"I guess my flying days are over." June 23, 2008
It is with a saddened heart that I announce the passing of John McDonald Miller this morning (June 23, 2008). To me, John was a personal friend and a kind and attentive, if sporadic (email and letters), correspondent. I first met him as he strode into the Poughkeepsie airport in July, 2002. My contacts with him are documented below. The information on this Web page was updated at least twelve times; indicative of the continuing vigor with which he pursued aviation well into the 21st century.
John Miller (L) & Your Webmaster, Poughkeepsie, NY, July, 2002
Our six-year chatter was amiable and mutually nourishing. He provided "color commentary" on an article about Standard Airlines I published a couple of years ago. I dedicated that article to him. He also reviewed with me one afternoon at Poughkeepsie my database of pilots, airplanes and landings that drives this Web site. He provided many anecdotes about them and the places he had landed. These anecdotes are peppered around the site.
I was particularly proud of what I could, in turn, share with him. These included heretofore unpublished images of him and his autogiro from the Cosgrove Photograph and Document Collection, the moving picture film of him transporting mail between the Philadelphia Post Office building and the Camden, NJ airport with a Kellett autogiro, and news articles documenting his 1932 accident at the National Air Races (see below). He told me that he had never seen any of these before. IMAGINE!! showing a 100 year-old pilot things he had never seen before!
John will be sorely missed by me. Not only because of his genuine friendship and warm presence on this Web site, but also because, as far as I know, he was the last living signer of the old Davis-Monthan Airfield Register, which is this site's focus. It leaves me feeling hollow to know, now, that I no longer share the planet with Johnny Miller. I'm sure he will dip his wings over Tucson (and many, many other places) this evening as he makes his way West.
The following obituary appears in this morning's Poughkeepsie Journal.
"June 23, 2008
AVIATION ICON DIES AT 102
Aviation icon and Poughkeepsie resident John Miller was pronounced dead this morning at Vassar Brothers Medical Center. He was 102.
Miller's daughter, Trish Taylor, said Miller died from natural causes after spending two nights at the hospital.
"He was aware that he wasn't what he used to be and it really annoyed him," Taylor said. "He had a health fetish and he always ate right. He never took prescription medication until the very end."
Miller, who began flying when he was 18, was an active participant in this country's aviation history. He and Emilia [sic] Earhart were acquaintances and he witnessed Charles Lindbergh take off for his history-making, nonstop New York to Paris flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927.
Three of the airplanes Miller has flown are exhibited at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C.; and he was the first to land an aircraft on the roof of a building -- an autogiro, the precursor of the helicopter [see motion picture film, below]. Miller was a test pilot during World War II and retired in 1965 as an Eastern Airlines pilot.
Taylor said Miller made his last flight about two years ago. She said Miller's last words were made to his nephew.
"He said 'I guess my flying days are over'," Taylor said.
Taylor said her family is planning a private memorial service and that Miller did not want a traditional funeral.
Instead, the family is following through with Miller's request to have his body donated to the Anatomy Gifts Registry.
"It was his way of being modest," Taylor said. "He wanted his body donated to science."
The following appeared in the July 7, 2008 issue of the Poughkeepsie Journal.
"Letters to the editor - 7/7
Late aviator Miller had distinguished family
Your report on the passing of John Miller ("Aviation pioneer is 'last of generation,'" June 24) did justice to a life of great accomplishments. But I was sorry to see you left out many important details about his family, which was quite prominent in Poughkeepsie at the turn of the century and internationally, due to the fame of his sister, the great photographer Lee Miller.
"Miller's father, Theodore Miller, was the manager of the DeLaval Separator Company, which was the biggest industrial concern in Poughkeepsie 100 years ago, and a prominent member of the Amrita Club, whose old building is still located on Market Street. His sister, Lee, was one of the pioneering photographers of the 20th century, a surrealist associate of Man Ray who went on to a second career as the only female photojournalist to cover the fighting in Europe during WWII from the front lines. To all of her endeavors in these very different media, she brought a unique and highly developed artistic talent and individual sensibility.
