Harrison Ford: The Aviation’s Greatest Advocate
July 2, 2014
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  • For the majority of the general public, exposure to general aviation only comes by hosting of a local air show. Very few are able to experience flight in a small private plane let alone understand the fundamentals of air travel and its impact on the local and national economy. As intimately familiar as pilots may be with these challenges, most lack the ability and character to connect with the non-aviation community.

    Someone with whom the public could trust and respect would need to step up and promote general aviation in a cohesive and personable manner. Who better than the man who epitomized characters displaying adventure, rebellion and determination on the silver screen? Hollywood aside, these traits flow deeply within the persona of Harrison Ford.

    Fascinated with aviation at a young age, Ford made a valiant effort to chase his dream. “I wanted to pursue my pilot’s license back when I was in college, just three lessons I think,” Harrison notes. “I think it cost about $11 an hour for a plane and an instructor, I just couldn’t afford it,” he explains. His eventual success in movies gave him the means to buy a Gulfstream G2 and later a G4 for whom he employed Terry Bender as his head pilot. “One day about 14 years ago Harrison came up to the cockpit talking about going after his pilot’s license again,” Terry recalls, “and he asked if I would be his instructor.”

    “I never lost the ambition to fly. I just hadn’t found the time,” says Ford. Acquiring a pilot’s license at the age of 53 at first seemed daunting. “I hadn’t before challenged myself to learn something that could be so formidable. I had great training, and it came in stages.” Starting with a Cessna 182, Ford mostly flew out of Jackson, Wyoming, and Teterboro, New Jersey, learning both demanding environments. “I love flying and, I love the airplanes themselves.” Since acquiring his private pilot’s license in 1996, Ford has amassed more than 3,500 hours of flight time in both rotorcraft and fixed-wing aircraft, and he holds Floatplane, Single Engine, Multi Engine, and Instrument Rating certificates along with being Type Rated in the Cessna Citation Sovereign 680. “In my life I have two roles,” he emphasizes. “One of them everyone knows about. It provides a means to the other, which I prefer.”

    It goes without saying that certain films have had an impact on his flying interests. He recalls the making of Six Days, Seven Nights where the script originally called for a Stinson Reliant as the aircraft of choice. Ford felt the deHavilland Beaver was a better choice and took the director to see one. The plane was recast. Initially the insurance companies forbade Ford to fly in the movie, but Ford persisted and finally met all of the requirements enabling him to log nearly 120 hours of flight time in the deHavilland before the movie’s completion. Though Ford says the five deHavilland aircraft used in the filming were “not the finest examples of the breed,” he managed to find one in Seattle that he had restored and has owned for about twelve years.

    Many of the locations in Six Days, Seven Nights, which was filmed in Hawaii, were accessible only by helicopter, and flying in a helicopter on a daily basis quickly piqued Harrison’s interest in piloting rotor-wing aircraft. By the time filming had come to an end, Ford had about 24 hours of rotor-wing piloting experience. Soon after, he completed his license requirements on the mainland flying a Robinson helicopter.
    “I never lost the ambition to fly. I just hadn’t found the time,”

    With both fixed-wing and rotorcraft certifications under his belt, he offered his aircraft and piloting services to the Teton County and Lincoln County Search and Rescue units. He has participated in two successful Wyoming rescues though he’s quick to give praise to the estimated 250 individuals who are full-time members of those organizations. “It was embarrassing to me to get credit for these saves when I was only a small part of this big operation,” says Ford humbly.

    Ford’s interest in flight led him on a journey not even the greatest Hollywood script writers could have imagined. In 2003 Ron Kaplan, Enshrinement Director of the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio, asked him to emcee a special Pioneers of Flight Homecoming gala honoring the Hall of Fame inductees. Kaplan notes, “Thanks to Harrison’s giving of himself to the Hall of Fame cause – passionately, patiently, and I must add, humbly – and the fact that when it comes to flying, he’s the authentic real-deal, our heroes and legends of aviation received the national spotlight they deserved.”

    Having been a member of the Experimental Aviation Association (EAA) and participating in the Young Eagle’s program since 1996, attending the Homecoming sparked an even greater appreciation for aviation. On March 8th, 2004 Ford accepted the position of Chairman for the Young Eagle’s Association follow founding chairman Cliff Robertson and chairman emeritus Chuck Yeager.

    “When the executive management of EAA approached me to become Honorary Chairman of the program, I did not immediately accept. I found it quite daunting to follow in the steps of Yeager and Robertson,” recalls Ford.

    “Mr. Ford is a joy to work with and extremely dedicated to aviation, like so many of our volunteer pilots,” notes Steve Buss, who has served as director of the program since 1995. “Just like Harrison, all the pilots want to provide a different kind of spark to a child’s life compared to video games or television. During his tenure as chairman, we’ve surpassed 1.5 million Young Eagle flights, which have been accumulating since the program’s inception in 1992.”

    Working with the Driggs, Idaho, and Santa Monica, California, EAA chapters Ford introduces children, and as a result their parents, to the joys of flying. Not only does the experience provide the groundwork for young people pursuing a future in aviation, but it also enables their parents to learn about the various aspects of the general aviation community. “The parents are excited that their kids are having a great experience and hopefully they will be more receptive to the aviation community,” said Ford. He’s flown kids in the deHavilland Beaver, a Cessna Caravan, Beechcraft B-36, and even a Bell 407 helicopter, and his only regret is that he doesn’t get to spend enough time with them individually.

    Dr. Rich Sugden, owner of the Teton Aviation Center and former president of the Driggs, Idaho, EAA Chapter 1049, remembers when Ford first became interested in participating in the Young Eagles Program. “He made it a point to be present at all of our Young Eagles Day gatherings, and after about three years of working with the children we asked him to be chairman of the national program. He’s a very conscientious pilot who flies several different categories of aircraft and helicopters extremely well. I would not have any concerns about having him fly my grandchildren anywhere.”

