A Friend Leaves the Planet

(First posted October 9th, 2011)

On September 29, 2011, General Aviation lost a stellar, yet, unspoken hero. So too did the communities who loved him. Though insufficiently acknowledged, Bill Warren was the chief diplomat, emissary and envoy of the Spirit of Flight. He was born in Port Angeles, Washington on October 13, 1946. His family’s farm was under the flight path for the local airport. Ronn Dilling, Bill’s first cousin, reports that ever since Bill was three years old he gave his attention to airplanes and flying. As a child, if Bill was not watching planes from the farm, he was at the airport.

At eight years old Bill’s family moved to Medford, Oregon. He became a fixture at its airport. Bill first held the controls of an airplane, in flight, at age ten. From that moment, flying became the center of his life. Bill was fifteen when he got his private pilot certificate. Save for a brief stint in a city Parks Department, Bill’s career was aviation. He flew every type of aircraft except jets. It is said, if a plane can be started, Bill could fly it.

Whether flying Mercy flights, dusting crops and local orchards, providing air support for wild land fire suppression, dispersing airport fog, or shuttling planes, Bill was the one for the job. So too, he performed aerobatic stunts in the movies, founded a flying circus in which he designed and performed previously unseen aerobatic maneuvers. He was one of the main attractions in regional air shows in the lower forty-eight and Alaska.

Bill trained new pilots and tested those with experience as they sought new ratings and to maintain current certifications. Too, Bill provided flight knowledge training courses at Rogue Community College. Over the course of his career, Bill experienced nineteen engine failures – each time – through deploying his keenly developed attention, knowledge and behavioral skills rendered nineteen successful landings.

Bill Warren was out of sync with modern aviation. He seemed better suited for flying with the legendary French pilot and author Antoine De Saint-Exupery – or better still, being a character in one of his novels. Too, Bill’s soul was a contemporary of author and pilot Richard Bach.

Although Bill owned many airplanes his plane of choice was a 1946 Taylorcraft. Like himself, the T-Craft was lightweight and free from contemporary excesses. Flying a T-Craft, he would say made necessary that a pilot be a Pilot, god damn it. A T-Craft is affected by the subtlest movements of air. It’s just a big kite. You cannot power your way through anything – the pilot has to fly and fly well!

But for a few, all gauges and instruments were concealed and unreadable in Bill’s plane. To him, autopilot, GPS, and speed indicators were the pernicious bane of General Aviation. Pilots need to feel the tiniest motion of the weight shifts in their body…their body informs the pilot moment to moment of how the flight is progressing, how the plane is performing, and when to apply the controls. This is flying.

Bill was adamant that people already know how to fly! He would point to birds of prey riding the thermals and say – we are made of what they are made of. What is in them is in us, god damn it! Stop thinking and feel. You KNOW how to fly! Yes, he would say, there are things you need to learn to pass the test. And, there are things you need to know to be safe, but you already KNOW how to fly! Everyone does! Now, go over there and catch those thermals and get some altitude without having to work for it, god damn it!

Bill’s plane was named Simply Magic. She knew how to fly. Let the plane do her work, he would say. Stop over-controlling the plane. The pilot’s job is to relax and pay attention to the energy you are feeling in your body. It will tell you everything. Scan for other planes noticing too the altimeter and compass. Listen to the sound of the engine, and, in a relaxed way, gently slowly make what corrections are needed. Let the plane fly itself. It has much to teach us.

Those of us in Bill’s world could not – not – love him. It was simply impossible. Yet, he was often oblivious to the fact that his disdain for conformity, specifically to social contracts of interaction, was, at times, difficult for others. There are those who permanently closed their hearts to him. Bill could be a pain in the ass. Although Bill loved women, he did not protect them from the aspects of men that are best reserved for the company of men.

So too, Bill could be ornery in the way a wizard would be: messing with people to tease them – to shake them from their foibles. Women tell me he was naughty. I believe them. He fancied raising a Rolling Rock beer as oft as he could.

I read some place that some heroes need be defined by their greatness rather than their foibles. I contend this is the case for each of us. This is so regarding Bill Warren. His staggering genius, talent and abilities as a pilot and flight instructor are overshadowed by two other qualities of character. One: The profoundly delightful light of his heart – albeit issuing from behind turbulent life circumstances. Two: his profound respect, appreciation and love for children and young people.

The buoyancy of Bill’s heart and his work with young ones are his magnum opuses! Children and young people knew that Bill saw them! They knew he loved them! They knew he empathized with their circumstance! They knew they belonged in the world when with Bill! Lastly, they knew they were safe with Bill and from him!

Bill Warren, you have my love and deepest respect! I trust you are fog free and aloft in smooth air. I am privileged, heartened and changed – bettered – for having known and learned from you. So long my friend. Oh, one last bit: A poem.

Late Fragment

And did you get what 
you wanted from this life even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
             ~ Raymond Carver