Joseph Wearn of Gig Harbor is not a boastful man. Winning an award this summer from the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration for 50 years of aviation safety is not something he needs the whole world to know about.
“It’s just recognition,” said Wearn, a retired pediatrician.
It’s really only important, he said, that friends know he received such an award.
“That’s what counts,” Wearn said.
Still, the award is tangible proof of nearly a lifetime of flying, a passion of Wearn’s since he was a child.
He’s always been fascinated by flight.
Wearn recalled nailing sticks together in the shape of airplanes as a kid.
“I built a fleet of those,” he said. “Always an interest in flying.”
It was more than 54 years ago — Nov. 6, 1958, to be exact — when Wearn received his student pilot certificate after 5 hours and 20 minutes of dual instruction flying a Piper J-3 Cub out of a 1,800-foot runway in a cow pasture in Mooresville, NC.
Earning a solo pilot endorsement after less than six hours of instruction would be unheard of today, Wearn said.
Back then, it took a minimum of 40 hours to earn a private pilot’s certificate, meaning you were qualified to carry passengers in an aircraft you were piloting, he said.
Part of that 40 hours included flying the plane solo and then some cross country flying — flying up to 25 miles away from your starting point. From there, longer cross country flights were undertaken and eventually one earned their private pilot certificate.
“It takes about 50 hours now,” he said of today’s requirements to earn a private pilot certificate.
Wearn received his private pilot certificate on March 14, 1960.
He continued to fly, but found his time in the wild blue yonder somewhat limited in the 1970s, when he was raising his family.
By the early 1980s, he began flying on a much more regular basis, having kept up with the evolving rules, regulations and equipment that are part of the industry.
“It’s kind of like riding a bicycle,” Wearn said. “You never forget how.”
Consistent flight time and staying abreast of flight requirements would serve Wearn well, as he went on to earn a number of pilot certifications over the next several decades.
On Aug. 27, 1987, Wearn earned his single-engine land instrument rating.
He received his single-engine land instrument commercial rating on Dec. 13, 1991.
April 12, 2000 was the date Wearn earned his commercial multi-engine instrument rating.
The freedom that flying offers is what appeals to Wearn.
Flying is quicker than taking an automobile or ferry, and there are no traffic jams, he joked.
“We can go to Hoquiam — even Friday Harbor — various places,” he said, referring to his wife, Pat, who often accompanies him on flights, but has no interest in becoming a pilot herself. “You can cover so much, and see so much.”
And Wearn has seen much from the exalted vantage point flying offers: Rock Springs, Wyo.; Oshkosh, Wis.; the Northwest Territories in Canada; Alaska; not to mention a sail plane ride over Palm Springs, Calif., and a biplane ride over Long Beach, Calif., that included a barrel role over the cruise ship Queen Mary.
Breathtaking views and aerial adventures can also be found closer to home, including flying over Commencement Bay in Tacoma and Elliot Bay in Seattle. People are always impressed with the beauty of the Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges from the air, Wearn said.
Flying through the area that used to be the summit of Mt. St. Helens before it disappeared with the mountain’s eruption on May 18, 1980, was another highlight.
“I’ve seen a lot of beautiful scenery,” Wearn said.
He even got the chance to fly in the Collings Foundation’s B-17 Flying Fortress — one of the best known and most durable bombers of World War II — during a visit to Tacoma by the historic aircraft.
Perhaps his most amazing adventure — at least in terms of nerve-racking — was the time he got to ride in and pilot the Collings Foundation’s TP-51D Mustang, the only surviving original one manufactured as a two-seat trainer.
The pilot turned the controls over to Wearn, who took great joy in executing some acrobatics in the sky, when the pilot asked Wearn to check the gauge by his left knee. The coolant temperature gauge was pegged at the top of the red, indicating the Rolls Royce Merlin engine had one or two minutes of running time left.
After an emergency landing in Olympia and removal of the entire engine cowling, no leak was found. In fact, the coolant level was normal.Still, better safe than sorry.
“Taking off is optional,” Wearn quipped. “Landing is mandatory.”
The biggest change he’s seen in flying over the past half-century is communications.
“Radios have improved immensely,” Wearn said. “The first plane I flew didn’t even have a radio. Then there was basic radio. Today, we have super-sophisticated radios. Also more rules and regulations. So, you have to stay on top of that.”
On top of things. Wearn wouldn’t have it any other way.