Pilot comes to terms with friend's death on memorial journeyby Elizabeth Stawicki, Minnesota Public Radio
A 72-year-old pilot is on his way to Wisconsin after completing a tribute to a dear friend by flying his home-built biplane to each of the lower 48 states. J.W. French of Fort Myers, Fla., stopped in the Twin Cities Monday en route to the annual Experimental Aircraft Association's "AirVenture," which begins Sunday in Oshkosh, Wis. Finishing the trip helped French come to terms with the death of his flying buddy.
South St. Paul, Minn. — J.W. French landed his biplane at Fleming Field Airport in South St. Paul and taxied to one of the hangars, where he sat down for a chat.
French has a youthful sparkle and white hair. But he also has the outward reserve that many, particularly older, pilots have learned to keep their emotions in check. Not doing so can mean the difference between life and death in a flying emergency.
J.W. French says the seeds for his flight were planted 30 years ago when he met a pilot by the name of Sam Burgess in San Antonio, Texas. Burgess had just written a book about flying a replica 1930s biplane he'd built himself across the U.S.
"I read the book, and I read it again," said French. "I said, 'Sam, I can't think of a greater adventure than what you did.' And he said, 'Jimmy, why don't you do it?' That's the only person I ever let call me Jimmy other than my grandmother. I said, 'Sam, I've got an engineering business to run; I can't take off for three or four months and fly around the country like that.'"
French says Burgess had a long and distinctive military career flying in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
French was also impressed with Burgess' trip across the U.S. because the plane had only a 200-mile range between fuel stops, no electrical system, and no starter. The only navigation tools were a compass, a set of charts and a watch.
The longer the two were friends, the more Burgess kept after French to fly to each of the states. So when French retired, he got serious looking for the right biplane.
About eight years ago, his friend Burgess grew weak and disabled from an illness whose cause was somewhat of a mystery.
What French knew was that the same man who'd flown in three wars, and whose commanding presence filled a room, ended up taking his own life.
Over the next five years, French again went looking for the right plane. He finally found it by building it, and even flew to 38 states. But that plane needed a bigger engine to climb in mountain air to finish the rest of the trip.
French then underwent two shoulder surgeries that shook his resolve and dampened his spirits.
"I spent about three months in a recliner because I couldn't lay down in bed, and all I did was eat pain pills, food and ballooned up to about 200 pounds, felt sorry for myself, sold the airplane and thought I'd never get it done," French said.
He realized, though, he couldn't spend the rest of his life like he was, and battled through months of painful physical therapy to regain the strength and flexibility he needed to get back in the cockpit.
"It wasn't just the idea of having the fun and getting to do it, but then it became the commitment with Sam," he said.
His respect for Burgess grew as he experienced the rigors of a 48-state journey. The best part of the trip, says French, was touching down in the different states and not knowing whom he'd meet.
He remembers landing on a grass runway in Washington State when a man came to greet him, poking fun at French's bouncy landing. The man told French he was a psychologist and had done work with an assisted suicide group called "Death with Dignity."
"I had some problems with the way Sam ended his life until I talked to him. He said Sam wasn't a coward in ending his life; he [Sam] was courageous in ending the kind of death he was going to have. And that made a lot of sense to me."
For French, flying what he calls the Sam Burgess Memorial Junket helped him find peace with the death of his friend.
In 1996, the EAA inducted Burgess into its homebuilder's hall of fame. Burgess' plane will be on display at the EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh.
- Morning Edition, 07/22/2008, 7:24 a.m.