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Slowed Motion : Sammy Mason, a Top Test Pilot for Years, Now Writes and Studies

November 12, 1987|ELIZABETH TURNER | Times Staff Writer

The hands are legendary for their deft and steady touch on a joy stick, renowned for coaxing aerial ballet out of thousands of pounds of hurtling machinery.

Now those hands tremble and dance with a life of their own, tapping an unbidden patter on their owner's knee.

"I'm not nervous," Sammy Mason of Santa Paula tells a visitor matter-of-factly, trapping the renegade hands under his armpits. "I've got Parkinson's."

The 69-year-old Santa Paula resident, once the toast of the national air show circuit and a pioneer in test piloting, has adjusted his life to a quieter pace because of the degenerative disease.

He walks his Irish setter, Rusty, along the river bank that borders the Santa Paula Airport and spends hours composing his thoughts to the soft clicks of a computer keyboard. But he brings the same attitude to flying a desk as testing a jet fighter. The limits are still there to be explored, only now they are his own and not an airplane's.

Mason flew for more than a half-century and won acclaim in three arenas of aviation.

In the late 1940s, he was the premier performer of the air show circuit, commanding the highest salary of any aerobatic performer in the country. In 1976, he was named Flight Instructor of the Year by the National Assn. of Flight Instructors. Last month, the Society of Experimental Test Pilots awarded him an honorary fellowship, a distinction reserved for a handful of legendary fliers such as Charles Lindbergh and Jimmy Doolittle, to acknowledge pioneering feats accomplished during 22 years of test piloting.

If the transition from cockpit to armchair has been painful for Mason, he doesn't let on, his sons say.

In the two years since he stopped flying, Mason has spent most of his waking hours at the Santa Paula Airport in his office above the hangar, where his sons keep a helicopter and two light planes. There he writes books and poems, pores over the Bible and works on aeronautical inventions in an atmosphere faintly spiked by the fumes of aviation gas.

"There's just so many things going on right now, so much I have to get done," he tells a caller seeking to appropriate a chunk of his time.

Mason has published "Stalls, Spins and Safety," a book that has been acclaimed by aviation publications, has patented two of his inventions, and is writing his autobiography.

Not that quiet and contemplation are new to him. He has long defied the swaggering, bar-hopping, hard-living stereotype of the red-hot pilot. Friends and family say they've always been as likely to find Mason with a book in his hand as a joy stick, and they recall543713645Sunday-school classes as clearly as they remember his low rolls over the Santa Paula citrus groves.

Mason was Steve McQueen's flight instructor, but he is quicker to mention that he got the reputedly hard-bitten actor into church than out of tailspins.

He seems to be singularly untouched by the acclaim that has followed him through his aviation careers. A visitor hungry for tales of blood-and-guts daring on the air-show circuit is more likely to glean engineering insights on the relationship between the angle of attack and pro-spin yaw. His orderly office is almost bare of aviation memorabilia. A wealth of old photos is tucked away in a metal filing cabinet.

Despite the wear of time, Mason looks more the role of dashing aviator than he plays it. His six-foot frame is lean, his craggy face softened by an avalanche of eyebrows. His voice is deep and strong.

Mason has been obsessed with aviation as long as he can remember.

At 14, he dropped out of school to be closer to airplanes. He mowed weeds and painted hangars at the old Telegraph and Atlantic Airport in East Los Angeles in exchange for flight time. Then he moved up to the position of grease monkey for a local instructor, earning 15 minutes of air time for a week of work. He soloed in four hours and went on to teach himself all the aerobatics he's ever learned.

By the time Mason was 18, he was stretching his wings in air shows, but it seems his early interest in aerobatics was not only for the thrill, but, in part, out of a healthy sense of self-preservation.

"Sammy had six engine failures in his first 20 hours of flight," recalled Tony LeVier, former chief test pilot for Lockheed, who first met Mason over 50 years ago at the Telegraph and Atlantic Airport. "I think that helped give him his lifelong interest in safety--he always wanted to be able to handle the aircraft, no matter what it was doing."

Over the next few years, Mason worked through a potpourri of aviation jobs ranging from flight instructor to charter pilot and flew air shows on the side. While working out of an airfield in Glendale, he met Wanda Lee, who became his wife and mother of their eight children.

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