The Douglas C-47 Skytrain “Willa Dean” is one of the most treasured aircraft at Lyon Air Museum; an ambassador of the greatest generation in American aviation. As such, it has become a staple at air shows and other notable events in the southern California area. Those fortunate enough to see her fly marvel at the beauty of the simplistic, yet rugged design and the critical role the aircraft played in World War II, where it was an indispensable workhorse of the Allied war effort.
However, the C-47 nor any other Lyon Air Museum aircraft would ever take to the sky if not for the dedicated cadre of volunteer pilots who fly these great machines with precision, grace and skill. One of these pilots is Matt Walker, and for him there is no greater place to be than behind the controls of a classic airplane.
Matt behind the controls of C-47 Willa Dean
For Matt, becoming a commercial pilot of classic aircraft did not come easy, or all at once. Instead it has been a lifelong journey filled with colorful personalities, luck, irony and more than one close call. Like most who catch the flying bug, for Matt it started early. So early, as a matter of fact, that his mother often recalled the second word he ever spoke - “airplane.”
Matt was not the only person in his large family to have interest in aviation. When his mother was in her teens she had worked as a barometric chamber technician at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (AFB) during World War II, studying the effects of hypoxia on pilots. Hypoxia occurs in unpressurized aircraft flying at altitudes above 12,500” Mean Sea Level (MSL). As altitude increases, the oxygen becomes thin as the atmospheric pressure drops, leaving pilots mentally incapacitated and at risk of making fatal mistakes or losing consciousness. Only supplemental oxygen or flying at a lower altitude remedies this dangerous condition.
At Wright Patterson AFB his mother met many flying legends of World War II such as Medal of Honor Recipient Major Richard Bong and Major Dominic "Don" Gentile. Being a military employee, she was also required to recognize just about every aircraft from every air force in world. She also spent time studying actual aircraft such as the Northrop P-61 Black Widow. “When I started building model airplanes when I was five or six, my mom knew every airplane I was building and could tell me all about it.”
Matt grew up in Corning, a small town in western New York near the Pennsylvania border. He was one of eight children in a household of bare necessity. His parents were well educated professionals, nevertheless money was very tight in the large family. However, his parents instilled in their children that anything could be accomplished with dedication and hard work. Each sibling had a job and responsibilities in the regimented household, and expectations of achievement were high.
During his youth, in his spare time Matt would ride his bicycle six miles to what is now Corning–Painted Post Airport (7N1). For many years he would sit alongside the runway and watch the airplanes come and go. When he was 14 he began taking flying lessons with money he had earned from working at the airport performing various tasks such as washing airplanes, raking leaves and mowing grass. His first flight instructor was Joe Costa of Costa Flying Services, a Fixed Base Operator (FBO), maintenance shop and flight school at the airport. Matt received lessons from Joe in a Piper PA-11, a 65hp single-engine high-wing monoplane. In the beginning Matt flew for about two hours a year, however as he grew older his instruction expanded to about an hour a month.
Joe Costa was not only a flight instructor to Matt, he was also a role model for the young man, and instilled much more in him than stick and rudder skills. Joe was a famous barnstormer from the 1920s, and member of an elite club of early aviators who had survived those primal days of aerobatic daredevilry. In 1936 he had attempted to fly across the Atlantic Ocean to Portugal in a Lockheed Vega, however his attempt was abandoned in Brazil when, attempting an emergency landing with empty fuel tanks during a blinding tropical rainstorm, the Vega crashed. The only recoverable parts of the aircraft were the engine and some instruments which were shipped back to Costa’s FBO at Corning. During World War II Joe was a respected flight instructor in the Army Air Forces (USAAF), and after the war he turned down numerous lucrative test pilot offers from major aerospace manufacturers in favor of running his little FBO in Corning, dedicating his life to general aviation and mentoring young pilots such as Matt.
