Wilson Gilliam, Jr.
A minute few of us have been clairvoyant enough to accurately predict the zigging and zagging that our aviation career paths would take. Most of the time, people become aviators before they know anything about the lift formula (what’s that?). The lure comes from within. Getting pushed back in the seat of an airliner on take-off, time with a parent at an airshow or watching a bird hovering in a strong wind can be the single experience that sparks a welling up inside that fuels the pursuit of an aviation career.
If aviation is important to you, it’s important to remain committed. With setbacks and direction changes inevitable, maneuver for a new angle in the face of a closing door.
For me, it all had to do with my uncle Roland and my first flight with him when I was five years old. We climbed into a Cherokee 140 in Southern Pines, North Carolina and after a few gentle, low G pushovers, I was hooked.
Roland went on to build his own airport (Gilliam-McConnell Airfield, 5NC3), pull banners at sporting events (before this was severely restricted), perform acrobatics and fly gliders. He included me in all of those experiences and he fostered a deep appreciation of aviation that will be a part of me forever. I also learned a few things about what not to do from our time together. Looking at water tanks under a lowering cloud deck to find out where you are is not a safe and proper way to navigate. Yes, I learned to fly without Loran, or GPS. I also learned that screaming into the mike and wearing no headsets will lead to hearing loss. Protect your ears. OK, back to the story.
We later started a small flying club together and I taught squirrelly students to fly in an Aeronca Champ. I never needed a tailwheel endorsement because of my early taildragger time. I fell under the “grandfather clause.” That makes me feel old.
I soon realized that my 20/400 vision didn’t meet the standards for airline pilots. I knew that the Russian military was providing a new surgery (called radial keratotomy) for their conscripts that didn’t have perfect vision. I began to do a little bit of research. Several countries offered a new, laser form of the surgery called PRK (photorefractive keratotomy).
After travelling to Canada for highly successful PRK, I was discouraged to learn that the procedure disqualified me from flying for one of the major carriers. I could see 20/15 (better than normal) but the risks of the procedure were still unknown. So, to keep my connection alive for flying – I became a rotor head. I felt that having a helicopter license would offer me greater flexibility in the world of general aviation.
During the week, I would tamp dirt in backfilled utility ditches (water and sewer line) to earn enough money for my helicopter lessons. I quickly realized that my modest paycheck would only afford me an hour a week in the cramped, Robinson R-22 helicopter. My instructor, Jeff Picklesimer and I filled up the only two seats pretty well. Space was so limited that we couldn’t put our seatbelts on at the same time.
I remember seeing a Robinson R-22 helicopter for the first time. I thought it was a radio controlled model. I kept looking around the hangar for the real aircraft. My doubts were finally erased when Picklesimer opened the hangar door and put the wheels down on the tiny white helicopter. Yes, we were flying that one.
Even though the R-22s I took lessons in were challenged in size, they were effective training machines. The sensitivity required to fly them set me up well for later transitions into the Bell Jet Ranger aircraft. I began flying the R-44 (the four-place Robinson helicopter) years later in Key West, Florida as part of a new tour business. I found the transition between the two helicopters almost seamless.
I finally earned my helicopter CFI ticket and decided to start a new business. Having somehow convinced Schweizer Aircraft Corporation to lease us a single Schweizer 300Cb helicopter – a new business was born (though with no customers at the time).
One of the most integral keys to success is meeting the right people at the right time and taking advantage of opportunities. We met with our local utility company and earned the respect of a staunch ally in charge of electric transmission lines. We began patrolling power lines with our Schweizer 300 and soon developed a contractual relationship with one of our local television stations. I can still remember dropping video tapes on top of the TV station in downtown Norfolk just in time for the news. At the end of year one, who would have thought that my new helicopter company would have two, important contracts that paid the bills! Some of it was luck; most of it was hard work.
The company grew rapidly after those first exploratory years. As the result of a changing regulatory environment within utilities, we began pipeline patrol flights in twelve states (covering over 15,000 miles per month at one point). We began developing other business offerings that included LiDAR, gyro-stabilized video and live power line repairs.
Throughout my time at the company, I continued to fly and maintain a connection with aviation. I became a Designated Pilot Examiner and served as the Chief Pilot of our 133, 135 and 141 programs. It was quite a sixteen year adventure, finally coming to an end with the sale of the business in January, 2014.
Pursuing my interest in aviation offered me the incredible satisfaction of owning my own business. I was affiliated with great people and family, many types of flying and the type of varied experience that few pilots see over the course of their aviation career. None of this would have been possible had I not listened to that little voice within, whispering to me about growing some wings.
Your story will probably read a little differently than mine, but it probably won’t be less interesting. An aviation career offers many different opportunities. You may be an airline pilot or a live line helicopter pilot. Just remember this advice – no showing off (usually preceded by whistling and then a crashing noise), take advantage of opportunities, be loyal and remember that your reputation follows you around.