Captain John Russell

Some of the fascinating aviation experiences of John H. Russell

This site provides a few highlights on the colorful background of Captain John Russell, Sr., deceased, as learned by his friend, Captain Rodney Stich.

  • Naval Aviator in 1937.

  • Pilot for the Dutch government, evading Japanese aircraft at the start of the Japanese attacks on U.S. targets, in 1941.

  • Pilot for TWA airlines during World War II.

  • On assignment from TWA to assist in establishing  Ethiopian Airlines after the end of World War II.

  • Remained in the Middle East and Africa, managing airlines, such as Air Djibouti in Eretria. His flying was throughout the Middle East and Africa.

  • Joined "Transocean Airlines in the early 1950s.

Russell's Aviation Background

John Russell entered the U.S. navy in 1936 as a aviation cadet, receiving pilot training at the Long Beach Naval Air Station. He was in a class of ten, and the training lasted until the pilots had soloed, not exceeding ten hours of flight time. Russell soloed in six hours. 

He then went to Pensacola for the remainder of his training, which lasted from September 1936 to October 1937. During this time, the aviation cadets were trained in every type of plane the navy flew. For Russell, this included training in the following aircraft:

He received his navy wings in September 1938. At that time, Navy pilots were simply called Aviation Cadets, not receiving any commission nor any enlisted rank. 

He then went to Pearl Harbor from December 1937 to September 1938, until he was ordered to San Diego for training in the navy's twin-engine seaplane, the PBY-4. He was one of the pilots in a flight of PBY aircraft that were being delivered to Cavite, Philippines, via Hawaii. An act of Congress in 1940 resulted in Russell receiving an Ensign commission.

In September 1940, Russell had completed the four years of mandatory service required of pilots, and received a release from the navy, which required that he be in the Navy reserve. Russell then went to work as a pilot for Pan American World Airways.

But that didn't last long. The war clouds were escalating, and a month later the Navy called Russell back to active duty. Pan America objected, without success, as they also had their pilot shortage problems. Russell was sent to Long Beach to act as a Navy pilot instructor.

But two months later, the commanding officer at the Naval Air Station in Long Beach received orders to discharge Russell from the navy, no explanation given. The commanding officer called Russell and asked him "What the hell is going on?" At that time, Russell didn't know. However, he would shortly find out when the Dutch counsel contacted Russell and told him that the Dutch needed him to train pilots in the Dutch Indies or the Netherlands at that time.

Russell had met Dutch personnel when he helped deliver the Navy PBY's to Cavite a couple of years earlier, and this meeting resulted in Russell being requested by the Dutch.

Russell then went to Soerabaja Java in the Dutch East Indies as a flight instruction from November 1940 to February 1942. War broke out during that time, and one evening the Dutch instructed him to immediately depart with a PBY. Russell departed around midnight, just eight hours before the Japanese arrived.

The Dutch has no more need for Russell's services, and he was free to seek other pilot position. He went to work for North American Aviation at Los Angeles, doing test pilot work on the P-51. As Russell explained it, there was the primary test pilots who flew the very first flights of the aircraft as it was being developed. Then there was the next group, which he was in, that did subsequent testing of the aircraft. Finally, there was another group of pilots who flew the first flight of the production aircraft.

In May  of 1943, Russell went to work for TWA in the Intercontinental Division, flying DC-4's over the North Atlantic. This work was for the military on a contract basis. That lasted until February of 1946, after which Russell became Supervisor of Flight Training for TWA at Reading, Pennsylvania, involving the newly acquired Lockheed Constellation aircraft, which at that time was the 049 Constellation. During this time he met a flight attendant at the Reading training center who he would eventually marry.

In September of 1946, TWA received a contract to start up and operate an airline for Ethiopia, which would be called Ethiopian Airlines. Russell agreed to go over to Addis Ababa as Director of Operations, During this time Russell was also the personal pilot for Emperor Haile Selassie. He stayed in this position until November 1947, when he left to start up two airlines with a friend,  Pierce. The two airlines would be Air Djibouti and Air Jordan, and operated in Africa and the Middle East, including Afghanistan.

The following are a sampling of pictures involving John Russell in the Middle East and Africa from 1947 to 1953:

John Russell (left)


Ethiopian Airlines

Air Djibouti

Eritrea festival

While in the Middle East, Russell's relationship with the TWA flight attendant, Nancy, resulted in she going to Asmara and getting married. Russell describes how a "witch doctor" in Ethiopia performed the wedding rites. Russell described how Nancy's mother wasn't too sure the witch doctor ceremony met the test for a legal marriage and told them to get a more "normal" marriage ceremony in the United States, which they did do.

