Jim Tilmon, Chicago TV newsman, meteorologist, pilot, dead at 86 in Arizona

Beside being an Emmy-winning broadcaster who worked for WMAQ-TV and WTTW-TV, he was one of the nation’s first Black commercial airline pilots, flying for American Airlines.

SHARE Jim Tilmon, Chicago TV newsman, meteorologist, pilot, dead at 86 in Arizona
Jim Tilmon during his time at WMAQ-TV.

Jim Tilmon during his time at WMAQ-TV.


Jim Tilmon, a trusted Chicago TV newsman, meteorologist and pioneering aviator, has died at 86 in Arizona, where he’d retired.

Mr. Tilmon died Saturday afternoon, according to Frank Whittaker, station manager of WMAQ-TV, where Mr. Tilmon worked for more than 22 years. The Emmy Award-winning broadcaster worked four more years at WTTW-TV.

Mr. Tilmon also was one of the nation’s first Black commercial airline pilots and the third African American pilot hired by American Airlines, for which he flew for 29 years.

He did this in an era when some white passengers mistook his uniform for that of a skycap and tried to tip him to carry their luggage.

On TV, his authoritative voice and aviation expertise made for a reassuring on-air presence, especially when there were near-misses or plane crashes. Mr. Tilmon would use model airplanes to demonstrate to the viewing audience what had gone wrong.

Mr. Tilmon died about five months after the passing of his son, also named Jim Tilmon. The younger Mr. Tilmon also was a pilot and flew for American Airlines until his death at 60 from complications of kidney cancer.

“He learned to fly by sitting in the jump seat in airplanes, flying with me,” Mr. Tilmon said after his son’s death.

Though he retired from TV around 2005, Mr. Tilmon remained a popular figure in Chicago. When he’d come back for visits and walk down Michigan Avenue, he was stopped constantly by people who said they’d watched him for years and trusted his reporting.

Jim Tilmon.

Jim Tilmon.

Sun-Times file

Mr. Tilmon started his broadcasting career by hosting WTTW’s “Our People,’’ a program about Black people and issues that ran from 1968 to 1972.

“It gave visibility and voice to a people who had none,” he once said.

“It was originally intended to be a lighthearted entertainment show,” Mr. Tilmon said in a Channel 11 post. “But it premiered a week after Dr. King was assassinated, and immediately, it turned into something much more serious. We were giving voice to people who felt at that time that they were voiceless. We wanted to fill a void... do a service.”

The show’s guests included Muhammad Ali, James Baldwin, Oscar Brown Jr., Sammy Davis Jr., Ossie Davis and future Chicago Mayor Harold Washington.

WTTW called the program “the first televised weekly forum focusing on African American issues.” In a statement issued after Mr. Tilmon’s death, the station said “Jim’s contributions as a meteorologist, author, pilot, and newsmaker will not be forgotten.”

After “Our People,” he moved to WMAQ.

Mr. Tilmon was born in Guthrie, Oklahoma, to parents who were educators, according to his official biography.

The first time he saw a plane he was 5, in the sky near his home. He wrote in a blog post that he “decided that day to become a commercial airline pilot, a nearly impossible dream for a Black kid in 1939.”

“I asked Daddy, ‘Can I be a pilot?’ ” Mr. Tilmon recalled in a WTTW “Chicago Tonight” interview.

His father responded by asking, “Are you willing to pay the price?”

He was. “I still, to this day, carry that kind of thinking,” Mr. Tilmon said.

He blogged that his success grew of “a strong belief that he would reach his goal regardless of what others thought or what opposition he might face along the way.”

He majored in music at Lincoln University in Missouri, where he pursued his dream of being an aviator in college ROTC programs, though he said one flight instructor told him, “You lack the intelligence and the aptitude... to be a modern jet pilot.”

After college, he entered the military, serving in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and flying helicopters and planes.

After he was hired by American Airlines, he recalled the shock and confusion of some passengers at seeing a Black pilot, he told WTTW: “From time to time, I would get to the gate, and everybody’s kind of lined up and ready to go through, and a little lady would say, ‘Pardon me, are you going to get on this airplane?. . . .Would you carry my bag, please?’ And I’d always say yes.”

Once on board, “The lady would say, ‘Thank you very much for taking care of my bag’ and offer me money,” he said.

When he told her he wasn’t a skycap, he said in the WTTW interview, she asked what his job was.

“Ma’am, I’m the pilot,” he told her. “And it was always a look of: ‘Oh, my God.’ ’

“America,” he said, “had to grow up a little.”

Another time, an almost “terror-stricken” passenger asked if he was the pilot. Looking past him to the cockpit, she asked whether the white man at the controls was a pilot, too. When Mr. Tilmon told her the other man was his copilot, she seemed almost relieved, he said.

“The remarkable thing about that, she was black,” he told WTTW. “A lot of the things that were inflicted on black people turned around, and we began to inflict it on ourselves.”

Later in his career, he contributed aviation analysis for TV stations including Fox affiliates in Chicago and Phoenix and WBBM-TV.

He appeared in a 1994 episode of the TV show “ER” and had a cameo in the 2012 Bob Zemeckis movie “Flight,” starring Denzel Washington.

His former WMAQ broadcasting colleagues praised Mr. Tilmon on social media, with Art Norman calling him “a giant” and Carol Marin saying he was “a total gentleman and great colleague.”

Mr. Tilmon never lost his love for music, playing clarinet with the Lake Forest Symphony, according to his biography.

He and Joan Cuyjet Tilmon were married in 1988.

In an opinion piece he wrote for the Chicago Tribune in 1969, Mr. Tilmon said the athletes who raised their fists in the Black power symbol at the 1968 Olympics “were acknowledging the fact that in America we do have problems. Who can deny it? The most beautiful thing this country could have accomplished would have been to show the world that in America we can even do this. These athletes are Americans. They ran under our flag and they won that way. Can any other country allow, under close scrutiny, this dimension of freedom? But the way it turned out, even the United States of America couldn’t make the statement that it sanctioned that silent, yet powerful, demonstration. And the fact that we didn’t made their protest more viable.”

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