Serious aviators share a common characteristic—their passion for flight. Whether he or she is a professional earning a living in Business Aviation or a private pilot enjoying the magnificent foliage of a fall weekend, aviators go aloft to experience something very special and fulfilling. Aviation is a meaningful motivator for their way of life. It is an expression of how they feel about themselves and about their confidence to perform. I know no one who became a professional pilot because their parents forced them into that career. Similarly, when asked why they earned a pilot’s certificate, most individuals say they always wanted to fly. Such is the magnetism of aviation.
Thomas Watson, Jr., CEO of International Business Machines from 1956 until retiring in 1971 on his doctor’s advice following a heart attack, reflected the role that aviation can play in a person’s life. From his first solo (which he proudly noted in his autobiography Father, Son & Co. that he accomplished after only 5.5 hours of instruction) until his death in 1993, he maintained a passionate attraction to flight.
In 1977 I met Mr. Watson at Norwood Memorial Airport, a few miles southwest of Boston, Massachusetts, where he had just completed his first solo flight in a Bell Jet Ranger. After being introduced and photographing him flying the helicopter, I boarded his North American Sabreliner and watched him pilot (as captain) the business jet to Knox County Regional Airport, about 85 miles north of Portland, Maine, where he was the principal benefactor of the Owls Head Transportation Museum. There he parked his business jet, donned goggles and cloth flying helmet and took off in a restored Newport WWI fighter. After a few low passes, he landed and proceeded to get into a beautifully rebuilt Spad, also a survivor of the Great War, and piloted the aircraft through its paces. After lunching on Maine lobster, he mounted a Spitfire for a dust-up of the field. That sortie complete, Mr. Watson excused himself, boarded his Sabreliner and flew back to his home north of New York City.
Piloting sophisticated aircraft was nothing new to Thomas Watson, Jr. Since his days as a student at Brown University, to being commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 102nd Observation Squadron of the New York National Guard (an assignment he sought when he learned that a civilian pilot with more than 300 hours of flight time could be designated a pilot without going through Army Air Corp training), to his 2,500 hours flying a Consolidated B-24 throughout WWII as personal pilot for General Follett Bradley, to being checked out the IBM’s business jets, Watson was the consummate aviator.
During lunch at the Owls Head Museum, I asked Mr. Watson why he devoted his time and resources to the preservation of old aircraft. His response was simple: He owned his carrier at IBM to aviation.
Claiming to be a mediocre student and lacking experience in business, he said the only endeavor where he felt successful was flying. In fact, as WWII was concluding, Watson lined up a piloting job with United Airlines. Discussing his post-war plans to join the airlines with General Bradley, his war-time boss’s response was “Really? I always thought you’d go back and run the IBM company.”
Mr. Watson said he had no sinecure at IBM. His father owned too few shares at the company to dictate who would succeed him. Thus he responded with a question. “General Bradley, do you really think I could run IBM?”
“Of course”, was the General’s response.
Mr. Watson said General Bradley’s answer, so positive, provoked his introspection. He had accomplished many challenging tasks while serving as the General’s pilot. Yes, he thought, I can take on unknowns and be successful. Without the confidence that being an aviator installed within him, he said he would not have gone to IBM. He felt he owed his career to aviation.
As a footnote to this blog, Mr. Watson told me not to relate our conversation in the publication that had asked me to meet him on that date in 1977. Subsequently the reason for his command was clear: Thomas Watson, Jr. recounted his discussion with Follett Bradley in Father, Son & Co., published first in 1990.