June 1, 2009
By Alton K. Marsh
Some of Winston S. Churchill’s most rewarding flights—and some of his saddest—came as a volunteer pilot flying donated organs around Europe in the middle of the night for the St. John Ambulance Air Wing from 1974 to 1988.
Alerted usually between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m., he would have his Piper Seneca, nicknamed Yellow Bird, on the London Gatwick ramp, engines running within the hour, in time for the arrival with police escort of a fragile organ packed in dry ice. Then it was off to anywhere, once into the teeth of a 45-knot gale, across the North Sea to Hamburg. On his first mission to Newcastle Upon Tyne, 220 nm north of London, he descended below limits in fog to deliver an organ that later proved incompatible with the patient and had to be destroyed. Another mission required landing a surgical team at an airport only a half-mile from the machine guns of an East German border watchtower.
Happy memories include making a fuel request to a German air traffic controller who requested the pilot’s name. The controller seemed startled at the answer. “He must have thought I was coming in a Lancaster bomber,” Churchill recalls. The saddest flight was transporting a dear friend, David Niven, at a time when the famous actor was dying from motor-neuron disease. Often Churchill would return from an all-night flight and rush to a defense committee meeting in the House of Commons where he represented the Manchester district for 27 years.
Like his famous grandfather, Churchill sought adventure as a youth and piloted a rented single-engine Piper Comanche for 20,000 miles around Africa, later describing the trip in a 1964 book, First Journey. His latest book is Never Give In! The Best of Winston Churchill’s Speeches (2003); there were five other books, including the best-selling Six Day War written in 1967 with his father, Randolph. His mother, Pamela Churchill Harriman, was U.S. ambassador to France from 1993 until her death in 1997.
As a war correspondent for Look magazine and the British press, he rode with American pilots on missions from Da Nang, Vietnam, in an F–4B Phantom and an F–100F Super Sabre. He covered wars for nearly a decade and was a roving correspondent for The Times of London. Five years ago he rode around England below 300 feet in an RAF Jaguar strike aircraft.
No longer active as a pilot (he holds a U.S. ATP), he most recently accepted a flight from the Corporate Angel Network on the way back from Houston to his home in West Palm Beach, Florida. He had received treatment for prostate cancer. Once the provider of medical flights, he now benefits from the more than 500 companies that provide free transportation to cancer victims flying to or from the point of treatment.
“It seems to be payback time,” Churchill jokes. He keeps a schedule of lectures in the United States and around the world. World travel and adventure is, after all, in his DNA.
AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.
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