A CEO Rediscovers the Joy of Flying

The recently retired head of Airbus Americas is learning to be a pilot—again.

Barry Eccleston by his Cessna 172S giving thumbs up
Standing by his Cessna 172S, Barry Eccleston signals success on August 22, 2019, the day he earned his instrument flight rating.

After running Airbus Americas for almost 13 years, Barry Eccleston finally finds the time to do the thing he loves—fly. And he's optimistic about the state of private aviation in the United States. He recently spoke with Air & Space editor Linda Shiner.

Air & Space: Why does someone who has achieved so much in aeronautics—in fact, been rewarded the Order of the British Empire for those achievements—go back to basics in flight training?

Eccleston: I worked for 49 and a half years, and I loved every minute of it. I considered I had the best job in the aerospace business, looking after Airbus Americas, and I got to do that 4,000 miles away from my boss. So I had a great job. But it was a pretty full-time job. I had learned to fly back in 1989, and I love to fly. But I was a) a little rusty, and b) not getting any better because I had limited time. In the 12 months before I retired, I flew for like five hours, which is ridiculous. So I retired at the end of February 2018, and started going quite often to Easton Airport in eastern Maryland where we keep the airplane—a Cessna 172S—and set about getting my instrument flight rating (IFR). In fact, a little story: Soon after I retired, my wife and I went on a road trip down to Florida; she had some business to do there. And I thought, I’ll go down to local airport, downtown St. Petersburg, and I’ll get myself a check ride on the 172, and then I can do some flying during the week. Much to my surprise and horror, I didn’t pass the check ride. The instructor quite rightly said, “I suggest you go back to your instructor in Maryland and get a little bit more practice.”

Did he know who you were? How do you tell the recent CEO of Airbus Americas that he didn’t pass his check ride?

(Laughs) I didn’t explain that. But it was very humbling. And I said to myself, “He’s absolutely right. I’ve neglected my flying.” So I went back home, started the IFR, with a view to becoming a better pilot, a competent pilot. I did get my IFR rating last summer.

How did you celebrate?

I did an IFR trip to First Flight Airport, Kitty Hawk. I had never been to Kitty Hawk, and I thought what better way to celebrate my instrument rating than to plan and do a trip down to where it all started? It was a beautiful day toward the end of September, quite windy, but that’s the whole point of why they started there. So the landing was pretty interesting. But I really enjoyed my visit and then flew back and it was actually IFR conditions. I was flying through cloud on my way home, and I felt quite comfortable and competent. And I also celebrated by buying my then-instructor a really good bottle of French champagne. He deserved it more than I; he’d put up with me for all that time.

But why are you now learning to fly a taildragger?

My good friend Mark Dunkerley retired exactly the same day as I did, from his job [as the CEO of the parent company of Hawaiian Airlines]. Mark and I go flying whenever we’re both in town and the weather is acceptable. He flies with me in the Cessna and I with him in his Husky, and we go do whatever retired flying guys do. One day, Mark says, “You ought to get a tail dragger rating.” That would also be part of the quest to make me a better pilot. I had flown Mark’s Bücker Jungmann, and it really does teach you a lot of stick-and-rudder stuff. But the problem, I told Mark, is that there’s nobody at Easton who can be my instructor in a taildragger. “Actually, there’s lady who keeps a taildragger in a hangar opposite mine at Maryland Airport in Indian Head,” he said. “And she would be interested in offering you instruction.” And that’s how I met Heather Penney.

The Heather Penney?

I knew who Heather was. Well, everybody knows who Heather is. I’d seen her give her lecture. [At the National Air and Space Museum and other venues, Penney has reflected on her mission, on the morning of the 9/11 attacks, when she was scrambled in her F-16 to ram Flight 93, before the Flight’s passengers took matters into their own hands.] We didn’t talk whatsoever about her time in the Air Force or F-16s or anything. We talked about her love for taildraggers. She grew up on them with her dad, and she loves helping people learn how to fly them. So we started back in October, and she’s given me two lessons so far. At the moment, we’re having a bit of a hiatus.

How are your landings?

