Like so many of my Boomer vintage, my father is
absent this Father’s Day.Dad departed
the pattern in 2014, not quite ninety-two.I was with him early that morning when he stopped breathing, as I had
been with my mother fourteen years before.Just “luck of the draw” that I was present both times, as my brothers’
time slots had been determined well before.
Because so much of my life revolved around aviation,
when I think of Dad I recall our times together not only flying but restoring
and maintaining antiques and warbirds.
Like his father, my dad was really smart—engineering
bright, and he entered Oregon State intending to graduate with an aeronautics
option.But along the way he got a
chance to work with Douglas Aircraft in the LA area.In 1941 the company was straining to meet
production goals, and Dad’s education landed him a job as a draftsman.He was impressed with the DB-7 which the Army
Air Force called the A-20, a sporty twin-engine, single-pilot light bomber with
a gunner and occasionally a bombardier.Rumor Control held that the Marine Corps was going to get Havocs, and
that sounded really good…
Jack Tillman became an excellent aviator.He’d partly completed Navy flight training in
World War II when events intruded, but he retained the precision attitude
toward flying that was a naval trademark.
More significantly, Dad conquered the potentially
debilitating polio that he contracted after the war.He visited a friend in Puerto Rico—one
“Honest Joe” Foster whose social circle included playwright Thornton Wilder of Our Town fame.Apparently there had been an outbreak of
polio on the island dating from 1942, and Dad was one of hundreds of victims,
then age 24.
Dad’s often-absent father, J.H. Sr., partly oversaw
Dad’s treatment in a Portland hospital.Sr. made a lot of money in the construction business—he had bid on the
Golden Gate Bridge—and was more lavish with funds than attention.But the one thing he did right was to bring
Dad’s 80-pound Doberman to the hospital.Dad could hear Clipper’s approach by the growing chorus of Eeks and
laughs as the dog approached Dad’s room.Clipper leapt onto the bed, delighted at the reunion, until someone in
authority demanded his removal.Dad,
ever the pragmatist, said, “You remove
Clipper stayed awhile.
Upon release, Dad began rehabilitation.Both his lower legs were badly atrophied, and
he walked with a pronounced limp the rest of his life.I remember seeing the Canadian walking sticks
in a closet at the ranch house before we moved into town in ’57.In 1947, a year before I was born, he boarded
Blaze, his buckskin mare, slung the sticks across the saddle with his
Winchester Model 70, and rode into the Blue Mountains to hunt elk.At that point my mother told her parents,
“I’m going to marry him.”
In the 60s Dad built the ranch into a major feedlot
operation but refused to be separated from aviation.He had grown up around aircraft, occasionally
cadging rides at Portland’s Swan Island Airport with aerobatic legend Tex
Rankin.It was then the largest flying
school in the country.Dad sailed to
Alaska and the Yukon as a teenager and enjoyed rides in Bellanca
floatplanes—classic examples of aviation’s Golden Era.
Dad flew occasionally after the war but returned to
aviation full time in the late 60s.He
bought a former crop sprayer—a 1940 Naval Aircraft Factory N3N-3 biplane
trainer--in Colorado, had it restored to airworthy condition.With a friend he flew it out to Pendleton,
Oregon, in 1967 where the restoration was completed.Subsequently when we re-opened Barrett Field
at my hometown (Athena, Oregon, population c. 950) he built a permanent hangar
and we based the Yellow Bird there until Dad sold it c. 1985.
Meanwhile, Dad and two friends acquired what was then
the world’s only flying example of the Douglas Dauntless, the war-winning Navy
dive bomber of Midway and Guadalcanal fame.Around 1970 they traded Multnomah County (urban Portland) straight
across for a new Cessna Ag Wagon spray plane, and a two-year restoration
began.Finally Dad bought out his
partners, and we completed the Army A-24B as a Navy SBD-5 in 1972.I was blessed to fly six or eight hours with
Dad in “the Doug” as he called it, forming the basis of my first book, an
operational history of the SBD in 1976.Forty-two years later the book remains in print.
Eventually Dad sold the Dauntless to Oklahoma
collector Doug Champlin, beginning one of the cherished relationships of my
life.In 1982 I moved to Arizona to run
Champlin Fighter Museum Press, and spent four memorable years there.Doug died in 2013 but he remains one of the
touchstones of my professional and personal life.
Along the way, I flew nearly 600 hours with Dad—mostly
in the N3N.It’s a “rudder airplane,”
requiring dexterity on the pedals, but despite his residual polio, Dad was
complete master of the Yellow Bird.
I will always remember one particular flight:
Normally approaching for landing, Dad would shake the
stick indicating that we were changing pilot-in-command. Usually it was obvious because one or the
other was driving.One afternoon,
approaching Barrett Field, the stick quivered and I eased my connection with the
The N slid down the glideslope, the Wright rattling
away, and I followed through on the controls as I normally did.
The bird paid off at about 45 knots, settling onto
the 1,500-foot grass strip in a perfect three-pointer.Soft as an angel’s kiss.
When Dad cut the throttle and mixture he lifted one
flap of his cloth helmet, turned around in the front cockpit, and said, “That
was the best landing you ever made.Why
can’t you always do it like that?”
Um…ah…I THOUGHT YOU WERE FLYING!
Eventually I wrote a poem about that episode,
available on my website.
However, Dad was interested in things beside
aviation.Apart from the independence he
enjoyed as a rancher, he was also civic minded.He served on the board of the hospital where I was born, drove the local
ambulance, organized and funded the rural fire department, supported our Boy
Scout troop, and provided land for the sheriff’s department to build one of the
finest shooting ranges east of the Cascades.
That was Jack Tillman—a mentor to young men in two
states and dogs of all ages everywhere.
Barrett Tillman grew up on an Oregon wheat and cattle ranch, where he was exposed to agricultural aircraft at an early age. He learned to fly at age 16 in 1965 and became involved in restoration and flying antique aircraft. With his father he owned and operated two WW II navy planes: an N3N-3 biplane trainer and a Douglas SBD-5 dive bomber. The latter led to his first book, an operational history of the Dauntless. Graduating from the University of Oregon with a journalism degree in 1971, Tillman worked full-time as a freelance writer. In addition to writing or contributing to 50 books, he has also written some 650 magazine articles. He founded Champlin Museum Press in Mesa, Arizona, in 1982, and served as managing editor of The Hook magazine in San Diego 1986-89. Since 1990 Tillman has been a full-time writer and novelist. His work has been honored with five awards for history, biography, and literature.