Chuck McKinnon is this year’s recipient of the NBAA John P. “Jack” Doswell award, granted for lifelong individual achievement in supporting business aviation. At age 95 and newly remarried to Jan Barden of Aviation Personnel International, McKinnon looks back to a long lifetime of involvement with aviation. “I’ve been interested in aviation since I knew there was such a thing,” he told AIN. Building model airplanes when Lindbergh made his famous transatlantic flight to Le Bourget, McKinnon couldn’t know that he would be closely connected with the Paris airport later in life.
A student at Georgia Tech, one of the 10 schools in the Civilian Training Program in 1939, McKinnon learned to fly there. After graduating with degrees in engineering and business, he went to work as a junior engineer for Stone and Webster, the engineering company that helped build Hoover Dam.
McKinnon later was offered a job at United Airlines, and after eight months of training became part of its engineering group. He was on the committee to evaluate new airplanes and flew for the airline.
During World War II, McKinnon had a commission in the Army Air Corps and flew with the Army Air Transport Command.
Back on the homefront, McKinnon devised a system for passenger airline reservations but United wasn’t interested in it. He subsequently went to work for IBM, which developed the Sabre reservation system, launched by Pan American and American Airlines.
He flew the first business airplane used by IBM–an Aero Commander–and established the company’s European base at Le Bourget. IBM Euroflight was the first business aviation operation at the Paris airport. In the early 1970s McKinnon worked to save the airport, which was threatened with closure to make room for development of Charles de Gaulle Airport.
At IBM, McKinnon realized there was a need to computerize the flight department but the company wasn’t interested in developing the system commercially. In 1971 he started his own company to develop one, and eventually sold his Polaris database software to Lockheed.
McKinnon was NBAA’s representative on a committee to standardize cockpit instrumentation and flight-handling characteristics of commercial aircraft. At the time, American Airlines experienced an accident attributed to the lack of standardization. Since there was no organization for aeronautical engineers then, they looked to the Society of Automotive Engineers as a model. The committee was comprised of chief test pilots of all the OEMs and the engineering pilots of all the world’s airlines. And as a member of the committee, McKinnon flew all the new commercial airplanes, prototype equipment and instrumentation systems.
Among his memorable flights, McKinnon recalled, were those when he carried presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman after they retired, and presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford before they took the high office.