Project at museum will preserve pilots’ memories

Jim Stanton occasionally cranes his head skyward these days to spot a plane. He gazes up with a touch of envy.

“I hope,” he says of the aviators above, “those guys recognize how lucky they are.”

Stanton thinks of his own life, and of that of his family, and gives thanks for airborne good fortune.

Now, at 92, his own days as a pilot are behind him. Just barely. He last touched down behind the controls of a plane at the age of 89.

Today, he has grandsons who pilot for a living. They mark the clan’s fourth generation of professional flyers.

Jim Stanton, now living in a Topeka retirement home, came to Kansas City on Saturday to be interviewed for the kickoff of an oral history project at the TWA Museum aiming to preserve the tales of the once-grand, now-gone airline.

It started with his old man, Stan Stanton. Jim and his father were perhaps the first ever father-son commercial pilot team.

Stan Stanton was a daring kid of the 1920s who’d grown up in Scranton, Pa., and learned of throttles and wing flaps from the Army Air Corps.

He would take to the skies easily, and became part of the air racing circuit — the NASCAR of his day. On one cross-country dash, the wheel of his plane broke when it hit a gopher hole in a field in Utah. He jury-rigged a replacement out of found objects, including a wooden toilet seat. He landed on the wobbly carriage in Detroit, finishing seventh in the race.

Soon, though, he would become a commercial pilot. He flew Braniff planes until the airline ran short of cash. Then he took the controls of TWA planes in 1932.

That’s how Jim Stanton came to grow up in the Kansas City area. He learned to fly a plane “right at the north end of this airport” where the TWA Museum is housed today. He was 20.

“It was one of the biggest thrills of my life,” he said.

By the time he was 21, Jim Stanton was a professional TWA pilot just like his pop.

Both father and son would fly commercial planes as civilians on overseas missions for the U.S. military during World War II, ferrying personnel and cargo. During the Vietnam War, Jim Stanton hauled thousands of troops to and from the Southeast Asian war zone. Sometimes his planes would tote ordnance, and he’d park them on the far edge of airports. The stuff might blow, you know.

“As far as I know,” he said, “we were never shot at.”

Mostly, his career was spent giving paying customers delightfully uneventful passage across the country, or across the Atlantic.

Jim Stanton was flying the Lockheed L-1011 when he retired. But his favorite model was the Convair 880, a speedy aircraft with horsepower to burn.

His brother, Ira, was a TWA pilot as well. Jim’s sons would learn to fly, too. Bob retired after a career with Northwest Airlines. And now three grandsons man the controls for a living.

“I guess,” Jim Stanton said, “it’s just something the family does.”