About Golden Age Aviation
Earl C Downs, President
By: Earl C. Downs
Golden Age Aviation, is in business to make a profit, but its reason for existing involves more than that. My interest in aviation, and in the stories of aviation, goes far beyond being a vehicle for profit. I have put my heart and soul into Golden Age Aviation. Perhaps if you know a little more about GAA, you will gain a better understanding of what I am about.
I grew up in Southern California. My parents did not fly or participate in aviation activities. Yet, the flying bug bit my twin brother, Ed, and me at a young age, and our parents “turned loose of the reins” when it came to our interest in airplanes.
In the late-1940s, a neighbor who was a Lockheed design engineer nurtured this interest. He and some Lockheed test pilots built four midget racing planes, called Cosmic Winds, (now referred to as ‘Formula One Racers’) in his backyard, and they allowed Ed and me to hang around. Only years later did we realize we were tutored by legendary test pilots Tony LeVier and Herman “Fish” Salmon. In 1956, at age 14, our grandmother loaned my brother and me $80 each to take a 10-hour flying course with Valley Pilots Flying Service at Van Nuys Airport in Van Nuys, CA. I can remember that first flight in the Aeronca Champ like it was yesterday.
Soloing on our 16th birthday and earning our private pilot certificates about a year later, we both chose to make aviation a long-term venture. We knew that our thick glasses and poor uncorrected vision would rule out airline and military flying, but we also knew that aviation was the career path we wanted to follow.
While in high school, we bought a 1941 Taylorcraft L2 for $850 and started logging time. We also started building a Wittman Tailwind but traded it and the L2 for a 1943 Aeronca Defender before the Tailwind was completed. We rode our bikes to high school because buying a car was not at the top of our list of priorities. By 1960, we realized that aviation training was a way for us to have careers in aviation; our corrected eyesight would not be a limiting factor in this field of flying.
During the 1960s, Ed and I continued to build flying time and add ratings as we moved along our career path. A Piper Tri-pacer was our next purchase, and we used it to obtain our instrument ratings. Ed and I paralleled our aviation careers in many ways, but not always at the same place or time.
I continued to add ratings and certificates and flew thousands of hours as a flight instructor and charter pilot during the tumultuous 1960s. In 1963, I joined the U.S. Air Force Reserve and served my active duty time in a C-119 unit at March Air Force Base in Riverside, California. During those days I owned a Ryan PT-22, which I kept at the nearby Flabob-Riverside Airport. I was a “ground-pounder” who worked in the command post, but many of the Air Force pilots knew I kept the Ryan nearby. Some of these pilots had never flown a plane like the Ryan so we struck a deal: you fly my plane; I fly your plane. That made my active duty days rather unique and led to some C-119 flying time for me--without the unit commander knowing, of course.
Returning from active duty in 1964 (I remained in the reserves through 1969), I earned an appointment as a designated pilot examiner (DPE), and I administered 926 checkrides over the next five years. I ceased giving pilot checkrides during my airline days (more on that coming up). In 2005 I became a sport pilot Special Pilot Examiner (SPE) and in 2018 was reinstated as a Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE) for all levels of pilot certification.
Working for several different companies during my “wild years,” I even did a stint as a meteorological research pilot for a company named EG&G flying for a rainmaking/fog dissipation project at Los Angeles International Airport. I flew a highly modified Beech Barron 56TC equipped with an internal hopper that could dispense 1,000 pounds of cloud-seeding material through a crop-dusting rig on the bottom of the plane. I would fly this plane to 100 feet AGL down the runway using the ILS and a RADAR altimeter, in zero visibility conditions, and dumped the rain-making dust along the runway. We were able to clear the fog just enough a couple of times for me see the ground, and I realized what a bad job this was.
This realization led me to accept a ground-based job at an airline. By the time I left EG&G in 1969, I had obtained my airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate and logged thousands of flying and instructing hours.
Trans World Airlines (TWA) hired me as a ground instructor, and I started teaching DC-9 systems to pilots at the Kansas City training center. Later, I moved to the Boeing 707 and then 727 airplanes. I earned my flight engineer certificate on the 707. I must admit, I love that airplane as much I do the Aeronca Champ.
The 707 was a classy airplane. I wasn’t a line-crewmember, but I was able to get some stick and rudder time in the big jets, and I flew many training flights as the flight engineer. My 23 years with this great company moved me into a whole new world of commercial aviation, but I always remained active flying small planes on my own time. I went to engineering schools, maintenance schools, management training schools, and kept my instrument skills sharp in the best simulators around at the time. As I progressed up the management ladder, I also picked up writing and editing duties.
In 1984, the TWA ground training center in Kansas City closed, and I was moved to the new training center in St. Louis, Missouri, as a manager of flight crew ground training. However, my yen to get back into small planes never died. By 1991 I was the Manager of all Flight Crew Ground training at the St. Louis training center and I had enough ‘points’ to accept an early retirement offer. I started looking for a place to start a general aviation business.
After looking at several options, I decided to reopen the abandoned fixed-base operation facility at Cushing, Oklahoma, in the fall of 1991. Golden Age Aviation started with fuel service and hangar rental, and it expanded to include a flight school by the middle of 1992. I added an airframe and powerplant (A&P) rating to my list of FAA certificates and opened a maintenance shop to complete our little operation.
In 1994 I started writing my Up With Downs aviation column for the local newspaper that was later picked up by a regional aviation newspaper known as The Oklahoma Aviator.
As my facility’s lease with the City of Cushing was nearing its end, I decided I needed to move my energy in another direction. I closed the FBO part of the business in 1997 and, among other ventures, I started becoming serious about my desire to make a new career in aviation writing. In 1999, I started writing articles for Flight Training magazine, and in May 2003 EAA welcome me as a contributor to their journalistic team. I collaborated with author Dan Ramsey to write a book titled, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Sport Flying, released by Alpha Press in February 2005. I also took over the publishing of The Oklahoma Aviator (a regional aviation newspaper), and this venture continued until the economic downturn in 2010.
I continued with general aviation activities which included getting back into the DPE business of providing Checkrides at the various levels of airmen certification. While I continued flight instructing and other aviation activities, giving flight exams really took over as my primary business. To this date, I have administered somewhere around 1,700 flight exams.
And now for the latest update. In the fall of 2022, I moved to Lee’s Summit, Missouri to be closer to my daughter, Sarah, and her family. The idea of retirement came to mind, but I don’t believe I would be very good at that. It remains to be seen what kind of business I can drum up back in Kansas City where my airline career began. By the way, the Lee’s Summit, Missouri Airport is a great facility.
So, there you are, and here I am. Golden Age Aviation, Inc. has morphed into a business that represents my many years of participating in aviation, and in my commitment to the furtherance of recreational aviation. I hope you now know me a little better, and I want to know you better.
While Ed and I never finished building the Wittman Tailwind, I did build a Kitfox Lite ultralight in 2003, and a Zenith Zodiac CH 601-B that took its first flight in September of 2011.