Aviation pioneer Joe Costa circa 1935
By October of 1969 Matt had six hours of flight instruction under his belt. One day, after landing from a flight lesson, Joe climbed out of the back of the Cub and told 16 year-old Matt to take the airplane and solo around the airfield. It was a moment every student pilot dreams about, and never forgets. It was all the more meaningful when Matt spotted his father by the runway, who had come out to show support for his son during this milestone. “I was the only kid in my high school who could fly an airplane!” Matt recalls proudly.
Looking back, Matt remembers Joe and their time flying together fondly. “Joe would sit in the back seat and eat lunch while I flew,” Matt remembers, “he also had a rolled-up newspaper, which he would use to hit me in the back of the head whenever I did something wrong! As a result I rarely made the mistake twice.” Though Matt learned many valuable lessons from Joe in the air, his most powerful lesson from the salty aviator came after one of his solo flights around the airport area.
“It was about six weeks after I soloed, and my head was a little big. I had a girlfriend who lived in the hills nearby, and I thought I would impress her by buzzing her house, which I did several times. When I landed back at the airport, I was met by Joe and a New York State Trooper, who had parked his patrol car across the taxiway, lights flashing. Also present were other pilots who flew out of that airport, many of whom I knew. They were all standing there in a group, as if waiting for something to happen; I had no idea they were waiting for me. I stopped the airplane, cut the engine and opened the door. Joe then reached in the airplane, grabbed me by the shirt with one hand, dragged me out and threw me at the State Trooper. He looked at me with a combination of disgust and disappointment, and informed me I was grounded for six weeks. I was devastated.”
What Matt did not know at the time was Joe and his friend the State Trooper had also been flying together at the same time as Matt, and had watched his antics from behind and at a higher altitude. Landing back at the airport before Matt, Joe arranged the reception to teach him a valuable lesson. Being a pilot comes with expectations of a high amount of professionalism, which young Matt had blatantly violated. The State Trooper, police cruiser and assembly of fellow pilots had been arranged by Joe to drive the message home. It worked, as a humbled and humiliated Matt never attempted the stunt again. Neither did he ever take the privilege of flying for granted. Six weeks later Matt was back flying with Joe, who left the incident in the past. He was on his best behavior for the remainder of the time he was under Joe’s tutelage. “He was a great guy, a super pilot and outstanding instructor. I was very lucky to have trained under him.” Matt and Joe kept in contact over the years, up until Joe’s passing in 1998 at age 89.
Matt with his Harley Davidson chopper circa 1971
Graduating from high school in 1971, Matt was unsure as to what to do with his life. “I subsequently became a world-class, aimless bum for four years” he recalls. He bought a Harley Davidson chopper and began tending bar to make ends meet. Drafted during the Vietnam conflict in 1972, Matt prepared to leave for the Syracuse Induction Center and enlisted basic training. Six weeks before he was supposed to report he was involved in a serious motorcycle accident, which wrecked his chopper and resulted in injuries that exempted him from the draft. Still intensely interested in flying, Matt approached the Army to become a helicopter pilot. As it turned out the same injuries that precluded him from the draft also dashed any hopes of becoming a military pilot.
Work was hard to find in his native hometown during this time, so Matt hitchhiked down to Morgan City and Houma, Louisiana where he found work on oil drilling platforms. Though the work was hard and at times dangerous, Matt enjoyed it and as a bonus, the money was good. While in Louisiana he met a man who owned a Cessna 180 with floats which he used in air taxi operations. In his off-time from the oil fields Matt would fly with him, eventually learning to pilot a seaplane.
Finally earning enough money to purchase another motorcycle, Matt traveled up to Nova Scotia where he had some friends. Sitting in a bar one night, he glanced across the street to the window of a travel agency and noticed a flyer for a 23-day excursion trip to London, England. It was leaving that night, so within a few hours he offloaded his motorcycle and boarded a transatlantic British Airways flight to Heathrow. However, he did not return back after the excursion was over. Instead he took the opportunity to travel to France, Africa, Turkey, the Middle East and beyond, getting in flying time wherever and whenever he could. The 23-day excursion to England eventually turned into an eighteen-month excursion across several continents.
