Sunday, May 23, 2010

An American pilot wings around the world in search of ... the perfect blueberry muffin!

HE has to be the pilot whom most aviators would envy. After all, he’s had the opportunity to fly more varieties of aircrafts than most pilots ever would in their lifetime.

American Bill Charney, 74, stopped by Kuala Lumpur for two weeks recently as part of his round-the-world adventure on The Red Rockette, his bright red Staggerwing. He certainly has as much to say about the biplane as his meandering flight home toReno in Nevada.

Charney’s journey began in April 2009 from New Zealand, where his aircraft had been parked for five years, for restoration work.

He had bought his Staggerwing – so-called because the top wing is set, or staggered, behind the bottom wing – in 1994 in Tucson, Arizona, and flown it for seven years around the United State, before sending it to Croydon Aircraft Company in New Zealand.

Flying is serious business, but you can still have a bit of a giggle, says Bill Charney, aka Captain Biff Windsock. – ART CHEN / The Star

“I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face for a week after I bought it. My first journey was from Tucson to Reno, and we got along very well,” he happily recalls at an interview in Petaling Jaya recently.

Charney has a son, David, 48, and two daughters, Elizabeth, 45 and Jill, 41.He points out that while he loves all his children, The Red Rockette is a name inspired by Elizabeth, who pursued her passion for dance and became a Rockette. (The Rockettes is a well-known precision dance company that performs at Radio City Music Hall in New York City). Basically, she reminds him of his own passion when he was young.

Staggerwings were built in the early 30s and the original target market was the oil companies.

“It was to provide fast transportation for oil company executives. It’s often said that it was the first Learjet or business jet of its day,” Charney explains. “At that time it was also faster than military aircrafts, and it was the first aircraft in the US to have a retractable landing gear.”

Bill Charney

Vintage aircraft like the Staggerwing has such a beautiful history, he adds, and flying one is such an elegant experience.

Charney, also known as Captain Biff Windsock, was born in Detroit, Michigan. He knew from the age of eight that he wanted to be a pilot.

“I don’t come from a family of aviators so it’s something out of the blue! I just had this passion since I was young,” he says.

At 16 he took his first few flying lessons with money earned from washing aircrafts. However, he didn’t have enough to continue the full flight lessons.

However, he later applied for a pilot’s position with United Airlines, and finally got the training he always wanted.

Charney was a commercial airline pilot with United Airlines for 35 years, during which time, he learned that the Air National Guard (ANG) or the military reserve was in need of pilots. So he signed up and was subsequently sent for training by the US Air Force.

The ANG is basically a military reserve, and civilians who work in many different fields can join it, he explains. During a disaster or federal emergency, these reserve forces can be recalled to active duty.

Charney was called to active duty in 1961 during the Berlin crisis and in 1967 during the Pueblo crisis (named after a US Navy ship that was captured by North Korea). Between 1968 and 1969 he was an active front-line combat pilot in the Vietnam.

Charney’s civilian and military experience as a pilot has enabled him to fly different types of aircrafts.

When he flew for United Airlines, it was the DC-6s and DC-7s. Then, the next day, he would be flying the sleek F-86 Sabre jet for the military.

“Flying different aircrafts was quite easy for me. It’s just a joy to be airborne,” he says.

Unlike children, he has his favourites when it comes to planes. The F-86 Sabre is his pick for jet aircraft, while the Staggerwing is his favourite piston aircraft.

“I get different joys from flying these aircrafts. I admit it was very nice having the government pay the fuel bill when I was a reservist pilot,” he adds with a chuckle.

“The Staggerwing allows me to share flying with people, and that is the reason I’m flying it home from New Zealand, instead of shipping it in a container.”

On his quirky nickname, Charney says: “I try to conduct my life with some whimsy and not take everything too seriously. Aviation is a serious business, but you can do it with a little bit of giggle and still get the job done.”

During his time as captain with United Airlines, he had to make announcements to reinforce safety briefings by the crew. Nobody seemed to listen every time he introduced himself as Captain Bill Charney.

“I needed a nom de-plume, something silly, but appropriate to aviation, to catch the passengers’ attention. I wanted to ensure that they knew where the emergency exits were as this was very important,” he says. So he settled for Biff (a popular nickname with university students back in the 1920s) and Windsock (windsocks show the direction of the wind at the end of every runway).

Cabin crews often told him it was the dumbest name they’d ever heard, but they admitted that it always worked as the passengers would sit up and listen when he repeated his name.

Doing unusual things seems to come naturally to Charney. When he told is family and friends that he was going to fly around the world with his Staggerwing, they all told him he was nuts.

“When people see news events on TV, they think the world is coming to an end. In reality, that ain’t so and things are often blown out of proportion by the media.

“I have flown to many places in the world where demonstrations were happening and the country was in turmoil, but essentially that was almost always confined to a small area. So, seasoned travellers just learn to avoid these areas.”

Part of Charney’s mission in flying around the world is to share the joys of flying and, hopefully, inspire young people through the EAA Young Eagles Program. (The Experimental Aircraft Association is an international aviation membership body in Winsconsin that sponsors education programmes such as Young Eagles, which focuses on general aviation.)

Young Eagles has chapters around the world, but not in Malaysia. Locally, there is the AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association), which is dedicated to promoting general aviation among people of all ages, he says.

After Malaysia, Charney was off to Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam – one stop that should be quite nostalgic.

“My entire journey would be complete if I can give rides to the young people who live in the village at the end of the runway where I used to fly the F-68 Sabre during the Vietnam War,” he says.

Charney says that his flying schedule does not give him time for regular exercise. So, how does he keep himself so fit?

“I eat a lot of pastries,” he says with a grin.

He believes that he has been blessed with healthy genes. But when he is home in Nevada, he does a lot of walking through the hilly areas, so he gets good cardiovascular exercise.

Charney is slowly savouring his round-the-world adventure. Contrary to what most people think about such trips, he breaks his journey after a spell of flying.He parks his aircraft at the last base, goes home to recharge, and then continues flying again.

After circling the world, Charney would like to explore the United States and Canada.

“In fact, I will continue to wander around the world in search of the perfect blueberry muffin!” Which, he says, he came very close to in New Zealand!

To follow Bill Charney on his adventure go to captainbiff.com and click on ‘Journaling the Journey’ on the left.

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