On each trip, we did a dozen or more landings. And the first thing I have to tell you is that Heather seems to put a lot more faith in my abilities than I do. She’s also a really good instructor, so she’s quite likely to catch it if I’m not doing too well. But she really gives me a lot of rope to hang myself.

What have you learned?

The first thing I found out was that taxiing the airplane is a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. I think second turn, I sort of ran off the taxiway onto the grass. With a 172, when you get to the taxiway, you put left or right rudder in, and you turn. In the taildragger, you have to plan ahead. When you’re approaching the turn, you put a little rudder in, and see what happens. Maybe you correct a little bit, maybe you put a little more in, and correct. And so by about the fourth or fifth landing, Heather was letting me take the controls, and I quickly learned that directional stability on the ground is really critical. Whereas on the 172, you just sort of jam on the rudder; with the taildragger, you just touch it a bit and see what happens and maybe correct it a bit, a bit right, a bit left, a bit more right, a bit more left, until you actually have it going in a kind of straight direction with a few S’s in it.

How quickly do you feel you progressed?

By the end of the second lesson, as Heather put it, it was 95 percent me. I felt really proud that I’d been able to get there.

Did you attempt a three-point landing or were you landing on the mains and letting the tail drop?

So far, we’ve been trying hard to make it as close to a three-point landing as possible. But it’s an interesting question, because to do that, you just level out, and just fly along the runway and keep pulling back on the control column, until finally the airplane decides, “I want to kiss the ground.” And if you do it right, that’s with all three wheels. So far, most of them have been on the mains, with the tail coming down. But I think the last one or two were very close to three-point landings, which is what I’m aiming to do.

But my point is that as I’m sort of going down the runway, just five or six feet above, and gradually pulling back, I’m learning how to land not just a taildragger better, but it’s also helping me land the Cessna. And when I’ve now flown the Cessna, I’ve found myself doing a lot better landings in the Cessna as well. I’m judging the flare much better.

People say that it can open up a whole other world of aviation to you. Did you find that?

Exactly right. Mark feels that if I’m a taildragger pilot, we can share that world.

So you’ve got your instrument rating. You’re going to fly a taildragger. What’s next?

I booked some lessons over at Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base. And I now have just over six and a half hours in seaplane instruction in a J-3 Cub.

And why did you choose that instruction?

It’s all part of the rich aviation experience. I get to fly a Cub, and I get to fly off water. It’s a whole other part of the flying world—the experience, the people, the places you go to. I have not actually got my seaplane rating yet. When I was about to do the test, the instructor discovered that I did not have three hours of night flying.

I never had to do a 100-mile cross-country at night, because when I got my license, that was not part of the FARs. And I don’t make a habit of flying at night in a single-engine piston airplane unless I really need to. Well, apparently it turns out that I really need to. Before I can take an exam for any new rating, I need to do 10 landings at night, three hours at night, and a 100-mile round-trip cross-country. So I’ll do that in my 172. Once I get those requirements done, we’ll go back down to Jack Brown’s and get my seaplane rating.

I’ve spoken to a number of aviation CEOs who say they love flying. But you’re proving it. Have you met others like you?

I’m the classic example of kerosene in the blood. It’s amazing when you’re in the industry just how many people you run into—like Mark Dunkerley. After 12 and half years running Hawaiian Airlines, lived around the world, held many interesting jobs, but what he really likes to do is to fly airplanes. And to help other people learn to fly airplanes.

There’s also Brad Tilden, CEO at Alaska Airlines. He’s doing a fantastic job, but he loves to fly. There are others around the patch who you meet. Unfortunately we just lost one—Charlie Robertson. Charlie was the CEO of American Cruise Lines, and he learned to fly rather late in life. He was one the guys I knew at Easton, and he bought a T-34. Whenever there was a bunch of guys going down to Cambridge for the $100 hamburger, Charlie would get the T-34. So it’s not just airline guys or aviation guys. There are captains of industry who want to get involved with airplanes, and then they just become part of the hangar club.

Given that experience, what do you think of the state of private aviation in the United States today?