Nancy Russell.

Nancy Russell.

Aden, Yemen 1952

Aden, Yemen

Aden, Yemen



Captain John Russell and Captain Rodney Stich, Muslims, Hajj, and Revolution

In 1953, John Russell had one aircraft and Rodney Stich had another, both of them flying Muslims from throughout the Middle East to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for the Hajj.

It  was during this Hajj that Stich was caught in an Iranian revolution and had to be rescued and taken to his aircraft by a machine gun escort. That was a CIA-carried out Operation to overthrow the democratically-elected Mossadegh. That operation was the start of the Middle East destabilization by U.S politicians and the CIA.

In the early 1950s, John Russell moved to California. His first employment as a pilot with Transocean Airlines. (  After that airlines filed for bankruptcy in 1960, John turned to real estate, focusing on the senior citizen project known as Rossmoor in Walnut Creek, California. ( Eventually he formed the real estate firm called Rossmoor Realty, focusing on Rossmoor resales. Eventually, John's son, took over the operation as John senior had to slow down due to age.

One of the humorous encounters that John described to Stich was the following:

The International Turkey Incident
"Subverting” the Relief Program for Afghanistan

Captain John Russell had just finished flying trips for the Hajj using C-46 aircraft. It was the summer of  1953, using C-46 aircraft of the airline that Russell and a friend, Pierce had started up. The afternoon before departing from Kabul, Afghanistan, their mechanic, first name Glenn, rushed to John and stated he had found a deal where they could make some money. The mechanic had met someone who had 100 turkeys that could be had for twenty-five cents each. 

Glenn told Russell and Pierce about what he thought would be a way to make some money flying back to Asmara, in Djibouti. Russell didn't care for the idea. One of the problems was that they didn't have any cages to put the turkeys in. Thinking that getting the turkeys on board could never be accomplished, Russell said that if they could get the turkeys loaded on the plane before they left in the morning, he would go ahead with the deal.

Russell arrived at the plane about 4 a.m., ready to depart. There in a circle were the 100 turkeys, sleeping, surrounded by about a dozen Afghanies, also sleeping. The plan was to put the turkeys into the lower cargo compartment, without cages. 

This had several problems which they hadn't thought of. Turkeys would defecate and defecate, and this would damage the aircraft structure, causing a smell that could never be eliminated, and start corrosion. Not thinking of this problem, they put the turkeys in the baggage compartments and closed the doors. At this early morning hour, the air was still relatively cool. Ventilation was very poor in the closed compartments. The aircraft took off and made a fuel stop at Bahrain, where the temperature was then over 100 degrees. 

Parked in front of the airport terminal during the refueling, Russell felt that the cargo door should be opened slightly to admit fresh fresh air for the turkeys. When the door was slightly opened, like a gunshot, the turkeys pushed their way out of the compartment and disbursed around the passenger terminal.

Terminal authorities shouted over the loudspeakers to get the turkeys back in the plane, warning that the Comet, the first jet aircraft, was due to arrive shortly and the turkeys could be sucked into the jet engines. Russell, his copilot, Pierce, and the mechanic, Glenn, ran after the turkeys and managed to get about 15 of them back into the cargo compartment and get the door shut. They then taxied out and took before the Comet arrived.

Upon arrival back at Asmara, Djibouti, as the plane was taxiing to the terminal, they noticed that the U.S. consulate's automobile with the consulate flags was waiting. As soon as the engines were shut down, the U.S. consul, a friend of Russell, stormed up to the flight station and demanded to know what Russell was up to. Russell had greeted him with the comment that he had brought a turkey back for him. That was the last thing Russell should have said.

It turned out that as part of the United States' foreign aid program, the United States had sent 100 turkeys to Afghanistan to start a breeding program, and that it took over four months to get the turkeys from the United States. Now the turkey breeding program was emasculated. 

In 1954, Russell started flying captain for Transocean Airlines, which included flying for Japan Airlines, as Transocean had the contract to start up Japan Airlines.

John and Nancy had colorful and rewarding lives, with some tragedies mixed in.

(John Russell, Sr., passed away on September 28, 2006. Nancy Russell passed away several years earlier.)

In the twilight of his life:

John and his two daughters, Nancy and Susan

John, Nancy, and Glenda Guilinger


John Russell and Rodney Stich at Concord Buchanan Airport, California

John and Nancy Russell at Transocean Airlines reunion, 2000.