Colpitts, Jay

Interviewer: Jean McMillen
Place of Interview: Scoville Library
Date of Interview:
File No: 4 Cycle: 4
Summary: Air Force, Pope John II, TWA, Nipon Crgo, Lyons Aviation

Interview Audio

Interview Transcript

Jay Colpitts Interview

This is file #3, cycle 4. Today’s date is Nov. 7, 2018. This is Jean McMillen. I am interviewing Jay Colpitts. He is going to talk about his experiences in the Air force, his training in the Air force, his service with Trans World American airline, Nipon Airlines and anything else he wants to talk about. But first we are going to start with a really difficult question.

JM:What is your name?

JC:Jay Colpitts

JM:How did you come to the area?

JC:When I got out of the Air Force I was based with TWA at the airport in Newark, New Jersey, and I was single. I moved to New Jersey, temporarily. When I got married and the children came along, we decided we needed to go someplace more permanent. A gentleman suggested that I look up here in Lakeville-Salisbury area. We ended up finding a place through Al Borden. We have been here ever since. We came in 1975.

JM:I am going to backtrack now to the Air Force. When did you join the air force?

JC:I went to Boston University, graduated in 1959. My father had been in the Army air corps during World War II so I had somewhat of an idea that I would like to do some service in the military before I got into anything in real life. I was in the ROTC program at Boston University. When I graduated, they made me a second lieutenant in the United States Air force. From there I went into flight training and a career in the Air force.

JM:You said that your dad used to take you to see airplanes.

JC:Oh yes! He was based in Florida at McGill Air Force base which was in central Florida. He moved the family down there and before he went to service overseas in Okinawa during the war, he used to take me out to the airport to see the airplanes. I became very interested in airplanes when I was very young. I was probably 5 or 6 years old.

JM:Where did you do your flight training?

JC:They first sent me down to Bainbridge in Georgia. We had what they call primary training which was about 6 months long. From there they sent us to Laredo, Texas, to Laredo Air Force base. From there we graduated with our wings as a second lieutenant in the Air Force. Based on your standing in the class, you could choose your next assignment in the regular Air force. I was 6th in my class so I choose to go to Perrin Air Force base in Texas to train to fly interceptor aircraft, fighter interceptor airplanes. Finishing up there I was based or sent to an active duty squadron which was the 498 fighter interceptor squadron at Spokane Airport in Washington. The commercial airport was named Geiger Field so they called us the “Geiger Tigers! There I transitioned into the F106 which they called the Delta Dart. I flew that for the remainder of my career in the Air Force on active duty. We were in what they


call the Air Defense Command. Our responsibility was to protect the borders of the United States against foreign aggression. We were on alert a number of times during the week to intercept any foreign air craft that was perceived to come toward the United States. From Spokane, Washington, there wasn’t much active duty: there was not much foreign aggression from Canada. They used to send us temporarily to Alaska where we were during the Cold War. There we had numerous active alerts with the Russian air craft flying along or close to Alaska.

JM:You also told a wonderful story about having an alert and you thought it was a false alarm.

JC:When we were in Alaska, maybe for once a week or for several days we would be on 24 hour alert. We were based in an alert hanger right at the end of the runway. We were always ready to go: the aircraft were all fueled up downstairs. If the alarm went off we would slide down the barber pole and take off and follow directions on whatever mission they had in mind. The airplanes were loaded with nuclear weapons so the commander said that we would never fly those airplanes over the United States because it was too dangerous. We were pretty relaxed when we were on alert. We figured we would not get scrambled unless it was a major war. While we were watching the morning movie on the television in October, 1962, the scramble horn went off. Of course, we said oh that is a test or something because we would never be able to fly these airplanes unless a major war was declared. The scramble horn kept going so I went out and picked up the phone to the alert center. “Hey Sergeant the alert horn is going off down here. Is there something wrong? We are trying to watch the morning movie.” He said, “Lieutenant, get those airplanes into the air!” “You’re kidding, is that right?” “Get them in the air, that’s why we are blowing the horn!” There were 4 of us who took our airplanes and took off. It was the Cuban Crisis in 1962. I guess there was an alert all over the country, we were part of it, but we had originally thought it was just a test of the horn. We had been told we would never be flying those airplanes around. We took off. The avionics in the aircraft gave us our directions on where to go so we were just flying to the west coast and landed at Paine Air force base in Washington. We were instructed to go at maximum speed which was Mock 2. We were going pretty fast. It only took us a few minutes to get there. That was our experience with the Cuban Crisis.

