My new friend Randy Soutiere at the Mesa Cessna Citation Service Center told me about a good friend of his named Larry Perkins and he thought we should meet him. Randy called Larry and Larry called me, and my dad and I drove over to his hanger where I met Larry and his very nice wife Peggy. Larry is a really neat guy who showed me a lot of great airplanes and stuff. He had some great stories. Here’s our interview – I hope you like it!
How did you get interested in flying?
“I got interested in flying when I was about five years old. I lived in the country in Arkansas in I'd never been that close to an airplane but I'd see them fly over and I was really curious about them. I’d even have dreams about little airplanes flying through the yard and try to catch them with a net and see what's inside.
“My first love affair with an airplane was with a P-51. When I was in high school I bought one of the books about the P-51. A checklist and instructions on how to fly the airplane was in the back of the book. I read it over and over and memorized it. During my senior year in high school I had a recurring dream about flying a P-51. In the dream, I was taxing out at the Merced Airport in the afternoon. The sun was shining on the back of the propeller and I could see the reflections of the sun. I would run up the engine then taxi on the runway, push the throttle up and then wake up every time. It was very frustrating. In fact I can remember my mother coming in and saying, ‘Larry you need to get up and get ready for school.’ And I said. ‘Mom, just give me a couple of minutes, I’m trying to finish this dream!’ Of course she had to know about the dream. To save my credibility, for many years I would not tell anyone this story without giving them Mom’s telephone number so they could verify the story. I had the burning desire to fly a P-51 for many years. About 16 years after the recurring dream, I got a call from my friend, George Perez. George asked me to watch him do his aerobatic routine and give him a letter of aerobatic competency. George also said, ‘When I come down, would you fly my P-51? I would like to stand on the ground and watch it fly’. I said, ‘George, do you have it insured?’ He says ‘No, even Lloyd's of London won’t insure it.” I thought, ‘Well, this may be the only opportunity I'll ever get to fly a P-51, so I'll do it.’ George said, ‘I'll send you the manual.’ I told him, ‘Don't bother, I have one and by the time I get down there I'll have it memorized.’ And I did. I watched him do his aerobatic routine and I issued his letter of aerobatic competency. George asked, ‘Would you like to fly the Mustang now or do you want to go to lunch first?’ I said, ‘I want to savor this experience a little bit longer…’ and we went to lunch. I don't remember the lunch! :-D We came back to the airport and George stood on the wing of the Mustang and gave me a cockpit check. He stayed on the wing until I got the engine started. I departed Madeira, California, and performed a stall and aerobatic maneuver to get acquainted with the airplane. The maneuvers brought me close to Merced Airport so I tuned in the tower frequency and called in. The controller recognized my radio voice. I had given him a check ride in a seaplane a few days earlier. He said, ‘Larry, give me a ride!’ I said, ‘No, you don't want to ride with me, I’ve never flown one of these before!’ He said, ‘I don't care I want a ride anyway! These radio transmissions were before I made my very first P-51 landing.
I landed it at Merced and I got clearance to taxi back for take off. As I taxied back the sun was shining on the back of the propeller and I suddenly remembered my dream. This was just like in my dream. It was the most eerie experience. I thought, ‘Is this my destiny. Will I not be able to takeoff?’ I pulled out onto the runway and pushed the throttle up and took off, retracted the wheels, let the airplane build speed, and at the end of the runway I banked at about 30° and pulled the nose skyward. Since that day, I have had the pleasure of flying several Mustangs many hours. However, flying George’s P-51 was literally a dream come true. George and I remain friends today and I've had an open invitation to fly his P-51 anytime for more than thirty years.
When did you get your pilots license?
“In 1961. I started flying in 1960 when I was a sophomore in high school. My family was very poor. My father was a migrant farm worker and no one in my family had ever ridden in an airplane much less flown one. I rode my bicycle to the airport at age fourteen and took a five-dollar ride. I was hooked. I rode my bicycle back to the airport the following weekend and got a job as a line boy and never looked back. I worked seven days a week at a rental yard, that later became US Rentals. The gentleman who founded the company, Gene Berry, was my employer and in the early days we could put everything the rental company owned in a Quonset hut when we closed at night. I worked seven days a week, 12 hours each on Saturdays and Sundays for quite a while to build up enough money to learn to fly. I got my private pilot certificate between my junior and senior year in high school. During my senior year, I would take classmates out to the airport and rent a little airplane and take them flying. For my senior prom dinner I double dated and rented an airplane and we flew from Modesto to Sacramento for dinner. It was a lot of fun. I only dated girls who liked airplanes and whose parents would allow them to fly with me :>) Aviation truly has been my life. I wouldn't trade it for anything.