Returning back to the states in 1975 Matt was virtually penniless. With little money to his name he traveled around the country, hitchhiking to wherever rumor of work took him. He heard of possible work in Washington, DC building the underground subway system. Arriving with $8 to his name, he found himself short of the funds needed to buy a union card, which was a precondition of employment. Instead he was hired to pull electrical wiring through conduit. Barely making enough money to support himself, he lived in various parks and encampments around the capitol city, homeless by today’s standards.
After much hard work, Matt was able to afford a bed in a run-down flophouse but was feeling restless after eight months in a dead-end job that seemed to be going nowhere. Quickly approaching a fork in the road of his life, Matt contemplated leaving it all behind and traveling to India in search of further adventure and spiritual enlightenment.
It was perhaps at this milestone in his life that the values instilled upon him by his parents materialized, and his path became clear. “I remember the day distinctly. It was December 23, 1975 and I got into a heated argument with the foreman of the electrical company I was working for. I climbed down the scaffold and told the supervisor that I quit. I hitchhiked up the street to the campus of the University of Maryland, walked into the dean’s office with my tool belt still on, and told them I wanted to go to college. The dean and I talked for a while, and he made me an offer. Take night courses in drafting and calculus, get an “A” in each, and they would matriculate me to a full-time student for the following semester with no other prerequisites. I did it, and completed a degree in Civil Engineering in three and a half years.”
During his time in college Matt flew when he could, mostly with friends from College Park Airport (KCGS) near the campus. A famous airport of the golden age of aviation with many historical institutions nearby, Matt was able to see many classic, vintage aircraft which rekindled his desire to formally complete flight training and obtain a pilot certificate and additional ratings.
Upon graduation from college in 1980 Matt received a job offer in the Los Angeles area, and once again he was on the move. With a college degree in hand and earning a decent salary he enrolled at a flight school near Salton Sea and finally obtained his Private Pilot certificates for single and multi-engine land and sea airplanes, along with an instrument rating for airplanes. He accomplished this while working full-time, though he did have to call in sick a few times to complete a necessary exam or check ride. Yearning to spend more time in the world of aviation, he also worked part-time for a number of air freight operations, loading and unloading cargo along with other tasks. He eventually accumulated enough flying hours and aeronautical knowledge to obtain a commercial pilot certificate, which would allow him to get paid to fly. Tellingly, Matt was attracted to flying classic airplanes with radial piston engines, with little desire to move to modern turbine aircraft. One of his favorite airplanes was the twin-engine Beechcraft (Beech) 18, an airplane widely considered one of the best designed, and most beautiful of golden age airplanes.
It was an early Saturday morning when Matt found himself interviewing with the owner of a teetering air freight company, an odd character who started the interview by offering Matt a warm bottle of beer. “Do you know anything about the Beech 18?” the man asked, taking a swig from his tepid Michelob.
“Absolutely nothing” was Matt’s truthful reply, “but I love the airplane.”
“Good,” the owner responded, “be here at 5:00 AM tomorrow morning.” The interview then concluded.
Sitting on the wing of a beloved Beech 18.
The next day Matt found himself in the left seat of a Beech 18 with a highly experienced co-pilot sitting next to him. Unbeknownst to Matt at the time, the co-pilot had lost all his certificates when he was caught running narcotics into the United States from Mexico. Unable to legally fly anymore, he instead became Matt’s Beech 18 mentor. “I was basically his seeing-eye dog, but he taught me an awful lot about the airplane!” Matt chuckles.
Still employed full-time as a civil engineer, Matt flew for the air freight company for six months, mostly on weekends and sometimes even during his lunch breaks. In 1984 the operation was shut down by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) due to numerous safety and maintenance violations.
