I haven’t grown up in a flying family but my friend Willie Turner sure did. Willie is the VP of operation at the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos. His dad was Bill Turner who ran “Repeat Aircraft” out of Flabob airport in Riverside. Willie’s dad flew Consolidated PBY “Catalinas” for the Navy in the European theater during WWII. His job was reconnaissance and rescuing downed flyers.
One time they rescued a German pilot in the Mediterranean who had been shot down. As they were flying back to base, they learned the German spoke perfect English and had lived almost all his life in the US and had even gone to Harvard. When his parents told him to return to the “fatherland”, he did. He hated the war because he loved America. He was very happy to have been captured and be returning to the USA as a POW. So as they were flying back to their base, they let the German visit in the cockpit because they found out he was an “all right guy.” Bill “Moose” Turner asked him if he’d ever flown a PBY. Of course he never had so Bill had his handcuffs removed and let him sit in the copilot’s seat and fly the plane. When they got back to the base, they put the cuffs back on him, had him go to the back of the plane, and landed. Shortly after landing, Bill was called to the commanding officer. The commanding officer said, “Moose, tell me you didn’t let a German POW fly your plane!” Moose started to explain when the CO said, “Moose, tell me you didn’t let an enemy prisoner fly your airplane.” So Moose started to explain, “no, you’re not getting it, tell me you didn’t let him“. Ok, I didn’t let him”, said Moose. ”Good”, said the CO, “and don’t do it again!”
After the war, Bill Turner stayed in the Navy and spent a lot of time ferrying airplanes for the Army. That gave him a chance to fly all the hot fighters in the inventory and even be certified for carrier landings. He loved it.
After leaving the Navy, Bill started “Repeat Aircraft” where he started building replica aircraft. The first plane he built was “Miss Los Angeles” which was a replica of a 1934 air racer and it first flew in 1970. The last airplane he built was a replica of the Turner-Laird LTR-14 that Roscoe Turner used to win the Thompson Trophy in 1938-1939. He also made replicas of the Gee Bee Zee, the de Havilland Comet DH.88, the Miles and Attwood Special which was the most winning racer during the big Cleveland air race years, and several others.
The de Havilland Comet DH.88 Bill Turner built
Willie’s mom got into airplanes after getting stuck in terrible traffic going to an airshow while Bill flew. He got there in 20 minutes and it took her 3 hours. She vowed never to drive to an air show again. She decided to get her pilot’s license but wasn’t satisfied until she built her own plane. In 1976 she built a “Fly Baby” and painted it pink and called herself the Pink Baroness.”
Willie grew up going to all the air races and air shows with his family and he loved flying. He remembers being very small and sitting on his fathers lap while flying. He was never pushed into it by his parents and during his teenage years, he raced motorcycles and had discovered girls. When he was 18, his parents told him they’d give him a plane if he got his pilots license. He realized that if he had a plane, he’d be the only kid at school with one and maybe he’s get girls! Unfortunately it was his moms pink plane and Willie knew he would not get any girls flying around the Bay Area in a pink airplane so he painted it the same red as his dad’s “Miss Los Angeles”.
Since Willie grew up going to airshows with his dad, he got to know all the racers and performers. That made for a natural progression to becoming an “Air Boss”. An Air Boss is like an air traffic controller except it’s at an air show. While Willie can do all the aerobatics an air show performer can, he says he doesn’t have the edge it takes to be a performer.
The Watsonville air boss wanted to retire so he called Willie to take over for him. He knew an airshow performer named Vern Dallman who ran a safety seminar every year at his ranch up in Woodland where all the top level air show performers would go to hone their skills. Vern was a salty, rough around the edges kind of guy. Willie asked Vern to show him the ropes at Vern’s show and help him out at his show. Before he knew it, Willie was running the briefing for Julie Clark, Sean Tucker, and almost all the other top west Coast Performers! For two days Willie ran the show and at the end, he said thanks and good bye to Vern expecting a pat on the back and a “good job”. Vern being the gruff guy he was said nothing. Willie thought he’d bombed at being an air boss. About two weeks later he got a letter from Vern that said, “This year, you air bossed but I took all the credit. Next year, you can get the credit” ‘So this was his way of saying I did a good job you’re invited back, and thanks. So I took that experience and went to the Watsonville show.”
“I’ve done 20-25 shows now, and they keep sucking me in! I really enjoy doing them but along with the benefit of special inside access comes a lot of responsibility.”
“One of my favorite air shows I’ve air bossed at was the Crissy Field opening in 2001. Delmar Benjamin was there in his Gee Bee. Eddie Andreini was there in his Stearman and the Vickers Vinny flew over. The show was all vintage aircraft but what was so cool about it was there wasn’t a typical air show crowd there. The place was packed. The weather was beautiful, the gates were open with no admission, no fog, and Eddie comes in and does a roll. The place went absolutely nuts when they saw that. The energy was incredible.”
“The other air show that I loved air bossing at was the recent one at Moffett Field called “Yuri’s Night” in celebration of Yuri Gagarin’s space flight. It wasn’t an airshow crowd and they loved it too.”
Willie will be air bossing at several shows this year and he can always be found at the Hiller Museum. That’s where I met him when I started doing Young Eagles flights. He runs the Young Eagles program out of Hiller and he’s a really great guy.
Interview by Evan Isenstein-Brand with a lot of help from Tim Brand
We found Bill Turner mentioned in the book "The Wrong Stuff?" by Phil Scott. The Goodyear tire and rubber company explored the idea of an inflatable rubber plane and had assigned Bill Turner to the project. Goodyear built 12 Inflatoplanes before it gave up the idea.
"I saw it attempt to fly, but it wasn't rigid enough. And it flew too slowly. Any kind of wind and it would fly backwards. It wasn't that easy to assemble and if you assembled it wrong you might get killed. Even if you assembled it right you might." Bill Turner