2002 - Bill Thomas
The following is from the January, 2003 issue of “Sport Aerobatics” announcing the inductees into the International Aerobatic Club Aerobatic Hall of Fame.
Bill Thomas’s interest in flying began when he was about 6 years old, with rubber band models. This soon led to free-flight gas models and later to full-size aircraft.
By the time Bill had finished high school, he had a commercial pilot’s certificate, and a flight instructor’s rating. World War II was in full swing, and he found himself teaching Army and Navy pilots.
It was at this time that he received his first instruction in aerobatics. At a hangar in Rochester, New York, Bill asked an instructor for dual, and was promptly shown a half slow roll. The engine sputtered, and Bill found himself gliding upside down. He was hooked.
After a year of teaching, Bill joined the U.S. Army Air Forces and began going through the same courses he had been teaching. He loved flying the heavy-metal army birds and doing aerobatics in them. One week before Bill graduated, the war ended, and he returned home to work in his father’s grocery store.
Bill’s brother, who was a Navy pilot, obtained the United States dealership for Bucker Jungmeisters, and Bill moved to Florida to join his brother in the flying business. He entered all the flying contest he could to promote the Bucker, but was always beaten by Pitts aircraft.
Bill purchased an S-1S and became a dealer for Pitts. With the Pitts he was able to move into first place in many contests, and in 1972 he found himself on the U.S. Aerobatic Team, flying in the World Aerobatic Championships in France. On his first flight, he won a silver medal.
Bill also did his share of judging, and in 1982 he was the U.S. judge for the World Aerobatic Championships in England. In 1984 he was also the U.S. judge in Hungary.
Bill is most proud of his aerobatics students who have gone on to do well in competition. He has written two aerobatics instruction books: “Fly for Fun” and “Fly for Fun to Win,” which covers competition flying and advanced maneuvers. It is for his many past students, and for the many more in the future, that Bill has written his books.
Grocery Executive, Contest Pilot, Aerobatic Teacher, U.S. Team Member
By Vern Jobst, Sport Aerobatics, 1972
Bill Thomas is precise, rather quiet, but a friendly man with somewhat of a wild crew cut who up until just lately has been known mostly to those interested in only competition aerobatics and those that have had the pleasure of flying with him at his “Fly For Fun” school of aerobatics at the New Tamiami Airport in south Florida.
Bill has flown in a few air shows but now limits his flying to practicing and competing in contest, or teaching others the art of becoming a safer pilot. “To do air shows, too, takes too much time away from the others,” he says. “The thing I like about competition is that it’s all in the numbers. The judges put down their number on a sheet of paper and you know just how you compare with the other guy.”
He is now with the U.S. Aerobatic Team in France. Last year (1971) in Oak Grove, he earned this spot as the alternate pilot after having flown in but three Unlimited contest.
Let’s go back and look at Bills aerobatic background. He started serious aerobatics in 1968 and for over 20 years before that he competed not in aerobatics, but in challenging field of being a grocery store executive!
Bill grew up in Olean, New York and fell in love with aviation very young. When he was but fourteen, he would go to the airport to mow the grass just to get a ride. To help his transportation problem, he built a homemade car with a washing machine motor that roared to the airport at 12 mph. He worked after school and whenever else he could. As a reward he got rides every so often.
By the time he was sixteen, he was ready to solo in the J-3 Cub that he had all his time in. Flying continued at a bit more rapid rate and he came up with his Commercial and Flight Instructor ratings when he was eighteen. Bill became a flight instructor in the Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) program in his hometown. Later on he moved to Danville, New York where he first became interested in aerobatics.
There was a Waco at Rochester that was available for aerobatic instruction. Bill recounts his first instruction “I got some training in this F2. The way this fellow taught aerobatics was to teach a slow roll, roll it upside down, then I was supposed to do it – I just had an awful time, I can’t remember doing too much aerobatics at this time. I became bored with flight instruction. I wanted to get into the Air Corps, so I quit my job and went down and enlisted. I went through the same training program that I taught for the first 30 hours. We flew the AT-6 in both basic and advanced. I enjoyed in particular the aerobatics and where I learned it was in the Air Corps. I had enough experience that the flight instructors just gave me the plane to go up and play with and I’d just go up and have a ball. I just loved the Air corps. However, just two weeks before we were to graduate, the war was over. They asked us if we decided to stay in the post war Air Corps. I said no. So at that point, I was eliminated from the cadets because of my attitude! After a tour as a buck private for a short while, I was discharged.”