In 1985 Matt again found himself on the other side of the world, working a civil engineering project in Micronesia for eighteen months. He happened to know a pilot at a local commuter airline, which gave him the opportunity to pilot a Dornier 228 high-wing twin turboprop. While in the Pacific he also flew short hops between islands in the ubiquitous Cessna 150 and 172. “Flying out there between the islands it is easy to see how Amelia Earhart and others have become lost and disappeared. With nothing but ocean and endless horizon there is no reference to navigate by. Your eyes will play tricks on you. A cloud may cast a shadow that makes a vast expanse of ocean look like land from afar, like a mirage in a desert.”
After returning from his time out of the country Matt found yet another opportunity to fly commercially, ferrying skydivers up to jump altitude in Lake Elsinore. The aircraft were Beech 18s that he had enjoyed flying so much for the air freight company before they were shut down. “The planes were a mess” Matt remembers. “We had to hand start the props and manually raise and lower the flaps via the emergency hand-crank. The props would not stay in sync, the batteries for the electrical system were often dead. I did that for eighteen months, and it was a blast. It was the most fun I ever had flying!”
He remembers one particular skydiving flight, the last of the day when the sun began setting on the horizon. With faulty batteries and generators, the lights on the instrument panel became too dim to read in the darkening sky. Quickly the cockpit turned black, without so much light to read an aeronautical chart. The airfield, an empty expanse of grass amongst suburban tract homes, had no runway lighting. “After sunset they would pull the fuel truck out to the runway threshold and use the headlights to guide the pilot. I spotted the lights, and started my final leg to landing. The driver of the truck radioed that I was several hundred feet off the runway centerline, though his headlights were right in front of me. All of a sudden, the two lights I thought were guiding me to a landing split into two. They were two all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) coming in from a ride, not the headlights from the truck as I had thought. I pulled the nose up and went around for another pass. On the downwind leg, the low fuel warning light came on and one of my engines quit. About that time I finally spotted the fuel truck and headlights. Just as I touched down on the runway the other engine quit. I had just enough momentum to get the airplane to the loading pad. It was an experience that I will never forget.”
Struggling to balance his full-time engineering job with flying in his spare time, in 1988 he opened his own engineering firm, which gave him more flexibility in his schedule. Shortly thereafter he received a phone call from an acquaintance in San Diego asking him if he would be interested in flying sightseeing tours in none other than a Beech 18. This also proved to be great fun for Matt, even when a Beech he was co-piloting with six passengers on board was ground-looped by the pilot. Matt remembers “After two violent spins on the taxiway leading from the runway, the tower called and asked us if everything was okay. We told them yes, we were just practicing!” Thankfully there was no damage to the aircraft or injuries to the passengers.
Practicing a low pass in a Beech 18 in preparationfor an airshow
In 1990 Matt bought a Beech 18 that had been wrecked at Lake Elsinore due to pilot error. One day, while working to salvage the aircraft, the owner of another skydiving company Matt knew pulled his truck up and asked him if his commercial flight certificates were current. He responded that they were. “Ever fly a DC-3?” was the man’s next question, “because we need a co-pilot for a DC-3 right now!”
Within the hour Matt was sitting in the right seat of a DC-3 as co-pilot. It was déjà vu for him, another out-of-the-blue opportunity to fly a classic airplane. After about 100 hours flying in the right seat, Matt received his type-rating to fly in the left seat as Pilot-in-Command (PIC) of the DC-3. Ironically, the check airman who qualified Matt as a DC-3 PIC was Howie Bohl, who’s father Walt was a United Airlines (UAL) Boeing 747 captain. Some twenty years later Matt would meet Walt, who upon retirement from UAL became a Docent with Lyon Air Museum. “Howie is a superb pilot who can fly anything. There is nothing but excellence in his flying. I guess you could say it runs in their family.”
With more free time to fly Matt began piloting the DC-3 frequently. He flew skydiving jaunts, made a few trips to South America and shot scenes for movies such as the 2004 Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator. While working in the film industry Matt had the opportunity to fly with Dick “Skip” Evans, one of the most experienced and noted movie pilots in the industry, with numerous production credits to his name. Matt flew with Skip for a number of years, and counts him among the mentors he has had the good fortune of flying with.
