In a sense, Bill Miles has flown a great circle encompassing 73 years from his first solo in a Taylorcraft to the Taylorcraft he currently flies.
Bill was born in 1926, when his father was 62 and his mother 40.
“I was a surprise to all! I’m proud of my roots. My father was a sergeant in the Arizona Rangers prior to Arizona statehood, and then became a Cochise County ranger, and then a cattle inspector. He was sheriff of Pima County at Tucson during World War I, and deputy sheriff in Pinal County, Casa Grande for many years.”
“He was known as ‘Rye’ Miles and the old west outlaws considered him a very dangerous lawman,” Bill continues. “He passed on when I was 14.”
Bill didn’t want to be a burden to his recently-widowed mother, so when he was just 16 he fibbed about his age to join the Navy during World War II, and served on the U.S.S. Suwanee C.V.E. 27.
A Flying Start
Bill returned home when he was 19 and used the GI Bill to pay for flying lessons.
In 1949, he started working as an apprentice mechanic and part-time pilot for Anderson Aviation, the Piper distributor for Arizona.
“I have flown many different Piper types and over 80 different airplane types,” enumerates Bill. “The only old Piper I haven’t flown is a Vagabond, however I have flown a PA-14 on charters, and they are kind of rare.”
One among many interesting experiences Bill had was flying his Cub (outfitted with Whittaker tandem gear) for the Arizona Game Department during an antelope count near the Grand Canyon in 1951.
Another time, Bill was flying a new Piper Tri-Pacer from Lock Haven and following the radio beam from Chicago to La Crosse, Wisconsin, when the wings accrued a heavy coating of ice. He landed on Highway 80 and became an instant celebrity.
The residents of Richland Center welcomed him with open-armed hospitality, and there he stayed for two nights and one day until the weather cleared.
The local paper reported that “Miles was a likeable chap and everybody seemed anxious to help him get aloft safely …”
When Bill started a crop dusting company with a Super Cub in Buckeye, Arizona, his first job was electrifying. He had finished all the long passes in the field and had circled to make a header pass at the ends.
But “the sun glared across the windshield and impaired my vision. I saw some poles go by and pushed over to go down in the field and found that I had dived into a 12,000 volt three-wire power line. One of the wires became securely fastened to the airplane by an agitator propeller on the left side. The airplane began to fly an arc to the left and then would lurch straight and then start to arc left again as if it were a model on a guide line. The wire was mowing the cotton with high voltage and was brilliant with sparks,” recounts Bill.
“I realized I couldn’t get loose from the wire, so I turned toward the power line and landed in a field next to the one I was dusting,” he continues. “I took a stick and unwound the wire and took off. I had pulled one pole out of the ground and pulled off 10 cross arms and three wires were down for a mile — with no damage to the Cub or me. Quite a feat for a Super Cub!”
He later left Buckeye, moved back to Phoenix, and worked briefly for the Sheriff’s Office, but instead of riding horses as his father had done, Bill rode motorcycles and flew searches in a small plane. He participated in a high-profile case in 1954 by flying a low-level search over a wilderness area, looking for a fugitive who had kidnapped a prominent man’s wife.
Then around 1953 Bill started flying dusters for Jimmy Strnad’s Farm Aero Service.
“None of his airplanes had airspeed indicators — only engine instruments. He modified Travel Air NC8200 using the main landing gear from a Waco UPF-7, and the top wing had plates on the wing tips for additional lift,” elaborates Bill. “It had no windshield and no fuel gauge. We hand started the Lycoming R680s, and we used jumper cables to start any other engine type.”
Charting a New Course
Bill’s next job was flying a Bonanza and then a new Piper Apache for a local paving contractor until he was employed by the airlines.
“I put permanent dents in all the airports and roads and open desert areas all over Arizona for many years,” reminisces Bill. “I entertained myself by landing in places no one could believe an airplane could go, and I used to tow gliders in Scottsdale with my Super Cub.”
Hired by Bonanza Airlines in May 1958, Bill recalls with a chuckle, “The chief pilot asked me to fill out an application, and I said that I didn’t have a college education and wore glasses, and if that would keep me from being hired I shouldn’t waste his time. He said, ‘I don’t care what your personal problems are if you can fly an airplane.’ What a great guy! I flew the DC-3 for Bonanza, and through the merger process, I flew for Air West, Hughes Air West, Republic, and Northwest.”
In 1960, Bill had the fun of single-handedly ferrying a C-47 from a small dirt strip just outside the fence at Davis Monthan AFB Tucson to Charlotte, North Carolina. It only had one seat, no radios, and minimal instruments since it had been scheduled to be scrapped. It was salvaged at the last minute so it could be exported to Spain.
Bill also flew DC-9s for the airlines. Jim Hudgin, who flew as first officer with him, says, “I flew with Bill in my early days with the airline when I had very little experience and flight time because I was eager to learn the good points. I had — and still have — great respect for Bill.”
During Bill’s early airline career, he was furloughed and again was associated with the law — and the lawless! He flew a Piper Apache for the Sheriff’s Office in Phoenix, transporting prisoners from all over the country.
Ever embracing new opportunities, Bill happily acquired a type rating in a B-25 which he flew for Fike Plumbing on days off from the airline.
Bill retired from Northwest Airlines in 1986 after logging north of 29,000 hours flying the DC-3, Fairchild FA-227, FA-27, and DC-9. He completed his 28-year-career by serving as a check airman.
Years ago, Bill had the opportunity to do quite a bit of flying in a Ryan SCW.
“I rarely met an airplane I didn’t love, and the Ryan always made me feel like I was a great pilot, because I could land it so smoothly I couldn’t tell it was on the ground,” Bill chuckles. “But sadly, it was just the airplane’s great design, not my ability.”
Bill has owned a 40-acre pecan orchard in Lillian, Alabama, ever since his retirement. He says he has been “landing in the orchard below the pecan trees for years, which drives the natives nuts.” (Ban Farm Airport AL88.)
In June 2007 Bill was presented with the FAA Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award during a breakfast gathering at Shields Airport (AL55), and later received the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award.
“I fly my 1946 Taylorcraft BC-12D frequently and totally enjoy my time in it,” smiles Bill. “It seems to me that the obsession with new glass panels and autopilots doesn’t compare to flying with practically no instrumentation, and low-and-slow flying with a bit of a breeze coming in the windows.”
Though Bill has endured significant personal loss in his life — especially of his four sons and his dear wife — his internal fortitude and resilience is reflected by his upbeat and positive attitude toward embracing his life experiences while making new friends along the way.
A few years ago, Bill rebuilt mags and a carburetor for his friend Tom McFalls. Tom declares, “I don’t have many heroes, but Bill is my number one. He has set a high bar for all of us to try to achieve, as a pilot, mechanic, and most of all, as a man.”
With an eye to the future, Bill says, “I’m lucky to have had a long life with all its sadness and joys, and I’m looking forward to more.”