Seeing the light

Student’s idea launches pilot into lighting business

April 10, 2014

Bill Bailey poses with Mark Miller's Piper Aztec at Base Ops, on Page Field in Fort Myers, Fla.

Bill Bailey was interested in aviation from the time he was six years old. “I remember the teacher in the first grade asked all of the students what they wanted to do when they grew up, and two of us wanted to be pilots,” recalls Bailey, 94, of Genesee, Mich. “And every night when I went to bed, I was praying to the good Lord that he would let me be a good pilot, and he followed through in great style.

Bailey took a job in a drug store to pay for his training. His flight instructor flew a Taylorcraft about 120 miles from Chicago, and sold 10 hours of dual instruction for $50. “That was enough to solo. I quit the drug store and made a contract deal with the airport owner—it was nothing more than a pasture field—for $2 a week and my flying time. So that’s how I built my flying time, working for him. One of my jobs was getting the cows off the runway if we heard a plane circling, wanting to land.”

He joined AOPA the same month he soloed. “I signed up with AOPA when they first started in May of ’39, and I soloed in May of ’39. They ran an ad in the flying magazine, telling about the AOPA, and I thought that sounded good. I’ve been a member ever since. I ended up with a number of 1084—which now, I guess, is the lowest number of the charter members.”

Bailey wasn’t particularly concerned about the buildup to what would become World War II; he just wanted to become a good pilot. When he got a job as a mechanic at Allison in Indianapolis, he bought a straight-wing Waco biplane.

“I got in on a little bit of the flying in the ’30s when pilots wore baggy pants and riding boots—a little flamboyant.” Bailey, who had been flying Taylorcrafts and Luscombes, bought the biplane from the manager of the Hoosier Airport in Indianapolis, who flew the mail with Lindbergh. “I said, ‘Who’s going to check me out in this plane?’ There was a bunch of these guys in baggy pants and so forth standing around and one guy says, ‘Can anybody fly this Waco?’ and another guy pipes up, ‘I think I can.’ He says, ‘You want to check this bird out?’ So we walk out to the plane and he says, ‘It’s been a while; I better take it around myself.’ I don’t think he’d ever been in a Waco.

A photo of Bill Bailey taken around his first solo.

“He took off and went around, and then he got in the back and I got in the front, and we took off again. It’s all new to me, this big two-winged airplane—I’d been flying the little Taylorcrafts. So I take a ride around the field with him and then he crawls out and gets in the front and I get in the back. We didn’t have an intercom, and he just gives a wave of his hand, and so I don’t know what to do—I give it the throttle and away we go. I’m not really in control of things yet, but we come around and I didn’t make too bad a landing—and he’s crawling out, and I said, ‘Where are you going?’ He said, ‘Oh, you can fly this thing. So he leaves me, and I sitting there, so I gave it the throttle and away we go—that’s how I got checked out in that Waco biplane.”

“Some of my fondest memories were when I was flying the little Waco biplane before Pearl Harbor. And then when Pearl Harbor hit, they grounded everything, and all my friends were enlisting, so I went down and enlisted in the Air Corps.” Bailey sold the Waco for $425—the amount he had paid for the airplane.

The military initially classified him as a mechanic, however. “I had an awful time getting into the Cadets. It really delayed me.” Eventually, he was transferred to San Antonio, Texas, and classified as a pilot. “I was classified as single-engine, which is what everybody wanted.” After primary, basic, and advanced training—and transition into the Curtiss P-40—he was assigned as an instructor in the gunnery group. “[It] was the most fun job in the Air Force—shooting at targets every day, aerial and ground targets. But it wasn’t flying the fighters [in combat], and so we kept putting in for a fighter group. Finally we got into P-47s, in Lincoln, Nebraska.”

Bailey was supposed to go to Europe in June 1945, but the war in Europe ended, so his unit started training for Japan. “But the war ended in Japan. I never did go across, but I had several months of flying that wonderful P-47, which I absolutely loved.”

After the war he took a job with Buick, and got his flight instructor certificate, and eventually went to instructing full time at Bishop Airport in Flint, Mich. He had left active duty in 1945 and joined the reserves. “We had about a dozen AT-6s and AT-11s, and we could just go down any time, day or night, get a plane and go—it was sort of ‘country club.’” About the time the Korean War ended, Bailey moved and notified the reserves.