Were your parents okay with you flying?
“Yes they were. They were very trusting and had no idea how dangerous what I was doing really was. When I was still living at home, I was flying charters at night over the Sierras in single-engine airplanes and if an engine failed, it would've been fatal for everyone on board. They didn't realize how dangerous it was and I probably didn't either.
I took them both flying. When I learned to fly helicopters I was flying for Harrah’s Club Casinos up in Lake Tahoe and Reno. I went out to Reno Stead airport and signed up for helicopter lessons. Once I learned to fly the helicopter, they trusted me to rent it. I invited my dad and mom and I took both of them up. My mom knew I was taking helicopter flying lessons and I had asked her to not tell dad. When they came to Reno, I took them out to show them the helicopter. I told Dad, “The instructors here have shown me how to start the helicopter and run it up.” I didn't tell him any more than that. I told dad that we never run the helicopters up without putting our seatbelts on just in case anything happens. I had him sit in the helicopter to watch me start it and run it up. ‘So then I pulled pitch and we took off. Dad’s first question is, “Do you know how to fly this thing?” I said, “Not very well!” That was my Dad and Mom’s first helicopter ride.
Larry, please share some cool flying experiences.
“I would say that the most recent cool experience is flying the Super Corsair. This is the only one still flying, as you know. I've always loved flying big radial engines and the 4360 in the Super Corsair is the biggest radial engine ever manufactured. I really enjoy flying this airplane. It is very easy to fly; even easier to fly the Mustang, if that's possible. It rolls straight as an arrow on the ground and has soft landing gear. You would really have to work to make it bounce, visibility is not bad, and the flight controls are very nicely balanced.
“I flew B-17’s off and on for over 30 years. I flew Sentimental Journey based at Falcon Field for ten years and I had a lot of neat experiences. The airplane itself is fun to fly and I trained their pilots and gave them check rides, and flew passenger rides to help keep the museum afloat. That's how I met my wife, Peggy. I was flying the B-17 on tour and landed at Camarillo for their airshow. Peggy’s flying friends told her that she should go see this B-17. She visited with the docents and asked questions about how to fly the airplane. While the docents knew how many machine guns the plane had, how many were built, how many were still flying, etc. they finally told Peggy to go talk to the pilot, he's the guy by the B-17 in the blue flight suit. Peggy came over and introduced herself and said she was a fifth-year grade teacher in Santa Paula, and that she taught aviation to her students. The airport had an open house the first Sunday of each month and Peggy would take some of her students as an incentive to do well. I asked Peg, “Where were teachers like you when I was in fifth grade?” My teachers had no interest in airplanes and I’d get in trouble for flying paper airplanes in the classroom. We visited for quite a while. I needed to do a training flight for the B-17 copilot. Peggy said, “Well maybe I should leave so you can get ready for your flight.” I said, “No, you should probably stay because I think I have an extra seat and if I do you're welcome to go along.” And she did. Later Peg asked me if I would fly the B-17 over her school tomorrow so her school kids could see it. I told her that I had another training flight tomorrow and I that I would do that. It is a short distance from Camarillo to Santa Paula. I called Peggy the next day via cell phone after we finished our run up, and told her that we would be over her school in about 10 minutes. As we flew over Peggy’s school, one of my crew members said over the intercom, “Larry, it says B-17! It says B-17!” I said, “you will have to be a little more specific, what says B-17?’ “Down on the ground it says B-17.” All the way across the school ground Peggy had lined up students from four classrooms to spell B-17. I thought to myself, “Man, this is some teacher!”
I kept Peg’s cell phone number and called her when got home from the trip. We talked on the phone every night for about two weeks. I told her that I was flying the B-17 up to Watsonville and Santa Cruz. When I did the Watsonville air show, I would stay with Gary in one of his guest rooms instead of the hotel. I told Peg that Gary has a second guestroom and that she was welcome to come to the air show and stay in Gary’s second guest room. So she did and as they say the rest is history! We got married two a half years later. As a side note, we got married in flight while piloting Puff the Magic Dragon, a C-47 that we restored with Gatling guns, etc. We had our entire wedding party on board and our friend, Reverend Vickie Jackson, was standing behind me. So I have to say that's one of my coolest experiences.