“I came back home, went to college in Meadville, Pennsylvania and studied Business Administration. I did very little flying, rented a plane now and then. After college, I went to work for my father in the grocery business. After my father became ill and wasn’t able to run it, I wound up taking it over, for around 23 years – did hardly any flying at all. It grew until we had a chain of 39 stores over a 60 mile area. I never really enjoyed it. For a hobby, I started flying radio controlled models on weekends. But still I always wanted to fly aerobatics.”
Bill and his brother became interested in the Bucker Jungmeister reincarnation that Jack Canary was trying to promote. They purchased one and became distributors for New York state. Two more were purchased and they became the U.S. distributors.
About that time, he decided to sell the grocery business after getting a good offer and he says,” Get into something I liked.” The business was sold – Bill, his wife, son and two daughters moved to Florida.
It wasn’t long until be bought a Citabria so that he could start teaching aerobatics. Bill went to Rodell Aviation in Phoenix, got a brush up course from Cliff Sternberg and Bobby Bishop. Bill reflects upon it now, “I only had about 10 hours recently of aerobatics when I set up to teach it. As I taught, I keep learning more, (Ed. Note: like any fine instructor) I learned so much about teaching. I can’t help but feel sorry for those first students. They learned it OK but they learn much faster now.”
Flying the Jungmeister for sport, he decided to enter competition, “just for kicks.” He had to fly Jim Holland’s Citabria at his first contest in 1969, since he couldn’t get the Jungmeister to Louisiana due to weather. He came in 15th out of 30 Sportsman. He flew in three other contests prior to entering the Nationals in the Advanced Category at Fort Worth. Bill said, “After I flew, both Harold Krier and Art Sholl came up to me at separate times and said, ‘You did a beautiful job of flying.’ Just to have those two fellows come up for no good reason and say that – Well, that was all I needed to keep it up.”
The Pitts Special was beating all the other airplanes and as much as he loves the flying of the Jungmeister, Bill felt if he was to be truly competitive, he had better get a Pitts. After Bob Fergus bought Bill’s Jungmeister, he purchased Will Teft’s four-aileron Pitts. He also has a two-place Pitts that he gives dual in and as well as one last zero-time Jungmeister that he looks very fondly upon.
When asked what makes a Pitts so good, he came back with, “About a hundred and one little things. With so many similar looking biplanes around, there aren’t any of them that fly like a Pitts.”
The future team member decided he was going to fly in Advanced until he won a first place before moving up to Unlimited. This he accomplished at DeLand, Florida in late May of last year (1971).
Arriving at Burlington for his first Unlimited contest, he was rather amazed that he would be competing against Bob Herendeen, Gene Soucy, Art Scholl and Mary Gaffaney. He came in fourth place against this very tough competition.
After another fourth at Fond du Lac, Bill went to the Nationals at Oak Grove. His idea was “just to compete and fly the best he could.” He flew well, coming in sixth out of thirteen. Now that Bob Herendeen will not be able to attend, Bill will fly as the number five man on the team.
He has, since the nationals, sold his yellow and white Pitts to Sam Burgess. Curtis Pitts has built him another airplane that is a masterpiece.
Bill, at 48 years of age, with his very mature and steady outlook in addition to his precision style of flying, will be a definite asset to the current World Champion Team.
Flying Magazine, 1972
Flying Magazine, in their July, 1972 issue, decided to do a series of articles on the Pitts Special aircraft and on the members of the 1972 World Aerobatic Team. This issue came out just before the U.S. Aerobatic Team went to France to compete in the World Aerobatic Championship, which is held every two years. The various authors used were a miniature “who’s-who” of notable aviation names of that era; Archie Trammell, Thomas H. Block, Stephan Wilkinson, Peter Garrison, and Gordon Baxter.
1972 was the year that stars were shining on the US team. That year America won the team world championship, sported the men’s world champion (Charlie Hillard), the women’s world champion (Mary Gaffeney), and everyone on the team was flying an American airplane, the Pitts Special. The team included Charlie Hillard, Gene Soucy, Tom Poberezny, Art Scholl, Mary Gaffaney, Carolyn Salisbury, and Bill Thomas.
Bob Herendeen, two time U.S. National Champion, and considered by some one of the best aerobatic pilots on the planet, was on the ’72 team but decided to retire. Bill Thomas was an alternate. So Bob Herendeen retires, Bill goes to France, helps the team win the World Championship, and even wins a silver medal in one of the events. Not bad!
