Bill Ramsay tugs on his black leather jacket, steps through the small door and walks into the looming silver building. A moment later, a monstrous garage door opens. He steps back into the afternoon light, preparing to trade out his car for his preferred method of transportation: a small, navy blue and white Piper Cherokee airplane.
The eager glint in Ramsay’s eye as he drags his plane out of the hangar is not unlike a child showing off his new toy. It belies his age.
Ramsay, 81, has been flying his 2,400-pound plane all around the United States and Canada since he bought it in 1965. He’s flown in every state but Alaska – a total of about 700,000 miles and 5,000 hours in the air.
“The airplane is parked wherever I am,” Ramsay says. “I can be anywhere in the country in 12 hours.”
Ramsay climbs into his plane with the fervor of someone half his age, fastening himself in with a red fabric safety belt. He reads off the checklist on his flight desk like a familiar Bible verse:
“Controls free. Check. Fuel on proper tank. Check …”
He spins a few dials on the radio and checks into the control tower. After a brief exchange, he guides his plane to the 2-mile Lincoln airport runway.
The plane roars as he pushes in the throttle. Speedometer approaches 80, and the wheels lift from the ground and take to the air.
Ramsay holds steady as he climbs 500, 1,000 and then 3,000 feet above the ground. Pilot and plane seem interconnected after 52 years of flight together – as if the control wheel is an extension of his body.
“I’m actually more comfortable in a plane than in a car,” he says.
Owning a plane was never on the agenda. Ramsay says like most things in his life, it just happened.
He grew up on a small dairy farm in Seward, Nebraska. He and his four sisters helped his parents with farm work, but he knew early on it was never work he planned to continue.
Uncle’s aviation career piqued his interest
Instead, Ramsay found interest in his uncle’s aviation career.
His uncle was a chairman for the board for Aeronautical Radio, a nongovernmental and nonprofit company that handled communication for all airlines worldwide. He was also a coronel in the Army Air Corps during World War II.
Although his uncle’s job kept him away most of the time, he still made an impact on Ramsay’s life.
“He was something of a mentor,” Ramsay says.
He was also the gateway to his first experience on an airplane.
During one of his uncle’s visits, his father decided over dinner that 14-year-old Ramsay should fly back to Maryland with his uncle to spend time with his cousin. In an era when plane travel was relatively uncommon, Ramsay jumped at the opportunity.
“Back then a lot of people were afraid to fly,” he says. “But I was never afraid to fly.”
Like many boys his age, Ramsay loved the idea of becoming a pilot. It stuck with him through high school and into college.
After marrying his school sweetheart, Patricia, the two moved to Lincoln to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln together. Ramsay studied electrical engineering and Patricia studied chemistry.
Ramsay hoped to fly in the Air Force as an engineering student through the ROTC program. However, the program was no longer looking for pilots by the time he got his degree. Uninterested in the other open positions offered, he took a different route.
Ramsay worked for Channel 12 as a student through college. Not long after he graduated, Channel 12 decided to extend its broadcast system to nine TV and FM stations across Nebraska. In 1963, Ramsay was hired as the first engineering director with the task of implementing the state plan.
Ramsay’s new job kept him from home. In the winter, he spent his time planning and hiring out contractors. In the spring and summer, the construction would begin, and he would be required to travel to each of the locations around Nebraska.
He says it was a stressful point in his life. His wife often told a story about his 4-year-old son only recognizing that his father had been home by a breakfast plate on the table with egg on it.
“That was an indication that I was gone way too much,” he says.
Old dream takes flight
Ramsay found the solution in his old dream: he would learn to fly.
He set out to get his private pilot’s license. He spent hours flying with an instructor and studying regulations and operation manuals. Ramsay says learning to fly was expensive, challenging and time-consuming, but eventually he received his pilot’s license. Soon after, he bought his own plane for about $14,000.
“Buying a plane was the practical thing to do,” Ramsay says. “It was never economical.”
What started out as a necessary business venture has turned into a staple in both his and his wife’s lives. Ramsay says having the ability to go anywhere in the country at any time allows a certain type of freedom.
“My interest is mostly for transportation,” he says. “I just really want to go places.”
He has flown the plane from vacations in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to visiting children and grandchildren in South Dakota. Although his wife supports and appreciates his love of flying, Ramsay says she would never feel the same kind of comfort he has for it.
“I describe her as a white-knuckle passenger,” he says. “She likes riding in the plane to get to places. But she’s always uncomfortable about weather and things like that.”
Ramsay and his wife retired early in 1995. He says that without a business purpose, the plane isn’t economical to keep. Maintenance, storage and insurance cost over $10,000 a year, and fuel runs at about $7 a gallon.
“I’m very aware of the fact that virtually anywhere I fly in the plane, it would be cheaper to have bought first-class tickets,” he says. “But it’s one of the things I can do that not many people can. I’m the only kid on the block that has one.”
Ramsay also refuses to let his age slow him down. After turning 80, he joined the United Flying Octogenarians, a national group of individuals who have flown as pilot in command on and after their 80th birthday. Ramsay says there are only about eight members in Nebraska.
“There are no age limits on pilots,” Ramsay says. “A pilot’s license itself does not expire.”
No plans to ground his plane
Ramsay says the main reason most people retire from flying is declining health. But with only a bypass surgery over 15 years ago on his record, he hopes he can maintain his bill of health and continue to take to the air for years to come.
“If anyone tells me I should give up flying, I will believe them,” he says. “But I’m not anxious to give it up.”