Pilot Profile: Bill Charney
We don’t see the Captain’s Beech Staggerwing actually touch down at Popham, but undoubtedly it was a perfect three-pointer. The Beech looks gorgeous, just as shiny and gleaming as it was at the Goodwood Revival, where just a few weeks before it had scooped the concours prize for the best pre-1966 aircraft.
I must admit the normal run of concours events leave me cold: vehicles are to be used, enjoyed, thrashed even ? not pampered and never to be let out unless the Met Office has promised under oath that it won’t rain. Some car entries are even trailered to the event in case a speck of dirt should attach itself to the rear axle en route.
You can’t easily trailer an aircraft, but I suppose you could never fly it if you thought the landing field might be muddy or there could be a lot of insects in the air. Not ‘Captain Biff Windsock’ and his Staggerwing: he’s not just flown this beautiful machine into Goodwood but all the way from New Zealand, through all sorts of weather. Behind the nickname is Bill Charney, an ex-United Airlines pilot from Nevada.
“Ah, the Captain Biff Windsock bit,” explains Charney. “When I was flying airliners I was bothered that none of the passengers ever listened to the safety briefing. All I wanted them to do was listen to the bit about how to get out of the aeroplane in an emergency ? the rest of it was less important. Anyway, I decided to give myself a more interesting name, because when Captain Bill Charney came over the PA no one lifted their heads from their newspapers. Miraculously?and the stewardesses would often comment on this ? when Captain Biff Windsock came on, they listened. Biff was a nickname name popular in comics when I was a kid and Windsock came to me as I was looking at one at an airport.”
Charney has loved the Staggerwing since he was a child, when he saw one at airshow in 1940. In 1994, one year before his retirement from United, he bought his own. “It was flyable,” he says, “but would obviously need a restoration in the not too distant future. So I flew her about a bit. I’d been flying Tiger Moths on holiday in New Zealand and came across the Croydon Aircraft Company in Mandeville near Gore. Their work looked fantastic, so I decided to ship the Staggerwing to them for its restoration. In the back of my mind I figured that I’d fly it back to the USA when it was finished. That was in 2001 and for the next few years I’d travel to Mandeville to have a look at how the rebuild was going. I’d go down there and annoy them until eventually they’d give me a Tiger Moth and tell me to go away.”
You’d like Captain Windsock very much?he’s our sort of bloke. He steps out of the Staggerwing at Popham wearing a newly purchased flat cap. The Beech seats four, but since Bill lives out of the thing there’s only just enough room for him to sit. The Staggerwing restoration was the first major project overseen by Malcolm Smith, the son of Croydon Aircraft proprietor Colin Smith. Because he knew the Goodwood Revival is a wonderful event that attracts a massive crowd, Charney flew Malcolm all the way from New Zealand to see his handiwork on display. Another one of the reasons to like Charney; he’s a people person.
He’s also one heck of a flier. The 77 year old caught the flying bug as a boy and, after joining the Army National Guard, managed to transfer to the Air National Guard in Battle Creek, Michigan for pilot training. “When I got my wings I went on to flying a Martin RB-57A [a licence-built version of the English Electric Canberra] on photo reconnaissance duties. Pretty soon after I got a job with United Airlines and moved to Atlantic City. I was able to move to the local ANG unit in New Jersey, which also entailed converting onto the Republic RF-84F Thunderflash jet.”
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Charney was called up for active service twice: once during the Berlin crisis and then Vietnam. “I’d moved from the photo reconnaissance Thunderflash onto the F-86 Sabre. That was a gorgeous aeroplane?the most exciting airplane I’ve ever flown.”
Inside the Staggerwing is a small silver plaque with the name Major Sherman Flanagan engraved on it. “He was my room mate at Phu Cat airbase in Vietnam,” explains Charney. “One day we took off in our Super Sabres and Sherman never came back. They never found him. But the flying out there was amazing ? fifty feet above the ground flat-out with tracer ripping past you.”
In 2006 the Staggerwing was finished, its Pratt and Whitney R-985 radial engine freshly rebuilt and kicking out its full 450bhp. “It flew beautifully straight out the box,” says its owner. “Perfectly trimmed with no major adjustments necessary.” The plan was still to fly the Beech home, but not before she had completed a few years of test flying. Captain Windsock is not a man to be rushed, and record breaking is certainly not for him. As we fly back with him to the UK you’ll see that this charming American is very much a wanderer of the skies.
In 2009 the Captain and The Red Rockette (named after Bill’s daughter, who was in the New York dance troupe) left New Zealand bound for Lord Howe and Norfolk Islands. “I’d read Sir Francis Chichester’s books when I was young and was amazed and inspired by his gutsiness. People have forgotten that, as well as being a great sailor, he was a pioneering aviator.” From Lord Howe Island, Windsock and The Red Rockette flew to Australia, where the pair spent six months touring around and visiting places of interest to the flying addict, such as the Tiger Moth club at Luskintyre in New South Wales. Establishing a pattern for the trip, Charney left the Staggerwing in Australia for almost a year before returning from home to fly on in his adventure. In 2010 Bill flew across the Nullarbor Plain to Perth and from Perth to Port Headland. “The aircraft has a range of about 900nm,” he explains, “which was enough for a non-stop flight to Bali in Indonesia.”
