Welcome to “Path to Your Dreams,” the blog series about fascinating and inspirational stories for young pilots trying to figure out their career path. We have talked with an eclectic group of pilots from various walks of life in aviation, to learn about how they followed their dreams in aviation. Here’s another of the many stories!
The pilot: Colin Aro, flight instructor at Cool Rain Aviation in Reno, Nevada; member of the High Sierra Squadron of the Commemorative Air Force (CAF), and retired nuclear physicist.
The dream: To fly historic aircraft, specifically warbirds!
The path: Colin has wanted to fly historic aircraft for as long as he can remember. His father was publicity director for the national air racing group, so Colin has been around warbirds since he was a small child. He got his first press credential in 1980, at the age of 14, and got his pilot license right after college. (You can read more about that in this blog.)
Colin’s first plane was a Grumman Traveler, but to achieve his dream of flying warbirds, he knew he would need tail-wheel experience, so he got that endorsement as soon as possible. Eventually, he traded up to a Piper Comanche and added commercial and CFI certificates. As a flight instructor, he took every opportunity to fly different aircraft, earning PIC time in over 50 different aircraft so far. Starting in 2002, he added glider ratings to his other certificates, which led to the opportunity to be a tow-pilot, using a Piper Pawnee, which added thousands of tailwheel take-offs and landings to his logbook.
Then, a flash of luck! Charlie Gillespie, squadron commander of the High Sierra CAF Squadron called about renting a hangar from Colin. CAF squadrons are groups of pilots who share the costs and work of maintaining historic aircraft, and Gillespie mentioned that he was looking to house a historic aircraft used for tail-wheel training. He also said that they couldn’t find enough tailwheel-qualified pilots to fly it. Colin offered his skills, and was soon flying the squadron’s N3N bi-plane, a tandem-seat, open cockpit, primary training biplane built by the Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia during the 1930s and early 1940s. Colin likes to quote the Roman philosopher Seneca (via his high-school coach), who opined that luck happens when preparation meets opportunity. Colin’s many years of preparation had finally met their opportunity.
These historic planes need to be flown year-round to stay in top condition, and Colin says winter flights around Reno in an open biplane are no picnic, but he loves even those. He’s also flown the squadron’s L19E Bird Dog, and an SNJ-4 belonging to another CAF squadron. “I love historic planes because they’re challenging to fly. It’s a different era, different sight picture, tail wheel, everything. But for me, it’s even more the historical feeling I get when I look out and see that American star on the wing. Some days I feel like I have to pinch myself, I can’t believe I’m doing this.”
“I can’t stress enough to go out and get as much different experience as a pilot can get. There’s a line in the movie Apollo 13 where Tom Hanks [as astronaut Jim Lovell] says ‘You never know what combination of events is going to happen to get you home.’ I would say ‘You never know what combination of experience is going to get you to where you want to go.’ So just take it all.”
For example, he points out that the High Sierra Squadron’s N3N biplane served at Naval Air Station Glenview, in Illinois, in the 1940s, at the same time then-Ensign George H.W. Bush got his navy flyer wings there. “We petitioned his museum for his flying records, and he didn’t fly this plane. But at the very least, our plane served alongside a future U.S. president during World War II. So, when I fly it, sometimes I look out at that wing and I can’t believe I’m here.”
Most memorable flight: “At 15 years old, I flew in back seat of Dan Martin’s P51 Mustang with the legendary fighter pilots Bob Hoover and John Crocker in a demonstration air race in Corvallis, Oregon. As a 15-year-old kid, to walk into the briefing room and see Bob Hoover, who flew chase for Chuck Yeager’s supersonic flight in the Bell X-1. And John Crocker was also champion at the Reno Air Races in 1979. I was just awestruck. I was a lucky teenager!”
Flights on the bucket list: “I want to fly the P51 Mustang or the P-40 Warhawk, and they’re both available to rent now, so this is going to happen!”
Advice for other dreamers: “First, go out and get your tail-wheel rating. I did that right at beginning of my flying career because I knew the airplanes that I wanted to fly someday required those skills. Then fly every kind of aircraft you can. You remember Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug slogan, ‘Just say no’.” Well, as a flight instructor, I say ‘Just say yes’ to every kind of experience you can get. Fly as many airplanes as you can get your hands on! I’ve done a billion different odd jobs in aviation, and that’s what prepared me to fly these birds.”
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