High-Flying Connection

Upriver resident Phil Brown will celebrate 50 years of flying in August.
Upriver resident Phil Brown will celebrate 50 years of flying in August.

RBC I For father and son Don and Phil Brown, flying runs in the family. Both Don and Phil started flying as teenagers and spent their entire careers as pilots.
And both are members of the Nebraska Aviation Hall of Fame, as are two other family members, Reuben Wagner, Phil’s second cousin, and Horace Quinn, Phil’s uncle.
“It’s all I’ve ever done,” Phil said.
And he’s still doing it.
“The first day I have to go to work, it’s time to find a new job, because flying’s not work to me; it’s enjoyable,” Phil said.
Even though he retired in 2004 as chief pilot for Seattle Jetstream, Phil, 65, continues to fly on a regular basis, including being a charter pilot for Coulter Aviation out of the Meeker Airport.
“It’s always been aviation,” Phil said of the type of work he has done.
Since he retired, Phil and wife Karin have lived upriver, on what used to be the Sizemore place.
“If you lived in Meeker, you were related to a Sizemore,” Phil said. “That family is as old as Meeker is.”
Even though he grew up in Nebraska — and used to run an aviation business with his father in Lodgepole, Neb. — Phil and his family visited the Meeker area for years, before he settled here full time after he retired.
“My family has been hunting in the Meeker area for years and years,” Phil said. “My granddad was a doctor in Denver, and back in the ‘20s, they started hunting the Trappers Lake area and Sleepy Cat and Strawberry (Creek). We spent a lot of time in western Colorado.”
And he spent a lot of time flying.
Phil was 16 when soloed for the first time. In fact, he soloed four different planes on his 16th birthday — Aug. 19, 1959.
“I soloed everything Piper had at that time,” Phil said. “I had a pilot’s license before I had a driver’s license. Later on (that same day, after making his solo flights), I went and got a driver’s license.”
Phil’s sister, Dona Ruth, also soloed on her 16th birthday.
A passion for flying is a family trait.
“It started with my wife’s cousin,” Don said. “And it’s still going.”
Don, 92, who has lived upriver since 1980, soloed for the first time in 1935 when he was 18, at what later became Stapleton Airport in Denver.
“I took one ride and decided that was for me,” said Don, who grew up in the Denver area. “It seems like only yesterday.”
He went on to make a career out of flying.
Don started a flying service in Lodgepole, Neb., which, at the time, was the first in the state to use twin-engine aircraft in a charter operation. He also started fixed-base operations in Sidney and Kimball, both in Nebraska, and started the Mid-Continent School of Aeronautics.
In 1961, Don became manager of the airport in Alliance, Neb., and opened Don’s Air Service, an airplane and helicopter distributorship. Ten years later, he started Trans-Nebraska Airlines, where the vice president and chief pilot was his son Phil.
The father and son worked together from 1959 to 1973, except for a couple of years in there when Phil was a pilot in Alaska and Colorado.
“We always worked hand in hand, it was more of a partnership,” Phil said. “In fact, he always called me partner, and he still does.
“I always respected my dad,” Phil said. “I never learned anything in school. I learned it all from him.”
Once, when asked to fly a customer to Alaska, Phil said he would do it, if he could pick his co-pilot.
“Who’s that?” the customer asked.
“My dad,” Phil said.
“People used to get us confused, because our voices sounded the same over the radio,” Don said.
During his 50 years of flying, Don flew all kinds of aircraft.
“People ask, ‘What did you do in aviation?’ I say, ‘Well, what is there to do?’ I’ve done it,” Don said. “I never flew a balloon or a glider, but I flew both helicopter and airplane. So when I had been in it for 50 years, my logbooks showed I had 50,000 hours in. I flew actively until we moved here, and then I flew very seldom.”
Asked if he missed flying, Don said, “No, I guess I got it all done.”
Don was named to the Nebraska Aviation Hall of Fame in 2003, while Phil was inducted in January.
“It was kind of a shock,” Phil said of the hall-of-fame induction. “All of this happened without me knowing anything about it.”
In August, Phil will celebrate 50 years of flying.
“I’m physically as strong as I was 20 years ago,” Phil said. “I’ll be the first one to step down, if I feel I’m not.”
Phil’s wife, Karin, is also a pilot.
“She’s not active anymore, but she does carry the licenses,” Phil said.
Karin worked for Trans World Airlines for about 30 years as a flight attendant, and she was a flight instructor on the side. She also worked for four years for Alaska Airlines. She and Phil met when she was on leave from TWA and was a flight instructor in San Antonio.
“She was from Nebraska also, and we wound up going to a Christmas party together,” Phil said. “That started the whole thing.”
Phil’s 50-year flying career has included some dramatic exploits, like the time he piloted a helicopter to rescue a hunter who had fallen through the ice, or the time he landed a helicopter on top of a water tower so a light could be installed.
“One time we were puttin’ on an air show and he (Phil) was taking off in the helicopter,” said Don, who was announcing the event. “I got on him about that. I said, ‘Phil, you shouldn’t be doing that, showing off like that in front of the crowd.’
“He said, ‘I wasn’t showing off, the engine quit on takeoff,’ ” Don said, smiling proudly as he recalled the story.
Phil has also flown his share of celebrities over the years, like Muhammad Ali, Paul Harvey, the actor Vin Diesel, and former President George H.W. Bush.
“He was just a super guy,” Phil said of the former president. “We’d talk about hunting and fishing. I’d drop him off at his ranch. Shortly after that, he was vice president. Then, of course, he became the president.”
Phil was introduced to flying at an early age. A real early age. His father had him up in a plane for the first time just days after he was born, flying him home from the hospital in Lincoln, Neb.
“My wife had a fit,” Don said, retelling the story. “She was afraid I was going to have him land (the plane) when we got there.”
Turns out it would be a few more years before Phil landed his first airplane. But given that he has spent virtually his entire life around aviation, it’s as if he was born to fly.
“Flying’s been my life,” Phil said. “I’m not smart enough to do anything else. Like my dad always told me, do what you enjoy, and that’s the best thing you’re going to do.”