At the ripe young age of 94, World War II pilot John Billings is still flying, and with a copilot friend, transporting medical patients to treatments. WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports.
[Sounds from a video of a recent flight]
NEVIN SHOWMAN: Spot of sun over there.
JOHN BILLINGS: Yeah. Spot right there.
That’s John Billings and Nevin Showman, from a video of their last Angel Flight mission in 2017, flying back into Luray.
BILLINGS: Dancing around the maypole.
SHOWMAN: I love it.
I talked with them in Woodstock, in the addition to his century-old home, where Billings spends a lot of time when he’s not flying. You take the stairs to the second story, to an unassuming door,
BILLINGS: This is my closet.
and then through a catwalk hallway and into a high-ceilinged, expansive room above his woodworking and metal lathe shop.
CLYMER KURTZ: Wow, what a place.
There’s a cozy stove burning in the corner, an entertainment center, busy office desks for him and his wife Barbara, bookshelves. We sit down – Billings, his copilot and friend Nevin Showman, a couple cats – and Billings offers a friendly warning:
BILLINGS: When I get started talking about flying, I forget what time it is. I have a philosophy: Every minute that your feet are off the ground, don’t count. So I do as much as I can.
Billings was a military and commercial pilot but now volunteers his skills and his own plane to transport medical patients. He first rode in an airplane more than 90 years ago.
BILLINGS: My father took me on a ride around an airport. He went out to the local field, and I mean a field, it was a half-mile on a side field, grass, some places no grass, but no runways or anything like that, and that was called an airport, and there was a sign out front, said, “Air rides here.” I can still plainly see all of what was going on.
In World War II, Billings flew 14 mass bombing missions, plus 39 covert missions. He said a lot of other pilots didn’t survive nearly that many.
BILLINGS: Statistically I shouldn’t be here. I’m glad I am.
On one trip, called Operation Greenup, Billings dropped a three-man spy team into Nazi territory in the Austrian Alps. It’s a story that’s been recounted in the Washington Post, and Billings himself tells about that flight in an online video:
BILLINGS (audio from video): …I went on to what was called War Emergency Power that we could use for five minutes under an emergency condition. Well, I decided this was an emergency condition. So I put it up there…. That wasn’t enough. I was still going down….
After the war, Billings was a commercial pilot, until the 1980s.
Then in 2005 he took on a new flying passion, in his own Cessna Cutlass.
Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic is a nonprofit that matches volunteer pilots willing to donate their time and aircraft to patients in need of transport to medical care. Billings has now made well over 400 Angel Flights, for the last eight years most frequently with Nevin Showman, an Edinburg TV and electronics repairman only three-fifths his age who also loves to fly.
They said that Angel Flight requires pilots over age 75 to have a copilot,
NEVIN SHOWMAN: But, for the record,
– and Showman keeps their records –
SHOWMAN: He does not need me in the airplane, legally or otherwise. He is fully legal and capable, better than any other pilot I’ve flown with.
One of their Angel Flight passengers was Richard Norris. In 2012 he received an extensive face transplant, and leading up to and throughout his surgeries, he said Billings and Showman flew him from southern Virginia to Baltimore quite a few times.
RICHARD NORRIS: We flew through some bad storms. We flew through strong headwinds. With John’s experience, you know, his days in World War II, and then Nevin’s experience as well, you felt safe.
And they do it because they love to, he said, paying forward their own good fortune, expecting only a “thank you” in return.
NORRIS: It makes you so truly blessed that there are people out there that understand the needs of others that’s less fortunate and are willing to help out – and all they expect in return is a “Thank you.”
Billings can’t quite say what it is about flying an airplane that draws him so intensely.
BILLINGS: It is a living, inanimate device, and if I’m here, and it’s over there, then it’s nothing. But if I’m in it, I become it. We become one.
It’s almost like romantic touch, he said.
BILLINGS: The wax is going every which way. That’s the closest I can –. I’m still searching for my best flight. It’s just over the hill. That probably is going to be the finest one I’m going to have, right?
He has already scheduled a flight for his 100th birthday, and he remembers a commercial copilot he flew with.
BILLINGS: He died after his 105th and his last words were, “I guess this is the end of my flying days.” So that’s a goal to overcome, right?