As fascinated as Star Wars fans are with Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon—that’s how obsessed Harrison Ford has been with aviation.
The 72-year-old actor, who survived a plane crash Thursday afternoon with only moderate injuries, never got worked up about the mythology of his own movies, but he has always been a total fanboy for airplanes, helicopters, and life in the cockpit.
When Ford turned up in London last year to begin shooting Star Wars: The Force Awakens, his presence was tipped off despite the secrecy around the casting when he was photographed in Grosvenor Square, talking with pilots and admiring the helicopters flown by London’s air ambulance.
According to a 2010 article by Aviation Magazine, Ford’s love of the skies began in the 1960s when he took some flight training courses at Wild Rose Airport in Wisconsin. It cost $15 an hour to practice in a Piper PA-22 Tri-Pacer—which the young carpenter and aspiring actor couldn’t afford, the magazine reported.
It was in the mid-1990s that Ford bought a used Gulfstream II and decided he wanted to learn to fly. Since then, he has seldom been far from the pilot’s seat. “I have more airplanes than it’s fair for anybody to have,” Ford told the trade magazine Airport Journals in 2004. Among them: an Aviat Husky A-1B two-seat taildragger, a Beech Bonanza B36T3 and a Cessna Grand Caravan, the magazine reported.
His favorite ride? “I love the sound of a round engine,” Ford said. “My de Havilland Beaver has a Pratt & Whitney 985. It’s a beautiful sound.”
Ford became chairman of the Young Eagles program of the Experimental Aircraft Association in 2004—a position formerly held by one of the world’s most famous test pilots. “It was a daunting prospect taking over from Chuck Yeager, who was a wonderful representative for the program,” Ford told Airport Journals. “But for years I’ve been enthusiastic about the program, so I thought it would be a little payback to spend some time helping promote aviation.”
Ford held the title for five years, then handed it off in 2009, to Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles—who were credited with saving the lives of everyone aboard US Airways Flight 1549 when the plane struck a flock of geese and was forced to ditch into the Hudson River in January 2009. (Stunt pilot Sean D. Tucker now holds the chairman title.)
While shooting Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ford was keen to rent aircraft during his time in England and solicited a plane for use at the Denham Aerodrome near Pinewood Studios. But that meant joining the Shropshire Aero Club, according to the BBC. “I asked him, ‘Can we make you a temporary member of the aero club?’ and he said ‘I don’t want to be a temporary member, I want to be a lifetime member,’” said Bob Pooler, chief instructor with the group.
It hasn’t always been smooth landings for the actor, even before the golf course crash.
The actor was previously involved in a 1999 helicopter roll-over in Santa Clarita, Calif., just north of Los Angeles, when his Bell 206 JetRanger failed to recover power in time during a training flight, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Although the crash site was mostly soft sand, the helicopter’s left skid snagged a log and flipped the aircraft over. Ford and his instructor were not seriously injured, and the cause of the crash was ruled to be pilot error. Asked about the crash on Inside the Actor’s Studio, Ford replied: “I broke it.”
Other times, his aeronautic skills have been credited with saving the day.
Ford, who has a home in Jackson, Wyoming, was part of a squad of volunteers who flew over Yellowstone National Park in 2001 searching for a Boy Scout who went missing overnight. Ford was the one who located the boy while hovering over his part of the grid in the Wyoming wilderness, which made national headlines—although that part aggravated the actor.
“What annoyed me about it all was that I’d pick somebody up off the mountain one day, and two days later they’d be on Good Morning America,” Ford told USA Today in 2008. “I thought, ‘It doesn’t give credit to all the other people involved.’ Suddenly, I’m swanning around as some kind of f–king hero.”