May 3, 2010

On April 19, more than 350 aviation officials gathered near Paris to honor U.S. business pilot Chuck McKinnon, who helped save historic Le Bourget airport in the late 1960s. Ironically, McKinnon couldn’t get there because volcanic ash had closed European airspace.

His former copilot, Francois Chavatte, accepted the award for McKinnon. “Francois really deserves the credit anyway,” laughs McKinnon. “I had a two-minute speech ready telling the people they were honoring the wrong guy.”

Now 94, McKinnon is a legend in business aviation. He was a captain for United Air Lines and founded IBM’s flight department. He opened IBM’s European flight department at Le Bourget in 1960, and fought the French government when it attempted to close that airport, where Lindbergh landed in 1927.

“There wasn’t any other place in Europe we could operate from except Geneva, Switzerland,” says McKinnon, “and that’s what I told Dick Watson, chairman of the board. He said, ‘Well, we’ll move the whole damn company there, too!’” The potential economic impact on Paris, explained by McKinnon’s politically well-connected copilot Chavatte, brought talk of closing Le Bourget to a screeching halt.

McKinnon’s learned to fly in the late 1920s, in a Waco biplane flown from an abandoned Atlanta auto racetrack (now Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport). Famous air racer Doug Davis, who won the Thompson Cup Race in 1929 with his famed Travel Air “Mystery Ship” racer, gladly taught young McKinnon in return for washing and waxing the Mystery Ship.

After an aviation lifetime he describes as “charmed,” McKinnon looks back at how business aviation has developed. “It used to be we were practically barnstorming,” he says. “Today, many business aircraft are better equipped than the airlines. And flight departments are run by managers with business degrees, not necessarily pilots. It’s a better way.”