Photo: Brett Mountain

Flying High

The Jewish News
Joyce Wiswell

Joyce Wiswell

Philip Handleman’s love of aviation is but one facet of this Renaissance Man.

It was 55 years ago, but Philip Handleman can clearly remember his first time in an airplane — a classic Piper J-3 Cub he rode with his parents. That short flight in 1963 would prove to have a major impact on his life.

In the ensuing decades, Handleman has become an authoritative expert on aviation, writing 23 books on the subject and building a private airport and unofficial museum to celebrate the spirit of flight.

At 67, Handleman’s The 25 Most Influential Aircraft of All Time (Rowman & Littlefield) just came out March 1. Handleman delights in sharing his encyclopedic knowledge on the subject. His private airport in Oxford, dubbed Handleman Sky Ranch, includes an extensive library with some 5,000 flying-related books. One wall is devoted to first-editions, many personally inscribed by the giants of aviation who have visited the 160-acre property, which Handleman and his wife, Mary, have owned for 30 years.

The couple feel a duty to preserve flight history and promote aviation to younger generations. In addition to the many celebrated pilots, military brass and astrophysicists (including a Nobel Prize winner) who have visited Sky Ranch, the Handlemans have also welcomed local school groups and Scouting troops. 

“As Einstein said, ‘We should never lose our ability to be awed by the wonders of the universe,’” said Handleman, who has held a pilot license for 47 years. “Flight is one of these wonders.”

Surrounded by picturesque farmland, Sky Ranch has two 2,500-foot runways (one going north-south, the other east-west), two hangars housing a pair of airplanes, a 40-acre nature preserve, private living space, and a large parlor and kitchen devoted to entertaining. The grounds are punctuated by a few dozen gardens planted with wildflowers in homage to Huffman Prairie, the Dayton, Ohio, site where the Wright Brothers developed their flying machine in a flower-strewn pasture.

“When we developed Sky Ranch, we thought it would be nice to mimic that feature,” Handleman said.

Inside, original oil paintings by famed aviation artists line the walls. “Our art is mostly airplanes that were built not to hurt people or do harm,” Handleman noted, “but to go higher, faster and further.”

Home On The Ranch

For now, the Handlemans are calling the Sky Ranch home after selling their longtime house in Birmingham a year ago.

“We’re hanging our hat here is what I would say,” he said. “Wherever Mary wants to go, I will go, and wherever she will be, I will be very happy. She is my navigator in life as in flight.”

Meanwhile, he’s eagerly awaiting the arrival of spring so he can get back up into the air. Because Sky Ranch’s runways are grass, Handleman has to wait until mud season is over before taking one of his two planes up for a spin, something he strives to do at least a few times each week.

Each bright-yellow plane is housed in a hangar so pristine that the floors shine. One is a sleek, tandem-seat Cub Crafters Sport Cub the Handlemans have owned for about 10 years. Gorgeous as this one is, the other craft gets the most attention — a 1943 Boeing B75N1 Stearman biplane trainer in impressively immaculate condition.

The U.S. Navy used 10,000 such planes during World War II, primarily for training purposes, Handleman said. (In a nod to current technology, the plane has a sophisticated GPS system as well as two parachutes that, happily, have never been needed.)

Handleman loves welcoming military veterans who flew that exact model — and possibly even that exact plane — during wartime. One elderly vet was too fragile to fly but was able to reach up and touch the craft’s original wooden control stick. “His eyes welled up with tears,” Handleman said, his own voice breaking at the memory.

“We feel we are keeping a little bit of aviation history alive,” he added. “We don’t own it — we are borrowing it from those who made it famous. And the day will come when we will pass the torch.”

Among those who have inspired Handleman is his frequent co-author, Walter J. Boyne, a retired Air Force officer, former director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and a former chair of the National Aeronautic Association. “He has written over 70 books and I am trying to catch up with him,” Handleman said.

The admiration goes both ways.

World War II antique biplane and cockpit.
World War II antique biplane and cockpit.
Photo by Brett Mountain

“After having worked with Philip Handleman for more than 20 years, it is an absolute fact that he continues to amaze me on a daily basis,” Boyne told the JN via email. “His knowledge of aviation is widespread, and he has a tremendous capacity for reducing complex subjects to easily understandable elements.

