Today, a mailbox in Warren, New Jersey, should be overflowing with birthday cards and good wishes. The occasion? It’s the 90th birthday of Jack Elliott, longtime aviation columnist for The Newark (NJ) Star-Ledger. Longevity did not win this praise; it was Jack Elliott’s storytelling and his “human interest” focus on people who fly.
Elliott’s Sunday column “Wings over Jersey” was probably the longest-running aviation column in the history of the business – some 38 years from 1963 to 2001. And he did his magic in the “newspaper of record” for his entire state, a place where politics, corruption, crime and exploding suburban growth were the usual grist. How could he do it?
Aviation is a niche player in society, so newspaper people usually cover only airline travel, accidents and (in certain communities) stories about manufacturing or defense industries. Such writers today soldier on in Seattle and in Washington, at The LA Times (Ralph Vartabedian and others), The New York Times (Matt Wald, current successor to the legendary Dick Witkin) and at The Wichita Eagle (the now renown Molly McMillan.) There used to be many more even in my time, some very attentive to GA, at papers such as The Arizona Republic, The Tulsa World and more.
So how could Jack Elliott be an advocate for GA in a general audience newspaper? He did it by telling stories about all of aviation from many different angles. Even non-flyers were interested.
Surely some were veterans of aviation’s extensive heritage in New Jersey. (Not for nothing is there a Bendix Diner west of Teterboro Airport, once the site of Bendix and Curtiss-Wright factories.) But many others followed Jack’s tales of average people (and the occasional New York celebrity) embracing GA.
Elliott did profile celebs such as Skitch Henderson, the NBC Tonight Show’s original musical director, using his Teterboro-based plane. The hook? “Skitch Henderson finds music in the air, too.” Nice! And Jack had no trouble getting the self-promotional Arthur Godfrey talking about his flying. The list went on, from Barry Goldwater to Johnny Carson, Hugh Downs and Mitch Miller.
Most effective, however, were Jack’s stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things through aviation. “Off-Duty Linden Cop Pounds Flying Beat” was one. Another featured a local Catholic priest who used aviation in missionary work.
Jack was skilled in communicating how aviation, specifically GA, contributed to society. Especially poignant was his early coverage of flying programs for the disabled.
He also covered the epic growth of business aviation around the New York corporate world. But again, he put it in human terms. A local Fortune 500 aviation manager told Jack’s readers, “The best thing about aviation is that when you go to work, you are surrounded by people who are living their dream.” Bingo!
Jack’s implied message: You can (and should) do this yourself! He covered a tractor-trailer driver who dreamed of being a corporate jet pilot and made it happen. One reviewer commented, “… (Jack) tells the feats of ‘ordinary people’ who found within themselves the greatness flying can bring.”
Another time, Jack frankly explained the costs of owning an airplane — and back then easily related it to car ownership.
Jack would fly his Stinson Voyager or ‘68 Piper Arrow around the state gathering stories. Associations and others generously praised this work, from the 1973 NBAA Journalism Award to the 1999 AOPA Max Karant Award for Lifetime Achievement. All would also recognize Jack Elliott the human being, the one who was always getting aging World War I ace Ray Brooks out of the house and meeting people at various aviation events. Elliott was inducted into the New Jersey Aviation Hall of Fame in 1986.
Jack himself hasn’t slowed down too much, apparently. A website photo shows him in 2010 at an LA event with Buzz Aldrin. Another has him with Hilary Swank (at the time playing Amelia Earhart in “Amelia.”)
His recent book, “Adventures in Flying” (a compendium of 141 “Wings Over Jersey” columns) is available on Amazon.
And Jack’s son, Stephen Schapiro, is following Dad’s path, including two years at EAA Sport Aviation as senior editor. He now regularly contributes to the pages of General Aviation News.
Jack said of his life’s work: “I wanted to bring the excitement, the thrill, the beauty and the rapturous sense of freedom associated with … flying to the average reader.”
We in the industry gossiped about how long The Newark Star-Ledger would let Jack get away with it. The plug was pulled on Dec. 30, 2001, a few months after the attacks of 9/11.
In his last column, Jack said, “… we took off on this journey (because) General Aviation had a colorful and exciting story that wasn’t being told. It (was) about ordinary people…who found in flying something that enhanced and enriched their lives.”
For pilots, for the industry and for his many loyal readers in New Jersey, Jack Elliott truly preached “The Winged Gospel.”
Thanks to his ever-present wife and partner Esta-Ann, Jack’s friends are filling his mailbox today with timely good wishes and many, many thanks. Happy Birthday, old friend. You’re an inspiration to us all.
© 2014 Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved