The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) today marked the passing of business aviation legend Charles A. "Chuck" McKinnon, founder and longtime manager of IBM’s flight department. He died March 30 in his hometown of Trussville, AL at the age of 101.
"Chuck McKinnon was a trailblazer for business aviation,” said NBAA President and CEO Ed Bolen. “The industry would not be the same without a visionary like Chuck McKinnon. He worked tirelessly to promote the many benefits and opportunities business aviation, both in the U.S. and abroad.”
McKinnon got started in aviation in a Waco biplane flown from an abandoned Atlanta auto racetrack that is now the site of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Famous air racer Doug Davis taught young McKinnon how to fly in return for washing and waxing his aircraft.
In 1939, McKinnon graduated from Georgia Tech with degrees in engineering and business and completed the Civilian Pilot Training Program, an effort designed to increase the number of aviators available for the U.S. military as it prepared for war.
During World War II, McKinnon flew for United Airlines, which had won an Army Air Corps contract to transport supplies and troops in the U.S. and overseas. He is thought to be the last living member of a group known as the “Tracy Aces,” the unofficial title given to United Airlines pilots who had trained together in Tracy, CA. While at United he also was involved in the carrier’s engineering group and helped evaluate new airplane designs.
While working for United, McKinnon saw a recruitment ad that was seeking an experienced pilot to start a flight department for a large U.S. corporation. In 1954, he was tapped to fly IBM’s first business aircraft, a twin-piston Aero Commander, which was used to transport company engineers to various sites across the country. McKinnon led the IBM flight operation until his retirement in 1977.
As IBM’s flight department grew, McKinnon in 1960 opened a satellite flight operation for the company at Le Bourget Airport, the historic airfield in Paris, France, where Charles Lindbergh completed the first nonstop transatlantic flight. The operation, called IBM Euroflight, was the first U.S. business aviation department in Europe.
In the early 1970s, McKinnon worked to save Le Bourget Airport, which was threatened with closure as development of nearby Charles de Gaulle Airport began. On April 19, 2010, on the 50th anniversary of the first IBM plane landing at Le Bourget, McKinnon was recognized for his long-standing role in advocating for business aviation and the airport.
In 2010, NBAA honored McKinnon by presenting him with its John P. “Jack” Doswell Award for lifelong individual achievement in support of business aviation. McKinnon’s involvement with the association included serving as NBAA’s representative on a committee to standardize cockpit instrumentation and aircraft flight-handling characteristics.
McKinnon was predeceased by his first wife of 66 years, Mary, in 2004, and his second wife,
Janice K. Barden, founder of Aviation Personnel International and the local chairperson for multiple NBAA conventions in New Orleans, in 2016. McKinnon spent 10 years with Barden in St. Helena, CA, before returning to Alabama to be with family.
In his later years, as he reflected on his career, McKinnon – who flew four U.S. presidents, two kings and several astronauts – declared, “I have lived a charmed life.”