After a few days R & R in Bali, the Beech headed for Jakarta and then Kuala Lumpur. “I wasn’t interested in Singapore,” says Bill, “and figured KL would be more fun. The attention the Staggerwing attracts is amazing and not for the first time on the trip we ended up in the newspapers and on television.”
Most of the overflight permissions and handling were organised by White Rose Aviation in the UK, which Charney discovered through the exceptionally useful Earthrounders website. Presumably some of the weather en route was fairly challenging? “The part of my flying life that really helps with this was my early days at United, when I was flying the DC-6,” he explains. “This piston-engined airliner operated at lower altitudes than the 707s and 747s that I ended up flying, so being able to read the weather was essential. With experience you get pretty good at predicting systems and fronts.”
We’re sitting in the café at the petrol station that will be very familiar to anyone who’s flown into Popham. With the Editor and myself is Martin Barraclough, Air Squadron member and champion of adventurous fliers. Barraclough is putting the good Captain up for a few days before The Red Rockette drops into RNAS Yeovilton for a visit. This is very much a homecoming for Charney’s Staggerwing, because in a former life the gleaming red biplane wore RAF roundels and camouflage as part of the Lend-Lease deal and was stationed at Boscombe Down and several RNAS stations. But back to the Far East, where our hero is about to depart Malaysia for Thailand. Again in no rush, Charney spends several months exploring the country and sightseeing before hopping across the border to Cambodia. “I was told that I should fly nice and high across the border because there’s a bit of a war going on from time to time. Not a very big one at all, but some pot-shot taking is not unheard of. Cambodia was fascinating, especially Siem Reap and the nearby Angkor Wat. Didn’t bother with visiting Pnom Penh as I’m not really a city person.”
The only disappointment with this part of the trip was not being able to fly to Vietnam. “When I was stationed at Phu Cat we used to take off and pass over children playing at the end of the runway. I wanted to return there and take the children of today [possibly the children of those kids in 1967] up in the Staggerwing. Unfortunately, the current government is still too communist to handle the thought of an ex-USAF fighter pilot once again occupying its airspace.”
From Cambodia, Charney flew to Chiang Mai in north Thailand and from there straight to Calcutta. Sadly, India did not impress. “India was extremely expensive and complicated. A bribe for a man running the fuel pumps, another one for the bloke who unravelled the hose, another for the man on the nozzle and so on. I also stopped in Nagpur, but I only went there because they had avgas. I was pretty happy to leave this country behind me.”
After overflying Karachi in Pakistan, our pair landed in Muscat in Oman. “This was spectacular flying,” reports Captain Biff. “I loved Oman.” Not surprisingly, the politics around this area are complicated, with lots of areas where overflying is politically impossible and would be suicidal if it was allowed. Israel, for example, was out of bounds. After a stop in Bahrain the longest leg of the trip so far skirted around Israel en route to Amman in Jordan. “Jordan was fabulous, with visits to Petra and Wadi Rum where T E Lawrence had his base in 1917. I spent ten days in Jordan before leaving to fly across the Sinai peninsular to Cyprus. I misjudged a front on this leg and encountered the most challenging weather of the whole trip, even encountering icing.”
Once again, Charney left the Staggerwing safely hangared and returned home. Six months later, he was back in Cyprus and continuing his marathon. “I covered lots of ground in Europe including Slovenia, Czech Republic and Hungary before finally arriving in Austria to attend a friend’s funeral. Even in Austria the trip attracted a lot of media attention.”
Another six-month break, and then another reunion and onward to Italy, revisiting Lake Como, where Charney had kept himself amused, flying seaplanes while the Staggering was reborn in New Zealand. This brings us almost up to date, with Goodwood in the diary and Bill taking a meandering route across Europe, visiting virtually all of its countries.
Many of us dream about a flying adventure, even one considerably less dramatic than Bill Charney’s. What impresses me most about this global marathon, however, is the gentle pace. It’s always tempting to press on, to get to the next place, to keep drawing the line on the map. Captain Biff Windsock doesn’t have a fixed plan. We didn’t even ask him about the next leg of his journey ? when he was intending to head home to America and which route he would be taking. Somehow I don’t think he’ll be leaving us just yet. There are more places to visit, many friends to make and old aeroplanes to be talked about. So if you see a chap in a flat cap making a perfect landing in a gorgeous red Staggerwing, it will be Captain Windsock. Tell him I say hello, and then enjoy listening to one of aviation’s most endearing and inspiring characters.