It’s hard to believe it was a half dozen years ago that I met SAFE’s first Honorary Member. I received an email in the days before EAA AirVenture 2009 alerting me to the fact that there would be a press conference that would include a very special attendee: 101 year-old Captain Joe Grant. Joe was attending to help launch a book “King Abdulaziz…His Plane and His Pilot.” The book chronicles the flight of Saudi Arabia’s HRH King Abdulaziz’s DC-3, a gift given in 1945 to the Saudi royal family from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt near the end of World War II. Yes, Joe was the pilot!
I wondered if I could get a personal interview with Joe. To actually talk to someone who had flown for the last 80 years would be amazing.
We met at the EAA Merchandising Warehouse. I looked across the floor as Joe and his group made their way over. Joe and his son reached me first; we shook hands and Joe and I began to talk. The first thing I noticed about Joe, even as he was walking up to me, was his captivating smile and the gleam in his eyes. A zest for life was clearly evident.
Joe, what did you start out in aviation doing? “I started out in the early days like most pilots of the time, barnstorming and stunt flying, but then I went to work for Glenn L. Martin.”
With 80 years of flying experience, was there ever a time you were an instructor? “Well yes, from almost the beginning. When you learned to fly I guess you immediately started teaching others. I later became a “flight instructor” of course, in later years when we got the laws [FARs]. I was a double-I too, and when I finished up on the airline flying [Joe flew for TWA until he retired at age 60], I reactivated my CFI and CFII so as to teach both of my children to fly. In order for me to keep flying too, I just put two airplanes in a club and now I had airplanes and a reason to fly.”
If you were to pick the most memorable airplane you have flown what would that be? “Well, probably the 707 or we could toss it up between that and the DC-3. I just thought [with] the -3, you could do anything in the world with it, and I spent a lot of time in the -3. It’s awfully hard to single it down to one airplane, unless it would be the seven-0, because the 707 was an old man’s airplane, and I really loved to fly it.”
As it relates to technology is there anything that you could put your finger on that made aviation safer? “Well nothing immediately comes to mind, unless you think about aircraft construction. The DC-2 and DC-3 construction was a real breakthrough in a sense and led us into modern air travel, and that technology prevailed for a really long time. The next real breakthrough was jet technology starting with the 707. Safety was improved greatly because you could easily fly above the weather.”
In your 80 years of flying, was there ever a time that you were scared? “Actually, no I can’t say that I have ever been really scared. However, there was that time I was in a flat spin at low altitude and when I kicked the rudder, it didn’t work! If I wanted to get scared that would have been the time, however I kept my composure, did the right thing and I got out of it.”
That’s a good one!
Joe, I talk to a lot of young people about the merits of aviation. Is there any sage advice that you would give young people who want to get into aviation today? “Most definitely, I would say to almost any young person who can qualify both mentally and physically; get in the service and get the good training that they provide. It is the best in the world.”
Did you get any of your training in the military? “I may have added to it, but of course when the war came along, they threw me back into training and said, if you’re going to fly our airplanes, this is the way you are going to fly them.”
What branch of the service did you fly for? “I flew transport aircraft for the Army Air Corps. Part of that flying was in the Middle East.”
Here is a question that I am very interested in hearing your response to: was there any early aviation pioneers that you looked up to, that were your heroes? Well, my mother’s brother was one of the first pilots to fly around the world. So as far as incentives or someone to set as a role model, that was it. He was one of the three pilots that flew the Douglas Cruisers around-the-world flight in 1924. His name was Leigh Wade and he was my inspiration. (Lt. Wade is in fact credited with being the first pilot to fly around the world!)
At this point in our conversation Joe asked me who I flew for. I explained that I flew for my company and that ultimately I became involved in the training aspect of flying as my company manufactured flight simulators. That led into a conversation about training. Joe’s take on training was that the element missing with a lot of today’s pilots are basic stick and rudder skills! His take on simulation was that there is a place for it in both primary and advanced flight training. He said, “I am a firm strong believer in education and training.” If you want to find a medium for going down that road, let’s do it the safe way. Education and training are paramount to making good and safe pilots.”
It was at this juncture in the interview that I asked Joe if he would accept being inducted as the first honorary member of the Society of Aviation and Flight Educators (SAFE). Joe said that he would be honored to become a member. He went on to talk at length about safety through education and training. He explained that when he worked for the King flying the DC-3 he witnessed a resolve that would affect the whole Kingdom. The King believed that the only way to move the country into the modern era after the war “had passed them by” was through education and training of its people, and that tenet was implemented throughout the country, including aviation. In fact, Joe said that it was still in place, and that Prince Sultan had discussed it earlier that morning.
The next day at AirVenture there was re-creation of the gifting of the DC-3 by President Roosevelt to King Abdulaziz. A vintage DC-3 was flown into Air Venture’s center stage. For a portion of the flight, Joe was at the controls! The picture I took of him with that smile and twinkle in his eye was as he had just exited the aircraft. Also in attendance at the ceremony were the grandsons of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz; Delano Roosevelt the III and Prince Sultan Salman Abdulaziz Al-Saud. The prince, an astronaut and aviator himself, has flown just about everything. In 1985 he flew as a payload specialist on STS-51 G as one of a seven-member international crew. The shuttle Discovery was their means of transportation!
A large part of this reenactment was in support of several charities that work with handicapped children. Prince Sultan heads up groups in Saudi Arabia and in the U.S., while the author of the book, Dr. Michael Saba, is the Executive Director for Sanford Children’s Clinic in Sioux Falls, ND. As a result, also riding in on the DC-3 was none other than Jessica Cox! Jessica, born with no arms, had earned her pilot’s license the year before!
There is one last twist to the story. When it was Prince Sultan’s turn to say a few words, he mentioned that his son, who was in the audience standing next to me, had just soloed for the first time the day before. I congratulated his son and then asked him what aircraft he soloed in. He asked me why I would ask that question. I replied that I have been a flight instructor for 40 years and it was just professional curiosity. Hearing that, the Prince’s son asked me if I had any advice for him as he was now a new pilot. I explained to him that I had asked Joe that same question. Joe’s answer was that to stay at the top of their game, all pilots need is continuing education and training. But then I said, “What you do not know is that same advice was given by your great grandfather to your father. Your father had then discussed it that morning with Joe, who shared that discussion with me. What that means is that the advice that I just gave you actually came from your father!
Left to right – Delano Roosevelt III, Captain Joe Grant, his grandson Michael Grant, and directly behind him Prince Sultan’s son.
The fascinating Joe Grant passed away in 2010.