Flying High -- James M. Prillaman

October 6, 1942 - September 14, 1998

9/14/2001: I wrote this almost three years ago, in the weeks immediately following Uncle Jim's suicide. The brief introductory note was written by my father as part of a letter to the radio control airplane club in which Uncle Jim had been an active member. Three years ago this morning, I learned of Uncle Jim's death. This morning, I am posting this to my site as a reminder to myself of all that was good about Uncle Jim.

To the Millington Barnstormers -

My family and I want to express our appreciation for the support and kindness of the Barnstormers who were aware of my brother Jim's death. What is said about identical twins is true - at least with us; and it has been hard. His decision to leave us has left a very large hole. It will, with time, fill with other concerns.

Jim did not want an announcement or memorial. He left detailed instructions that I have respected.

I do know he loved your organization, and thought the world of you guys. Remember him as he was . . . and if there is an afterlife, be sure to take your latest aircraft with you. He'll be mad if you don't.

My son Jim has added his thoughts about my brother's last flying day. Enjoy it - I can't add any more.

Flying High

On September 13, 1998, Jim Prillaman went flying for the last time. Over the years, Jim flew all sorts of radio-controlled craft, from the simplest gliders to quarter-scale racers like Iceman and four-engined behemoths like the Memphis Belle. On this particular Sunday, he chose something less spectacular than Iceman or the Belle. He went to the field with his "Prillaman" Stik: a plane of his own design, based on but much improved from the basic Stik. What would that balsa and monokote machine say if it could talk? What would it remember from that last day out with its builder and pilot? We'll never know, but we can guess...

Looks like we're going flying today. The flight box is sitting out and my receiver's battery is charged. It's hard to tell what the weather is from my vantage point here on the floor, but it's not raining and there doesn't seem to be too much wind. Could be good today. I've got a feeling today is going to be a good flying day.

I wonder which of us will get to go to the field? Our pilot will probably only take one of us, and I sure hope it's me. I may not be as pretty as the others are, but I try to do what he asks, even when it seems almost impossible.

The Warbird ME-109 is a typical pylon racer - arrogant and proud - but all he does is hang around at treetop level, go fast, and turn left. Pretty simple task to warrant so much ego. The Sukhoi is a bit more level-headed, and he is a big, impressive flyer. I don't like admitting it, but he's built better than I am - fewer rough edges, more craftsmanship. He does get a lot of mileage out of being little brother to the "big" Sukhoi, though. And that voice! The guy can only speak in broken English, and he has a tendency to slip back into his native language when he gets excited.

Here he comes; we'll know soon who goes flying today. Pilot's looking us over, trying to make his decision. He kneels down by the Sukhoi, patting the big fuselage and speaking quietly to it. I can't make all of it out, but it sounds rather conciliatory. He offers the Warbird a snap salute and a grin. Now for me. He slides the flight kit over to me and starts making a quick check of his supplies. Does this mean I'm the one? Do I get to go flying today? I bet it does. I hope it does!

Yes indeed, I was right - we're heading out to the car, just pilot and me. Only a few clouds in the sky and the temperature's nice, especially after the last few miserably hot months. If I were better at math, I probably would still have lost count of the number of times I've made this trip, but it's still always exciting. Ah, we're here: the field. Now my pilot will take me out and put me together. I only feel truly complete when my wing and fuselage are united. With a full tank of fuel and the receiver on, I am fully alive, ready to soar.

The engine's running at last, and I'm eager to be in the air. It's odd how some of the other planes here at the field feel nervous before take-off, afraid they'll wind up "landing" in more than one piece. Sure, balsa's fragile, and I've been around long enough to experience a few unpleasant landings (the patches in the monokote on my wings are clear testament to that!), but I never worry. Besides, we all get recycled eventually - what counts is what you do before that day arrives.

Wind under the wings; bite on the control surfaces. For a plane, there's nothing better. What does pilot have in mind for me today? Ooh, a bit of altitude. Excellent. On a nice clear day like today, I ought to be able to see all sorts of things from up high. But what's this? Still climbing? The field seems so small from up here. Why, I can see the big buildings by the river! I've never been this high before! I'm alone up here; none of the other planes would follow me here. The transmitter still speaks to me clearly, but pilot's only a speck on the ground below, difficult to separate from the other clutter of the ground. Do the other people see what he and I are doing? I can't see their faces from here, but some seem to be looking at me. They must see. They won't want to miss this.

Course change. Down!? This should be exciting. And I'm throttling back, back, back, full idle. Unpowered now. It's just gravity, lift, and me. Not much lift in a dive. Still diving. I'm starting to really pick up some speed now. A lot of speed, actually. What was that number I once heard? Thirty-two-point-two feet per second of speed for every second falling? Wonder what my terminal velocity is? Damn, but this is a rush - I can feel the force of the wind on my leading edges. All this time flying, and now for the first time I desperately want an air speed indicator. Is this what 100 miles per hour feels like? Or is it 150? Maybe 200? It doesn't really matter, because it is definitely fast. I bet I'm really whistling now. Those people on the ground can probably hear me coming. They won't want to miss this.

Hmmm… That ground's getting closer. Actually, it's getting a lot closer. This is fun and all, but I can't keep it up forever. Hope he realizes that. Come on, big guy. Pull me out any time now.

Pulling out! Twenty feet above the grass! That was close! I could feel balsa creak all over while I was pulling the nose up. The elevators have never fought against an airstream like that. How my wing stayed in place I'll never know. Now a loop, up and over and back. Loops are always fun, even after something as spectacular as that dive. Landing already? And I was just getting warmed up.

I'm back on the ground in one piece, as happens far more often than not, and everyone here today - people and planes - will remember that last bit of flying for a long time to come. There's nothing like being milliseconds away from becoming toothpicks to get the servomotors fired up. And the day's still young; there's still a lot of flying yet to do today. I've got a feeling we'll be back in the air before long. There's this one maneuver that pilot's always wanted to try...

I can't wait.

That Sunday was a good flying day for the Stik and its pilot. It was a day that the plane would look back on fondly, if it were capable of memory. Unlike people, though, airplanes cannot remember. Or maybe they can, but they have no way to speak to us; it's up to us to remember. Those of us who knew Jim Prillaman all have fond memories of him, memories we will carry with us for the rest of our lives. He was a good friend, a patient teacher, a loving brother and uncle. We will miss him.


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