I was operating a small charter and flight school fixed base operation at Modesto, California in the early sixties before the days of cell phones and pagers. The FAA folks would come up once a month and give written tests and flight checks and while there in my office one day, I got a telephone call. The call was from the FAA office in Fresno and they said, ‘There's been an accident, are there any inspectors there?" And I said, ‘Walter Langham”. I handed the phone to Inspector Langham. They told him that Paul Corda had an accident while taking off in an Ag airplane at Westley, California. Learning to fly was a challenge for Paul. He eventually got his commercial pilot certificate and got a job flying Ag airplanes out of Westley. He was taking off on his first take off that day, when he lost control of the airplane and crashed in a sewer farm. Well, he would have died except when the airplane flipped over into the sewage, the rudder stuck on a levee and it kept the canopy up high enough that he had a choice to make. The parathion tank broke and it filled up the canopy with parathion so his choice was, die like a man in the parathion or break the canopy and fall into the sewage. Well, he took ‘Break out the canopy and fall into the sewage.’ Paul stripped off down to his underwear and the kids who loaded the Ag aircraft washed him off with a water hose. One of kids drove Paul to the hospital to have his stomach pumped. Meanwhile the FAA inspector who had been in my office drove to Westley. My employee, Instructor Jack Schultz and I jumped into one of our little training airplanes and flew to out to Westley. When we got there, the airplane, a Weatherly, was still sticking upside down out of the sewage with the rudders on the levy. Three of the funniest, most irreverent kids that loaded the Ag airplanes were really yakking it up. They thought that this was the funniest thing they had ever seen. About the time they were really wound up in their story, Walter Langham, the FAA inspector walked up behind the kids and the timing was perfect. One of the kids said, “I wonder when the “______” Feds are going to get here? And Walter rather indignantly said, “Well I'm from the FAA”. One of the kids turned around, looked up and down at Walter and said, “Well speak of the devil!” From there everything went downhill. The last question I remember Walter asking these kids before I lost my composure was, “Was the engine running when he took off?” And the kid says, “Mr. we didn't launch him with a rubber band!” It was hilarious. I had to take check rides with these guys and I was laughing like crazy and Jack Schultz was hysterical. Jack is a super neat guy with a great sense of humor. He could see something funny in everything.
About 40 years later Peggy and I had flown the B-17 or the C-47, I don’t remember which one, to Modesto for the airshow. We were standing by the door letting people go through the airplane. Paula Corda, had passed away, but his brother Ernie, walked up to the airplane. As I visited with him I asked if he knew the story about Paul's crash?” And he said, “Well I know he crashed.” While I was telling him the story that I have just told you, a man stopped on the stairs and stood there listening to our story. He said, “Hey, I was that kid that told the Fed we didn't launch him with a rubber band!” Small world, 50 miles away, 40 years later and here is this kid I'm talking about standing next to me. It sounds incredible but it's a true story. You need to call Jack Schultz and verify this story :>) Jack has made recent contact with that kid who is now about sixty years old.
Paul had more than his share of crashes. I was told that he only attempted one takeoff for that company. He got another Ag job flying a Stearman. I was told that on his first approach in a heavily loaded Stearman to spray beans and he flared too low. The aircraft wheels got tangled in the beanstalks and the Stearman flipped over. Paul got another Ag flying job flying another Stearman and yet another crash. A propeller blade came off and it jerked the engine out of the airplane. I was told that the aircraft went upside down into a barn. Paul came crawling out of the dust and was not seriously injured. I think that he had one other crash before the end of his short Ag flying career. Paul had used a lot of his pilot luck in by that time!
When I met Tom Flanagan I was between airline jobs and working at an FAA Flight Standards District Office in the seventies after my third airline had gone bankrupt.
FAA personnel had received a complaint that Tom was giving his family members flight instruction without a valid flight instructor certificate. Tom had been a world war two civilian pilot training program instructor, but had not converted his instructor certificate. The operations supervisor assigned the case to me for enforcement action.
