Craig Davidson shares his love of aviation and his 1943 Stearman biplane. Davidson is planning to fly the plane to the Experimental Aircraft Association's Oshkosh Air Show on Wednesday.
DANVILLE — During his 24 years as an American Airlines pilot, Craig Davidson flew to numerous destinations throughout the Western Hemisphere.
But his most memorable adventure came earlier this month, when he and a friend made a four-day, 1,840-mile journey from Spokane, Wash., back home to Danville in his newly-acquired World War II-era Stearman biplane.
"It was just a wonderful experience," said Davidson, who is now training to fly formation with other Stearman pilots to "share my love for aviation with other people."
Davidson, who turns 61 on Saturday, traces his fascination with flying back to when he was 5, and he accompanied his mother to the airport in his hometown of Ottumwa, Iowa. While waiting for his father to fly in from a business trip, he saw an Ozark DC-3 taxi down the runway and take off.
"You could see the blue flame from the exhaust, hear the engine, smell the aviation gas," said Davidson, who still loves that smell.
"It set the hook for the rest of my life."
Mom: Get a job
After graduating from Urbana High School, Davidson enrolled in the University of Illinois Institute of Aviation, where he earned his airplane mechanic's certificate, private pilot's license and various other ratings.
His dream job: Commercial airline pilot.
"We were told in school it was just impossible to get in and that you needed thousands of hours of flying time and three lunar landings," Davidson joked of the highly-competitive field. He added hopefuls needed to land a job at a major airline by age 29 to make it worth the company's investment in them.
Undeterred, he got a string of short-term jobs as a flight instructor, freight service pilot and charter service pilot. One, flying freight from Memphis to Columbus, was his only 9-to-5 job.
"I was flying from 9 at night to 5 in the morning," he said with a laugh.
His mother, Lou Davidson, didn't laugh when the small company folded and her son, then 27, lost his job and moved back home.
"She said, 'All of your friends from college have jobs. They have families. They have futures. You need to get out of aviation,'" he recalled. "I basically told her that I couldn't give up. I have to keep shooting for that brass ring."
Then, through friends, Davidson got a job flying commuters for Air Virginia. Two years later, he got hired by American Airlines.
"I had just made it," he said, pointing out he was 29.
During his career, he was based in New York, Washington, D.C., Raleigh, N.C. and Chicago. By choice, he made mainly domestic trips as well as treks to Canada, Mexico, South and Central America and the Caribbean islands.
When Davidson flew out of O'Hare International Airport, he and his wife — Nancy, then a physical therapist for Christie Clinic — lived in Mahomet. In 2001, the couple — who race stand-up jet skis and compete in Aquabike events (triathlons without the running) — moved to Danville, partly to train for their sports in Lake Vermilion.
Flying high again
Having lost his father and other male relatives when they were young, Davidson chose to take early retirement in 2008. Then the stock market crashed, and he was grounded for two years.
Davidson was forced to reinvent himself.
"I had always restored cars," he said, adding that started out of necessity. Then he started restoring Corvettes, including a 1963 split-window coupe.
"By the grace of God, these projects, one after another, kept dropping in my lap," he said, adding one of his clients was Butch Schroeder, a friend and fellow pilot and the owner of two beautifully-restored vintage planes — a North American P-51 Mustang and T-6 Texan.
One day, "I was working on one of his cars. He said, 'Isn't it time you got back into the air?'" recalled Davidson, who said the retired business owner took him for a ride in the military training plane later that day.
"Once I went up, I realized how much I was missing," said Davidson, who credits Schroeder for getting him back into flying.
The two worked out an arrangement, in which Davidson works on Schroeder's cars and, in exchange, can fly the vintage airplanes. Davidson also sold his '63 coupe and used some of the money to attend Stallion 51, which trains pilots to fly Mustangs.
Two years ago through his work on Schroeder's Corvettes, Davidson met David Burroughs, a UI Institute of Aviation alum and Stearman pilot and instructor. Burroughs invited him to a Stearman clinic to learn the art of formation flying.
"I like the precision of this group and how they fly their airplane. It's not just, 'Let's go up and see what happens,'" he said of the maneuvers. "It's very choreographed from engine start to engine shutdown. Everyone has to know what the other guy or gal is doing to do before he or she does it because you're so close together. They're very dedicated and professional."
Davidson, who had fallen in love with the aircraft's rich history, began scouring the country for his own. He finally found one — painted bright yellow with red stripes — in the Pacific Northwest.
Built in 1943, the open-air dual cockpit plane served as a primary trainer for young pilots at the Bunker Hill Naval Air Station, now Grissom Air Reserve Base, north of Kokomo, Ind., during World War II. After the war, it became a crop duster.
"It had a pretty hard life," Davidson said, adding the previous owner, James Love, had it restored and flew it with a formation group in Spokane.
"It's probably one of the finest Stearmans in the country," he continued. He added the husband-and-wife team of Addison and Wendy Pemberton, "the top in their field," spent more than 4,000 hours on the restoration.
Next stop: Oshkosh
On July 5, Davidson and co-pilot John Rettick, of Bloomington — a retired Marines fighter pilot, who test-flies FedEx planes after heavy maintenance and is a Stearman instructor — started the journey to bring her to her new home. They could only take their parachutes, some survival equipment and a few other items they could stow in the pockets of their flight suits.
With the exception of the first day when they flew only a short distance, they set off at daybreak — when the air is the coolest, allowing the airplane to get better lift — and flew a total of eight hours stopping every 2 hours to refuel.
"We flew hard every day," Rettick recalled, adding the two looked out for each other, making sure they didn't get dehydrated or fatigued.
The most challenging leg was flying through the northern part of the Rocky Mountains.
"The highest we could fly was about 7,700 feet," said Davidson, who recalled having to fly over a 6,500-foot pass and could see taller peaks in the distance. "You don't climb a Stearman. You coax it."
Low clouds prevented them from flying over Mullen Pass in the Bitterroot Range. Instead, they followed the Clark Fork River and headed northeast to Sandpoint, Idaho — a route they knew of through a fellow pilot.
"When we finally got out of the mountains into western Nebraska, we were in an area called the Sand Hills," Davidson recalled. "There were no roads and no people for as far as you could see. It was this magical place. I wish I could describe how peaceful it was. It was just you, a good friend and good plane. It really clears the mind."
They landed at the Vermilion Regional Airport on July 9. To Davidson's surprise, his wife arranged a welcome-home reception with 20 to 30 people, including his 84-year-old mom.
"I asked her if she wanted to go for a ride. She didn't hesitate for a second," Davidson recalled with a smile.
Davidson said he's looking forward to flying a friend and celebrating his birthday at the annual air show and convention in Oshkosh, Wis., which runs through Sunday. He will return to Oshkosh over the Labor Day weekend to participate in another Stearman clinic — a birthday gift from his wife.
After that, he may be ready to fly with the Stearman group.
"I'm certainly not God's gift to aviation, but God has certainly given me the gift of aviation," he said, reflecting on his 43 years in the sky and his latest endeavor. "And without my friends — my wife being my best friend — none of this would have happened."
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