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Even when meeting Jim Pirtle and H. Shirmer Riley in person for the first time, the depth of their friendship is obvious.
The two men have known each other for years and share many interests – but the one, true passion that seals their relationship is flying.
Both became private pilots as younger men. Riley fell in love with airplanes as a boy growing up in Wheatley, Ky. – first constructing models of World War II planes he’d read about in his mother’s books, and then, in 1945, taking his first flying lesson at a grass airstrip in Lexington, Ky.
Pirtle also built model planes as a boy and, in 1966, when he quit smoking, decided the money saved on cigarettes could be used, instead, to pay for flying lessons. “The rest is history,” said Pirtle, a long-time Trimble County resident. At one point, in the 1970s, Pirtle shared a hospital room with Riley’s father. When the men met and discovered their common interest in flying, they became fast friends. Years later, after flying together in Riley’s 1958 Piper Comanche to the Malta Air Rally in 1983, the two men decided to fly the little four-seater around the world. Malta is an island nation south of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea. They spent three years planning the trip and making modifications to the plane that, at best, can fly only about 600 miles with a standard tank filled with fuel. Removing the back seat, the men had two additional fuel tanks custom-made to fit in the space and rigged to supplement the plane’s main tank.
They started on their trip from the Madison, Ind., Municipal Airport, crossing the North Atlantic to Europe, then to the Mediterranean, North Africa, Southeast Asia, the Philippines, Australia, across the Pacific to Hawaii, then to California and then on back to Madison.
They completed their nearly 27,000-mile trip in 39 days – one day less than they had planned. It was a bonding experience highlighted by some harrowing experiences – in the air, enduring turbulent weather and sometimes hours upon hours of darkness; and on the ground, dealing with a variety of officials in foreign countries whose ethical standards were questionable, at best. "We left as friends and came back brothers," Pirtle said. To do the trip right and become eligible for induction in the Circumnavigator’s Club, the plane had to cross the Equator twice – which can be dangerous in a small plane, as thunderstorms constantly loom there, Pirtle said. The men spent many hours in a cabin 42 inches high and 43 inches wide on flights ranging from 1,000 to 2,000 miles. It wasn’t always pretty. Prior to one flight, Pirtle said Riley had consumed not one but two bowls of garlic soup. The flight, in the Pacific, was humid and the air tight – and all Pirtle could smell was garlic emanating from his co-pilot’s pores. Technical talk with color commentary
When telling stories, Riley, a family physician who now lives in Madison, Ind., might finish Pirtle’s sentence; more often than not, Pirtle, a former teacher and professional photographer from Trimble County, will add colorful detail to Riley’s more technically drawn anecdotes.
So it made a lot of sense to both of them, upon a friend’s suggestion, to write a book about that experience. That friend is Hanover College professor emeritus Bob Trimble.
Over dinner one day, “he told us he’d waited long enough, and it’s time for us to write,” Pirtle recalled. It was Trimble’s idea to use different font styles in the book – one style for stories told in Riley’s own words and another for color and other detail as told by Pirtle. The men recently received finished copies of the book from the printer. “We’ve had excellent reviews from not just friends, but other fliers and aviators,” Riley said, adding it’s also for people who don’t fly. “It’s about flying and the experiences at the stopovers.
Copies of the book are available for purchase at Bedford Loan and Deposit, Farmers Bank of Milton and at the Madison airport. The two men also will be attending a book signing from 3-5 p.m. Monday, Nov. 23, at the Owen County Public Library, hosted by the Owen County Historical Society.