J.W.’s odyssey


I was going to write a piece tonight about the exploits of J.W. French of Ft. Meyers, Florida, who has been recreating the 1970s flight of war hero, aviation pioneer and his friend, Sam Burgess, who flew his plane solo to all 48 lower states. At the end of a long and productive life, Burgess killed himself.

I think Elizabeth Stawicki prepared a better piece than what I could write.

Besides, I’m not much of an impartial observer. I’ve been posting updates on J.W.’s progress on my personal blog, Letters from Flyover Country, his plane is spending the night in my hangar in South St. Paul, and at the moment he’s sitting on my couch about 5 feet away from me catching up on the news.

When he landed today and Elizabeth asked him about Sam Burgess, J.W. said, ‘I’m sorry if this is going to sound like a machine, but I’ve given this speech dozens of times in the last month,” as he flew from airport to airport and dropped down just to see who was there. But when he started remembering his friend, he had stop several times.

Here’s a segment of Elizabeth’s story… (Or listen to the entire piece)

“I read the book and I read it again. I said, ‘Sam, I can’t think of a greater adventure than what you did.’ And he said, ‘Jimmy, why don’t you do it?’ That’s the only person I ever let call me Jimmy other than my grandmother. I said, ‘Sam I’ve got an engineering business to run; I can’t take off for three or four months and fly around the country like that,” French said.

French says Burgess had a long and distinctive flying career in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. French was impressed with Burgess’ trip across the U.S. because the plane had only a 200-mile range between fuel stops, no electrical system, and no starter. The only navigation equipment was a compass, a set of charts and a watch.

The longer the two were friends, the more Burgess kept after French to fly to each of the states. So when French retired, he got serious looking for the right bi-plane. About the year 2000, his friend Burgess grew weak and disabled from an illness whose cause was somewhat of a mystery. What French knew was that this same man who’d flown in three wars and whose commanding presence filled a room, ended up taking his own life. In the next five years, French again went looking for the right plane. He finally found it by building it, and even touched down in 38 states. But that plane needed a bigger engine to climb in mountain air to finish the rest of the trip. Then, French then underwent two shoulder surgeries that shook his resolve and dampened his spirits:

“I spent about three months in a recliner because I couldn’t lay down in bed and all I did was eat pain pills, food and ballooned up to about 200 pounds, felt sorry for myself, sold the airplane and thought I’d never get it done.”

French realized though he couldn’t spend the rest of his life like he was and battled through months of painful, physical therapy to regain the strength and flexibility needed to get back in the cockpit.

“It wasn’t just the idea of having the fun and getting to do it, but then it became the commitment with Sam.”

His respect for Burgess grew as he experienced the rigors of a 48-state journey. The best part of the trip says French was touching down in the different states and not knowing who he’d meet. He remembers landing on a grass runway in Washington state where a man came to greet him by jokingly making fun of French’s bouncy landing. The man told French he was a psychologist and had done work with an assisted suicide group “death with dignity.”

“I had some problems with the way Sam ended his life until I talked to him. He said…Sam wasn’t a coward in ending his life he was courageous in ending the kind of death he was going to have. And that made a lot of sense to me.”

For French, flying what he calls the Sam Burgess Memorial Junket helped him find peace with death of his friend. In 1996, the EAA inducted Burgess into its homebuilders hall of fame. Burgess’ plane will be on display at the EAA Airventure in Oshkosh.