Presented here is the July 1972 profile of Bill Thomas written by Stephan Wilkinson before the team headed to France.
Several months ago, an English aviation magazine listed the members of the U.S. aerobatic team and added that the alternates would be “Bill Thomas and Coral gables.” Few of its readers knew that Coral Gables is not a lady aerobat but a section of Miami, but even fewer of them knew anything about Thomas, who lives there. He is the antithesis of the flashy, famous air-show pilots who make up the bulk of the U.S. team, and until now, his name has been known only to those interested in pure competition aerobatics and to the few privileged students he teaches at his small school of aerobatics on New Tamiami Airport, south west of Miami.
“I like competing,” he says. “It’s not like an air show, where the crowd claps and you figure, ‘well, I did okay.’ When I’m finished with a competition, it’s all in black and white. The judges have put down their little numbers and you know just how you compare to the other guy.”
Thomas is a precise, reticent but friendly man with a graying, helter-skelter crewcut and a toothy half-smile. He answers an interviewer’s inevitable questions about the style of the English team, or the performance of the Yak, or the possibilities of the Acrostar, by saying, “Well, I’m the wrong guy to ask those questions…” or “Gee, I don’t know much about that…” Others would doubtless be less hesitant with the cachet of team membership to give weight to their opinions, but Thomas is a modest man. He gets far more excited, in fact, describing the day his 17-year-old daughter soloed his single-seat Pitts. (She scared him so with her exuberance that he hasn’t dared let her up in it since.) “My wife? She kind of pretends this whole thing doesn’t exist.” Mrs. Thomas has never seen here husband fly in competition, nor will she accompany him to France.
As this is written, it is still not definite that Thomas will travel with the team to the world meet, but the increasing inevitability of Herendeen’s retirement from competition makes it look almost certain that Thomas will fly as the number five man on the team.
His aerobatic background is 20 years in the grocery business. That’s a casual exaggeration, of course, but Thomas did begin flying serious aerobatics at an age when most competitors have long since retired: He is now 48, and he started three years ago.
He and his brother sold their large (39 stores) upstate New York grocery business in 1968, and flush with sudden wealth, decided to become dealers for the reincarnated Bucker Jungmeister that Jack Canary was trying to flog. Both Thomases had flown aerobatics during World War II training, but except for a couple of years during which they’d puttered from supermarket to supermarket in a 172, neither had flown since 1945. Bill decided to move to Florida, which seemed a better place to sell open-cockpit biplanes than Olean, New York, and he took an aerobatic course with Bobby bishop, in Phoenix, Arizona. “I had to take Dramamine to keep from getting sick, and I thought I’d sure gotten myself into the wrong business.”
By this time, Bill and his brother had ordered three Jungmeisters, and had become not dealers but the U.S. distributors. In for penny in for a pound, Thomas beat his butterflies into submission and soon began competing in one of his demonstrators. “I kept noticing Pittses in all the competitions. The Jungmeister couldn’t keep up with them, so I got a Bucker with a 220-hp Franklin, thinking that would keep up with them. I got a lot of seconds.”
The next step was inevitable, and now Thomas has two Pittses and is a dealer. He has a single-seater in which he is competing in the world meet and an S-2A in which he gives dual (as well as one last zero-time Jungmeister in the back of the hangar). What makes the Pitts so good? “Oh about a hundred and one little things. There are so many similar biplanes around,” Thomas says, “yet none of them flies like the Pitts.” Thomas’s world-meet airplane was built with the contest in mind, and Bill says, “I wanted Curtis to make it as light as possible, but you can’t get Curtis Pitts to change. ‘Leave out the floorboards,’ I’d tell him. ‘Nope.’ Curtis says the easiest way for me to reduce the weight of the airplane is to go on a diet. I couldn’t even get him to go easy on the dope. ‘This plane’s gotta be a masterpiece – it’s going to France,’ Curtis would say, slapping on another coat.”
Interestingly enough, Thomas always wanted to be a top aerobatic competitor with radio-controlled model airplanes, but he never haad time to do more than fly in regional meets and become very good. “I do it every once in a while now. I can still get the plane up and back down and do a few slow rolls, but it’s all pretty shaky. Models have two big advantages, though: no G forces, and when you crash, you just walk over and pick up the pieces.”
Bill Thmas is a teacher, not a tiger, but he feels that his endless hours as an instructor of precision aerobatics, and his constant solitary practice, will be as much help to him as the wing-walking and ribbon-chopping of some of his teammates. His mature, steady, skillful flying may be just what the U.S. team needs.