Vintage planes at the Gathering of Warbirds. | Submitted photo

While most people enjoy prosaic hobbies such reading, fishing or gardening, Forest Park Village Administrator Tim Gillian’s hobby is flying – specifically flying his World War II era North American AT-6.

He was in Wisconsin over Memorial Day weekend for the Gathering of Warbirds in Waukesha. The weekend before, he visited downstate Illinois for the Salute to Veterans Air Show, which he helped start. This weekend, he will be at the Cavalcade of Planes in Bolingbrook.

Gillian has owned his “fun old airplane” for 20 years, flying around the country to participate in air shows and flyovers. He and his older brother Mike bought it together. They keep it at the Aurora Airport in Sugar Grove, performing maintenance themselves with the assistance of a Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) approved mechanic.

The AT-6, which stands for advance trainer, is powered by a 600-horsepower supercharged engine. The airplane is a two-seater, which allows an instructor to sit behind a student pilot. Gillian explained that the AT-6 was the type of plane that pilots used to learn combat flying. After the AT-6, they would advance to train further on whatever planes they would eventually fly in combat. His plane was used primarily by the U.S. Air Force and later by the Marines.

Other planes Gillian has owned include a Bonanza, a Pitts S2B, a Super Decathlon and a Columbia 350. He said he also has “had the honor” to fly as a co-pilot on a B-25 and fly three TBM Avengers for various people around the country.

One of the Avengers Gillian has flown flew off the Vella Golf, an escort aircraft carrier also called a  “jeep carrier” or “baby flattop,” in the Pacific during WWII. He said patchmarks on the plane cover bullet holes from battle.

The escort carrier was typically half the length and a third the displacement of larger fleet carriers.

“It’s a very historic airplane,” Gillian said of the Avenger, noting that George H.W. Bush was flying an Avenger when he was shot down over the Pacific in WW2. “I get the honor of flying it occasionally.”

From 1944 to 1958, 15,000 AT-6 planes were manufactured. Gillian explained that the “really prolific airplane” was used by the U.S. in Korea and Vietnam for forward air controlling and that many countries also used it as a ground attack airplane. It was used at some point by almost every country that had airplanes in many different roles. His airplane was manufactured in 1944 and helped train “hundreds of pilots” for the war, he said. The South African Air Force used the AT-6 extensively until the mid-1990s.

In addition to participating in the Salute to Veterans air show, Gillian serves as air operations officer of the event.

What Gillian and another plane owner started in 2015 as an opportunity for the owners of Avengers to gather and share maintenance tips has grown to a “full-on air show.” He said the goal is to bring in “as many as possible” of the 15 to 20 Avengers still flying.

Gillian said the Salute to Veterans’ purpose is reflected in its name, with veterans bused in from veterans’ homes around Peru and highlighted by a military veterans’ parade.

“We do our best to make them feel special,” he explained. “We want people to take a moment and think about the thousands and thousands of people who have died for our country.”

Gillian said air show organizers donate a “fair amount” of the proceeds to local veterans’ groups with over $7,000 donated since the inaugural show.

Although he did not serve in the military himself, veterans are important to Gillian.

“I just fly their airplanes and understand their importance,” he said. “We do it for the veterans. We want young people to understand the sacrifice of veterans, especially those of WWII.

“When I first started, we would get veterans at every air show. Now that rarely happens.”

One of the veterans who came to the Salute to Veterans Air Show in Peru in 2018 was Bill Kramer.

Gillian said that Kramer’s family told him that Kramer had flown 81 supply missions over “the Hump” in a DC3 during WW2, the nickname Allied pilots gave the airlift operation that crossed the Himalayan foothills into China. It was the Army Air Force’s most dangerous airlift route, but it was the only way to supply Chinese forces fighting Japan.

Gillian said that age and time had dwindled Kramer’s memory. But seeing the plane “clicked in his mind,” according to Gillian, who described how he could see the memories flooding Kramer’s thoughts as he gripped the wing while still in his wheelchair.

“That is exactly why we fly these airplanes,” Gillian said.

In addition to participating in air shows and events around the Midwest, Gillian’s plans this summer include the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) AirVenture Oshkosh in July.

Called the largest air show of its kind in the world, the event is held annually in the small Wisconsin town of Oshkosh. Last year’s show attracted over 600,000 people and approximately 10,000 aircraft. During the gathering, the airport’s control tower is the busiest in the world. According to the event website, the air show attracts the world’s best aerobatic pilots and a roster of legendary American military aircraft in history, from iconic World War II airplanes to today’s most sophisticated flying machines.

As a member of Warbirds of America, Gillian not only flies in the air show but he also narrates the guided tours of the WWII-era military aircraft at the event.

He calls the collection of WWII-era aircraft “the world’s largest history museum” and notes it is the largest such collection.

His message to tram-riders is simple.

“I want them to understand this was not just a war effort, it was an entire country pulling together,” he said. “It was the men at war and the women working in the factories, leaving their kids at home alone.”

Gillian said he has participated in the Oshkosh air show every year since he bought his plane and received a special invitation to this year’s air show, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the first EAA air show in Oshkosh, since his AT-6 was at the first event, although under a different owner. The first EAA air show was held in 1953 in Milwaukee. It also was held in Rockford for 11 years before moving to Oshkosh.

Gillian has been flying since the late 1970s.

“I just thought I would like the challenge of learning,” he said.

He said he and his airplane are generally invited to participate in air shows.

“Typically they come to you,” he said, noting that event organizers will pay for fuel, food and lodging and provide a car.

Occasionally an event will provide an appearance fee but Gillian said he’s just “doing it for fun and trying to break even.”

He said he and his fellow pilots usually fly in formation at air shows because that’s what spectators like to see. He said the first thing pilots do when they arrive for an air show is practice flying in formations.

He said multiple certifications are required to fly. In addition to a pilot’s license, which Gillian said has no expiration, he’s required to renew his medical certificate annually. He also is required to have training to fly formations in front of people, which must be recertified annually.

He said FAA officials are at every air show to check all pilots’ credentials.

Calling flying “quite a discipline,” Gillian said it takes “hours and hours” of practice. His plane cruises at 160 miles per hour. With a 110-gallon fuel tank, he can travel three hours, usually at 3,000 or 4,000 feet, before needing to refuel.

He flies approximately 100 hours per year. He flies year-round although the majority of his flying comes during the summer. He estimated that he flies an average of two or three times a month but weekly during the summer.

“The summer is more intense,” he said. “But it’s a lot of fun.”