The Last Flight?

Posted by on August 3rd, 2011

There comes a time in a pilot’s career where they have to ask a difficult question: “Will this be my last flight?” For some, it comes as the ground rapidly approaches. For others, the question arises as their lives wind down and they take another look at the responsibility of piloting.

“It’s something I never wanted to face having to do without, but it’s going to happen and it’s getting closer.” John Roberts has been taking to the skies for almost 56 years, doing what he loves and doing it as much as he can. Now, he’s getting older – Roberts just turned 79 – and he knows the laws of entropy apply to everyone. Regardless of whether he has a sharp mind – he does – or whether he has the passion to keep flying – something that is unquestionable – Roberts’ flying career may soon come to an end.

John Roberts

The day that he takes his last flight isn’t a day that Roberts is looking forward to, though he has begun to accept it. His collection of aircraft has been narrowed down to a single Cessna L-19, affectionately known as the Bird Dog.

“I’m starting to think about getting out if it. I’m going to keep this one a bit longer, but maybe somebody will come along and coax me out of it.” Roberts also notes that his health is slowing him down and that he wants to quit while he is ahead. “My C.O. from the national guard just gave it up. He was 86 and it was getting pretty iffy.”

The Bird Dog.

Flying has given him the opportunity to do things and see things that are beyond the experiences of the average person. He has flown over vast expanses of country only accessible by air. He has lived like a local in Central America and watched tourists marvel at things he saw every day. While some seniors worry about giving up the freedom of driving, Roberts worries about losing a freedom that took him far from roads.

In 1941, Roberts rode inside his first airplane; 69 years later, he has logged more than 12,000 hours piloting aircraft. Roberts has spent roughly 500 solid days in command of his aircraft. Some might question what his life would have looked like if he wasn’t flying, but those questions wouldn’t come from Roberts.

“I never gave it a thought; it’s the single thing that I took hold of in my life. I never was the best student, except when it came to aviation. I just wasn’t motivated until it came along and took over my whole life.” Growing up, Roberts said he had trouble finding his way. “I was just kind of listless.”

After completing his primary and high school education in Santa Barbara, he moved to the University of Colorado to study geology. His father wrote aviation insurance polices and Roberts grew up around pilots, but it wasn’t until college that his interest in flying became an obsession. Roberts was also enrolled in an Army ROTC program at the college, it was that program that would launch him into piloting. Roberts got wind of an assignment that involved ferrying surveyors into remote mountain ranges in Alaska.

Roberts set his heart on the assignment and started spending time at a local airfield and learning to fly. He was sent to Presidio in San Francisco with an Army engineering company but a shortage of helicopter pilots meant an early transfer to a helicopter training facility. From there, Roberts headed to Alaska.

The mission seemed simple: Fly a group of four to five surveyors to the top of mountains and pick them up when they were done. In practice, it was quite a challenge. Roberts had to pilot a helicopter with little more than 200 horsepower to the top of treacherous, uncharted mountains in the vast Alaskan wilderness.

Because the weather was bad, surveyors had to carry enough gear to survive for several weeks on top of the mountain, which added to the load the helicopters had to bear. “When I got there, they were all telling horror stories of people crashing on mountaintops.” Roberts said he doesn’t remember it being nearly that bad, but then he pauses and remembers other pilots who were lost doing the same work he was.

Roberts’s plane eclipses the sun.

A pilot flying low across the tundra in his helicopter went down after a large owl took flight and smashed through the tail rotor. The aircraft crashed into the tundra and rolled into a ball.

The pilot shattered his arm and leg, but managed to crawl away from the wreckage – but the arctic weather proved overwhelming and he froze before help could arrive.

Another pilot was setting down near a rocky slope on the Kobuk River. The landing skids lost their footing and the machine went over backward down the slope. The helicopter caught fire – “it really burned the hell out of him,” Robert said. The pilot was rescued and sent to a burn center in Texas, but his burns were too extensive to treat and he later died at the center.

Roberts said he had his own close calls while serving in Alaska. After he dropped off a member of a surveying crew, the weather changed quickly, trapping his helicopter on the ground. He was left with no choice but to wait out the storm inside the tiny bubble of his helicopter’s cabin. Protected only by glass and metal, “I almost froze to death, but I had to stay in there in case the weather cleared.”

