The skies are more than friendly for Scott Williamson. They’re his home.
Sure, on terra firma, he lives in Ahwatukee but the retired commercial airline pilot’s heart soars when his immediate neighbors are wispy clouds and a sea of blue.
“It’s just a part of me, a form of self-expression for me,” Williamson explained. “When I’m up in the air in my airplane, I feel at home. I like the feeling.”
That feeling has been with him since 1970, when a twist of fate put him in his first cockpit at age 23 as a Navy recruit. After seven years as a naval pilot, he flew commercial airlines, first for now-defunct Braniff from 1978-85 and then Southwest before he retired in 2007.
Retirement didn’t ground him, though.
Indeed, even before he turned in his Southwest wings, he started building an experimental, four-seater Bearhawk. And in 2017 – 13 years after he started – he had his own stairway to the heavens.
Often accompanied either by his wife May Beth and their dogs or friends like Ahwatukee resident Kevin Deutscher and fellow Bearhawk owner-pilot Pat Fagan of Paulden, Arizona, he has crisscrossed Canada and the United States, often zooming into remote camping areas otherwise accessible only by boat or horse.
Last month he chalked up a new adventure in the skies: With Fagan flying his own plane and Deutscher riding shotgun in his own, Williamson visited all 89 airports and two air museums in North Dakota in 10 days.
Before getting to the significance of that accomplishment, some history is in order, starting with how he became an airborne adventurer in the first place.
In 1970 at a California community college, a Navy recruiter overheard Williamson complaining that he was going to get drafted.
“He said, ‘Hey, come back here at noon I’ll get you an immediate deferment if you pass these two tests and all you got to do is go up to Alameda and take a physical.’ I had no idea what it was for. All I knew is the guy offered me a deferment and it turned out it was for a naval aviation program.
“I passed the two tests and it was one of those twists of fate that happen in your life. A door opened and I walked through it. I didn’t have an affinity for flying airplanes and I had no interest prior to that time at all.”
That twist of fate decades later led to another adventure that might be described as a pilot’s version of buying a piece of furniture from Ikea: assembling a 17-foot-long airplane with a wingspan of 33 feet and a take-off weight of 2,500 pounds.
Years of toil
“You can build it from scratch with plans where you make everything and that’s how Pat built his,” Williamson explained. “I kind of cheated a little bit. I purchased what’s called a quick-build kit where most of the welding is done on the airplane. I’m not a welder.”
For several years, he was still a commercial pilot, so the project occupied many hours on his off-days.
“I was a fairly senior captain so I was basically able to work three, with four off,” he said of his days.
Those four days were hardly spent kicking back.
“lt would consume the whole day,” he said. “Part of the experience of building an airplane is how much you learn about stuff you didn’t know how to do. It’s a love-hate thing. It really is. You love it some days, then you hate it other days. But it’s for personal growth. I was facing retirement and I wanted something else that would continue to challenge me and I already was in aviation and we really enjoy camping. So, it was just hand-to-glove for what we wanted to do and it was a great experience and still is a great experience.”
About six years into that labor of love, May Beth had an idea.
“When we were first building the airplane, the plans we were building the airplane from were like a puzzle to us. We didn’t quite understand and she said, ‘You know, Scott. if we had another airplane to go by, a similar airplane, another Bearhawk to go by, it’d be easier building ours and you’ll have something to fly.’”
So, Williamson and his wife had a plane to fly in while he was building another. They’d pack the dogs, camping gear and enough provisions and head for back-country regions of Utah, Idaho, Arizona and other states.
When they weren’t on an adventure, he’d be hard at work at his Chandler Airport hangar working on the plane.
“I had a lot of help from my friends,” he said. “My wife did the fabric on the airplane. She did a great job on the fabric and she did the upholstery on the seats and she was with me on most of the major decisions about how we were going to outfit the airplane.”
Then, in 2017, he took his homemade Bearhawk on its maiden voyage at Chandler Airport.
“I was a little concerned going up in an airplane I built,” he recalled. “You start thinking ‘Did I tighten this up? Did I measure that correctly?’ All these things go through your head. I knew the engine was good because it was put on a test … It flew like a dream. It went really, really well.”
It performed superbly last month too when he went on his North Dakota adventure.
On to North Dakota
The trip was organized for the most unlikely of reasons: His friend Pat wanted a leather jacket.
It’s the prize awarded by the Flying Legacy Program sponsored by the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission and the state’s Department of Commerce.
The jacket – which isn’t handed out until a banquet in December for all the pilots who complete the program – is the prize for zigzagging across North Dakota and visiting all 89 landing strips – as well as the two museums and sit through three lectures.
Actually, Williamson exceeded the airstrip goal, since he also swooped in for a 90th landing that isn’t part of the Flying Legacy Program. He decided to visit a friend for lunch, so he landed his plane on the friend’s farm.
All in all, he said, the North Dakota trip “was an immensely fulfilling experience.”
“It was so beautiful up there,” he said. “Every little town of 1,000 to 2,000 people would have a landing strip and North Dakota supports their landing strips little terminals, Lazy Boys, a kitchen, a flush potty, sometimes the shower and there’s always a couch. So, Pat and I would set up our cots and Kevin would sleep on a couch.”
For 10 days, they’d get up at the crack of dawn and, following the itinerary they had mapped out before leaving Arizona, would fly from one strip to the next – Williamson and Deutsch in one plane and Fagan in the other.
They hit a record 17 strips one day. Their worst was a day when it poured so hard that they couldn’t fly. Instead, they used a courtesy car – most of the strips make one available for pilots – and drove to four strips.
At each strip they landed, they’d have their Fly North Dakota Airport Passport stamped – needed proof to earn those leather jackets. Sometimes at night, they’d use that airport’s courtesy car to visit the nearby tiny downtown and look around, maybe have a real dinner instead of camping chow.
And at most every airport, they’d meet someone.
More doors to walk through
“The people in North Dakota were so nice,” Williamson said. “Sometimes some of the people would call their brother and sister and friends over. It was pretty amazing. They were all so friendly. It renewed my faith in America, to tell you the truth. There are some good, good people out there.”
With two or three exceptions, moreover, the airports were remarkably well maintained.
One terminal in the western half of North Dakota, home to numerous oil drilling operations, stunned the three fly-mates.
“It must have been professionally decorated because it was so opulent. It had a remote-control fireplace. It had marble floors. Everything was immaculate. It had a fully stocked kitchen. Then there were three or four airports that were really rough. There were no accommodations. The runway was rough. We landed there anyway. It was a challenge.”
Though North Dakota is largely flat, the bird’s eye view of the terrain impressed Williamson.
“You get up 1,000 in the air and the terrain changes, depending on how the farmers till their fields,” he said. “There’s rolling hills, the crops are just coming up. In the eastern half there’s a lot of standing water and they will contour all the plowing they do around the standing water. You go farther west, it gets drier. It’s gorgeous from the air, it’s really pretty.”
For a while anyway, only an average nine people a year did what Williamson did last month. He’s not sure if he’ll go to the banquet to collect his leather jacket and if he does, he thinks he might fly commercially given North Dakota’s propensity for harsh winter storms.
But there’s one thing that he’s sure of.
There are other states that have similar programs to North Dakota’s and he feels another door has opened that he’ll be walking through.
“Now that we’ve done this, I think we’ll do a little research to find out what other states offer something like this.”