Center Grove’s Superior Airman
Writer / Ann Craig-Cinnamon | Photographer / David Q. Maurer II
It’s been five years now since the world watched in amazement as a disabled US Airways plane landed in the middle of the Hudson River in New York and all on board made it out safely. The event, often referred to as the “Miracle on the Hudson”, occurred when, upon takeoff, the plane hit a flock of geese knocking out the plane’s engines and forcing an emergency landing. Over the course of just 3 minutes, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger safely navigated the plane over the George Washington Bridge and into the middle of the River. He became a national hero in doing so and he and his crew received numerous honors and awards. The drama unfolded before a live worldwide audience.
From his home in Center Grove, Roger Newman was watching too, but with a lot more insight into what was happening than the average person. That’s because Roger once did something equally amazing. For 31 years, Roger was a pilot for what is now US Airways. His flying career began when he took flying lessons at the Franklin airport in 1956. It was more of a hobby when he began flying. He then got his commercial license and by 1957, he received his flight instructor’s rating, and taught at the Franklin, Greenwood and Shelbyville airports along with doing some charter flying.
By 1959, Roger was in the army assigned to helicopter maintenance duty at Fort Knox. He learned his way around flying helicopters a bit too during his two years in the service. When he returned home, he went back to teaching but also applied to a few big airlines. By 1963, he was working for Lake Central Air, which eventually became US Air. Roger easily recalls his first day on the job as a more than 8-hour route on a DC-3 between Indianapolis, Bloomington, Terre Haute, Danville, Chicago and then back again with extra stops in Columbus and Cincinnati. By the time he retired from US Air in 1994, he was flying the Pittsburgh to London route in a 757 that had what is referred to as the “glass cockpit,” in which everything is displayed on TV screens with just a few back up instruments in the case of a failure. Roger says there was a big learning curve. “Running that concept was a lot more difficult, because you had to program where you were going. To learn that concept from what we had had before, it was a pretty big advancement,” he says. Therefore, Roger’s aviation career encompassed a huge span in terms of technology, from a time when planes were flown manually to a time when most everything was computerized.
When you clock in more than 33,000 flight hours as Roger did during his career, things are bound to happen. Like on August 17, 1982. That day he was piloting a routine flight from Pittsburgh to New Orleans with 92 passengers on board. The plane had climbed to 15,000 feet after takeoff when Roger checked the fuel tanks and realized something was very wrong. The left side tank was full with about 10,000 pounds of fuel but the right side tank had considerably less, which created a dangerous imbalance. When he tried to activate the cross feed to send fuel from one tank to the other, it didn’t work. In fact, nothing worked to balance the tanks so he and his co-pilot called Air Traffic Control in Pittsburgh to request a return. By the time, they turned it around the plane was losing so much fuel from the right tank that it was actually visible from the ground. The decision was made to land at the nearest airport that was Charleston, West Virginia. Roger says it’s a difficult airport to land at in a normal landing because of all the mountains, let alone a plane that is seriously crippled so he knew he’d have his work cut out for him. When Roger came in for the landing, his right side had been virtually drained of fuel and was way up in the air, while the left tank with about 10,000 pounds of fuel still in it, was only about three feet from the ground. “I didn’t know if the wing would dig into the ground and we’d go spiraling down the runway. There were so many things happening at once. But we got on the ground safely,” says Roger rather matter-of-factly. He recalls getting off the plane and standing at the bottom of the steps to greet the passengers as they exited. “They were saying things like ‘hey captain great job and thanks’ and some woman gets off and says ‘do you know who I am? I have an appointment in New Orleans in 2 hours’ and she started reading the riot act to me. And the guy behind her said ‘you dumb b…., don’t you realize that man just saved your life?’”
Perhaps that passenger may not have recognized what Roger had done that day but others did and he was nominated for the Airline Pilots’ Association’s Superior Airmanship Award. He received it in 1983 in a ceremony in Washington DC that was attended by as many as 800 people including Senators and other dignitaries. He was one of only four pilots being honored. Of course, it could have all been very different if he hadn’t taken the action he took and used his skill as a pilot to bring the plane in safely. He was told by the maintenance crew a few days later, that it was a faulty valve that caused the fuel problem and that the right engine was about to give out.
Another interesting incident happened in the late 1960’s on a flight from Cleveland to Detroit that involved the police and even the FBI. Roger recalls that they had pulled the steps up and were ready to leave the gate when an agent stopped them for a last-minute passenger. The man who boarded was shabbily dressed and the flight attendant came into the cockpit to warn the crew that he was acting “weird.” About halfway to Detroit, they heard a pounding on the cockpit door and turned around to see this man trying to break in. Roger armed himself with an ax. However, in the meantime, the passengers tackled the man and tied him to a seat. It was then that the man claimed to have a bomb strapped to his leg. Roger says he called the Detroit tower. “I said we’ve got a nut on board and he says he’s got a bomb lashed to his leg. Now we’re about 5 or 6 miles out and we’re running maybe about 130 knots but by the time we got to the ground they had all the crash and rescue equipment, they had the FBI, they had all the police there.” Police took the man off in handcuffs and the FBI interrogated Roger and the crew. As it turns out, there was no bomb and the man was an escaped mental patient. “While these things are going on, you really don’t pay that much attention to them. You are just trained very well about what to do and things like that. But then afterwards you think ‘what if….what if’” says Roger.
Like most pilots, Roger spent a lot of time away from his wife and three daughters and, in fact, commuted between Indianapolis and Pittsburgh for 28 years. He owned and flew a 1943 Stearman with an open cockpit for more than 30 years and sold it about four years ago which was the last time he flew. He says he misses flying now and then. “You think, well, I wouldn’t mind strapping a 757 on and going to Europe and then that thought passes,” says Roger. Today’s intense airport security is one reason he no longer wants to fly, even on a personal level. “It’s a pain in the neck. Here’s a guy they give him a 100 million dollar airplane. He’s the CEO of it for the period of time that he’s flying it and then you’ve got to be degraded by having to go through security.” If given the choice, Roger drives rather than flies because there’s less hassle, which seems to be rather ironic for a man who spent his life on airplanes. He calls today’s security at airports “nonsensical.”
Overall, Roger has many wonderful memories of his days in the cockpit and recalls such celebrities as Bill Cosby, Paul Newman and Tex Ritter being among his passengers. “I cannot imagine doing anything that would be any more fun. I probably flew through the best years of aviation. I went from flying a DC-3 with Lake Central to flying the glass cockpit Boeing 767 to Europe and that isn’t bad for a kid with just a high school education,” he says.
Ann Craig-Cinnamon is a 30 year Radio & TV Broadcast veteran. You may recall her as the host of popular radio morning shows in Indianapolis for many years. She and her husband, John are also business owners. Her lifelong love of world travel led them to start a travel franchise, CruiseOne, in Center Grove. Ann is a writer, travel speaker and author of the book “Walking Naked in Tehran.”