United Flying Octogenarians keep wings in wild blue yonder
Spokane’s Bill Webber uncovers wealth of friends, experiences as vice president
If Bill Webber wants to get a round of golf in before lunch, he and his three pals will simply hop into his Piper PA-32 Cherokee Six airplane and take off into the wild blue yonder.
“It’s important to have a six-place airplane,” explains the adventurous Spokane man. “It takes four men and all our golf clubs to wherever we want to play golf.”
That could mean anywhere from Kelowna, B.C., to Butte to the Bandon Dunes in Oregon, not to mention California and Arizona.
Ah, impetuous youth. Yes, boys will be boys. Webber is a mere 86 years old.
Spokane’s soaring senior is part of an extraordinary bunch, the United Flying Octogenarians – an international nonprofit organization of pilots who have flown as a “pilot in command” on or past their 80th birthday.
There are some 650 UFO members worldwide, mostly in the United States and Canada. Webber is their vice president.
Members in the U.S. gather at a different location in the country each November for their annual meeting and fly to various regional meetings across the country for fellowship throughout the year.
“As they say, the older you get and the more you tell the same stories, the better those stories get,” says Webber, who just returned from an impromptu 12-day, 10-town jaunt along the West Coast to get to know his fellow UFO brethren a little better.
“And there have been wonderful stories. We just have a great time together sharing those stories.”
Granted, the notion of old-timers screeching through the air at a time in life when convention dictates they should be content in a rocking chair, with a good book, may raise a few eyebrows.
No worries. These guys – and gals – have a lifetime of experience at the flight controls. They are properly accredited, regularly cleared medically and, it must be said, are sharp as a tack.
Essentially, the unofficial UFO creed could read: Life begins at 80. Aviation anomalies like Webber are a living – and flying – testament to that.
And it’s not just about hitting the links up and down the West Coast for a little fun. For an assortment of UFO members like Webber, flying well past their retirement years is serious business.
He’s among the numerous UFO diehards who fly Angel Flights – answering the call for those in need of emergency air transport.
“This is my thinking: Rather than donating to the efforts of the Red Cross, the Catholic Church, etc., I would rather spend my donations on flying people to and from doctors and hospitals,” says Webber, who spends up to $10,000 a year on fuel for his Angel Flights.
“These people, especially in Montana, need to get to Seattle and Spokane for medical help, but the distances are long. People who are sick cannot travel by car that easily.”
Along the way, Webber has been part of several heartwarming stories – like the time he helped get a 16-year-old girl with serious burns to her face and arm get from Kalispell, Mont., to the Northwest’s only burn center, in Seattle.
“She got the help she needed,” says Webber. “And it was wonderful to be a part of that.”
He remembers a couple from Superior, Mont., who had adopted several seriously disabled children.
He transported three of the children on two different occasions. One child needed a kidney transplant. Another boy had nerve damage in his arm and a third child, a Nigerian girl, couldn’t walk.
“I flew them to Children’s Hospital in Seattle,” said Webber, who checks online daily with Angel Flight West for possible charity flights in which he could assist.
“The hospital helped that Nigerian girl walk. What a warm feeling to help wonderful people like that.”
The UFO was started in 1982 with about 25 pilots. Today members live as far away as Australia, France, Argentina, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the United Kingdom.
Among the more veteran members are Doris Lockness, 99, of Eldorado Hills, Calif., and the group’s oldest member, Ernest Trent of Somerset, Pa. – who is going strong at age 103.
Perhaps no single person better exemplifies the spirit of the UFO more than National Aviation Hall of Famer Evelyn Bryan Johnson, who turned 100 in November.
A longtime UFO member, “Mama Bird” Johnson logged more flying hours than any woman, 57,635.4, before glaucoma retired her in 2006.
She is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for training more pilots and giving more Federal Aviation Administration exams than any other pilot. Incredibly, she still manages the Moore-Murrell Airport in Morristown, Tenn., after 57 years at the post.
Webber, a retired Jantzen swimsuit and sportswear salesman, has logged more than 3,800 hours since he first started flying in 1960. Flying was a vital component in his sales route that took him through parts of Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
“It was a wonderful way to get around and show samples of merchandise to clients,” he says.
Since his retirement in 1978, Webber has maintained a second career as a stock portfolio manager.
“Twice a year I fly out to meet my clients (in the Northwest),” he says.
Fresh off his latest southerly excursion – which took him through the likes of Nevada City, Santa Rosa and Palm Springs in California, Glendale and Kingman in Arizona and finally St. George, Utah – Webber is as enthused as ever about the treasure trove of experiences and fellowship found within the ranks of the UFO.
“Maybe I should write a book,” he said when reached in a St. George motel room on the last leg of his trip in his Cherokee.
“I had never really done anything like this – go on a multi-stop adventure to meet so many different UFO members. I just had a delightful experience meeting with all those people.”
Kevin McKinney is a freelance writer living in Cape May, N.J.