Head in the Clouds: Huxley's Wayne Landis talks about his love of flying

When WWU Professor of Environmental Science and Director of the Institute of Environmental Toxicology Wayne Landis isn't teaching, working to unravel the ethical boundaries of genetic testing, or helping state agencies understand the impacts of industrial toxins, there's a good chance he is in the air somewhere, flying in his beloved Cessna from Point A to Point B, with a smile on his face. We chatted with Wayne about his love of flying, where it comes from, and how being aloft helps him to recharge his batteries.


Where did you grow up?

In Washington, D.C. (I was born at Bolling Air Force Base in the district), Kansas City, Saint Louis, New Jersey, Maryland and then moved to North Carolina when I was 10. Then I lived around New Bern and then moved to Laurinburg to finish High School.

Who helped spur your interest in airplanes and flying the most? 

My parents always supported my interest when I was younger.  I drew lots of pictures of airplanes, read a lot of books and built a lot of models.  Learning to fly was just too expensive even at that time.  In 1982 I joined the Edgewood Arsenal Army Flying Club at the Edgewood Area of the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.  George Doxen, a veteran of the parachute drops at Normandy and then in Holland (Operation Market Garden - "A Bridge Too Far") was the membership officer and signed me up as soon as I walked in.  He assigned me to my flight instructor, Jake Jacabosen, who took me from newbie student to flight instructor in the next three years.

The postwar years that led to the space race have been called the Golden Era of Aviation, and many of the flying aces from World War II, like Chuck Yeager, went on to be the first supersonic test pilots and then often the astronauts that launched us into space. Do you think growing up in that era, instead of today or even a generation earlier, helped your love of flying grow?  

The story that my mother would tell is that my first word was “jet," but remember I was born on an Air Force base.  Although no one in my family was a pilot, there had to be some interest among my parents. I remember reading about Chuck Yeager, Scott Crossfield and the other test pilots when I was in first and second grade.  I clearly remember Sputnik 1, and my parents woke me up to see the news that Explorer 1 had been orbited.  Aviation and spaceflight was always in the news and I always had an interest in it growing up.

When did you first earn your pilot’s license?

On December 18, 1982 I soloed and had a student pilot certificate.  In July of 1983 I passed the check ride for my private pilot certificate.  Now I have a Airline Transport Pilot single engine, Commercial Multiengine, Airplane certificate.  In 1985 I got my first flight instructor certificate and now it is Flight Instructor single and multiengine airplane instrument.

How many hours have you logged at this point?

3,000, with about 1,000 as a flight instructor.

Do you have a favorite book about aviation or flying? 

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolf, Instrument Flying by Richard L. Taylor,  From Earth to the Moon by Andrew Chaikin, Carrying the Fire by Michael Collins.  Three of these are about the space program but also include the test flying of the 1950s and 1970s.  The Spirit of St. Louis by Charles Lindberg got my attention when I was very young.    Instrument Flying by Taylor is a classic regarding the most challenging aspect of flying, flying without reference to the visual horizon and finding your way from airport to airport.  The most impressive biography regarding a pilot or aviation is I Could Never be So Lucky Again by James Doolittle. Although known for the raid on Tokyo in 1942, by that time he had already received the first doctorate in Aeronautical Engineering from MIT in 1925, also the first in the United States.  He went on to invent instrument flying, won numerous air races and so on. His Wiki page is very good.

How do you feel when you are flying that is different than how you feel on the ground?

I am much more relaxed and yet focused on the flying.  On take off I almost always say “here we go,” in anticipation.  I do fly between and around the clouds, like in the movies, and see the Rockies and Cascades from a much different perspective. 

Many people find the activities they love to do the most - like surfing or backpacking or sea kayaking, for example - to be spiritual, in that it is something that restores them but also makes them feel connected to the world around them in a way that they can’t feel during their normal day-to-day. Do you feel that way about flying?

Flying is so different than day-to-day experiences that it has to be different.  In a small plane you can fell the force of the air across the control surfaces, hear the sound of the air and engine, feel the acceleration in a turn, and the burble of the air as the wing approaches a stall.  Storms and weather put you in your place, and you alone are ultimately responsible for you and your passengers’ safety.  The analytical part of my brain also loves that so much of this can be calculated and then demonstrated to work over and over again.    Pilots also share a connection regardless of where they are from, it is still such a unique skill and experience that we always have something to talk about. 

Let's say you’re a billionaire. What’s the first plane you buy so you can fly it, and why?

A Cirrus SR 22.  It is a very capable airplane, has the latest equipment, can fly high, yet I can still take it to the San Juans for fun.  My other airplanes would be a Super Cub (PA-18), a L-19, and a TBM-950 single engine turboprop for long trips.

You’re not a billionaire in real life, you’re a professor – but  you DO own a plane – tell us about it.

It's a Cessna C-177B Cardinal.  It is a four-seat single-engine airplane (see photo at right) manufactured in the spring of 1970.  It now qualifies as an Antique Aircraft as determined by the Experimental Aircraft Association. My wife Linda and I have had it since 1990.

Tell us about your most memorable plane trip. 

That is hard.  I remember the beautiful easy flights but also the ones where I was in deep peril.  Every pilot remembers their first solo and I do as well.  It was Saturday Dec. 18, 1982.  Jake (my instructor) stepped out of the plane and said to take it around for three full stops and then taxi to the ramp.  The airplane was N6166G, a Cessna 150 made in 1970.  I did my solo, got my shirttail cut off (a tradition after a student's first solo flight), and then went out for another hour of take-offs and landings. This was at Wiede Army Airfield, and its identifier EDG.  The runway is now gone and it serves as a helicopter base for a Maryland national guard unit.

What is the most beautiful thing you have seen while flying?

Circular rainbows, thunderstorms, sunset over the San Juans,  Baltimore at night, the Dakota badlands on a clear day.  There are lots more.



Tied up and on the ground as a massive thunderstorm approaches
Wayne Landis