Surgeon from Boonville finds thrill, balance in the cockpit

Friday, May 9, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:00 p.m. CDT, Friday, May 9, 2014
Bill Kinney of Boonville, a surgeon and president of the Daniel Boone Flying Club, pulls out one of the club's planes on Thursday. The flying club has about 14 members and is based at the Jesse P. Viertel Memorial Airport.

COLUMBIA — As Bill Kinney neared the landing strip, he realized that his approach was too high — the plane wouldn't be able to make the runway.

He would have to either circle back around or find an alternative.


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"You know what?" he said, pointing into the distance. "Let's see if we can land on that highway."

Kinney gingerly turned the steering wheel, making sure the plane's wings didn't clip the streetlights dotting the roadside. 

It was too windy for the real deal that day, so Kinney opted to use the airport's flight simulator instead.

As he touched down and pulled the plane to a stop, simulated highway traffic passed through the airplane, the virtual cars unimpeded by the aircraft.

"My real landings are better than that," he said, leaning back from the row of screens mimicking a cockpit.

Risk factors

Kinney, an ear, nose and throat surgeon, spends many of his off hours with the Daniel Boone Flying Club at the Jesse P. Viertel Memorial Airport near Boonville. For Kinney, flights in the club's two aircraft are an extension of what he feels in surgery — he calls it "controlled adrenaline."

Some similarities between surgeons and pilots are readily apparent: Both the cockpit and the operating room demand technical expertise and the ability to work under pressure.

A study by medical researcher and flying enthusiast Kai-Jörg Sommer published in March in the Arab Journal of Urology, concluded that "surgeons and pilots have much in common, i.e. both work in a ‘real-time’ three-dimensional environment under high physiological and psychological stress, operating expensive equipment, and the ultimate cost for error is measured in human lives."

Kinney talks about adrenaline, but his calm demeanor doesn't seem to fit the profile of a thrill-seeker. Yet he said he has always had a passion for aviation.

For years, flying came in second, behind the time and monetary demands of medical school at Case Western Reserve University and a residency at the Cleveland Clinic.

He spent 10 years with MU's ear, nose, and throat department. When he left for private practice in Columbia six years ago, he finally found the time to revive his love of flying.

Kinney, who lives in Boonville, is president of the Daniel Boone Flying Club, whose 14 members range from novices-in-training to veterans. It was organized to bring a cheaper alternative to an expensive pastime for aviation enthusiasts in mid-Missouri.

Most of the club's members live around Columbia, the rest in the central Missouri region.

"I am president of the club, which means I didn't object when they were electing someone," Kinney said, laughing.

Cautious approach

Although he sees parallels between pilots and doctors, he said the transition isn't always perfect, and he expressed caution about taking to the skies.

"Doctors are supposedly bad pilots because they don't trust their instruments," he said.  "You have to trust what that instrument is telling you. If your ego tells you that's not right, you're going to crash."

Kinney said he follows this golden rule in both the cockpit and the operating room: Stay calm and trust your instruments.

"I'm more of a laid-back surgeon," he said. "I don't throw instruments. I don't get upset. I would definitely not want to fly with a doctor who throws his instruments."

His wife, Bridgid, said the level of pressure in the operating room seems to steer some doctors into aviation.

"You can't think of anything else when you're flying a plane," she said. "Part of the thrill is to be totally taken in by something for several hours."

David Lancaster, a fellow physician and one of several Columbia members of the Daniel Boone Flying Club, agreed.

"What I like about it, whatever is going on in my life, when you're flying, you have to focus 100 percent on what you're doing," Lancaster said.

"It's almost like meditating."

Love of planes

Kinney's love for aviation dates back to his youth, going on flights in his uncle's plane. Kinney said he was fascinated with the expansive views from the cockpit and the gauges on the dashboard. 

When he worked on his uncle's farm in the summer, he also used his uncle's motorcycle to get to and from home. The trips gave him a taste for speed on the ground as well, and he eventually bought the motorcycle from his uncle.

Kinney no longer has the motorcycle his uncle sold him decades ago, but he does have vehicles that satisfy his penchant for speed — a new motorcycle and a handful of sports cars.

His most prized car, a collector's BMW, sat in the airport's small parking lot as he inspected the club's Cessna 182RG Skylane.

His wife said she appreciates her husband's hobby but doesn't share it.

"One time he let me handle the plane, and it's not for me," she said with a laugh. "I don't have that need for an adrenaline rush; I can get it just from working or taking care of the kids."

While riding in the plane's passenger seat is enough excitement for her, Bridgid Kinney said she's glad she has developed a familiarity with flying.

"When I flew commercially, whenever there was turbulence, I'd get nervous," she said. "Now it doesn't worry me a bit."

Even though he flirts with speed, he draws a line at some risky pursuits.

"I think it's funny that I fly planes, have a motorcycle, have a fast car ... but I will not jump out of an airplane," he said. "That's dumb."

But, when asked about his plans for the flying club, Kinney did not hesitate to mention what he wants most:

"A faster plane." 


Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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