Still flying high
WOODSTOCK — Of the volunteer pilots who received honors at the second annual Endeavor Awards Gala in Los Angeles on Saturday, Woodstock’s John Billings was the only one to have flown bomber missions in World War II.
At 91, Billings has been flying since his first lesson in 1938, most recently as a volunteer Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic pilot since 2005. Angel Flight provides free air transportation to those in need of medical care.
Billings has been named the nonprofit’s Virginia Pilot of the Year four times and Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic Pilot of the Year for the past two years along with numerous other awards and military honors. However, the Endeavor Award was his first award received on the West Coast.
He tries to make at least one Angel Flight a week in his Cessna Cutlass RG-II and had tallied in just shy of 300 before leaving for Los Angeles last Friday. The nomination call from Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic board Chairman Steve Craven came after such a trip and Billings’ first reaction was disbelief.
“To tell you the truth I didn’t think there was any chance,” he said in an interview. “I almost dismissed it because how many thousand volunteer pilots are there in the whole country?”
His co-pilot of six years, Nevin Showman, was with him at the time.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘This is the perfect candidate,'” he said.
After a standing ovation, Pamela Jones handed Billings his award Saturday under the wings of the space shuttle Endeavour, which is housed in the Samuel Oschin Pavilion at the California Science Center. Jones is an Angel Flight passenger who Billings has transported multiple times from Roanoke to North Carolina, the first leg of her journey to a cancer center for treatments.
Billings, Showman, Craven and Jones, accompanied by their spouses, brushed elbows with the great and the good in the world of aviation at the banquet and ceremony. Brian Duffy, one of eight Endeavour crew members in attendance, chatted and took photos with Showman and Billings. Actor John Travolta recorded a video for the awards, flying his own jet and personally congratulating Billings.
In addition to Billings’ personal award and notoriety, Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic received a contribution of $15,000, which Craven said is “very generous; it’s definitely needed.”
“You just want to help all you can,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for 15 years myself. It’s not easy, I can tell you.”
From Office of Strategic Services (predecessor organization to the CIA) missions behind enemy lines to commercial airline piloting to volunteering, Billings has logged over 28,000 hours of flight time.
Billing’s next great venture is a trip around the U.S. to be recorded in photos and high-definition video. Although he’s traveled west by car with his wife Barbara to pilot meetings and reunions, he said flying around the country has been on his bucket list.
He and Showman will be logging the trips using a website through Shutterfly, a platform Showman currently uses to post photos from Angel Flights. Himself a pilot of 18 years, Showman said it’ll be a privilege to make this tour with Billings.
“He is the best aviator that I’ve ever flown with and as sharp as a tack,” Showman said.
They say they hope to hit all the big sights and snap unique aerial photos to go with ones they’ve collected from up and down the East Coast. Billings said he dreams of even bigger ventures.
“I’ve got things on the bucket list that will probably never come to pass,” he said. “I would like to be sponsored by some organization so that I could fly a Pilatus PC-12 around the world.”
Craven said he knows a handful of pilots around Billings’ age are still registered with the Federal Aviation Administration, but none are as active as this prolific veteran and volunteer.
“To be as active as John is is truly amazing,” he said. “He’s a national hero is what he is.”