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Probably the most asked question a pilot gets is:  “What got you interested in flying?” Often the response is something like, “My father (or mother) was a pilot, and I spent a lot of time around airplanes with him.” When pressed further, (usually not very hard) the pilot will go on about time spent at the local airport; enjoying the freedom of being able to hop into an airplane and go anywhere; or flying to distant airports on weekends for the legendary “$100 hamburger,” listening in awe to flying stories and other hangar talk, and in general, being a small part of that special group of adult kids known as pilots. From there (if the door is left open for more than a few seconds), the story will probably continue, but will often end up one of two ways:

  1. “Unfortunately I didn’t learn to fly back then, but when I got older and had the time and money I got my pilot’s license.”
  2. “I took lessons and got my private pilot license as soon as I was old enough and have been flying ever since.”
bat masterson

Capt. Robert Alan “Bat” Masterson and his F-51, Korea, 1951.

That’s my story, too. It really did start when I was a boy, and my dad, Robert Alan “Bat” Masterson, was a pilot, but as in the first example above, I didn’t take lessons and learn to fly back then. Nonetheless, there were turns in the story that kept me interested and led me to get my license after Dad died. Most of the twists had to do with him, my mom, and the eight children they traveled around the world with. The course took us through various flying jobs in air cargo transport, relief airlifts, fire-dropping and other contracts in such places as Southeast Asia, Africa, the continental U.S., Alaska and the Caribbean.


With a father who took flying jobs in Southeast Asia, Africa and other unusual locations, hundred dollar hamburger stops often were red dirt strips in the Congo or Sudan or ice runways on the north slope of Alaska. The hangar talk was different, too.

Dad wasn’t much of a storyteller and probably was humble by pilot standards. He would more often sit back, puff on his pipe, and listen with half a grin as other pilots with more flair and bravado shared happy hour stories about forging through tropical thunderstorms that mere mortal pilots would avoid, landing large transports at night on widened roads (no runway lights, of course) amidst incoming mortar rounds, or risking their lives to save those final few on “the last flight into Uli” as the close of the airlift to relieve starvation in the 1960s Biafran war.

In Cambodia hangar talk would more likely be practical information shared between an informal group of pilots who called themselves the Phnom Penh Pig Pilots Association. They spread the word about which strips were still open, safe, or bogged down during the rainy season; which end of certain fields to approach to avoid small arms fire; and what frequencies to use that day. With fire-tanker pilots, the hangar talk might be more like, “keep the lead plane in sight” or “avoid trying to fly between one mountain.”

Of course, at the end of the day the talk usually reverted to the “You aren’t gonna believe this…” type of tales. Although they were entertaining—and although Dad experienced much of that described above—his accounts usually were less embellished.

For example, I recall his answer when my two brothers and I asked him how many planes he’d downed during his early years with the Air Force in Korea: “Ours or theirs?”

A friend who flew with Dad in a DC-3 in Sudan provided another favorite example:  As they were descending on approach to Khartoum, Dad lit a cigarette.

“Hey Bat,” the friend said, “I thought you were a pipe smoker.”

“I am,” Dad replied, “but I usually light up a cigarette at about 3,000 feet to calm my nerves before landing.” This from a pilot with more than 30,000 hours at the time.


A Douglas C-47, part of the Congolese Air Force in the 1970s, when it was known as the Zairian Air Force.

Dad once chuckled as he told me the other Pig Pilots kidded him about his circling descents from 8,000 feet over the airport at Phnom Penh to avoid attracting small arms fire. But when he died, it was with more than 42,000 hours of accident-free flying time. There aren’t many of those around anymore.

They say that flying is 99% boredom and 1% sheer terror (or what the Southeast Asia pilots called “fascinating”). Ninety-nine percent of Dad’s flying was probably long hours involving little excitement, but with a sense of responsibility to get the job done. He wasn’t a war hero, but a working class blue collar hero who kept his family together and led us to a lot of adventurous places. He rarely missed Christmas at home, whether it meant keeping us with him where he worked or quitting just in time to make it home.

So, the short answer to what got me interested in flying is, my dad. That I eventually got my license and became a pilot probably explains the long-winded, embellished, nostalgic answer.

