Friendship Spawns Worldwide Flights

Bedford’s Pirtle and Madison’s Riley
to present slide show of their airplane travels

The Shadow of the Buffalo festival
returns to Carrollton

Ben Fronczek
Staff Writer

(April 2001) Madison, In – A doctor and photographer meet in a hospital room, fly almost everywhere on the planet together, are named the first honorary citizens of Nome, Alaska, and end up presenting a slide show at the Madison-Jefferson County Public Library.

James Pirtle &H. Schirmer Riley

James Pirtle &
H. Schirmer Riley

This chain of events could happen to none other than photographer James Pirtle of Bedford, Ky., and retired physician H. Schirmer Riley of Madison. Their April 22 slide presentation in the library’s auditorium will focus on their most recent flights to points northwest, particularly Alaska in an attempt to reach Siberia. It is set for 2 p.m. and sponsored by the Friends of the Library.
So how did a doctor and photographer come to develop a flying collaboration that has taken them to pretty much everywhere on the planet over the last 20 years?
The doctor, Riley, 72, started flying at age 16. Riley was originally from Wheatley, Ky., but grew up in Monterey, where a World War II flying instructor came from Lexington, Ky., and started a nearby air strip.
“I started flying then and have been interested ever since,” recalled Riley. He flew on and off through school and then picked it back up more actively during his years in medical school.
The photographer, Pirtle, 65, attributes his flying interest to age 10. It was then when this Terre Haute, Ind., native constructed model airplanes in his spare time on a Solomon City farm. His interest in building and flying model airplanes continued into his high school years and finally into adulthood, which found him flying them at Madison’s airfield.
“I got around to looking at model airplanes and said to myself, ‘If I am ever going to fly, now is the time,’ ” he recalled. Pirtle started flying in 1966.
Both men flew on their own for many years but finally met in the late 1970s when Pirtle shared a hospital room with Riley’s father. Their friendship grew from their common interest in flying, and in 1983, they took their first flight on a North Atlantic route, which is the International Route called the Malta Ayre Rally.
They traveled this route to Malta Island, near Italy. Reaching this destination entailed flying across the Greenland ice cap.
To Pirtle’s knowledge, they were the first Americans to fly this route. Their passion for the friendly skies, though, proved this one taste wasn’t enough to satisfy their adventurous hunger. An invitation from the government of Turkey led them to fly there for four days. They figured then since they flown almost halfway around the world, they might as well go all the way, which they did in 1986.
“It is not explainable why we do it,” said Pirtle. “There is a thrill that comes from using all the skill you’ve got to go the ragged edge.”
Going to the edge is no exaggeration, either. Over the last 10 years, Pirtle and Riley have faced major challenges when pursuing their passion. They could not gain clearance in their 1991 flight to Russia because officials said they did not have a Russian navigator flying with them. Also, weather has many times created less than desirable conditions for their flying. But Pirtle always remembers the wise words of his mentor, Roger Taylor: “Always head for the light spot.”
“He has passed me up quite a bit,” said Taylor. “I’ve only made it halfway around the world.”
Indeed, weather has been a factor in Pirtle and Riley’s journeys. Last summer, they attempted to fly to Siberia once again. They made it to Alaska, where they traveled the state and were even made the First Honorary Citizens of Nome, Alaska.
Snow and ice, however, prevented their entry into Siberia, despite the fact that this time they had clearance to land and an invitation from the governor of Siberia. They had a four-day window to get into this eastern portion of Russia, but the weather did not hold up for their plane to fly there safely.
Their April 22 slide presentation will cover not only this trip but also their 1993 flight around South America.
“Flying around the world is good practice for flying around South America and Alaska,” said Riley. He said the climate differences are much more drastic when venturing far north or south.
“We’ve had the opportunity to see the world from a single engine airplane,” said Pirtle. “As a child, you read a book and dream of the world, but we’ve seen it.”

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