When asked what separated him from pilots who didn’t make it, Roberts doesn’t hesitate. “I was good. I loved it, I lived it and I worked on being as proficient as possible to stay out of trouble. I learned everything there was to know about every aircraft I flew.” Flying was his life. Roberts said he would skip meals just to get more flight time in.

Roberts also had the ability to do something some of his fellow pilots often could not: deal with fear when flying in dangerous situations. After flying in Alaska, Roberts decided to leave the service but was lured back by a chance to continue his mapping work in Central America. This terrain was different; gone was the open tundra, replaced by a thick jungle that threatened to swallow aircraft whole. The green jungle canopy that appears like a blanket over the ground is often hundreds of feet high. Crashing into it means a long fall through thick trees that quickly hide all evidence of distress.

Once, a pilot fortunate enough to survive a crash landing in the jungle hiked more than 20 miles out to get help. The same pilot ended up on a team attempting to recover his aircraft. Although he knew the exact location of the wreckage, it took him almost an hour to spot it thought the thick jungle canopy. Other pilots who crash in the jungle are never found.

That was too much for some of Roberts’ colleagues. He recalls a pilot marching into headquarters and telling the officers that he wouldn’t be flying helicopters over the jungle anymore. The pilot was quickly grounded. Roberts was shocked; he wondered how people could give up the opportunity to fly because they were afraid. “You can’t let fear get a hold of you. When you feel it creeping up, you immediately dismiss it from your mind. You either want to be flying or you don’t.”

Not to say Roberts hasn’t had his share of tense situations, but it is the way he deals with fear that has kept him alive. When he was serving on the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Aero squad, he arranged to do a fly-over for the funeral of an officer who had died. Roberts coordinated with two other pilots, who both said they had experience flying in formations. Unbeknownst to Roberts, a pilot who claimed to be a “naval aviator” only had experience flying out of a club at a Navy base. The trio lined up on a cemetery in Los Olivos to prepare for their fly-by. Once they were given the signal, they began their approach, flying only 700 to 800 feet off the ground.

As the cemetery approached, Roberts looked up and saw the new pilot was bearing down on him quickly. He envisioned the crash: The propeller of the other aircraft would come slicing through the cabin of his aircraft, killing him or cutting his plane in two. Roberts looked down at the ground and saw an open patch of ground, “I thought, ‘I’m going down right there.’”

Roberts’ years of experience came into play; he jammed down on the throttle in attempt to outrun the collision. As he dived, the wheel of the other plane bumped into the elevator on his plane’s tail. The stick jumped in his hand and Roberts prepared for the worse. “I was really detached. I saw it happening around me, and I did what I had to do.” When he pulled back on the stick, the plane began to rise again and Roberts lived another day. The dented elevator still hangs on a wall next to the repaired Bird Dog.

Perhaps even more frightening than a mid-air collision were medical conditions that kept him on the ground. It wasn’t the conditions but the thought of never being able to fly again that truly frightened Roberts. “I think about it a lot, it was horrifying, the thought of, ‘What if I can’t fly?’. But I’ve been able to overcome it to this point. The whole goal of recovering was always to get back to flying.”

The burden of fatal accidents in general aviation happens to inexperienced pilots. Some suggest that pilots with fewer than 100 hours of flight time are at an even higher risk of ending up in a fatal crash. The more that pilots fly, the less likely they are to run into a situation they have never experienced. The same holds true for life experience. Roberts has confronted giving up flying before, and because of that he is better prepared when his time actually comes.

“Ten or 15 years ago, I never thought I could give it up, but as I’ve gotten older the passion is grading off,” he says, and is quick to add, “I never have gotten over it though.”

The last flight isn’t here yet. When the time does come to take off the helmet, unpin the wings and close the hangar doors, Roberts will have to face that moment, in the same way he has faced so many challenges:

“You can’t let fear get a hold of you. When you feel it creeping up, you immediately dismiss it from your mind.”

This article was originally published on Sept. 23, 2010 in the Santa Ynez Valley Journal.