    In an EAA presentation, Ford explains, “One of the pleasures of exposing young kids to this experience is to excite in them an ambition to acquire the knowledge it takes to become a pilot and also to instill in them through your own enthusiasm that they too can acquire these skills and participate in aviation.” Since his involvement with the program, he has personally flown nearly 300 children with more than 500,000 children being exposed to the experience through the help of more than 40,000 pilots.

    On September 29th, 2009, Ford handed over the reins to the now legendary pilots of US Airways Flight 1549, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles. EAA President, Tom Poberezny praised Ford for his contributions. “Harrison Ford was an outstanding chairman of the Young Eagles program. He was an active leader, flying hundreds of young people. Just as important, he motivated thousands of pilots and EAA members to volunteer their time, airplanes, and personal experiences. He significantly elevated the visibility of Young Eagles and the impact it will have on aviation’s future.”

    Though the torch had been passed, his efforts towards the promotion of general aviation were far from over. In 2007 commercial aviation began to suffer due to the skyrocketing cost of crude oil. To turn a profit, airlines needed to raise the cost of airfare resulting in decreased consumer travel. A method airlines thought viable to regain some of their profits was to battle taxes imposed upon them that assist in maintaining general aviation airports and subsidize the FAA. In September of that year, the FAA’s Reauthorization Bill was up for renewal and the airlines were on the attack. Since funding has to come from somewhere, an alternative revenue source suggested by the airlines came through the idea of charging private pilots “User Fees”. This source of revenue is already being used in Europe, which has caused the average citizen to hang up their wings due to the burdening and unrealistic cost of aviation in the form of a pay-as-you-go plan.

    Since the average citizen is unfamiliar with the financial workings of the FAA and general aviation, airlines spread convincing propaganda through in-flight magazines. Once again, the aviation community needed someone to provide an advocacy role and relate to the non-flying community. Donating his time towards the efforts of the Aircraft Owners and Pilot’s Association (AOPA), Harrison Ford became the subject of numerous GA Serves America television campaigns asking the public to support general aviation during such challenging times.

    On April 27th, 2010 Harrison Ford went to Capitol Hill on behalf of AOPA to speak with Congress about the impact general aviation has on America. He states, “One of the things people don’t realize is the importance of the general aviation aircraft manufacturing business and the economic impact of community airports in this country which produce 1.3 million jobs and pumps $150 billion per year into the economy.” He illustrates, “People also don’t realize that general aviation is basically anything that’s not commercial, from EMS flights, Police, Civil Air Patrol, to public safety and emergency services. It’s everything from corporations flying their staff, to a John Deer dealer flying parts or a fisherman getting his fish to market.”

    “I can’t overstate the value of Harrison Ford’s contribution to protecting and promoting general aviation. He is a passionate and articulate spokesman, and by donating his time and his good name to this effort, he has really helped general aviation get the attention of decision makers. And because he doesn’t just talk about the value of general aviation–he routinely uses GA in humanitarian relief efforts, search-and-rescue operations, and for personal and business transportation–you simply couldn’t find a better voice to tell our story.” Explains Craig Fuller, president and CEO of AOPA.

    Of course playing the role of advocate can only go so far if you don’t walk the walk or talk the talk. It is here Ford excels.

    Deep in the heart of Northern Idaho, Ford joins two-dozen other pilots annually for a backcountry flying experience that would put the most hardened pilots to the test. While most arrive in Huskies or Cubs with oversized tires to tackle the terrain, Ford shows up with one of the few participating radial-engine aircraft, his trusty deHavilland Beaver. Over a four-day period, Ford and the other pilots will negotiate mountainous terrain performing multiple take-offs and landings on precarious hillside and riverbank strips.

    The annual excursion was organized by Dr. Sugden as a means of exercising understanding and awareness of treacherous terrain. With the majority of the pilots living within a half-day’s flight, currency in backcountry flying is a useful and perhaps life-saving skill.

    Following the devastating earthquake in Haiti, Ford piloted his Cessna 208 Caravan to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic from Santa Monica, California. After negotiating three days of foul weather to get to Miami, Ford utilized his backcountry training making several trips to a remote dirt strip in Hinche, Haiti. His participation helped deliver a team of 20 volunteers consisting of anesthesiologists, plastic surgeons, an orthopedic surgeon, eight nurses and critical medical supplies. Ford’s actions are credited with greatly reducing the amount of time it would otherwise have taken to get needed help to earthquake victims.

    For the week of July 17th through the 24th, Harrison Ford along with a several hundred other individuals and businesses have offered assistance to the Citation Special Olympics. The goal is to transport nearly 2000 Special Olympics participants to and from Lincoln Nebraska aboard various types of Citation model jets.

    In its sixth year, Cessna has reached out to their customers to donate their time and aircraft. With 2010 being only the second Special Olympics National Games to be held in the United States, Cessna is aiming to have more than 325 aircraft participate. Citation jets will be touching down on average every 60 to 90 seconds over a 15-hour period.

    To most of the world, Hollywood is a playground full of characters that seem to have lost touch with reality. Although the celebrities that grace center stage quickly become household names, to many, truly knowing them is something that will never happen. Thankfully there are a few that break that mold.

    In the eyes of the aviation community, Harrison Ford is not an actor, but rather an advocate for an incredible industry. His passion for flight is contagious and his actions generous. For those who are pilots and aviation enthusiasts, a great debt is owed for his contributions. For those who have yet to take to the skies, Ford says, “It’s never too late.”