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Silas Nixon Loved to Fly

Updated: Jan 7

Silas' faded red Ford F-100 pickup truck made the turn. Almost every day, he made the turn into the airport parking lot. You couldn't pinpoint the exact time of his arrival. But by his visits, we could tell whether it was morning or evening. His first visits were always before noon and, with rare exceptions, in the evening, an hour or two before milking time.

We met Silas Nixon the first day we took over the operation. Several times a year, he rented one of our airplanes to fly over his and his neighbors' farms. "I'll go see what's going on," he said. "Gotta see how things look, keep an eye on folks," he chuckled like Santa Claus. "I like to see the changes. The colors of the oaks and sycamores as the year moves. Who's plowing what. Watchin' 'em turn over that red Virginia Jefferson loam never gets old."

Dairy farmer Silas never got a pilot's license. Instead, he was a permanent student. He had over a hundred flying hours, triple the number needed for a Private Pilot's License. As a student, he could fly solo. But Silas never went for the license required to take passengers. "I just like getting up there by myself," he said.

I suspect what Silas liked most about the airport was the company. Orange County Airport was his country club, and its restaurant was his "Nineteenth Hole. The airport was an escape from the cows, the farm, and his wife. 

"We needed feed from the Co-op," said Silas over a cup of coffee at the restaurant counter. Silas always needed something at the Co-op. His dairy cows were a demanding bunch. But he metered his needs to make sure he could always give Virginia, his wife, a reason for another trip into town—and so another opportunity to stop at the airport along the way. This morning, he finished his coffee and stretched his arms. "Feelin' good today. This was my morning to sleep in," he said. "I didn't have to get up until six o'clock!"

Silas loved to fly. But he never wanted to take passengers, fly for hire, or even think about doing it for a living. 

Silas's threshold of flying excitement lay not over the wilds of Siberia or the African desert but by flying "around the patch" and over his farm. "Beautiful day today!" he said. "Not a ripple in the traffic pattern. It's a great day for flying. You can see forever. I never lost sight of the airport!" 

One Saturday, I overheard Silas talking with Luther Lohr, another local pilot. "You're going to like that 172, Luther, with its big new engine. Wow, that thing scoots!" said Silas, over thirty more horsepower. It didn't take much to get the student and private pilots excited.

It was rare when one heard an airline pilot get excited about flying. Is overexposure to love a good thing? After all, gorgeous movie stars get divorced. Imagine thinking about leaving Barbara Eden or Elizabeth Taylor. Is it possible to get too close to something extraordinary? Richard Burton said of Liz Taylor, "The most beautiful woman in the world? She has a double chin... an overdeveloped chest, and she's rather short in the leg." 

Flying might be like that. Too much flying might be too much. Silas held his love, flying, at arm's length. He only dated her. Is that what preserved the mystery and excitement? 

Pilots like Silas might have been the lucky ones. They were able to maintain their enthusiasm for flight for decades. I never heard Silas complain about flying. Sometimes, Bill, the airline pilot who inhabited our airport, would carp about work. "Sometimes it gets wearisome," Bill said. "Eighty or more flight hours a month, year after year. Don't get me wrong. I love flying. But sometimes all the red-eyes and flying around the clock gets to a guy."

Silas didn't have to fly around the clock. There were no all-nighters for him. No grappling with the ill effects of living with constant time zone changes. Silas talked about troubles with his cows but never beefed about aviation. He complained about the price of milk. But he didn't worry about airline corporate overlords interested only in squeezing every ounce of production from a pilot. Silas never experienced the misery of a union strike, a stolen airline pension, or a painful furlough. His flying was pure joy. It was never mixed with the detritus of making a living.

But airline pilots seemed to need to dive deeper. And it wasn't only about money. Many airline pilots seemed to need to get to the bottom of flying. Probe to its oily core. They complained about maintenance, management, fatigue, troubles at the union, and rotten schedules. But they never seemed to quit the airlines. They married flying for better or worse. Were they addicted? Sometimes, a guy can't help himself; can't pull away. Burton married Taylor twice.

Could private pilots—the ones who dated rather than married airplanes—be the lucky ones?

Would you like more? Russ Roberts' memoir is available on Amazon. When you're finished reading the book, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. Reviews really help spread the word.

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copyright © 2020 Russ Roberts

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