James Koonce remembers the day in October 1966 when a student pilot celebrating his seventeenth birthday showed up at his Joplin, Missouri, fixed-base operation in a Cessna 150 for a private pilot checkride.
Koonce, then 28, had been a designated pilot examiner for two years, and was a Piper Aircraft dealer. He knew the kid slightly, because Mark Ingram was the son of a competitor, a Cessna dealer in nearby Carthage. “I remember even where he parked his airplane,” Koonce said.
Ingram (who passed the test) relived the day in a recent telephone interview, recalling that he saw a coyote from the air. But the highlight of Aug. 1, 1966, was taking his grandmother up for a flight as his first passenger after he returned to Carthage.
Koonce—the youngest DPE in Missouri at the time he was certified—went on to a corporate pilot career, flew VIPs, accumulated nine jet type ratings, gave hundreds more checkrides, and became an FAA Master Pilot in 2009.
Ingram went to the airlines. He worked for a long list of employers, some short-haulers and some earth-rounders, during a career he cheerfully describes as “a pretty checkered deal.” He retired in 2014.
Running into each other now and then by chance at a coffee shop just across the border from Missouri in Grove, Oklahoma, Koonce told Ingram that he had scaled back his flying to part-time, but had always renewed his flight instructor certificate.
Ingram, by then no longer meeting currency requirements as a Boeing 777 pilot for United Airlines, would soon need a flight review as a general aviation pilot—just about 50 years after the two men had flown together on the private pilot checkride.
“A light bulb went on,” Ingram said.
The flight review was conducted not in a Cessna 150, but in Ingram’s Aviat Husky, a tailwheel type that was new to Koonce and impressed the 16,000-hour pilot and more than 50-year AOPA member as “very solid. It didn’t feel like a light airplane as such,” as they worked through coordination maneuvers, turns, and various flavors of takeoffs and landings. A bit of advice Ingram has for a pilot who is flying in a Husky for the first time is to “be sure your toes are nowhere near the brakes when you don’t want ‘em there.” But such a caution was not news to Koonce, who soloed in 1957 in a Taylorcraft BC12D, earned a private ticket in 1958 in a Cessna 140, tacked on commercial and instrument privileges in 1960, and is a firm believer in the educational value of taildragger flying.
So, just shy of 50 years after Koonce had first scribbled an entry in Ingram’s logbook, he signed the applicant off for satisfactory completion of a flight review.
And they saw another coyote.
In 2009 Koonce, who gave 875 flight tests between 1964 and 1990 (resulting in 688 approvals and 187 disapprovals) was honored for his life’s work in aviation with a Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award.
In addition to flying for corporations, giving flight examinations, and instructing in a wide variety of aircraft from airplanes to rotorcraft to gliders, Koonce on several occasions served as pilot for President George H.W. Bush, who on one day trusted him to make an instrument approach to a weathered-in airport on the Maine coast when the Secret Service would have preferred that the flight land elsewhere where the weather was better. Koonce recalls that he radioed ahead to be sure the presidential security detail waiting at the original destination knew what was going on. And he said he was gratified to make it in at the coastal airport, sparing the president a long road trip to his destination.
Koonce, now 78, has kept all the medical certificates ever issued to him, as well as every temporary certificate issued to mark each new pilot certificate and rating.
Having such a strong affinity for preserving the touchstones of a life flying aircraft, there was little doubt how he would respond to Ingram’s suggestion that they get back together for Ingram’s first flight review as a GA pilot.
“Give you a flight review? It would be wonderful to do a fight review on you 50 years later,” Koonce said he replied to Ingram. “How many times does that happen to people?”