Hawaiian Air Race Pilot has Mingled with Legends

Pinned by Lindbergh, Educated by Earhart

19 January 2001
The Flyer
by Meg Godlewski
The Flyer
(click for larger image)

The aviation world is full of famous people. For many, the first two pilots that come to mind are Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. Leo S. Nikora has met them both.

Nikora, an 85-year-old pilot who will be flying in next month’s Great Hawaiian Air Race, vividly remembers his encounters with Lindbergh and Earhart.

In 1927 a rubber-band-powered airplane enabled him to meet Lindbergh. Nikora, eight years old at the time, designed and built a twin-engine pusher airplane for a contest in West Allis, Wisconsin. Made of balsa, the plane had a three-foot wingspan. Nikora cannibalized his mother’s eggbeater and used a large piece of rubber for the powerplant. He wound the “motors” on the twin-engine toy so tight for the contest that it flew out of sight when it was released.

“It was in the air and kept going in big circles, going higher and higher and pretty soon it got so high we lost sight of it,” Nikora said. “I was about to cry, when some guy picked me up and threw me in the sidecar of his motorcycle. He was a motorcycle policeman. He said, ‘Don’t worry; we’ll find it.’”

Together they raced over the countryside, chasing the wayward plane. Finally, about an hour after launch, Nikora said, it came down in a farmer’s backyard. (The world’s record for rubber-band-powered airplanes, according to the International Aeromodeling Commission, is 1 hour 41 minutes and 32 seconds, in the Soviet Union in 1964.)

Although he had won the contest, Nikora didn’t get a trophy. Instead, he was instructed to come to Juneau Park on the shore of Lake Michigan for the grand opening of what is now known as General Billy Mitchell International Airport. The guest of honor was none other than Charles Lindbergh, who just four months earlier had made history when he flew the Atlantic.

“When they introduced him there was a big howl from the crowd,” Nikora said. “He was everybody’s hero, including mine. After he finished speaking about the airport, there were two or three fellows that shook hands with him, then they pushed me up and I got in front of Lindbergh. I don’t know what the heck happened. All I know is that he pinned a medal on me.”

His encounter with Amelia Earhart a few years later was less conspicuous. It was 1936 and Nikora was enrolled in an aeronautical engineering course at Purdue University in Indiana. Earhart was the teacher.

Nikora says many of the young men in the class were in awe of the aviatrix. “She was pretty famous and very beautiful and had a nice style about her.

She also knew a hell of a lot about airplanes. We were amazed to think a woman like that could know so much about airplanes.”

Nikora got his degree, but because the Depression was in full swing he had difficulty finding a job. He became part of a quiet arm of the Army that was helping American factories gear up for wartime production.

“At the time the focus was on staying out of the war, so everything had to be hush-hush,” he said.

Called to active duty after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Nikora was in ordnance in the Army until 1946. After the war he started a pump-making business in Torrington, Connecticut.

He traveled all over the country on commercial airliners, then one day in 1954 decided he’d rather do the flying himself. His first airplane was a single-engine Mooney, but he soon upgraded to a twin-engine job.

When business travel would take him overseas and outside the range of his private aircraft, he would arrange to rent an aircraft in the country he was visiting. He has flown all over the world, including Australia and Japan.

Nikora has been flying ever since, and he says he has no idea how many hours he has. “I have five log books, all full. One of them has about 5,000 hours in it, I think.”

Last year was the first time, however, that he ever entered an air race. Nikora was delighted when he was invited to fly as copilot on a DC-3. “Every pilot wants to fly a DC-3,” he gushed. “I got a big thrill.”

Nikora, a resident of Connecticut who spends his winters in Hawaii, is looking forward to this year’s race. Race officials plan to pair him up with another pilot for the Madame Pele Race.

“I don’t know what I’ll be flying this year,” Nikora said with a smile in his voice, “but I’m sure they’ll find me something.”