Lyon Air Museum is fortunate in the diverse and varied backgrounds of the Docents who freely give their time and effort educating valued guests about the Golden Age of American Aviation and Manufacturing, of the “Greatest Generation” who fought for freedom in the world, and the many magnificent airplanes which secured Allied victory in the war.
When Lyon Air Museum Docent Walt Bohl gives tours to guests, he can easily tell them the service ceiling of the B-17G Fuddy Duddy, or the maximum cruise speed of the B-25J Guardian of Freedom. However, Walt can also tell guests what it is like to pilot a Boeing 747-400, equipped with a fully computerized flight deck, cruising 45,000 feet above the earth, traversing continents with the same ease as many of us pull our car into a garage.
Walt is a retired United Airlines Captain with nearly 39 years of experience and over 25,000 hours of Pilot-in-Command (PIC) time. He holds FAA type ratings for eight different aircraft, and FAA certificates for Single-Engine Commercial, Multi-Engine Airline Transport Pilot (ATP), Flight Engineer for Piston and Turbine aircraft, as well as Flight Dispatcher. In addition he also holds Advanced Ground and Instrument Instructor certifications.
To say aviation runs in Walt’s his family would be an understatement. His father was an Army Air Corps and Air Force pilot, as well as a United Airlines Captain. In addition, Walt’s wife is a retired United Airlines Flight Attendant. His son is a current 747-400 Captain with United, his grandson is a Captain for United Express and his granddaughter holds an FAA Private Pilot Certificate.
Walt was born on March Air Force Base (then known as March Field) in Riverside, California where his father was stationed at the time. “I was an Air Force brat” he recalls with a smile. He fondly remembers flying in a B-25 one day with his father, an experience that left a definite imprint on him. After that, a career in aviation quickly became a forgone conclusion.
“My dad had served in the Army Air Corps before the war, then went to work flying for United. When the war started he was called back as a C-47 instructor pilot. After that he began ferrying all types of aircraft around the world for the war effort. He was stationed for a while in North Africa, where one of his duties was getting C-47 aircraft from North America to India, where they would fly supplies over the Himalayas to support the China-Burma-India (CBI) theatres of war.”
Walt with his father (top right) and brother (lower right), and other crew members getting ready to go on a flight in a B-25.
Flying supplies over the Himalayas (or “flying the hump” as it was known) was a dangerous endeavor, especially in unpressurized C-47 piston aircraft, but one absolutely necessary for defeating the Japanese. Utilizing the mountainous route allowed the Allies to bypass most enemy defenses to deliver supplies crucial to Allied victory.
Walt took some aviation classes in high school, and spent the summer after graduation working for TWA, fueling airplanes. He continued his aviation studies at San Mateo Junior College, where he vividly recalls the unique arrangement he had with his first flight instructor. “I paid $3 per hour to rent the airplane and I paid the flight instructor by doing work on his house. He hated working on his house, so for every two hours of work I would perform on the house, he would give me one hour of dual-time flight instruction. He drove me to and from the airport, so ground school was held in his car!”
After two years of college, Walt emerged with a commercial pilot certificate in 1955. Shortly thereafter, he was hired by United Airlines as a co-pilot. However, he first had to build seniority and hours as a Flight Engineer before he could actually act as a co-pilot. “I began at United with 250 flight hours and no instrument rating. They put me through a three-week instrument course, which was not too difficult considering the experience I already had.”
He served as a Flight Engineer on Douglas DC-6, DC-7 and DC-8 aircraft for seven years. Thereafter, he moved to the right seat of the cockpit and served as a co-pilot on piston aircraft for two years before transitioning to turbine DC-8 aircraft for an additional two years.
Once Walt made Captain he continued to fly the same aircraft, but from the left seat. He also began piloting newer airplanes like the DC-10 and Boeing models such as the 727 & 737. He spent about three years piloting each aircraft, amassing an impressive logbook of hours. It was a natural progression that he would one day fly what was then the world’s largest passenger aircraft, the Boeing 747. Unparalleled in capacity and range, the aircraft revolutionized international air travel.
Spending over nine years captaining jumbo jets of a global carrier, Walt had the opportunity to fly the vast expanses of the globe numerous times over. Many of the flights were so long in duration that FAA and International Civil Air Organization (ICAO) regulations mandated he be relieved by another pilot every eight hours to rest in a crew bunk. He flew into many of the world’s most exotic and legendary airports, including old Hong Kong Kai Tak Airport, where the difficult approach and landing on Runway 13 was revered among both pilots and passengers. The maneuver required such skill that pilots had to be trained in a simulator before being allowed to fly the approach.
In Command of a Boeing 727
He recalls a certain approach into Beijing when Chinese air traffic controllers called Walt’s 747 while they were descending on the Instrument Landing System (ILS), about five miles from the airport. There was a cloud layer below and they did not yet have the field in sight. “They called me and said an Air China Airbus was joining up on our left wing. I looked out the window and sure enough, here comes this Airbus, about a quarter-mile horizontal from us, on the approach. We were landing on parallel runways, but as we descended it became apparent he had lined up with the lighted roadway leading into the airport terminal, not the runway! He tried to correct, but touched down sideways and badly damaged one of his landing gears.”
Walt retired from United in 1994 as a 747-400 Captain, but his involvement in aviation did not end with his retirement. “After I retired from United I taught ground school classes on passing the FAA written tests for Airline Transport Pilot, Flight Engineer and Instrument Airplane rating.” There is little doubt that Walt’s vast experience and expertise helped many pilots gain the certifications and ratings necessary to fly commercially, a process that takes years of ground and air instruction.
As a Flight Engineer with his son c.1956
At one time Walt also owned a small Cessna 170B that he flew and performed various work on over the years, including upgrading to a more powerful engine with a constant-speed propeller. He used this aircraft to fly over 100 Search and Rescue (SAR) missions for the Civil Air Patrol (CAP).
Walt also actively participates in the American Aviation Historical Society, where he has served in various capacities over the years, including authoring 13 articles. His writing focuses on airlines and their histories, from start-ups with a few ragtag airplanes to global carriers that crisscross the globe in sophisticated jetliners.
When asked about his greatest satisfaction from being a Docent at the museum, Walt is quick to answer. “I learn from people who come here. I had some visitors one day from the Ukraine and they told me all about the Russian motorcycle on display in the museum. It turns out it was made in Kiev. In fact, they are still use much of the equipment the Russians took from the German BMW motorcycle factory at the end of the war. It is basically a BMW motorcycle.”
“We get airline pilots in that are on layover, and I enjoy talking to them about the various aircraft they fly, and their experiences. We get in 747 pilots from Los Angeles International, and local crews who fly in current models of the 737, both aircraft I flew during my time in the cockpit. We trade stories and learn from each other.”
Inquired as to whether global travel was an enjoyable perk of his job, he smiles and replies “I liked flying the airplanes.” Spoken like a true aviator.
The Lyon Air Museum is indeed fortunate to have Walt Bohl as a Docent. As a man who has witnessed the incredible evolution of aviation over the decades, and piloted some of the largest the most sophisticated aircraft across the globe, he offers a unique insight to both museum guests, and fellow Docents alike.
Article by Dan Heller. Written in 2013.