I recently got an email from an old friend who asked whether I knew of any famous dyslexic aviators. She said she was re-evaluating a gifted and dyslexic young lady she had first seen at 10 years of age. This young lady is now graduating from high school and wants to be an aviator. Apparently, her math skills are exceptional.
I replied that I have seen high levels of interest from airplane pilots whenever I have given talks on my books. As a group, many have high visual spatial capabilities, of course, and I suspect some may be mildly dyslexic (or have dyslexic near relatives) and are often not detected. Generally speaking, military pilots have to be college graduates, so this may have selected out some of the most severe dyslexics in the past.
However, it is now becoming more widely recognized that there are lots of dyslexics who survive and even thrive in certain college and university programs -- especially those that focus on science and math or engineering but ask less in reading and writing such as a humanities or liberal arts program. There are said to be so many dyslexics on the MIT campus that locally they call dyslexia “the MIT disease.”
However, the best answer to this query, I realized, was in my own family. I asked them to have a look at Frank Gifford Tallman III or just Frank Tallman of Talmantz Corp (with partner stunt pilot Paul Mantz). (My own full name is Thomas Gifford West since we were both named for my great grandfather.)
Frank died in 1978. He is my mother's first cousin and probably, in the final analysis, will come to be recognized as the most famous stunt pilot of all time. (Such skills are rarely wanted these days. Filmmakers generally use computer graphics now, rather than real flying.) It happens that another cousin teaches people to fly gliders and sail planes.
Because of his apparent extreme flying skill, I had long wondered whether Frank might have been dyslexic. But then a few years ago his younger sister (Prudy Wood) gathered school letters, grade reports, etc., for a book -- papers she allowed me to copy.
Based on these documents, it became clear to me that he was in fact very dyslexic -- but, on the other hand, he was one of the few people who could fly well all the oldest planes. (See Frank's book, Flying the Old Planes, long out of print.)
His sister did finish her book manuscript shortly before her death three or four years ago. The book is about the lives of Frank, another brother, Foster, and herself. (Very skillfully written, in my opinion.) I will probably tell a short version of Frank's story in my own third book -- which I am working on now.
Prudy's book has not yet been published, but I have a copy of the manuscript. Prudy has three daughters who have been looking for a publisher, without success so far. I have offered to help.
I also suggested that my friends look up Frank's list of movies, including "The Great Waldo Pepper" and many, many more. Related to this movie, Robert Redford said he would not trust anyone with his life other than Frank Tallman. (I have a TV clip of Redford saying this that I plan to put on YouTube sometime soon, if someone has not already done it.) Frank may have been only Navy pilot without a college education many years ago.
There is much more to tell. But this is a start. I note that a new “Short Biography of Frank Tallman,” by Scott A. Thompson, has been posted on the web (dated 2007).
In summary, I suspect that some dyslexics would make the very best pilots, especially for the early planes. Perhaps similar talents are still seen among the bush pilots in Alaska, for example. Of course, modern planes need a different mix of skills, but I assume the high visual side will always be important.
It happens that I quoted in In the Mind’s Eye a passage written by Winston Churchill about extreme skill among early aviators. On re-reading this passage, I am impressed not only by the story that Churchill tells, but also the extreme skill Churchill himself shows in writing the story. The text from my book follows, introducing the quotation from Churchill (chapter 6, given here without quotation marks):
Churchill . . . shows evidence of being a thinker with a definite propensity toward visual-spatial modes of thought. . . . And it is not surprising that these persons also may be especially sensitive to the special abilities of those . . . who are proficient in these areas. Thus, one might expect to find that one with these high visual-spatial talents would greatly appreciate the skill of another who is able to move with special grace and skill -- by means of the newly invented flying machine -- through three-dimensional space.
In 1912, with some trepidation, Churchill started flying because he thought it part of his duties as First Lord of the Admiralty. (It is worth noting that Churchill started flying only 9 years after the Wright brothers' first flight in December of 1903 and only four years after the Wright brothers started providing aircraft and pilot training to military personnel in both America and France in 1908.)
In time, however, he came to develop a very special appreciation of this new world. Churchill's description is so evocative and is so supportive of the point we are trying to make that an extended quotation seems warranted:
“Once I had started flying from motives in which a sense of duty, as well as excitement and curiosity, played its part, I continued for sheer joy and pleasure. I went up in every kind of machine and at every air station under the Admiralty. . . .
“Then came the episode of Gustave Hamel in the spring of 1914. If ever there was a man born to fly, three parts a bird and the rest genius, it was Hamel. He belonged to the air rather than the earth, and handled the primitive machines of those days in what was then an unknown element, with a natural gift and confidence quite indescribable. . . .
“Although I have flown hundreds of times, probably with a hundred pilots, I have never experienced that sense of the poetry of motion which Hamel imparted to those who were privileged to fly with him. It was like the most perfect skater on the rink, but the skating was through three dimensions, and all the curves and changes were faultless, and faultless not by rote and rule but by native instinct.
“He would bank his machine so steeply that there was nothing between us and the world far below, and would continue circling downwards so gently, so quietly, so smoothly, in such true harmony with the element in which he moved, that one would have believed that one wing tip was fastened to a pivot. As for the grim force of gravity -- it was his slave. In all his flying there was no sense of struggle with difficulties, or effort at a complicated feat; everything happened as if it could never have happened in any other way. It seemed as easy as pouring water out of a jug.”