which he no longer owns, and then in a succession of other aircraft. She now truly enjoys flying, and she is particularly enthusiastic about flying with Ford in his open-cockpit biplane, a Waco Taperwing.

Ford said he purchased the Taperwing, a model CTO-10, because he was “seduced by its appearance.” The airplane is a 1929 design that was built new in 1960 and is powered by a 275-horsepower, fuel-injected Jacobs radial.

Ford says the Taperwing has been the source of frustration and consternation. “It has narrow landing gear, is short-coupled, has very sensitive controls, and is tricky to land.” (He prefers three-point to wheel landings.) He will not be satisfied until he masters the airplane and says that he believes that he is “beginning to get a handle on it.”

A lot of flying toys

Maintaining currency in each of his aircraft—he also has a Cessna Grand Caravan—is challenging because of his frequently demanding work schedule. “Keeping up with the helicopter is the most difficult. I don’t get to fly it as much, or as often, as I would like,” he says.

Ford’s helicopter is a Bell 407, the one he used in 2001 to locate and rescue a 13-year-old Boy Scout, Cody Clawson, who had gotten separated from his father and spent a cold, rainy night alone in the mountains.

“I can’t take all the credit for that,” Ford says. “Ken Johnson, an experienced helicopter pilot with intimate knowledge of local terrain, was with me. The weather was down to the treetops, and it would have taken much longer to find the boy without his help.” (Ford regularly volunteers himself and his helicopter for search-and-rescue operations.)

The actor demonstrates in his aviation pursuits the kind of drive, dedication, and focus that probably would enable him to succeed at whatever endeavor he might attempt. He also has no compunctions about acknowledging his weaknesses and discussing his mistakes. He takes pride in accruing and polishing skills, preparing for when they might become necessary.

One of his most enjoyable flying experiences was when he spent five days tent-camping with a group of other pilots at Moose Creek, a U.S. Forestry strip in Idaho, and flying his Beaver into two dozen so-called airports carved out of the Frank Church Wilderness Area. (This and other such backcountry safaris are annual events organized by Rich Sugden and Roland Turney.)

The Beaver is his favorite airplane: “If I had to sell all of my airplanes but could keep only one, it would be the Beaver.”

The joy of flying

“Aviation supplements my life in a gratifying, fulfilling way,” Ford says. “It provides me an arena in which I can grow intellectually and further increase my sense of self-reliance and responsibility.

“What I really love about flying is that there is no end to the learning process; it is constant.” Those who know him well say that he has an insatiable appetite for learning. He devours aviation magazines and books to plug holes in his knowledge.

Ford is more than casually concerned about general aviation’s problems. “We continue to lose airports, the very infrastructure of aviation. If we are going to continue enjoying the freedom that general aviation provides, we must do a better job of getting the public to understand the contributions that airports make to their communities.

“Aviation contributes greatly to my life,” he says, “and I want to give back as much as I can.” He enjoys being an advocate and helping promote aviation wherever and whenever he can.

One important and visible way in which he does this is through his active involvement as chairman of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Young Eagles Program. (He has personally given rides to more than 200 youngsters.) “This program,” he says, “not only encourages kids to fly, but it helps us to reach their parents and create a positive influence on their views of aviation.”

Bender says that Ford enjoys meeting aviation people at airports, especially small, out-of-the way places. He respects and has a fondness for those who fly. “I just love talking airplanes,” Ford says with enthusiasm.