JM:But you didn’t actually drop anything?

JC:Oh no we were just there. They just wanted us to go and be in position, just in case.

JM:How many years were you in the Air force?

JC:I was in the Air Force on active duty for 7 years and in the National Guard for an additional 14 so I ended up with 21 years in the Air force doing military flying.

JM:What was your rank when you got out of the Air Force?

JC:I was a Lieutenant colonel.

JM:That’s a big bird, isn’t it?

JC:It is almost a big bird.3.

JM:Is there anything more you would like to tell me about the Air Force before we go on to TWA?

JC:Yes while I was in the Air Force on active duty, we would be sent to Alaska on temporary duty because there was a lot of activity off the shores of Alaska with Russian bombers and intelligence gathering aircraft from the Soviet Union. The United States wanted to keep them away from flying over US territory so up there we got many active scrambles. We intercepted Russian aircraft. We were loaded with weapons in case they did come over. The commander always warned us, not to shoot down any of those airplanes unless the pieces fell on US territory. Mostly we would pull up on the side and take pictures. We had cameras with us, and get their tail numbers, and the type of aircraft. They would probably take pictures of us. They were never caught going over the US territory up there. We protected the borders.

JM:Did I get that right Trans World Airlines?

JC:Yes Trans World Airlines or Teeny Weeny Airlines.

JM:When did you join TWA?

JC:When I got out of active duty from the Air Force in 1965, I joined TWA at that time. I went to training in Kansas City on the Lockheed Constellation. Subsequently I was based in Newark airport with TWA.

JM:Did you fly domestic routes?

JC:Initially I flew domestic routes on the Connie. We would start and go from Newark to domestic destinations and back. After a year of doing that, the airlines were expanding very rapidly in the 1960’s so I was sent to training on the Boeing 707: that training was in Kansas City, Missouri. After that I was based at JFK airport, flying the 707 domestically originally, then later international flights from there on the 707.

JM:Where did you fly internationally?

JC: We flew everywhere. We went all over the world to the Far East, Europe, the Middle East to Cairo, in Egypt, and to Tel Aviv in Israel. We went to Bombay, India. We never did flights to South America or southern Africa. But everywhere else we ended up going with 707s.

JM:Did you fly 747s?

JC:Yes I did later on. I flew the 707 for many years, and then when we bought the 747s, I checked out of 747s and flew over routes around the world with that.

JM:A 747 holds a lot of people.



JC:Yeah, It depends on how the interior was configured. TWA 747s averaged about 400 people. The upper deck and the forward part of the plane was also first class section which had more room for people. The back was coach or second class passengers. First class is expensive.

JM:Did you have any favorite international routes that you really enjoyed?

JC:I liked to fly into the Far East, particularly flying into Hong Kong because at the time it was a very interesting city, an international city. The approaches to the airport were quite interesting also. That was one of my favorites. I did like the European cities, Rome, Paris, and particularly Amsterdam were very interesting. I think Schiphol was below sea level.

JM:You have some regulation as an airplane pilot. How often do you have to have physicals?

JC:There were different classes of medical status. A class one medical authorizes the pilot to fly as a pilot in command commercial aircraft. That is a more extensive medical exam. A second class medical status allows you to fly a private plane and be a pilot in command for non-commercial aircraft. In other words you can fly as a captain on a plane that you own or rent. If you are flying for any commercial purposes, you need a class one status as a captain. A co-pilot can have a class 2 medical. There is also a class 3 which is fairly lenient, but you can’t be a pilot on any aircraft that you fly.

JM:There is a retirement age.

JC:Yes, it used to be age 60, but now it is 65 for plots for a commercial airline. If you are flying privately or even a private jet, you can be over age 65. For commercial airlines, it is mandatory to retire at age 65.

JM:You had a very special flight passenger in 1987, somebody important from Rome.

JC:The Pope did visit in 1976 and TWA flew him around, but I didn’t him that time. I did in 1987. He visited the United States and visited several cities in the United States. At that time the Pope called it Traveling with Angels for TWA.

JM:Where are your feathered wings? How was the plane set up for him?