"To be fully appreciated, John Miller's life must be seen in perspective, as part of an extraordinary family in an era of great challenges.
Below is the original Web page for John Miller current to January 28, 2008. This information will remain in his memory.
New on this page: Audio
clip of John Miller, age 101 years
New on this page: Film clip of
John Miller, age 34 years (2/28/07).
"Flying is a youth preservative, if you live
through it." J.M. Miller, 9/3/2002
If there is one pilot living who has done it all in 20th
century aviation, he is John Miller. He was born December
15, 1905. He told me that at 4 years, 5 months of age, on May 29, 1910, he
saw Glenn Curtiss fly an airplane into a field across from
his home in the Hudson River Valley. John's father took him
across the road to see the "flying
machine". Curtiss took off and blew dust on John,
and he never got over it. He learned to fly soon after
WWI. A wonderful video of John describing his learning
experience is available here.
Click on "Miller, John" from the dropdown menu on that
He watched Lindbergh depart Roosevelt Field on May 20,1927.
He barnstormed in the 1920s, set cross-country records that
stood for 72 years, carried mail and flew airshows with an
autogiro in the 30's, and spent a career as an air transport
pilot from the 40's to the 60's, logging more than 39,000
flying hours. He has published numerous articles and one book
(so far, see left column) about his exploits in the air. If
that wasn't enough, at 99 years old (as of April, 2005), John
still flies his 1969 Bonanza.
He has counseled me on early air transport (see this link
and refer to the email from John cited in the references).
He is a spell-binding, if infrequent, correspondent, as excerpts
below from his January, 2003 letter to me show (my comments
in brackets). I had given him copies of the Register pages
with his signatures, and asked him a few questions about his
book, his autogiro and New Standard aircraft, and about Homer
Fackler, the pilot who signed the Register just after him
in 1931. Bring up this
link to see register pages 160-161. John's signature,
and Mr. Fackler's, are near the top of the page. John also
signed page 162 on his trip back east.
His January letter: "I'm behind on correspondence.
Returned from a flight to Kitty Hawk, NC for the 99th anniversary
celebration of the Wright's first flights, and then spent
the holidays with one of my granddaughters....
"Homer Fackler was flying my New Standard, NC193E, following
me on my first flight across the continent with the autogiro.
He had been a test pilot for those airplanes at Teterboro,
NJ before, and I hired him to fly to meet me in CA. I did
not know at the time just where he was, for we flew separately.
He is long dead now. He was an excellent pilot.
"When you showed me the page with my signature I did
not notice Fackler's signature only three lines below....
"New Standard NC193E was S/N 2. It was first a D-24
with Hisso engine. It was wrecked at Teterboro when Tony Fokker
[although Fokker never flew an airplane to Tucson, he and
his wife are recorded on page
44 as passengers with pilot Thomas J. Fowler in June 1926]
rammed into it on the ground with an experimental airplane.
I bought the wreck and rebuilt it with a Wright J-5, thus
it became a D-25. I sold it in 1935 as I remember. It ended
its days when a propeller blade failed and pulled the engine
out just as it was leaving the ground with four passengers
aboard. It zoomed, then rolled over on its side and crashed
on the front yard of a house. All aboard walked away. Evidently
it was scrapped.
"My Pitcairn PCA-2 autogiro, S/N 13, I sold. It later
became a crop duster. It was left out in the open without
having its rotor blades tied down near Homestead, FL during
a hurricane, so was wrecked, after some 2400 Hrs. of my
own flying with it all over the US 48, including aerobatic
shows. I was the only pilot to do that. It was an absolutely
excellent aircraft." But, see the NASM information on
his autogiro, NC10781,
for details of its final fate.
THE TRANSCONTINENTAL AUTOGIRO FLIGHT
I interviewed Mr. Miller in 2002 (photo at top of page).
