Some licensed pilots love flying so much that they won’t have their wings clipped no matter how old they are. Los Altos resident Bob Claypool, 84, falls into that category.
A member of the United Flying Octogenarians, or UFOs, since he turned 80, Claypool serves as the organization’s vice president of area directors. He’s such a flying enthusiast that his wife, Diane, threw him a surprise 80th birthday party at a Palo Airport hangar, with 80 guests in attendance.
At the Hiller Aviation Museum last March, Claypool – joined by Los Altos members Pat Farrell, Tom Liston and guest pilot Dan Seidel of Los Altos Hills – inaugurated the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of UFOs. Today, UFO membership totals 900 nationally, with 35 Bay Area members. The oldest pilot is a 92-year old Hayward woman, a former flight instructor. The Federal Aviation Administration has no age limits for licensed pilots, but they must pass medical exams and fly with flight instructors annually.
UFOs member Liston, 81, who’s been flying since 1950, said their first meeting “was really fun, because the pilots each gave a short description of their flying careers.” A former naval ROTC officer, Liston became commanding officer of a submarine and eventually pursued a career as a mechanical engineer. He says he “still gets a big kick out of flying.”
“Flying an airplane is always a challenge, especially putting it down gently and at just the right speed,” he said.
A boyhood dream fulfilled
Claypool has owned his Cessna 182 since 1985. He’s been flying since about 1944, when he became a Navy aviation cadet.
“I always wanted to learn how to fly,” he said of his lifelong dream, sparked when he received a toy ride-on biplane from his mother. “That toy plane stuck with me.”
Other influences included Wrong Way Corrigan and the legendary pilot Charles Lindbergh. In high school in his native Milwaukee, Claypool joined a now defunct branch of the Boy Scouts called the Air Scouts.
After graduating from high school, Claypool took three trimesters of prerequisites at Western Michigan College of Kalamazoo, then waited for a preflight spot at Glenview Naval Air Station outside Chicago. Finally, in 1945, he began preflight school in Iowa City. He trained on an open cockpit biplane, the Boeing Stear-man, soloing in 1946.
Opting out of a naval career, Claypool enrolled in the University of Wisconsin, earning a civil engineering degree in 1950. He still flew privately from small Milwaukee airports, but he took a break from flying from 1957 to 1964 as he raised a family of three boys and a girl.
In 1964, Claypool joined a company whose president flew a plane and presided over a flying club, so he flew in the club’s Cessna 140 and later a Piper for business and personal trips.
After moving to California in 1966, Claypool continued working as a salesman for other companies but decided to branch out on his own with Claypool Controls Corporation, a distributor of electromechanical devices and sensors, among other products.
Before he retired, he owned two additional small companies, the Tuf-Skin Valve Corporation and Timpco Ltd.
Claypool joined Palo Alto’s West Valley Flying Club in 1975. Throughout his career, he used his Cessna to visit customers. Since retiring, he and Diane have made annual trips to Wisconsin for reunions with college classmates.
During one trip to Wisconsin, the Claypools had to make an emergency landing on a highway near Rawlings, Wyo. The couple landed unharmed, later making the cover of the Wyoming Highway Patrol magazine. Claypool said he didn’t have time to feel afraid. Troopers responding on the scene jokingly tried to ticket him.
Diane has flown as his co-pilot in the four-seater. She chronicles their flights by filling albums with aerial photos. She said she never thought of discouraging Bob from flying, “since he likes it so much.” To help on flights, she has taken flying lessons from Palo Alto senior flight instructor Bill Hightower, a fellow member of UFOs. She usually talks to the tower, doing all the communication and announcing their location to other planes.
“We’ve gotten to do a lot” through flying, she said. “Have you been to Carhenge?”
The replica of England’s Stonehenge uses cars instead of ancient stones in a formation near Alliance, Neb. She also noted that the small airports they fly into have friendly pilots, who often loan them keys to their own cars to drive into town to get lunch or dinner.
“People in these places are so generous, they’ll let us borrow their cars or give us the name of a good place to eat,” Diane said.
As her husband gets older, however, she worries about his flying alone. The idea of a heart attack during flight occurs occasionally.
“It crosses my mind, so if I’m with him, it’s better,” Diane said.
Heart troubles finally led Hightower, who flew for 35 years, to stop flying. His aortic stenosis wouldn’t necessarily disqualify him from FAA certification, but insurance costs can be prohibitive.
“I chose not to go through the rigamarole anymore,” he said, citing the high cost of repeated medical exams as well as insurance levies.
Required tests like echocardiograms can really add up. In addition, “you have to get the doctor to take the time to write letters,” Hightower said, adding, “in a lot of cases, it’s the insurance people who charge you extra, and I think that’s just blatant age discrimination.”
Hightower knows a 92-year-old who flies a plane, submitting annually to medical certification. In his case, however, the insurance company requires him to fly with an instructor.
“I don’t think you should be automatically disqualified after you turn 80 – each case should be handled individually,” he said.
For more information, visit www.unitedflyingoctogenarians.org.