Two years ago, I had the tremendous pleasure of interviewing Mr. Elliot Billings, a pioneer in Marine Corps Aviation flying early biplane dive bombers. I just learned yesterday he recently passed away, a painful reminder that with the passing of each veteran we lose rich memories and invaluable experience. I have included Mr. Billings’s obituary to illustrate the full, wonderful life he lived (emphasis my own):
OBITUARY FOR ELLIOT ALLEN BILLINGS
November 22, 1912 – November 7, 1911
Falmouth resident Elliot A. Billings died at Falmouth Hospital on Monday, November 7, two weeks shy of his 99th birthday.
Elliot was born November 22, 1912 in Portland, ME, the eldest of four sons of Frank S. and Marion A. (nee Harrington) Billings. He attended public schools in Portland and summered with his family on Cape Elizabeth/South Portland near Willard Beach. There he had a formative experience (ca. 1922) when he was given a brief ride in an amphibious airplane in exchange for bailing out water that had seeped into the hull of said seaplane. A few years later, after attending a slide lecture by Admiral Robert E. Peary, he built a kayak from scratch. These two adventures planted the seeds for what became a life-long affection for boating, sailing, and aviation.
Billings was graduated from Deering High School in Portland, Norwich University, Northfield, VT, and the U.S. Naval Flight School at the Naval Air Station, Pensacola, FL. His education at Norwich included training as a member of the U.S. Army Horse Cavalry, in which he was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant upon his graduation in 1934. He resigned this commission when he enlisted in Officer Flight Training in the U.S. Marine Corps. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve until his release in 1954 with the rank of Captain.
While stationed in Quantico, VA, he was introduced to Priscilla Robb of Washington, D.C. and Falmouth, MA. They married in 1937 after Elliot had begun his career (1936-1972) in commercial aviation for PAN AM. Considered a “pioneer pilot,” he opened various routes, flying to the Caribbean and Latin America out of Dinner Key/Miami, FL, across the Pacific Ocean out of Oakland, CA, and to Africa & Europe from Long Island, NY. He returned to Miami in 1941, and during the Second World War, flew with the Air Transport Command out of Miami across the Atlantic as far as Karachi. He wrote that “Since PAN AM was the only American outfit flying overseas prior to WWII, those who were on the Atlantic were taken over by the Air Force/ATC, and those on the Pacific were taken over by the USN/ATC.”
Elliot’s log books record some 30,000 hours of flight, 12 lengthy trips hopping across the Pacific, 668 flights across the North and South Atlantic (initially in huge seaplanes—the Sikorsky S-40, Martin M130, Boeing 314 “Clippers,” then B-24s, DC-4s, and jets–DC-8s and B-707s and finally the Boeing 747). On one flight from San Juan, PR to New York, Captain Billings even had to deliver a baby.
The parents of six children, Elliot and Priscilla divided each year between Coral Gables, FL and Cape Cod until they settled year-round in Falmouth in 1960. Upon his mandated retirement at 60, Elliot on a trip to Japan acquired the first of a succession of motorcycles, which he rode around Falmouth and beyond, even after he was “pinched” in his eighties for speeding on the mid-Cape highway. He also had great fondness for dogs, horses, bicycles, kayaks, sailing craft, and power boats, and he was a champion marksman. Many testify to his special love of children and his delight in storytelling, joking, and various antics; others relate instances of quiet, generous, and practical support in response to personal need or grief.
Billings served as a founding vestry member of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Coral Gables and was formerly a Trustee of Norwich University. In Florida he was an active, racing member of the Coconut Grove Sailing Club and the Biscayne Bay Yacht Club and a founding/charter member of the Coral Reef Yacht Club. In Falmouth he was an active member of the Quissett Yacht Club, where he served as Commodore from 1973 to 1975, and the Falmouth Waterways Committee. For years he chaired the Annual Round-the-Bay Race committee.
He is survived by his beloved wife of 74 years, Priscilla, sons Charles (Sharon), Stephen (Barbara), George, John (Bridget), daughter Cynthia Atwood (Wallace), daughter-in-law Ruth, 10 grandchildren, and 21 great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his son Roger and his granddaughter Laura.
In lieu of flowers memorial contributions may be made to Quissett Harbor House Land Trust, P.O. Box 197, Falmouth, MA 02541, The PANAM Pilots’ Retirement Foundation, Inc., 13615 South Dixie Hwy, Suite 114 – #518, Miami, FL 33176-7252, or Norwich University/Memorial Gifts, 158 Harmon Drive, Northfield, VT 05663.
A Memorial Service of Thanksgiving for the life of Elliot A. Billings is being planned for next summer.
An online guest book is available at the Nickerson-Bourne Funeral Home website.