Well I suppose everything in life is relative, and compared to the barnstorming days, it’s different, but compared to general aviation that I have known for 30 years, I think it’s in really good shape. Compared to the state of general aviation in Europe, where the opportunities are limited and the weather’s not so good—you’re flying across lots of countries and regulatory authorities—the U.S. is in great shape. And compared with where the U.S. was, I actually think that general aviation is in a very good position. And the reason I say that is that a lot of the [the positive outlook] is driven by the need for more pilots, which is both an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity is that people are coming into the pilot training business to learn how to be a pilot because the industry needs them. The challenge is that the instructors all get their 1,500 hours and go off to get right-seat on a regional jet. So where I fly at Easton right now, we would love to have more instructors available, but they’re tough to find on the eastern shore of Maryland.

On the other hand, if you look at the airplanes that are coming into the market—I flew a Diamond DA 40 a few weeks ago, which is becoming another staple of the training business. As much as the Cessna 152 was, and the 172S is the staple of the training schools, the DA 40 is becoming equally popular. It’s got a glass cockpit, excellent visibility, terrific handling and performance—my point is that there are a lot of new airplanes coming into the marketplace, which, with the advent of the new avionics [in navigation and flight planning], all this stuff makes flying to me a lot easier. That’s not to say that you don’t have to learn how to fly the airplane. Technology applied to the general aviation business is revitalizing the opportunity for those who like GA and who want to use it both as a business and as a hobby.

For the last 10 years that you were at Airbus, the company seemed to be involved in very interesting experimental projects—the Perlan glider, which set the altitude record for an unpowered aircraft at 76,100 feet, for example, and the E-Fan, a technology demonstrator powered by electricity. What was going on with those reaches into other places of aviation?

Airbus always was a technology-driven company. Its success really stems from the A320 airplane, the first commercial fly-by-wire airplane, a huge leap forward in the technology of commercial airplanes, driven by the then technical leadership at Airbus. And of course, it’s proven to be just a magical success. So Airbus takes pride in its technological heritage and taking technological steps, when the rest of the industry wasn’t. [The A320’s first flight was in 1987.]

We were also seeing very successful Silicon-Valley type companies—Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic, Google, and so on—thinking about getting into aerospace, and we said to ourselves, “What does that mean to the business? These guys have totally transformed the world of the Internet and the world of buying stuff online, what if they decide to transform aviation? How do we handle that?” So we decided we’d better be a little bit aware of what was going to disrupt us. So we set up both in Europe and the U.S. these incubator labs with a view toward finding out what technology was coming along that could impact aerospace but also with a view toward disrupting ourselves before somebody else did it. So we came up with things like the E-Fan and the Vahana project [an autonomous, electric, tilt-wing vertical-takeoff-and-landing demonstrator]. And we employed people who came from the technology business, not necessarily the aviation business, and we learned a lot of lessons about how technology disrupts businesses. We also learned the challenges of bringing new technology into a highly regulated industry. The reason that there are only Boeing and Airbus in commercial aviation today is that the barriers to entry are very high—barriers like capital need, regulatory issues, requirement for huge amounts of experience.

Maybe the most important answer to your question is Tom Enders. Tom Enders became our CEO and was the one who recognized what might be called “the technological threat.” Hence these various projects, and the initiatives to move the company forward.

Will those disrupters change the industry?

I’m still a believer in the old aerospace development cycle of design it, make it, test it, break it, repeat. I grew up in the engines business, and it’s very difficult to replicate the inside of a gas turbine at max power with a computer model notwithstanding all the fluid dynamics. In fact, I was invited to give a speech at the International Aviation Club about two weeks ago, and I talked about the experiences in my career that have led me to still believe in the need for hard-ass experienced engineers in the industry. And no matter what we in the industry try and do, we’d be foolish to try and bypass that design it-build it-test it-break it-repeat cycle. And most important of all, we need to protect the hard-earned engineering experience we’ve built up in the industry over the last 50 years. We can’t just let all those guys retire and go and sit on the beach, play golf, or fly airplanes.

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This story is a selection from the June/July issue of Air & Space magazine

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