Joe Grant, Aviator
By Mike Coligny
One of Grant’s role models, his uncle Lieutenant Leigh Wade, one of two crewmembers for the Douglas World Cruisers Boston and Boston II.
Wade’s Douglas Cruiser Boston II, the DWC prototype pressed into service to complete the world flight when the original Boston was lost at sea.
Delano Roosevelt III, Captain Joe Grant, his grandson Michael Grant, and directly behind him Prince Sultan’s son.
During the summer of 2009, I received an e-mail in the days before EAA AirVenture Oshkosh of the same year, alerting me to the fact that there would be a press conference which 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 His Royal Highness King Abdulaziz’s DC-3, a gift given in 1945 to the Saudi royal family from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.Yes, Joe was the pilot!
I wondered if I could get a personal interview with Joe. To actually talk to someone who has flown for the last 80 years would be amazing.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. So I made some phone calls, and low and behold, I landed an interview with Joe for the next day! What a day it was.
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.
We met at the EAA Merchandise Warehouse. Off to one side of the area there was a sort of alcove where two couches were positioned with a table between them. Appropriately, all the couches were in use, but before Joe got there I was able to clear the area and reserve a couch for him and me. I looked up across the warehouse floor as Joe and his group made their way over. Joe and his son reached me first; we shook hands, arranged ourselves, and Joe and I began to talk.
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 [FARsJ]. I was a double-I [instrument instructor], 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 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 7-0, 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.”
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 that 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: Were 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.” [Lieutenant Wade is in fact credited with being the one of the group of first pilots 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) (www.SafePilots.org). 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 all aspects of the country including aviation. In fact, Joe said that it was still in place today, and that Prince Sultan had discussed it earlier that morning. The reason I mention this is that is the lead into what happened the next day.
The next day there was a re-creation of the gifting of the DC-3 by President Roosevelt to King Abdulaziz. A vintage DC-3 was brought into AirVenture’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 occurred as he just exited the aircraft. Also in attendance at the ceremony were the grandsons of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz –Delano Roosevelt 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 space shuttle payload specialist in a seven-member international crew. STS-51G 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 United States, while the author of the book, Dr. Michael Saba, is the executive director for Sanford Children’s Clinic in Sioux Falls, North Dakota. As a result, also riding in the DC-3 was none other than Jessica Cox! Jessica, born with no arms, earned her sportpilot certificate last year!
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 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. Which means is that the advice that I just gave you actually came from your father!”
The fascinating Joe Grant passed away earlier in 2010.
Mike Coligny, a VAA member and freelance writer, currently holds a master instructor accreditation, is a member of the FAA/Industry Joint Steering Committee and Helicopter Association International’s flight training committee, and is the vice president for new technology, Merlin Simulation, Inc.