Sunday, June 17, 2018


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 him!”

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 controls.

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?”


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. 

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