WWII Pilot Eric Pepper Takes to the Skies
88-Year-Old Pilot on Tuneup Flight
For World War II aviator Eric Pepper, taking to the skies seems like old times
by Kevin McFadden, Noozhawk 08.28.2010
Veteran aviator Eric Pepper had a heavy flight schedule during World War II but has flown only sporadically since. A recent flight in Red Baron Aviation’s Cessna 172 made it 15 different types of aircraft that the 88-year-old has flown. (Preston Merlo / Noozhawk photo)
I happily accepted the invitation, undaunted by the razzing of several friends who insisted that I should have a paper bag handy in case I lost my lunch. But I’m an aviation enthusiast with a steel-lined stomach and a taste for excitement. Besides, flying the sturdy four-seater would be Eric Pepper, a pilot with an abundance of knowledge and experience who had been flying for years — 68 years to be exact. Did I mention that Mr. Pepper is 88 years old?
No problem. Surely, he had kept his skills razor-sharp throughout the years. When I inquired about how often he flies these days, the sprightly octogenarian responded in a gentlemanly British accent, “I’ve flown about six hours total in the past 45 years.”
“I fly about once every 10 years to stay sharp,” he continued with a smile. Did I say I had a steel stomach?
As we prepared for takeoff — and I discreetly crossed myself and said a silent prayer — the co-pilot, and Red Baron flight instructor, Steve Boothby, turned back to me and my seemingly unconcerned photographer, Preston Merlo, and gave us some final words of assurance.
“Well, you know what we always say,” said Boothby, “Takeoffs are optional … but landings are mandatory.”
On second thought, perhaps I should have brought that bag.
My doubts and reservations were soon allayed, however, as Pepper took the controls of the tiny plane as if he were shaking the hand of an old friend. He proceeded to lead us smoothly down the runway and up into the beautiful blue Goleta sky. And it is little wonder that he shook the rust off so easily. After all, Pepper can boast a flight history the likes of which very few pilots can.
Pepper’s career in aviation began during World War II in Great Britain. He had just graduated high school when the war began, and like so many other young men during those years, he wanted to serve his country, so he signed up for the British Royal Air Force. I was fortunate enough to get a look at the service log book that he brought with him, which documented every day of his service from the first day of his training, which was marked Dec. 7, 1942 — exactly one year after Pearl Harbor.
Because the RAF had not yet built a training facility, Pepper actually spent the first leg of his service training in Canada with the Royal Canadian Air Force. From 1942 until the end of the war in 1946, he flew an astonishing 14 different types of planes on routes ranging from Canada to North Africa and everywhere in between. The plane in which he logged the most hours was the Halifax, one of Britain’s front-line, four-engined heavy bombers, which carried a crew of eight men.
Pepper even flew on D-Day to deliver a weather report. While he says that his squadron, the 517th, didn’t get mixed up in a lot of air-to-air combat, it did have its share of run-ins with German U-boats while navigating the Atlantic.
As we glided serenely over a gorgeous green Montecito landscape, it was impossible for me to imagine the things that our pilot had seen from that vantage point throughout his life. I closed my eyes for a moment and took in the soothing vibration of the engine while trying in vain to decipher the rapid-fire chatter on the headset. We had been blessed with an absolutely perfect day for a flight, and the steadily soporific aircraft might have lulled me to sleep had it not been for the breathtaking view, which kept Merlo and me glued to our respective windows. We buzzed Oprah Winfrey’s house a couple of times for good measure, a favorite destination among Red Baron clients looking to get a bird’s-eye view of luxury celebrity digs.
When we reluctantly turned and headed back to the Santa Barbara Airport, Pepper deferred to our co-pilot when asked if he also wanted to land the plane. He explained later that all the planes he had flown in his time in the RAF were what are known as “taildraggers.” The term is aviation jargon that refers to any plane with an aircraft undercarriage consisting of two main wheels forward of the center of gravity and a small wheel or skid to support the tail. Our Cessna, on the other hand, featured a wheel in the front, rather than in the back, giving it a whole different angle of approach upon landing. Boothby took the controls a few miles out and guided us the rest of the way in.
Nevertheless, at the age of 88, still sharp as a tack, Pepper had successfully piloted his 15th different type of aircraft. Afterward, I asked him what his impressions were of flying again.
“The takeoffs and landings become more difficult when you are not consistently flying,” he said, “but once you’re in the air, it is just like riding a bike.”
Amazingly, after World War II ended, Pepper would not see the inside of an airplane for the next 13 years. The war had caused him to lose his taste for flying, and he was not alone, he says.
“At the end of the war, I remember sitting in the mess with the rest of my squadron, and I remember our commanding officer came in and told us that now that our service was done, we all had jobs waiting for us flying commercial airplanes if we chose to,” recalled Pepper. “And I just remember every man in the room in unison saying, ‘Push off!’ — or some words to that effect!
“Because cats have nine lives,” he continued cheerfully, “so after everything that we had been through, how many more do you think you have got left?”
In fact, he says that only one man in his whole squadron decided to pursue a post-war career in aviation.
It wasn’t until 1959 that Pepper took another long flight — this one with his wife and son, from London Heathrow Airport to LAX, on one of the first overseas commercial jet flights. He has been in Santa Barbara County ever since, working as an educator until his retirement 16 years ago. During that time, he taught at both Crane Country Day School in Montecito and Laguna Blanca School in Hope Ranch. He has been a widower for seven years.
When Pepper’s son, Gary, caught the flight bug, he once again began to take some interest in the skies. The younger Pepper has been a student at Red Baron Aviation for the past 10 years, and has gotten to fly a handful of times with his father, which he says has been an unbelievably gratifying experience. Some day in the near future, Gary Pepper says he hopes to buy a small plane to keep at Red Baron so he and his father can fly together whenever they like.
Red Baron Aviation,1503 Cook Place, is Santa Barbara’s only FAA test center. As a certified LaserGrade test center, Red Baron can administer any FAA “written exam” for all ratings, from private pilot to airline transport pilot, in their computerized testing facility. The company also offers “discovery flights” for newcomers; for $79, a first-timer can go up with a certified flight instructor and actually take off and fly the plane from the pilot’s seat. Landing, I have been told, is best left to the experts!
As we were preparing to get on board the Cessna for our daytime jaunt, somebody asked Pepper which direction he would like to go on the flight.
He pointed to the sky with a wry smile and said, “Up!”
Click here for more information about Red Baron Aviation, or call 805.681.9200.