How wonderful to sit with a signer of the Register on a
sun-dappled day in the airport lounge at POU (Poughkeepsie, NY) and talk! I learned
that his transcontinental voyage was, for the time, straightforward,
but not without guile. He told me he caught a rumor early
in 1931 that Amelia Earhart was planning to be the first
to fly an autogiro cross-country. Not to be outdone, he departed
westbound from Poughkeepsie in NC10781,
his autogiro, on May 14, 1931.
He arrived at Tucson and signed the register on May 28th
at 10:09AM, and reached San Diego on the 29th. Further down
page in the register (seven signatures from the bottom),
Amelia signed in on the way home with her autogiro, NC10780,
on June 10th, too late to claim the record. Her destination
was cited as "Points East".
It is interesting how the people of the Davis-Monthan Register
interacted with each other, sometimes knowingly; sometimes
not. John Miller's interaction with Amelia Earhart was with
full participation by each, but underlain with the competition
that stemmed from the early pilots' drive for records and
fame. The links to John's book and the article described in the
left sidebar dilate the facts surrounding his transcontinental autogiro
flight and the record he set in 1931. Amelia had her sights
set on a similar flight and record, which, you'll learn in
the links at left, in the end was not to be.
Your Webmaster with John M.
Miller in July 2002. A "descendent" of NC10781 in
the background. (Source: Webmaster)
John's record for transcontinental autogiro
flight stood for 72 years. It was finally broken on October
3, 2003, when, it was reported in the March, 2004 AOPA
Pilot magazine, "...at a few minutes past 7 a.m.
Eastern Standard Time, Andrew Keech launched his autogyro...from
Kill Devil Hills...and headed westbound in an attempt to set
a new transcontinental flight record for fastest cross-country
time by an autogyro. Keech...succeeded at 6:30 p.m. Pacific
Standard Time on October 12, when he landed at Montgomery
Field in San Diego, breaking Johnny Miller's previous record,
set in 1931...."
NOT SO MUCH A CAREER AS A WAY OF LIFE
John's experiences learning to fly, early barnstorming, record
autogiro flight and Golden Age air show work are well documented
in his articles and book. In summary, he joined the US Marine
Corps in 1930 as a civilian pilot and qualified as a naval
aviator. In 1936 he took a job with United Air Lines, flying
as a Boeing 247 copilot. He flew the Cheyenne to Salt Lake
and New York to Chicago routes.
From 1937-40 he was test pilot for Kellett, and he flew
mail for Eastern Air Lines, operating an autogiro (Kellett
KD-1B) off the roof of the post office building in Philadelphia
for six miles to the airport at Camden, NJ (see below for
a 6-minute film clip of this operation). An article describing his autogiro experiences is here.
During WWII he worked
for Eastern flying DC-2s and 3s, and as chief pilot for Columbia
Aircraft Corp., Valley Stream, NY. For Columbia he tested
330 Grumman amphibious "Duck" aircraft,
models J2F5 with 1,050 HP engines. In an appropriate twist
of fate, one of the Ducks he flew is on exhibit at the Pima
Air Museum in Tucson.
A timeline graphic at the back of his book, labeled "Through
the decades...", pictorializes John's life in aviation.
It truly was not so much a career as a way of life.
WHO DO YOU KNOW; WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?
One afternoon, John and I spent a pleasant
hour or so reviewing my database of pilots, places and airplanes
of the Davis-Monthan Airfield Register (the same ones you
see in the drop down menus on this Web site). I just listened
and took notes. When you are hearing history in the first-person,
you keep your mouth shut!