In another twist of irony, Matt worked with Skip on the 1994 Amelia Earhart biopic Amelia Earhart: The Final Flight starring Diane Keaton. One of the aircraft featured in the movie, a Navy SNB-5 (Beech 18) was modified for filming. A hatch was cut in the fuselage over the head of the pilot so certain scenes could be shot. The Airframe & Powerplant (A&P) technician who modified the aircraft for the movie was Mark Foster, now president of Lyon Air Museum.
Twenty years later, the nose and cockpit section of that same SNB-5 was discovered by chance in an aircraft boneyard in the desert of southern California. After a painstaking restoration, it was brought to the museum where guests can sit in the front seats and get a feel for what it is like to sit in the cockpit of a twin Beech. The hatch cut above the pilot’s head for Amelia is still present.
Matt continued to fly the classics, eagerly seizing upon the opportunity to pilot Willa Dean, the pristine C-47 that is part of the permanent aircraft collection at Lyon Air Museum (from a pilot’s perspective the DC-3 and C-47 are essentially the same airplane; while the DC-3 was designed for the civilian airline market, the C-47 was the military cargo version). Recently Matt has been flying a beautifully restored Beech GB-2 Traveller, which was the military version of the classic Beech 17 Staggerwing. A number of these single-engine biplane aircraft were provided to Great Britain under the Lend-Lease program during World War II. “The British received the aircraft, put about 70 hours on them, declared them obsolete and shipped them back!” Matt declares with a laugh. Most of the aircraft returned were subsequently auctioned as surplus, for pennies on the dollar.
“Flying the GB-2 is something I am very proud of” Matt explains. “Out at Flabob Airport (KRIR) there is a company, West Coast Air Creations, that employees young adults who had challenging upbringings. The company gives them the opportunity to gain aviation experience through hands-on repairing and restoring of classic aircraft. When they received the GB-2 about three years ago it had been in an accident and was in bad, bad shape. The owner and employees of the company completely restored the aircraft to pristine condition. I was called in as an advisor on the project for a year, but my contribution was relatively modest. All the heavy lifting was done by the employees themselves. In July we flew it to the Oshkosh Air Show in Wisconsin, where it won the Silver Wrench award and the Best in Light Transport category. It was an occasion of tremendous pride for the company and their employees, one which brought tears to their eyes.”
“I am semi-retired and getting close to the end of my flying career” Matt declares in a somewhat somber tone. “But what I did with these young people out at Flabob is more important and meaningful than anything else I have done in aviation. Conveying my knowledge of aviation, of classic aircraft, and the history behind them is passing the torch to the next generation. In essence, they are beginning to live their own dreams, just as I had the fortunate opportunity to do.”
To date Matt has accumulated nearly 6,000 flight hours in a variety of iconic aircraft. He has logged multiengine time in airplanes such as the Beech 18, Lockheed models 12 and 18, Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, Consolidated PB4Y Privateer, Douglas DC-3 and DC-4, Convair 440, North American B-25 Mitchell, DeHavilland DHC-4 and Dornier 228. His single-engine time includes the Piper J-3, PA-11 and PA-18, Aeronca Champ, Vultee BT-13, North American AT-6 Texan, Boeing Stearman, Meyers OTW, Beech GB-2, Cessna 150, 170 and180 series, DeHavilland Beaver, Air Tractor 501 and Globe/Temco Swift.
Life has indeed come full circle for Matt. Much like the mentors who gave him the tools of success such as his parents and Joe Costa, Matt is now doing the same. One day, perhaps decades from now, an aviator will be asked “where did your journey begin?” The answer will come “well, there was a pilot named Matt Walker…”
From the staff, Docents and volunteers at Lyon Air Museum, along with the countless lives he has touched in his journey, our most sincere gratitude goes to Matt Walker, a man who had a dream, seized upon it, worked hard and succeeded beyond all expectations.
Article Written By Dan Heller