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American Airlines pilot Jim Tilmon, who learned to fly at the side of his pilot father, dead at 60

His father, longtime Chicago newscaster and fellow pilot Jim Tilmon, said his son’s expertise and focus on safety made him the best pilot he’d ever seen.

American Airlines pilot Jim Tilmon.
American Airlines pilot Jim Tilmon.
Provided

Jim Tilmon was a kid who wanted to fly.

He grew up, earned his flying license and became an airline pilot, rising to the rank of captain at American Airlines during a 34-year aviation career.

Mr. Tilmon, 60, of Rockford, died Sunday of complications from kidney cancer, according to his father, retired Chicago weather forecaster and news anchor Jim Tilmon.

Mr. Tilmon learned to fly by sitting in the jump seat next to his father, a fellow pilot whose aviation knowledge was often tapped during WMAQ and WBBM broadcasts for insight on different types of airplanes and analyses of plane crashes and near-misses.

The former forecaster said his son’s expertise and focus on safety made him the best pilot he ever saw and that, whenever he was about to travel a new route, he would dive into aviation homework.

“He would start a week ahead, studying the route, studying the charts, all the frequencies and all the radios, all the idiosyncrasies about the airport and the aircraft, right down to the last rivet,” the elder Tilmon said. “He literally would fly it ‘on the ground.’ The day he was ready to fly, it was automatic. I didn’t know anyone else who ever did that.”

“He made young pilots be better pilots,” his father said. “He wanted to pass on the tricks, the knowledge you don’t get from books.”

His widow Laurie Tilmon, a flight attendant, agreed.

“The night before a route, he would be looking at the route and the weather,” she said. “Things that pilots normally do on the plane, he would do the night before. I’ve never in my life met anybody so passionate as he was about flying. A plane would fly over that I could hardly see, and he’d recognize it. Or he’d hear an engine starting up somewhere, and he would know what it was.

“He was an old-school pilot, the kind who stands at the door to greet the passengers,” she said. “When they leave, he stood at the door, and he would say goodbye to every passenger.”

Mr. Tilmon was an attentive husband, father and stepfather who always was available to his family, his wife said: “I never had anybody take care of me like that in my life. I don’t think I’ve ever had to put gas in my car since I met him.”

He did much of the family paperwork, and he left instructions about taking care of the family’s accounts after he was gone.

“He did the bills on August 18, and he died on August 23,” she said.

Mr. Tilmon also looked out for his flight crews, making sure they had food, helping them make connections, even tracking down items they left behind on planes.

Young Jim had his first flying lessons at what was then called Palwaukee Airport. He went to Highland Park High School and Elgin Academy before attending DePaul University.

Before American, he worked for other airlines, including Piedmont, USAir and US Airways.

In addition to flying, his other passion was soccer. His favorite team was FC Barcelona.

Despite his cancer diagnosis and having to undergo chemotherapy, until a year ago he was still playing soccer twice a week.

“He played with a bunch of Polish guys on Fridays,” his wife said.

He had a gift for picking up languages, she said: “He could converse with a lot of people.”

If he got into a cab and the driver was from another country, by ride’s end he’d have learned how to say hello, goodbye and thank you in their language, she said.

In addition to his wife and father, Mr. Tilmon is survived by his sons Marcus and Conner, stepsons Ryan and Wynn Schoeneck, his mother Louise, sister Thera and brother John, his father’s wife Joan and four grandchildren.

Because of the pandemic, his father, now 86, wasn’t able to travel from his home in Scottsdale, Arizona, to see him.

“We felt it just wasn’t safe to fly,” he said. “We were able to have a nice Zoom conversation with each other.”

After Mr. Tilmon returned home from a flight, without fail, he’d organize his uniform and wings for his next trip. Because of his illness and treatments, the last time he went through that routine was in October 2018.

His wife said his uniform has “been sitting in the closet all ready to go for his next trip. I took the whole thing to the funeral home, and that’s how they’ll cremate him. This will be his last flight.”