It was a devastating diagnosis. Thomas William “Bill” Tinkler thought that it was the end of his flying career and that it would, eventually, anyway, be the end of his life.
You might never have heard of him, but Bill Tinkler was one incredible pilot. Growing up in St. Francisville, Louisiana, he was passionate about flying from a young age. As a child, he enjoyed reading aviation magazines, building models and listening to aviation radio shows. In high school, he prioritized flying lessons, and he worked two jobs to earn the money for them. At the age of 17, Tinkler soloed under the watchful eye of his instructor, former WASP Yvonne Stafford.
He continued to tack on ratings and was hired by United Airlines in 1955. Interestingly, he received the job offer before he even earned his instrument rating. His logbooks show a tremendous jump from earning his instrument rating in a Cessna 140 to the very next entry being a United Airlines Convair 340 co-pilot.
During his time at United, Tinkler gained his DC-6, DC-7, 737 and 727 type ratings. But in 1979, his flying career came to a screeching halt. He first began noticing numbness in his toes. Eventually, Tinkler went to United Airlines’ Dr. Gary Cohen. It was there he received a heartbreaking diagnosis. Tinkler had multiple sclerosis.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) affects the brain’s ability to communicate with the rest of the body. In Tinkler’s case, he had very little command over his left side. But he loved flying, and he wanted any chance to get back in the air. He was referred to Dr. Roy Swank, who had done research on MS and believed he could keep Tinkler’s MS from progressing. Dr. Swank put Tinkler on the Swank MS diet, which meant a drastic change. In addition to many other stipulations, he would no longer be able to eat his beloved steaks and ice cream. Yet Tinkler “would rather fly than eat, so the choice was a no-brainer,” his wife, Sharon, remembers.
While Swank’s diet and its effectiveness are controversial, it seemed to work in Tinkler’s case, and the progression of his MS slowed. He was eager to get back in the air, and United was eager to help. Tinkler spent a month training in Denver, Colorado, and was able to retake his type rating ride for a Statement of Demonstrated Ability (SODA) waiver.
Tinkler flew for another 14 months at United. Both United and the FAA kept a watchful eye, and he had a check airman in the jumpseat almost every other week. But the average passenger wouldn’t have known anything was amiss, and Tinkler even rigged up a cleverly concealed strap to help him carry his flight bags with his left hand. Each trip took its physical toll, though, and one day Tinkler slipped on the back stairs of the 727. His United days were over, but Tinkler had put in his 26 years and retired with full benefits.
Tinkler’s airline days may have been done, but his zest for aviation wasn’t. He volunteered for the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum as a docent and continued to fly on the side. Tinkler’s son Walter notes, “It didn’t matter if the conversation started out talking about cutting the grass; with Bill, it would always return to airplanes.” His work with the Smithsonian rekindled an interest he’d had from a young age: the Airmail routes. Tinkler decided to fly the original air route from Newark, New Jersey, to San Francisco, California. After two years of preparation, he completed the route under the callsign “Air Mail 60” with his first wife, Christine, by his side.
Tinkler passed away in 2012, at the age of 84. As his wife, Sharon, remembers, “He was given 10 years to live after his diagnosis. He lived another 32 years. He was certainly a non-compliant patient.” Despite the odds being stacked heavily against him, Tinkler proved that even if the body is limited, the spirit certainly isn’t. He continued to fly for the remainder of his life.