Joseph Grant was born 100 years ago in 1908, the same year that the Wright brothers first demonstrated their flying machine in public. Grant’s uncle, Leigh Wade, circled the globe in one of the famous Douglas World Cruisers, and that inspired him and his brother, Roy, to scrape together enough money for a ride in a Waco near Miami, Florida. It was 1925. “I think it cost two or three dollars, a small amount of money,” he says. “But even a small amount was a large amount then.” Life on the family farm was hard—there were 12 kids—and, being the oldest, Grant left to make room for the younger ones. He got on his motorcycle and eventually reached Baltimore, where his uncle got him and Roy jobs in the Martin factory building airplanes.
“We didn’t have socks because that cost money,” he says. “The only clothes we owned were leather jackets that we washed in gasoline from the airplanes. We had no dates because we smelled like gasoline.” But the brothers scraped together enough cash for an almost-new Curtiss Robin, and when they had logged about 12 hours they left the factory and went barnstorming.
“We found we could get paid for flying,” he says. Even during the Depression. Another pilot helped him land a job flying DC-3s for Pennsylvania Central Airline, which he left for TWA because he wanted to fly its new Boeing 307s; big, four-engine, pressurized airplanes. Then World War II broke out and the Army Air Forces commandeered the 307s and took Grant along with them. He transitioned to a DC-4 and flew VIPs from Washington. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt presented a DC-4 to King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, founder of Saudi Arabia, in 1945, Grant went with it.
“We got some surplus DC-3s from TWA in Cairo, and that was the beginning of our airline,” he says: Saudi Arabian Airlines. The entire nation had but two airfields. “We hired pilots, but when they saw what they were going to have to live in, they got the first airplane out.”
After a couple of years, Grant returned to the States. “I didn’t like managing an airline,” he says. “I didn’t realize how important my job in Saudi Arabia was. I came back to TWA and they put me back in ground school and I started over again. I thought ‘Oh, boy, this is a rough old road.’ If I could have found a way to go back to Saudi Arabia, I would have.”
But he ended up staying with TWA, flying 707s until 1968, when he was forced at age 60 to retire. Still a pup, he reactivated his CFII and began instructing, even teaching his two kids to fly. After he broke his neck at age 87—while chopping down a tree a limb fell squarely on his head—he let his medical expire. (It gets worse: He had to give up riding motorcycles because he couldn’t turn to look for traffic.) But it doesn’t really bother him; he still flies regularly with his son Edward, 45.
“We’re always rich,” he says. “We may not have any money, but we’re always rich.”