JC:It was a 747. We had printed on the side of the aircraft “Shepherd One” and the Papal seal. The 747 had an upper deck: the entire upper deck was configured for the Pope as his office, a beautiful large bed there for him. He was quite comfortable. The Pope whenever he came to the US always chose TWA and other airlines were a little upset about that.

JM:He knew a good airline.

JC:When he was finished, he wanted to go to visit Canada so he went to Edmonton and stayed there for a visit. From Edmonton I flew him back to Rome. When we got on the airplane in Edmonton, I had looked at the forecast of the weather in Rome and it was terrible, fog and very poor visibility. I told


the Pope when he came on, “Look, I’ll take care of flying the airplane, if you take care of the weather.” I’ll be darned if he did a good job because when we got to Rome, the weather was beautiful.

JM:Well he had influence.

JC:I think so!

JM:You also made the comment that TWA had picked a good Protestant pilot to carry the Pope.

JC:Everybody was surprised at that, yes.

JM:They picked their best pilot. Did you pick him up in Rome?

JC:No we did not lick him up in Rome. He came here on Alitalia, the Italian airline. His country liked to see him use the local airline. The Pope has made a number of trips around the world, Pope John II.

JM:When did you retired from TWA>


JM;But you didn’t stop flying, you flew for another airline.

JC:Yes, in 1994 TWA was purchased by American Airlines. I could have gone to American Airlines but at the time TWA had a contact with a Japanese airline to supply pilots to them. We had been working with the Japanese airline for a number of years. We had several pilots that signed with them even while TWA was in existence. Once TWA was absorbed by American Airlines, I decided to go to fly to the Japanese. I was not sure what the situation would be with American Airlines. I knew the people at the airline in Japan, Nipon Cargo Airlines. I flew with them for a number of years after that.

JM:You said that you flew with them for about 10 years?

JC:Yeah 1994-2004.

JM:How was it different? The structure and you were working for the Japanese. You weren’t working for Americans so how was that different?

JC:All of the management and the people were based in Tokyo, but the aircraft were manufactured by Boeing so they were similar. They had slightly different rules and regulations, but it was nothing that was strange or unusual. It was slightly different based on their ideas. We would also be flying sometimes with Japanese pilots.

JM:Did you speak Japanese?

JC:No they all spoke good English. Of course we understood a few things not enough to hold a conversation. You could order something in a restaurant, but that was about it.

JM:When did you buy your own plane?6.

JC:I always like to say that demonstrates extremely bad judgement! Actually I was a partner with one of the fellows I flew with at Nipon Cargo. We bought the airplane together as partners. It was in 2012. It is a Beechcraft Baron, a twin engine prop plane and can seat 6 people. It can fly for 1200 miles, but we don’t do long trips like that. We just do short trips around New England.

JM:Is there something you would like to add to this before we close?

JC:Yes, after I purchased my airplane and after I retired from Nipon, I couldn’t get enough of flying so I went to work up at the Pittsfield airport for a company called Lyons Aviation. They did jet charter flying with private jets. I worked with them for quite a long time: I am not sure when I stopped there maybe 2012. I had many good experiences flying charter airplanes. I did private jets for both international and domestic. I went to Canada quite frequently. People would want to fly mostly for business. There was a company in Pittsfield called KB Toys: they had a contract with Lyon Aviation. We would fly them of business trips all over the country. In fact they gave us shirts that said “KB Toys” on them.

JM:A little free publicity

JC:That was a very good experience. Currently I bought out my partner share of the airplane. He went out and bought a private jet. So we fly in that private jet still. I am still flying, but mostly it is my own airplane or as a co -pilot on a private jet.

JM:do you take your family up?

JC:Yes I have. I am attempting to get my granddaughter interested; she is 14 and she had flown with us a lot of times. You can’t push anybody into aviation; I am exposing her to it so that she might take up the interest. My daughter Christina- I never pushed any of the kids, but finally she came to me and asked if she could learn to fly. She went to an aviation college and got her private license and is now working in aviation. It is a good career for a woman to have skills like that. She is doing very well.

JM:It is a wonderful opportunity.

JC:These days there is a shortage of pilots: they are running out of qualified people to fly all the airplanes that people want flown. It is a good time to learn to fly.

JM:Thank you so much. This has been wonderful.

JC:Great, let’s do this again sometime.