We had the honor and pleasure of Senator (Colonel) John Glenn’s attendance at eight Bonanza Pilot Proficiency Program (BPPP) clinics at Columbus, Ohio, from his age of 82 to his last clinic at age 90. Since I was his equivalent rank and a test pilot graduate, I was the lucky one to be assigned as his instructor pilot. Imagine that! I was John Glenn’s instructor! A few observations and cockpit and hangar flying stories…
The airplane was a 1986 P Baron which he bought new while in the Senate. His staff set him up once and he set a city-pair record flying it from Columbus to Dulles while serving in the Senate. It did not have an intercom; we used the four-way green box to plug our headsets. He still had a working ADF receiver. The Baron was equipped just as he bought it… he did not even have noise canceling headsets! The only GPS was a Garmin 295 resting in the V of the yoke, running on battery. As we discussed a few areas he desired to work on during our flying, he said, “I really want to know more about using that GPS box… it has more memory and features than Friendship 7 did.”
On our first flight, off we went into IMC conditions, got on top and went through the Initial Course maneuvers which included feathering and unfeathering each propeller – which he had never done before! Next, we immersed ourselves in instrument approaches: three ILS, two VOR, and yep, you got it, an NDB using the needle way across the cockpit. There was a beacon near Yellowbud south of Columbus and, of course, since that is how he started his instrument flying he nailed the approach even with a healthy crosswind.
I covered his primary attitude instrument for some partial panel work. He told me he had such great redundancy with two vacuum pumps that he did not need that drill! I asked him how long that gyro had been in the panel.
“Well, 26 years, I guess,” he told me.
“Well, Senator, Colonel, Astronaut, sir… the gyro just gave up the ghost!”
“Ok then let’s get on with it,” he said and shot a perfect partial panel ILS.
Next was the GPS. How do you teach someone to use a handheld GPS? First things first. I reached into my flight bag and hooked up my new Garmin GPSMap 496 with XM Nexrad weather. We discussed the recent loss of his good friend Scott Crossfield and I ordered Mr. Glenn to get strategic weather into his cockpit as he teared up a bit about Crossfield’s crash.
For our mid-training break, where did we go? We went a few minutes to the south to Sporty’s and bought a 496. After a round of photos with the Saturday cookout crowd, I think Hal Shevers even gave him a $100 discount! We focused on features, called XM, set up his weather account, and we programmed the standard routes that he always used between Columbus and Dulles. I taught him the basics of programming a flight plan, using Nexrad, backing up approaches, etc. The 295 went into the baggage compartment!
Always the gentleman with a senatorial/statesman aura, Senator Glenn spoke at every Friday evening dinner and always carried a fine tip Sharpie to sign books, logbooks, photos – even a necktie I bought in the pilot shop with the Atlas launching.
Once I asked him why he chose to train with us at BPPP. He said, “Eagle, it does not matter who you are. When you reach your 80s, the insurance industry wants you to complete a formal training course annually.” He said he chose our course and was completely happy with the content and instruction. I guess so, since he came back for eight years.
The next course he brought the delightful Annie who took the companion course and totally brightened up the entire weekend.
By the way, the following year, his panel had a backup electric gyro installed and he was wearing a noise canceling headset. The ADF was never removed so every year we shot that same NDB approach at Yellowbud. He really got into the weather in the cockpit and had discovered the cloud tops and freezing level features which aided him in some pretty hairy encounters he had with icing.
John Glenn regaled us with the many questions he answered about the early space program and some of the extraordinary medical things NASA did, such as the centrifuge where they would put up to 10 Gs eyeballs IN and flip the cart to 6 Gs eyeballs OUT. He said they had this Army guy who would do the tests first and when his aorta got displaced they figured that was enough!
In 2006, I was the DFO at Eclipse Aviation. We sold an Eclipse 500 to John Travolta. We were en route to deliver the airplane and conduct initial type training in Florida so I asked Mr. Travolta if we could stop and give a demo ride to John Glenn. The answer was, “Of course! Take a lot of pictures!” So we did just that. His first landing at Parkersburg, West Virginia, was a good one.
He turned around to Annie and asked, “How was that one, Annie?”
“That was a 10, John,” she replied.
Mr. Glenn’s final BPPP was in 2011, when, as usual, I was his CFII. At age 90, he flew extremely well, did not want to take a break and we completed the requirements for his flight review and instrument proficiency in a little over three hours. He then told me he was selling the Baron and hanging up his cleats. So, given that goal, I guess I have about another 20 years of flying ahead of me!
One final note. At one point, we were talking about all the great things that had happened in his life and he told me one of the absolute greatest thrills of his illustrious career was when he and Annie were honored by The Ohio State University Marching Band and selected to “dot the I” with the band during the half time show. He said that was a special honor.
Godspeed, John Glenn.