As we get older it’s important to cherish those times when we can still be surprised. Allow me to give you such an occasion right now: The most senior member of the Jersey Aero Club, Phil Zollner, is at the time of this writing 86 years old. Is it a surprise that Phil is the most aged of the JAC members? No. But when I found out exactly how old my surprise was pretty great. At 86 years old Phil still flies as regularly as aircraft availability allows and allow me to be the first to say that I hope that if I make it to his age that I’m as sharp and active as he is.
Case in point: Every year’s spot landing contest. Phil competes. In the sweltering heat of 2021’s contest much younger pilots wiped their brows, groaned, stuffed faces full of BBQ and found a nice place in the shade. Not Phil. He was too busy preflighting, then flying. Another thing the younger pilots did was note the length of Phil’s preflight, some probably thinking it must take an older man so much longer to do a standard preflight. Far from it.
I had the good fortune to fly with Phil one time. He was my safety pilot while I was practicing instrument approaches. Before that flight, after I was satisfied with my preflight, Phil’s 60-years-of-experience-senses took over and he went around the plane checking and rechecking, expanding on the checklist, even refusing my help with pushing the plane back and forward to inspect the tires. Again, I’m half his age and 4 inches taller and if I have a copilot I ask them to help push.
There’s an old bit from when George Burns was on Johnny Carson. “George, you’re ninety-six years old. You smoke cigars, you drink, you chase women - what does your doctor say about all this?” And George replies, “My doctor’s dead.” I didn’t ask, but I am willing to bet that a similar joke could be made about what less careful pilots might say about Phil’s lengthy preflights. He’s still around, and still flying. And he attributes that care to long experience. Here are his words to younger pilots. And if you’re reading this, that’s you:
“As I look back and compare my attitudes I feel I was young and cocky back then and did some things that I’m not proud of, took some risks. Don’t do what I did, be more like I am today: Overcautious. I’ll cancel today when I would have gone without question earlier.” And I’m going to guess that being the only JAC member in the club’s history to have a landing collision with construction equipment was the impetus for that safety consciousness.
Phil’s scariest flying experience? “This was the only incident when I felt terrible for making a stupid mistake. I was returning from Wisconsin to Newark Ohio in a 172. The sun was setting and I was night current but not proficient. About 60 miles from home I notice I had low fuel. Decided to make my first night landing at an unknown airport. There was thick ground fog developing so I had to get on the ground asap. This was Pequa ohio. Eventually I saw the beacon through the mist. I made a successful landing on an unlit runway, but a bit fast. At the end of the runway: construction equipment. Clipped a wing on a backhoe. No NOTAMs, no marking on the runway indicating it was closed.” My takeaway? Don’t trust the FAA/NAS to tell you everything.
Another surprising moment for you to enjoy: Phil Zollner has had no ambitions to be a professional pilot. Well, not since losing his AFROTC pilot spot for color blindness. Nope, he immediately went to the nearest Ohio airfield and had the following exchange:
“Hey do you guys give flying lessons?”
“You want an airplane ride?”
“No, I want to fly!”
They say a mile of runway can take you anywhere in the world. But did you know it can give you otherworldly experiences? After 60 years of flying you’d think it’d get routine, boring, dull. Here’s the greatest lesson I’ve learned from Phil - since he doesn’t know what to attribute his good health to and swears the fountain of youth isn’t disguised as a bidet in his guest bathroom: Find something amazing, and look forward to it. Never stop moving. Phil says that every time he feels the plane decouple from the Earth it’s transcendental. That sense of amazement is so easy to abandon. But I know Phil won’t, because he literally seeks it. In the form of total solar eclipses. Of which he’s seen 13. In person. And if you ever want to hear what Phil must have sounded like when he had his first solo in a 65 hp Aeronca Champ in the late 1950s, just ask him about them.
That’s right, not too long after moving to New Jersey to serve as a counterintelligence agent for the US Government, he had the opportunity to fly to an event that became a 50 year passion within his hobby of astronomy; witnessing total eclipses of the Sun. Phil flew a friend and photographic equipment to Norfolk, Virginia in March of 1970 in the club's first Mooney (75X), with the Johnson Bar gear handle. They picked South Norfolk airport to be in the eclipse’s “path of totality” or the ground track from where the moon totally obscures the appearance of the sun. Phil’s reaction of awe at the 3 minute phenomenon was precisely what he says everyone else he’s shared it with was: Wow! We have got to do this again! When is the next one!
But when isn’t so interesting as where....
In his eclipse chasing career Phil has visited everywhere from Australia to Tierra Del Fuego to the Sahara in Mauretania to Kenyan gameparks to Siberia. Yes, Siberia. Eclipses must be extremely incredible to make Siberia a valid holiday destination.
Now it may be hard to imagine but at one time the man that has become the most steady fixture at every meeting was of course the newest member of the Jersey Aero Club. That was 1957. He was 21. He’s flown club planes back and forth to Ohio, participated in who knows how many contests and seen the club equipment change and change again. There are probably more members that have come and gone knowing Phil than there are in the club at the moment, so it’s pretty safe to say he knows the club in a way that most of us can’t even aspire to. What are his thoughts on the club as it stands?
As you can imagine, they are complex. But he puts them plainly. First of all despite saying that the greatest innovation in aviation in his lifetime is GPS (amen, brother) he isn’t exactly thrilled about all technological advances. The speed of communication facilitated by email leaves him feeling that more thought and content should be put into emails before they’re sent. We’ve all been there, long email threads can be a bear to catch up on and make anyone feel left out and unhealthy.
His other concern hits a bit harder. “This is the first time in 60 years I have a feeling of dismay, disgust and frustration at getting flights.” He’s optimistic that this will improve, but says he’s far from the only one feeling this way. His approximately 20% success rate in booking flights recently is no cause for celebration. I’m sure we can all relate to wanting an easier time getting our metal in the sky. And we will have it. We will have it because we will listen to Phil and the attitude that I think is the true fountain of youth Phil hides from us all. Always looking forward to another adventure.
Or, as he puts it, “I want to go to OshKosh!”
PROFILE BY: Elias Zwillenberg
Just the facts:
Favorite club planes: Skyhawks and Mooneys
Favorite Flavor of Ice Cream: Chocolate
Favorite Airport: Chesterfield County, “The perfect country airport. VIP treatment whether you land in a Cub or a Citation.”
Favorite flights: Any with a first time small plane passenger.
Super power: Fearlessness, “I never had a feeling of anxiety or trepidation about landing. Been with other members who were nervous about incoming crosswinds or wind shear and I volunteer to fly the return legs.”