Now I fly a 1952 Cessna 170B, a taildragger that serves as my quasi-DC-3. My Fairfield Flying Club buddies are my Pig Pilots. Our hangar talk is about weather, landings (good and bad), navigation, cross-country flights to ever more distant hamburgers, family visits, and fly-ins with other pilots. It’s about the sense of accomplishment, responsibility, camaraderie, and enthusiasm for flying that we share.

Whatever the motivation, I would encourage anyone with the desire to “slip the surly bonds of Earth” to consider the same.


Now I fly a 1952 Cessna 170B, a taildragger that serves as my quasi-DC-3.

James Masterson
Latest posts by James Masterson (see all)
9 replies
  1. Russell Gervase
    Russell Gervase says:

    Thank you for that brief story about the more unusual type of flying that’s available to adventurous pilots. Being home for important holidays, anniversaries and birthdays has been a challenge throughout my career. I’m at the end and so, quitting to be home for Christmas is my new reality.

  2. Michael Staley
    Michael Staley says:

    This was such a great story. Thanks for taking the time to write it. I wonder if you and you family can put together enough of these for a book?

  3. Duane Mader
    Duane Mader says:

    Great stuff. Some pro pilots didn’t hit the airline jackpot for whatever reasons, timing, economic crash, back when wearing a pair of glasses disqualified you, whatever. A working class pilot like your dad would be very interesting to fly with, I’m guessing it would take some hours of time spent flying together but usually pilots end up sharing most of their best stories given enough time. Your dad’s would have been fascinating.

  4. Mike Sheetz
    Mike Sheetz says:

    Enjoyed your story of your father in aviation. I suspect that many pilots stories are quietly similar to that of your father. They just show up and do their jobs. I got my PPL at age 62, now 15 years ago. I enjoy being part of my flying club, but got the aviation disease as an elementary school kid. My uncle ran a flight training enterprise after WWII ON or family farm grass strip. My dad got his license, and my older brother, a corporate pilot, was my CFI! A lot of very good memories!

  5. Dale
    Dale says:

    Thanks for sharing your Dad’s story with us. I’m sure he was with you as you told it and was smiling and puffing on his pipe as unfolded from your memories.

  6. Paul Arthur Peterson
    Paul Arthur Peterson says:

    I was so fortunate to have a rock solid Dad. He was also a pilot, so he was my hero and mentor as well. He was soft spoken and hard working. He grew up on a farm in northern Minnesota. His farm background did not allow for a lot of extra money or time, but he found a way to buy a Champ and fly it off a local field flat enough to get it airborne and back again as well as a frozen lake behind the farmhouse. When his parents passed and he was free to pursue his passion, he attended an aircraft mechanics school while living with an Uncle and Aunt who must have also helped support him and his passion to become a pilot. He worked his way up the ladder from a pilot/mechanic to a full time pilot. He was hired by United, but chose to stay in the corporate world, as the Lockeed Loadstar position allowed him to be home more to help and enjoy raising his family. He worked hard in his position as Chief Pilot for a large Paper Corporation where he retired early after a hostile takeover in the company he was flying for. He settled in for the next few years flying for Holiday Stores and the Erickson brothers who always treated him with dignity and respect. He retired and enjoyed 10 years of retirement before passing away. He was loved by many and was my mentor in aviation and in life. The best memory I had was when I was a co-pilot for US Airways and the Captain I was flying with allowed my Dad to sit in the cockpit on a leg from Munich to Pittsburgh. He was invited to sit in the Jumpseat for takeoff and landing with his son flying the leg. I felt proud to show my Dad that he had done well in raising his son and fellow pilot.

    Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
    And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
    Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
    of sun-split clouds,—and done a hundred things
    You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
    High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
    I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
    My eager craft through footless halls of air ….

    Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
    I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
    Where never lark nor ever eagle flew—
    And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
    The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
    Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

    High Flight

  7. Arun Battan
    Arun Battan says:

    Very nice and warm feeling with a touch of sincere with Pilots that fly as a career pilot, or a weekend pilot, they always keep their family on top of the list to spend time with them which is very precious in Pilot’s life. Not to mention what pilots do around the globe to keep and supply all the goods that are needed for people who are less fortunate in foreign countries. My sincere thanks to all the pilots in the world, and Long Healthy Prosperous life.


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