I was pleased, but not surprised, that he recognized,
and provided anecdotes, for a good number of them. This
is just one more example of how the network of pilots is
so intertwined and rich, not only back in the Golden Age,
but now. I'll bet the "degrees of separation" between
our population of Davis-Monthan pilots is on the order of
For example, among the male pilots, he met
Wallace Beery once in a hangar; knew "Pop" Cleveland "a
bit". Of course he watched Lindbergh
depart from Roosevelt Field, but he also saw him one other
time at Teterboro and helped him push his Orion out of a
hangar, for which Lindbergh gave him an autographed photo
still in John's collection. He knew Richard
Depew as a fellow member
of Quiet Birdmen. Depew was also a test pilot for Pitcairn
He knew Jack
Frye in association with his air transport work. Frye
offered John a job to fly for TWA starting May 1, 1936.
United Airlines offered him a start on April 1, so he
took that. He knew Art
Goebel and rented a hangar from him at the airport
across the river from Kansas City downtown airport. He
stored his autogiro there for the winter of 1932 after
the airshow crash with Al Wilson, below.
Al Wilson and John worked together as airshow pilots. They
staged mock dogfights between John's autogiro and Al's modified
Curtiss Pusher (the one he flew to Davis-Monthan on 9/28/30).
At the finish of their show during the 1932 Cleveland Air
Races, John landed at the circle in front of the viewing stand
and, as the autogiro's blades continued to turn, Al "buzzed"
him. The Pusher entered the downdraft of the autogiro blades,
struck them, nosed to the ground and crashed (see the photo,
left, from the Cleveland Plain Dealer).
Mr. Wilson died of head injuries two days later. The show
and the crash are well documented in the Cleveland Plain Dealer of September 4 ("PUSHER PILOT HURT IN SPILL AT RACES:
Al Wilson in Hospital; Two in Autogyro Escape as Craft Mix
in Stunt"), and September 6 ("WILSON, HURT IN 1910
PLANE, DIES"). As well, the accident was captured on
film and is available on video as “Pylon
Dusters: 1932 and 1938 Air Races”. A segment of that movie of the dogfight and crash (1 minute; 35 seconds long) is at the MOTION PICTURES page on dmairfield.org. In the film,
the second person in John's autogiro was William J. Miller
(no relation), a reporter for the Cleveland Press. After the
accident, John said, he was grounded in Cleveland for 27 days
waiting for new rotors and a rudder. He stayed in the Cleveland
Terminal Building pilot's lounge where, he said, the bedbugs
Other pilots he knew were Tex
LaGrone, Tony LeVier, and Art (A.W.) Kilips who, John
said, was killed in 1933 trying a double snaproll. He had
polio and always flew with crutches for when he landed. He
knew Freddie Lund, who was killed in 1932 flying a Waco that
had its tail cut off by a Monocoupe. He knew Maurice Marrs,
who was a colleague later at United Airlines. He knew Claude
Ryan and gave him a ride from Naval Air Station, San Diego
to Los Angeles and back in his autogiro in 1931 when he was
on the west coast. Ryan sent John some autographed photos
Among the female pilots who signed the register,
he knew Nancy Harkness and had given her flight lessons ca.
1930. He knew Phoebe Omlie
"slightly", and met Pancho
Barnes once. He knew Martie
Bowman, as well as her husband Les, and even flew Les'
airplane (a high-wing Davis parasol monoplane, as he recalls).
He did not know Jean LaRene,
but he did know her husband, Lou Foote, himself an aviation
Of the Lordsburg,
NM airport he said, "Lordsburg
was nothing but a gas pit in 1931. I got 'goathead' seeds
in my tires at Lordsburg."
As you can see, Lordsburg
still is a small airport, as shown in this photo, left, taken
as I turned final for runway 12. The dirt runway 01-19
is just visible crossing the asphalt toward the far end
of 12. An early image of the airport, with a modern Google
Earth juxtaposition, is available at the link, above.
Construction of Interstate 10, in the foreground,
caused the runway to be moved to its current location a few
hundred yards toward the top of the photo. The original runway
where John Miller, Charles Lindbergh and many others landed
during the Golden Age was about where the frontage road and
Interstate 10 exit ramp are today, just under the nose of my airplane.
