High Flyer: Harrison Ford
Harrison Ford is the man behind two of history’s biggest cinematic icons. But the action hero’s off-screen life has had its own real-world cliffhanger events.
In a galaxy far, far away – and in a multiplex near you – the man who “made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs” is back in the cockpit of the “fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy”.
To put it another way, Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon are back, but you probably already know that, just as you know a parsec is actually a unit of distance; which makes the movie scoundrel either a time traveller (possible, but unlikely) or a huge show off who doesn’t have all the technical knowledge he should have to be flying around in such large, expensive craft (much more likely).
But despite such a laissez-faire attitude to flight, Han Solo is still a damn good pilot. As is Ford’s other iconic movie persona, Indiana Jones – who may also be making a big-screen comeback.
“I didn’t know you could fly a plane,” says film father Sean Connery in the character’s third movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
“Fly yes,” says Indy. “Land, no.”
Fear not, though, Indy gets them down safely, even if the landing is a little bumpy. And off-screen, Ford has had his own hair-raising aviation experiences, but is lauded as a quality pilot thanks to a life-long love of flying.
“Aviation captured my imagination when I was very young,” Ford told Airport Journals. “When I was growing up, there was no television. There was radio, and one of the shows that I used to listen to was ‘Sky King.’ I really enjoyed it. My dad was in advertising, and one of his accounts was that show. I got a chance to meet Sky King.”
And Harrison’s love of aviation continued during his high school and college years. “While I was in college, I scraped together enough money to take maybe five or six lessons, in a TriPacer,” he says, but “US$11 an hour for a pilot instructor was more than I could bear at the time.”
Theatre work and a move to California followed, a period when he famously made extra money between roles as a carpenter.
Then came Star Wars. The 1977 blockbuster propelled him to the heights of movie stardom, the kind of golden age Hollywood celebrity that peaked in the 20th century.
A string of leading-man roles in some of the most famous movies of all time followed and his star power meant he could be relied on to carry a film whether it was high-brow and cerebral (Regarding Henry, Frantic) or wonderful escapist nonsense (Ford’s “Get off my plane” quote in Air Force One has been lauded as the greatest movie line of all time, but only by movie geeks who might cheer as the US president throws a terrorist from a crashing jet).
But his life almost came to an abrupt end in what was supposed to be a routine flight in his vintage Ryan PT-22 Recruit in March 2015. Ford reported that shortly after takeoff from Santa Monica Airport and at about 1,100ft, the engine lost power.
“[Ford] stated that he did not attempt an engine restart but maintained an airspeed of 85 mph and initiated a left turn back toward the airport,” said the official National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report, issued in August, five months after the headline-news incident.
“During the approach, [Ford] realised that the airplane was unable to reach the runway. [Ford] did not recall anything further about the accident sequence. Subsequently, the airplane struck the top of a tree that was about 65ft tall, and impacted the ground in an open area of a golf course.”
And while eyewitnesses said the celebrity appeared to do his best to ensure the plane didn’t hit a nearby residential area don’t ask him for any more details about the incident – he simply can’t recall them.
“I remember the engine stopping, I remember that part very well,” Ford told US chat show host Jimmy Kimmel in October. “I remember telling the tower what I was going to do and I remember their suggestion. Their suggestion was that I take the normal route to land and I knew that I wasn’t going to do that. So I said ‘no.’
“And that’s the last thing I remember until five days afterwards,” he said. “I’m told by the doctors that the amount of general anesthetic that I received…gave me retrograde amnesia.”
Celebrity magazine People said air traffic control audio recorded Ford’s report of his emergency, stating simply: “Engine failure, requesting immediate return.”
Air traffic controllers responded, “Clear to land.” Later in the audio a controller reported: “It looked like it was short of the runway.”
The NTSB concluded that the main metering jet for the plane’s carburetor had come loose, resulting in excessive fuel flow which brought on power failure.
This wasn’t the first time Ford had survived a crash – in 1999 he was flying a Bell 206L4 LongRanger helicopter over a riverbed near Santa Clarita, California, when it was forced into a hard landing. The helicopter was severely damaged, but neither Ford nor the instructor pilot suffered any injuries.
However, Ford shows no signs of letting these incidents keep him from flying at every opportunity; hardly surprising given his long history of advocacy and charity work tailored towards aviation resources.
In 2004, Ford became chairman of the Young Eagles program of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), replacing aviation legend Charles “Chuck” Yeager. He’s an honorary board member of the humanitarian aviation organisation Wings of Hope, which uses aviation infrastructure to provide health care and transportation systems in impoverished areas of the world, typically using small bush airplanes.
Ford also helps promote the advocacy group Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a non-profit that champions general aviation. And in 2009 he received the Legends Aviation Legacy Award in the Sixth Annual Living Legends of Aviation Awards Ceremony.
But perhaps his most personal example of aviation advocacy involved wife Calista Flockhart.
“She was a very nervous flier until she had a chance to sit up front and see the face of the pilot she was flying with, to tell her everything was all right,” says Ford. “Now she loves it.”