I went to Tom’s home airstrip and talked with him. I provided him with all information needed to qualify for a valid flight instructor certificate and volunteered to administer the required flight test in Tom’s AT-6 aircraft. Tom got prepared to fly with me and passed the flight instructor practical test. No enforcement action was ever initiated. Tom and I developed a very close friendship that endured the rest of his life. In the years that followed, Tom lost several airplanes in a hangar fire at his home airstrip, including his favorite airplane of all time, his Beechcraft Staggerwing. There was no insurance coverage and the airplanes and hangar were a devastating total loss. In the summer of 2007, I called Tom’s wife, Roberta, and told her that I would like to have Tom fly into the Merced Airshow with me and get the oldest pilot award. The Flanagan family and I coordinated the flight. I flew a P-51 to the airshow then borrowed a generous friend’s, Nazy Hirani’s, Staggerwing and met Tom at Castle Airport. With the help of friends and family members, I lifted Tom into one of the pilot seats. We flew to Merced Airport with Tom manipulating the flight controls. Tom’s wife, Roberta, and grandson were onboard for the flight. Tom won the Merced Airshow oldest pilot award in his favorite type airplane at age ninety-five. This was a most special flight. It was Tom’s last flight. He died eighteen days later.
My friend, Steve Beam, had an Ag aircraft accident several years ago and became paralyzed from the neck down. He is as enthusiastic about flying as ever. I have taken Steve flying on several occasions and gave him a ride in Puff the Magic Dragon on his fiftieth birthday. I recently offered him a ride in the P-51. Steve immediately accepted. To get Steve onboard the P-51, we removed the canopy to lift him into the back seat with a parachute harness and a forklift. Steve’s great attitude and enthusiasm for flying make him the perfect flying buddy for cool flights.
So how did you get into flying airlines?
Getting an airline job is sometimes hit or miss. The supply and demand for pilots is a big factor. When I first got qualified and had enough experience to get hired by an airline, you couldn't buy an airline job. There was airline pilot shortage later and airlines couldn't find enough pilots. During the pilot shortage, I was a Captain for a major airline and I was also a member of the pilot hiring committee. I shared the privilege and the chore of finding enough qualified pilots. In those days getting an airline job was easier. Today, the airline pilot market is back the other way. If you're an aspiring airline pilot right now it will be more competitive because there are a lot of qualified pilots who do not have flying jobs. It varies with the economy and the times.
To get qualified possibly the best thing that you can do is become a military pilot or attend a quality school like Embry Riddle, which is one of the best of the best. I have to say that I hired almost every Embry Riddle graduate that applied. They were good applicants. They had at least average stick and rudder skills and were way above average, I mean the crème de la crème, in the knowledge areas. I knew that the graduates who applied with our airline were a known quality. In my opinion, that would be the best way to prepare for an airline career. I did it the hard way. I had very limited financial resources so I had to do it all on my own. I did not attend an aviation college. I did all kinds of general aviation flying to gain experience. That's how I became qualified. I had given warbirds and aerobatic instruction for several years, flown charters, flown corporate so when the airline industry opened up I had a lot of pilot experienced and got hired by four airlines, three of which went out of business.
I had copilots who were dedicated to flying. They were the best pilots and the best company on long flights. There were other pilots that were there because they couldn't make that much money and work so little in any other endeavor. They were sitting in the right seat, thinking about something else or reading the newspaper. The guys that were the best pilots were the people who came out to the airport on their days off and flew their Pitts Specials, instructed on the side, or flew for recreation. Not only were those the best pilots to have with you, but also they were the most fun to be with because aviation was a common interest. I feel for the pilots who were not interested in airplanes. They were probably in the wrong business! A career is a long time to spend doing something you do not enjoy.
Evan, it has been delightful to meet you and your father and I have enjoyed our visit very much.
Evan, your interest in aviation is remarkable and you are mature far beyond your years. Maintain enthusiasm and you will surely enjoy life. When people ask you where you work, tell them. “I don’t work. I am either off or I am pursuing my career in aviation and I enjoy aviation more than being off!!!” I don’t think it gets any better than that, Evan.
I was very lucky to get an interview with Larry, as you can imagine, he is a very busy person. My dad and I had a blast and I can’t wait to see him again!
Interview by me. Pictures by me, my dad, and many courtesy of Larry