But, the railroad tracks that I followed from El Paso to Lordsburg, which parallel I10 just
out of view at the bottom of the picture, are in the same
location as during the Golden Age. The tracks were used for "flight guidance" between Tucson, Lordsburg
and El Paso. To acquire insight into what the pilots on this
Web site experienced, I flew (with full cooperation by Albuquerque
Center) from El Paso to Lordsburg low and slow at 500 feet,
following the same railroad, racing with the freight trains.
Where do you stop in a recounting of John Miller's
life in aviation? Here. Proud to know you, John.
DECEMBER 2005 UPDATE
The following appeared in the AOPA online newsletter
of December 14th:
|"AOPA MEMBER TO CELEBRATE 100TH BIRTHDAY IN FLIGHT
AOPA has some long-time members, but one stands out this
Johnny Miller, of Poughkeepsie, New York, was planning
his 100th birthday on Thursday with a short flight--weather
in his Beechcraft Bonanza. "Johnny has been flying
since 1923--I'm sure
many pilots hope to enjoy their passion for aviation as
long as he has,"
said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "Happy birthday,
Johnny." Miller saw
Glenn Curtiss take off once and decided, at the young
age of 4, that he
was going to be a pilot. "I never changed my mind,"
Miller said. Miller
was a barnstormer, a test pilot, an airmail pilot, and
an airline pilot
for United and Eastern airlines. He also was the founding
director of the
American Bonanza Society and continues to write for ABS
He has passed his love for aviation on to his family,
teaching a son and
grandson how to fly over the years. AOPA Pilot
magazine featured Miller
in the December 2003 "Pilots" column, and you'll be able to read about him again in an upcoming
MARCH 2006 UPDATE
And the following appeared in the February 2006 issue of
the AOPA magazine:
He did fly on his 100th birthday. Happy Birthday, John.
FEBRUARY 4, 2007 UPDATE
The following appeared in the December
2006 issue of the AOPA magazine:
FEBRUARY 28, 2007 UPDATE
Below we have a real highlight for this entire Web site. It
is a film that runs a little over six minutes and includes
an early landing and takeoff by an Eastern Airlines DC-3
as well as footage of Captain John Miller in action. As you
view it, if you recognize any of the other people, please
let me KNOW.
The film clip comes to us courtesy of Lewis Hipkins of Philadelphia. The
original 16mm film was shot by his grandfather, Lewis Hipkins,
Jr. in 1939 (image, below, right). The filming and
editing, including fades and titles, were performed in 1939
by Lewis Hipkins, Jr. You
are seeing this spectacular film as it came from his reel.
Lewis Hipkins, Jr.
The original clip is a 16mm COLOR motion picture. It begins
with a landing, loading and takeoff of an Eastern Airlines
DC-3. The next sequence shows Eastern Captain John Miller
flying an autogiro different from the one he flew cross-country. The
aircraft he flies in this film, NC15069, is a Kellett KD-1B. It
is not recorded in the Davis-Monthan Airfield Register.
had a Jacobs L-4MA-9 engine of 225HP and a Curtiss-Reed propeller. Its
empty weight was 1,630 pounds with a useful load of 620 pounds. Payload
with full fuel was 247 pounds. Given that a pilot was,
on average, 170 pounds, the weight of cargo was limited to
the difference, 77 pounds. Juptner (reference, left
sidebar above, vol. 8, p. 50) says that most records indicate
that no more than 18 KD-1 models were ever built.
Specifically, NC15069 was flown as a mail plane by Eastern
Airlines for more than a year starting July 6, 1939 from
the rooftop of the Philadelphia post office to Central Airport
in Camden, NJ. The service operated under air mail contract 2001 awarded to Eastern by the government. Details of the contract, as well as a photograph of John Miller departing from the roof of the post office, are here. The service was discontinued about a year later, because, as stated at the link, "At the end of June 1940 one of the Kellett Autogiros fell into the street below causing this service to be discontinued. This ended the only scheduled autogiro service ever to be used by the Post Office."