“He is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful authors on aviation subjects and will continue to be so. His ability to grasp not only the scientific and engineering aspects of a new development is enhanced by his inevitably correct analysis of the development’s effect on the future. There are many who are, in truth, great commentators on aviation, but Philip leads the list for his articulate, thoughtful and persuasive analysis of ongoing events.”

Philanthropic by nature, Handleman has sat on the boards of more than two dozen civic and charitable organizations over the years, including a stint heading the Friends of the Detroit Public Library. (In addition to their aviation collection, the Handlemans own some 7,000 volumes of history, biography and literature.) He has received the Lifetime Distinguished Achievement Award from the National Historical Museum of the Tuskegee Airmen, the Harriet Quimby Award for contributions to aviation art and literature from the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame, and the Combs Gates Award for contributions to the preservation and/or promotion of America’s air and space heritage from the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

Standing by Israel

Doing good works is paramount to Handleman, who said he’s “not religious in the classic sense,” but that Judaism is “very important in our lives, but in a way that doesn’t necessarily involve daily ritual.”

Part of Handleman’s aviation library
Part of Handleman’s aviation library
Photo by Brett Mountain

In October 1993, he traveled to Israel to volunteer in the Yom Kippur War. He was hoping to see action but instead “was given a very menial job, taking the place of a reservist who was called to the front. I gritted my teeth and did what I had to do.”

Loss of Israeli Air Force aircraft to Soviet surface-to-air-missiles spurred the development of stealth technology, to which Handleman devotes a chapter in his latest book.

“Israel was on the brink, and I doubt Israel would have survived if not for the U.S. resupply operation called Nickle Glass,” he said. “As a Jewish American, it was important not to allow another Holocaust. This was just 30 years after the last one, so I got a real sense of purpose in being there.”

Renaissance Man

Handleman’s myriad achievements soar far beyond the field of aviation. As a producer and director, his company, Handleman Filmworks, made several television documentaries. “Our Missing in Action” is about Vietnam-era soldiers and their families. “Remembering the Holocaust,” which includes interviews with survivors, won a Best Documentary Emmy from the Michigan Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

“I made it to address the disturbing claims by those who suggest the Holocaust never happened or wasn’t as bad as they say,” Handleman said.

Handleman’s photography has graced two U.S. commemorative stamps.
Handleman’s photography has graced two U.S. commemorative stamps.
Photos by Brett Mountain

An accomplished photographer, two of his images grace U.S. commemorative postage stamps. One celebrates the U.S. Air Force’s 50-year anniversary in 1997 and features a shot of four Thunderbirds speeding across a crisp blue sky above the old Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscada. The second, issued in 2004, is a painterly photo of the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Cadet Chapel in Colorado. That site, Handleman said, illustrates the best of America because of the way it welcomes and accommodates all faiths.

“For me, this image makes a statement about who we are and what differentiates us from the enemy, who is fixated on an ideology that is very intolerant,” he said. “The chapel symbolizes universal values that we as Americans hold dear.”

Growing up in Bloomfield Village, Handleman remembers events his parents, Paul and Sonia, held for the annual kickoff of the Allied Jewish Campaign in the 1960s and early ’70s. Paul, who also headed Temple Beth El’s building campaign, served in the Air Corps in World War II.

“He was not a pilot or hero in the classic sense, but to me, as a son, he was very much a hero,” Handleman said.

His love of aviation was greatly influenced by Sonia, who grew up on the periphery of the groundbreaking Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. She loved watching the air races and eventually went to work at the airport.

“She would impart to me these marvelous stories about working for the airlines in the early days,” Handleman said. “The U.S. manned space program also influenced me. All of us kids on my street wanted to grow up to be astronauts.”

While he hasn’t gotten to launch into space, Handleman did have the honor of introducing legendary astronaut John Glenn at an aviation event.

“We were backstage, just the two of us talking,” he recounted in wonder. “I’m still not over it!”

  • No comments