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Pilot still flying at 96

Posted: Tuesday, September 03, 2002

POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. -- John Miller taught himself to fly in 1923.

A high school kid crazy about the freewheeling, barrel-rolling world of aviation, he inherited a rickety World War I-era biplane from a traveling barnstormer as thanks for a summer of mechanical work.

A how-to-fly manual called ''Aerobatics'' gave him the know-how. Skimming the old JN-4 ''Jenny'' a few feet over a hay field gave him a feel for steering and landing. Before he knew it -- or more precisely, before his parents knew it -- he was flying over the treetops.

It was his 18th birthday.

''Of course, there were no regulations in those days and I wasn't breaking any laws,'' he said, ''except the laws of common sense.''

Miller has been in the pilot's seat in the 79 years since, making him a rare creature of flight who recalls when pilots were called birdmen and planes were flying machines.

He still flies at age 96, piloting his single-engine Beech Bonanza around the country to visit nine grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Miller is slower but spry. He has diminished hearing, a strong voice and a weathered face topped by snow-white hair. He remains as thin as the young, dark-haired man in the old pictures that tell of his life in the sky. There's a poster for his old barnstorming gigs as ''Upsidedown'' Johnny Miller, shots of him flying an autogiro -- kind of a cross between a plane and a helicopter -- off a roof of a post office, pictures of the planes he took apart and put together, an autographed shot of Charles Lindbergh and another of Miller in his crisp Eastern Airlines captain's uniform.

In 1927, he watched Lindbergh take off across the Atlantic. Miller, a college student at the time, remembers his fear that the weight from 400 gallons of fuel would mean disaster for Lindbergh.

''I was worried about him getting off and over the water,'' he said. ''I was holding my breath. I was holding my heart. I was holding everything.''

In 1910, when he was 4, his father took him to a field by the family's Poughkeepsie farm to watch Glenn Curtiss make a refueling stop during his record-breaking, 150-mile Albany-to-New York City flight. As the biplane puttered down the Hudson River, Miller's dad kept on telling him, ''Don't forget this John.''

No problem there.

''When that thing lifted off right in front of me and took off down the river ... Oh my goodness!'' Miller said.

''That's the day I lost interest in becoming a steam locomotive engineer.''

Miller spent his youth fascinated by the contraptions. He graduated from college in 1927 with a mechanical engineering degree and had a series of jobs fixing and flying planes. Within a year, he was barnstorming and taking passengers on short, stomach-churning rides for $1.

Miller bought an autogiro in 1931 for the then-hefty sum of $15,000. The curious craft looked like a plane with a helicopter blade stuck on top, the blades serving as rotating wings.

He did air shows with autogiros and took a pioneering flight on one from Philadelphia to San Diego. He transported mail in an autogiro in 1939, taking off, improbably, from the roof of a Philadelphia post office to an airport some six miles away. He did that 10 times a day for a year.

During World War II, Miller did civilian test piloting for yet another odd looking aircraft, an amphibious craft called a ''Duck.''

Miller did some work as an airline pilot beginning in the '30s and took it on as a steady job after the war.

He retired from Eastern Airlines in 1964. He was 59. His first wife had died, his three children were grown and he was tired of coming home in the middle of the night to an empty house.

He would go on to outlive another wife, two younger siblings, his son and so many of his friends in the tight fraternity of early flyers.

''I'm one of the only ones left,'' he said, fingering a pin honoring his work as a helicopter pioneer. ''They're all dead. I've outlived everybody I ever knew. Very lonesome.''

Even the planes he flew are museum pieces -- literally so in the case of a Douglas DC-3 and a Boeing 247-D -- hanging in the Smithsonian. He has outlived, by more than a decade, Eastern Airlines, which employed him for 25 years.

If there's a secret to Miller's longevity, it might be clean living. He does not touch coffee, cigarettes or alcohol. He has been particular about his diet from an early age -- heavy on fruit and seafood, light on the fat. And no butter on his bread.

''Who the hell needs a lubricant to eat bread?'' he asked. ''Chew it.''

There are older pilots than Miller. The United Flying Octogenarians club has a member who is 100. The UFO's Erwin Martin said there are some old barnstormers out there, but not many.

Miller continues to fly a few times a month. And he still lives in the house his parents once owned near his father's old farm, now the site of an IBM plant.

The old home is crammed with evidence of his passion. Model planes hang from the ceiling and countless aviation magazines make a mini-mountain range in the living room. Miller says he would clean up, if only he wasn't too busy flying.



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