John Miller, whose 101st birthday was last month, didn’t see the first Wright brothers flight in 1903 but he has been part of, or at least witnessed, most other important events in aviation’s 103-year history.
When he was 4, he witnessed the prize-winning flight by Glenn Curtiss from Albany to New York City in 1910. He watched as Charles Lindbergh took off for Paris in 1927. He made his first solo flight at 18 and became a commercial pilot with a paying job the same day. In 1931 he was Harold Pitcairn’s test pilot for the PCA-2 Autogiro (Pitcairn’s spelling) and became famous for his flights in Pitcairn and Kellett rotary-wing aircraft. He held a two-way, transcontinental autogyro record for 70 years.
After working as a United Airlines pilot for a year or so in the mid-1930s Miller became Kellett’s test pilot, and the pioneer rooftop mailman. He flew air mail from the roof of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Post Office to post offices in Washington, D.C. and New York, and for a year made ten such air mail flights a day from Philadelphia to Camden, N.J. He also worked with Eddie Rickenbacker to establish Eastern Air Lines in the air mail business.
During World War II he led the testing of various Grumman aircraft, including the J2F Duck for which he was production test pilot. Although a Marine Corps reservist, having joined a decade earlier, the Marines did not make use of him during World War II, apparently thinking him too old for service. He was, after all, in his late 30s.
Following the war he flew everything from DC-3s to DC-8s for Eastern until retirement in 1965, after which he ran a helicopter charter service.
Recently, he was awarded the National Aeronautic Association’s Henderson Award, which is given to those whose “vision, leadership or skill has made a lasting contribution to…aviation or space activity.”
Johnny Miller lost his driver’s license a couple of years ago, following an automobile accident, but still passes his FAA medicals and flies his Bonanza pretty much as he chooses.
“They’ve taken everything out of me that can go wrong,” he once told this writer. “I ought to live forever.”
We certainly hope so.