That’s when he learned that, for reasons he never knew, his records had been transferred to Tampa—and that he was going to be court martialed for being absent without permission. “And then they found out it was their mistake, and they offered me a captaincy if I would stay in—I was a first lieutenant at the time—but I’d started this business, and I didn’t really want to be a military man. My time in the reserves was up, and I didn’t accept the captaincy, so I didn’t have to go to Vietnam—and that was a blessing.”

Bailey said that if he had stayed on active duty in 1945, he probably would have gone to one of the bases where they were training the jet pilots. “I never got the chance to fly the military jets—I would have liked to. But when I started the business and a family, that took precedence over all the flying.”

In January 1947, one of his students had the idea of putting a fluorescent light on a service station hoist so the mechanic could do a grease job—required on cars in those days—without having to hold a flashlight in addition to the grease gun and a rag. That’s how Bailey got started in the lighting business. “At one time we had 100 employees, and two plants, and my son is still running the business today—67 years after I started it.

“All during this time I flew off and on for business and made many, many trips to solve problems and make sales. It served me well, the planes that we had and the jobs that we’ve done. The aviation industry has been simply great to me, and AOPA has been great also.

Bill Bailey displays some of his many AOPA membership cards on the wall of his condo.At first he flew with a group of former military pilots who were trying to form a flying club. “I kind of took it over, and my secretary did all the scheduling. We bought an Aztec; at one point we had two Aztec[s] and two Bonanzas. We just kept planes that the fellas needed.” The airplanes were sold when the economy got rough in the 1970s.

Then Bailey was looking for a Bonanza and bought a C model. He flew it from Michigan to Florida three or four times, then sold it in Florida. “I bought a 1990 Bonanza with all the goodies on it. Also, I was looking for a Stearman, but I ran into this Starduster that was built for about 180 horsepower—this fellow put in a 310 turbo. That was a full job to fly that thing—if I hadn’t have had the fighter training in the war, I couldn’t have handled it. But that was a great fun airplane. You could do anything—go almost straight up with it!”

On one trip home to Michigan from Florida, he got trapped above the clouds in a Bonanza. “The clouds kept coming up, and I’m at 14[000 feet], and I’m still picking up a little ice in the clouds—and they keep going higher. I ask Cincinnati, ‘Where’s the nearest open weather?’ and they say, ‘Asheville, North Carolina,’ and I say, ‘Give me a heading!’ So I turned around to head for Ashville, and meantime the clouds keep coming up. I can’t go any higher—no oxygen—and I didn’t have pitot heat; my airspeed went to zero, and I’m picking up ice. I had to lower the nose a little, and I’m over those Appalachian Mountains—the worst part of them down there. I get down, the Lord helping us, and the ice started breaking off. I ended up landing at Peachtree in Georgia, and so I took the family and put them on an airliner—I sent them home.”

Meanwhile, Bailey went back to Peachtree, got in the Bonanza, and flew—scud running—to Chattanooga, heading toward Michigan from there. His family had to be picked up from the airport in Detroit. “They didn’t any more than get home before I walked in and surprised them,” he recalled.

“I had the two planes until 2007. I was 87 years old and I had some cancer operations, and so I decided it was time to hang ’em up, and I sold them. I had 67 years of wonderful flying.” Bailey had more than 2,000 hours. “There’s a lot of it I didn’t really log.”

Bailey attended AOPA’s annual conventions regularly for 10 years. “We didn’t miss any of them. One year I flew the Bonanza out to Palm Springs from Michigan, and then flew back to Florida. The conventions, I thought, were really worthwhile. I was sorry to hear they dropped them.” When Phil Boyer was the association’s president, he recognized charter members at the convention, Bailey recalled. He also subscribed to the legal services plan. “But I never was in trouble enough to contact AOPA for help.”

He can’t think of anything that he would have changed or done differently as a pilot. “It’s just been absolutely wonderful. Every blessing that I’ve had connected with aviation. I’m still enthused about it, even though I can’t fly anymore.” His last flight was to AirVenture in Oshkosh and back in 2007. “If I hadn’t had physical problems, I’d probably be trying to fly yet.”

AOPA charter member Bill Bailey

Bill Bailey is one of only a dozen charter members still on the AOPA rolls. These excerpts are from an interview with him on the occasion of the association’s seventy-fifth anniversary.

Mike Collins

Mike Collins | Technical Editor, AOPA

Mike Collins has worked for AOPA’s media network since 1994. He holds a private pilot certificate with an instrument rating.