John Miller, as the pilot for Eastern,
flew five roundtrips from the rooftop per day. From Philadelphia across
the Delaware River to Camden is a six-mile, six-minute flight. The
film shows one of those flights, probably during that summer
or fall. How wonderful to see this shiny, brand new
autogiro, in color, flown expertly by a smiling 34 year-old
The air mail contract was lobbied personally to Congress
by Mr. Kellett. This contract was more for show than
any real efficiency of transport for the small amount of
Scroll up. Take another look at this film. You
won’t see many like it, either in subject matter, or
with greater relevance to the pilots and aircraft of the Davis-Monthan
Back to top.
This image, below, courtesy of Tim Kalina, comes from a group of photos he acquired in October 2009, allegedly taken at Tucson. The last three numerals of the registration number are visible in the original photo underneath the near wing.
John Miller, NC10781, Date & Location (Tucson?) Unknown
Compare this image with the one below.
This image, below, courtesy of Roger E. Carpenter in the memory of Edwin F. Carpenter, is of John Miller and his Pitcairn PCA-2 autogiro, NC10781, on the ground at Tucson, February 22, 1935. John is in the rear cockpit; the last three digits of the aircraft registration number are visible on top of the right wing.
John Miller, NC10781, Tucson, February, 1935
A news article about the annual Tucson Cowboy Parade from the Tucson paper (Saturday, Feb. 23, 1935) documents that the parade was reviewed by, “…an autogiro which flew back and forth along the length of Congress Street….” The photo was taken and dated by Mr. Carpenter’s parents; the news article was researched by him at the Arizona Historical Society.
There is no signature in the Register for February 1935 that indicates John was in Tucson (there were only four landings logged for the entire month). From the shadows in the foreground, there appear to be more people present than just the eight visible. Comparing this image with a Google Earth view of the mountains in the background, this view is to the northeast. This makes the time of day late afternoon according to the length of the shadows. 12/15/08
Fellow pilot of the line, Capt. S.S. McDonald, Eastern Airlines (Ret) sends us the following:
"Dunno if you want a humorous story about Johnny. The Retired Eastern Pilot's Association (REPA) annual meeting was in Atlanta in 1998. Johnny flew his Bonanza SOLO from Connecticut to Atlanta, arriving at to Fulton County Airport. Weather was low so Johnny had to shoot an approach to get in. He parked at the local FBO. After arranging for his Bonanza's storage, he went to rent a car. The Rent-a-Car company would not rent Johnny a car because he was too old (he was 92). To say he was angry was an understatement!" 11/01/08
Videographer Bob Shenise sends us this link to an 8-minute YouTube clip from his full-length video, "From Jennies to Jets". This clip features the history of John Miller's early flight experiences. 12/21/09
The photograph below, signed by John Miller, is shared with us by friend of dmairfield.org, John Underwood. This photograph, cropped, is on the cover of John Miller's book cited in the left sidebar. The aircraft is NC10781. In a conversation I had with John, he mentioned that he had gotten a severe sunburn while flying his autogiro across the country. That sunburn is evident on his forehead in this photograph. SPF sunscreen products were still a long way off. 03/09/10
John Miller, Ca. 1931 (Source: Underwood)
A PDF download of a transcript of one of Miller's talks (age 85) is at the link. Click on [John Miller Speech at Dutchess Community College, Poughkeepsie, NY, November 28, 1990]. This transcript is a great read to understand the mechanics of barnstorming. 07/05/11
Below, Popular Aviation (PA) magazine, October, 1939, announces the initiation of autogiro service from the post office rooftop. 07/07/14
Popular Aviation, October, 1939 (Source: PA)
UPLOADED: 05/04/05 REVISED: 12/17/05, 01/15/06, 03/13/06,
05/06/06, 05/10/06, 02/04/07, 02/28/07 (film), 03/13/07 (audio), 12/29/07, 01/28/08, 06/23/08 (Obituary), 11/03/08 (posthumous commentary section)