Young Jack Elliott liked to imagine himself as a pilot inside the balsa wood rubber band-powered airplanes he built and sent soaring through the air. But at the tender age of five, that was the extent of Elliott's flight experience.
Understandably then, he was a little apprehensive when the real thing -- the massive 776-foot dirigible Graf Zepplin -- ominously flew over his family's Brooklyn, NY apartment building the summer of 1929. "All the people in the apartment building rushed to the rooftop," recalls Elliott. "My mother couldn't get me to go up on the roof because I had heard that this monstrous thing was going to fly by and I was scared. She finally dragged me to a window and I saw it disappearing in the distance."
Since then, of course, Elliott learned to face his fears. His uncertainty would soon turn into fascination. When he was 10 years old, he went for his first airplane ride -- with his brother and father in a bi-plane at Pinebrook Airport, near Bloomfield, NJ where Elliott's family had moved. From there it was all downwind.
Writer/pilot Jack Elliott would ultimately get his pilot's license and write his award winning "Wings Over Jersey" column for The Star Ledger of Newark, NJ for some 38 years. Elliott's column, which ran from 1963 to 2001, is believed to be the longest running aviation column in history. Recently, Elliott has compiled his favorite 141 best columns from his Star Ledger days into his new book Adventures in Flying.
Elliott's book is a collection of fascinating aviation human interest stories, as well as insider accounts on historical events, that doesn't require a pilot's license to appreciate. "I tried to cover all aspects of aviation and to concentrate on adventure and human interest stories that would appeal to the board spectrum of readers," writes Elliot in the "Preflight" preface of Adventures in Flying. "I wanted to bring the excitement, the thrill, the beauty and the rapturous sense of freedom associated with general aviation flying to the average reader."
Elliott, 85, held a commercial pilot's license with instrument, glider and single-engine seaplane ratings. He typically would fly into any one of the more than 70 or so General Aviation airports in New Jersey to dig up a story. 'Adventures' offers fascinating stories involving an assortment of flying machines -- winged airplanes, ultra lights, gliders, hot air balloons, seaplanes and helicopters. 'Adventures' even offers behind the scenes snippets on the Hindenburg disaster on May 6, 1937 in Lakehurst, NJ and Orville and Wilbur Wright's first powered flight on December 17, 1903.
But Elliott's focus on the people -- the dreamers, the adventurers that made aviation what it is today -- is what stands out in the 500-page attractive hardcover book. There's glimpses of the lives of the most famous names in aviation including Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, HowardHughes and Jimmy Doolittle. And then there's the heroic common folk, the ones few people would have ever known about, if Elliott had written about them in his "Wings Over Jersey" column. "I always tried to find stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things," related Elliot in a recent interview.
Then there's the fledgling pilot, Denmark native Hans Tholstrup, 30, who shortly after getting his pilot's license decided to go for a little ride -- around the world. As Elliott suggests in his book the story "belongs in the archives of Ripley's "Believe It or Not."
Elliott's columns about the people who had to overcome physical handicaps to become a pilot or skydive are perhaps the most inspiring. Like the story of Ray Temchus. He was paralyzed from an automobile accident. He couldn't walk and only had full function of one arm. He would not only learn how to fly, but would become a glider instructor. Commented Elliott: “I thought his story was unbelievable."
In his book, Elliot categorizes similarly themed columns and divided them up into 27 chapters, including: "Mercy Flights," "Learning to Fly," "The Adventurers," "The Gutsiest Pilots," "The Old-Timers," "Women in Aviation" and "The Movers and Shakers."
For his "Look Out Below" chapter, Elliott gathered an odd assortment of tales, including one entitled, "Great Grandma Likes to Jump Out of Planes" and a column on the skydiving diehard who logged "40 Years of Jumping Out Of Airplanes." Over the more than 40 years that Elliott has written about the world of flying, he's earned dozens of awards, including a Presidential Citation and an award for Lifetime Excellence in Aviation Coverage from the AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association). In 1986, Elliott was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame of New Jersey.
One of Adventures’ most harrowing tales involves World War II test pilot Herb Fisher who ran into a little trouble after he climbed to a height of 38,000 feet over Allentown, PA in August of 1948. In his dive, Fisher reportedly reached a speed of 590 mph, when a high- pressure oil line erupted, spewing seventy-five gallons of hot oil over the plane's windshield, penetrating the cockpit and coating Fisher.
"I couldn't read the instruments," Fisher told Elliott in a 1981 column. "I opened the canopy and the turbulence blew my headset off. So, I no longer had communication with anybody."
Fisher's only option was to "try to land looking backwards" at nearby Curtiss-Wright Airport, in Fairfield, with which he was familiar. "As the houses and buildings I recognized, passed beneath and behind me, I judged my heading and altitude and lined up with the runway, which I couldn't see," said Fisher. Interjected Elliott in his column: "This was a true blind landing."
(Adventures in Flying is available through www.adventuresinflying.net.)
Reviewed by By Kevin McKinney