By Walt Ellis, March 2008
Frank Mills had already been operating the Philadelphia Seaplane base for 5 years when, in 1920, his second son Bobby, was born. If anyone ever grew up in aviation it was Bob Mills. In his early years Bob lived right up the street from the Seaplane base where his father worked. Bob and his two brothers all worked for their father at the base while they were growing up. All of the brothers eventually earned both pilots and mechanics licenses.
Bob tells the story of his first introduction to the Aero Club of Pennsylvania. His father, who was a director and long time member, took Bob to the “Wright Brothers Dinner” in about 1932. Bob remembers the speaker, Dr. Hugo Eckener, the commander of the Graf Zeppelin. Bob later joined the Aero Club himself and is still a member today.
In 1939, Bob went to Miami to work for Pan American Airlines as a mechanics helper on the Sikorsky S-40 and S-42 four engine flying boats that Pan Am was flying to South America. Bob was primarily assigned to work on the S-42 that flew from Miami to Rio de Janerio. The round trip took 10 days and put 100 hours on the airplane. During his time at Pan Am, Bob had an opportunity to work on a Boeing 314 flying boat that was unable to get into New York for service and had come to Miami. He remembers that he was able to stand up inside the center section of the wing and walk through the wing between #2 and #3 engines. Pan American also had a Boeing 307, which they used to fly from Miami to Mexico City. It was the first pressurized airliner. Bob remembers working on it and installing larger oil coolers to help with oil temperature problems when flying over the mountains.
Bob remembers getting his recommendation ride for his commercial license from Ernie Buehl, who Bob had watched solo one of his father’s airplanes many years before.
In 1940, Bob’s father got sick and Bob returned home to help at the Seaplane base. After his father’s death, Bob operated the base until December 8, 1941 when all civilian flying within 50 miles of the coast was curtailed. The propellers were removed from the airplanes and the hangers locked until further notice. Bob then went to work at the Naval Aircraft Factory at the Philadelphia Naval Base.
In June of 1942, Bob was sworn into the Navy as a Seaman 2nd Class in the Aviation Cadet program and went to Pensacola, Florida.
In July 1943, he graduated as an Ensign and Naval Aviator and received his “Wings”. He continued his training to be a Torpedo Bomber Pilot flying the Grumman TBF “Avenger” aircraft.1944 found Bob aboard the USS Santee in the Pacific as a torpedo bomber pilot. The Santee was an old tanker that was converted to an aircraft carrier. It is during this time that he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his part in the operation in Leyte Gulf. Bob returned to the United States and went to Night Fighter school in Daytona Beach flying Grumman F6F “Hellcats”.
After the war ended in 1945, Bob returned to Philadelphia. His older brother Frank already had the Seaplane base operating. Bob received his Flight Instructor Certificate in 1945. When his younger brother Bill was discharged from the Navy in 1946, all three brothers operated the Seaplane base together. They became dealers for Cessna and the Republic “Seabee” aircraft. They did pilot training, air taxi, and maintenance.
Later, brother Frank decided to pursue a career in corporate aviation and Bill decided to concentrate on the boating side of the business. Bob continued to devote his time to the flying part of the business.
During 1945, Bob joined the Naval Reserve and during his career flew Grumman FH-1 Phantoms, F9F6 Cougars and Lockheed TV-2 (T-33B) trainers. He ultimately became Commanding Officer of Jet Fighter Squadron 934 at Willow Grove Naval Air Station. In 1980, Bob retired from the Naval Reserve after 27 years of service with the rank of Commander.In 1954, Bob became a Designated Flight Examiner and started giving pilot flight tests.From 1972 to 1975 while still operating the Seaplane base, Bob also worked with Downtown Airlines as Chief Pilot. Downtown Airlines flew Piper Aztecs and Dehaviland Twin Otters on straight floats. They operated from the Delaware River at Penns Landing in downtown Philadelphia to the East River at the foot of Wall Street in downtown New York City. They flew five round trips a day. The trip took about 30 minutes which was much faster than even the Metroliner from downtown to downtown.
Over the years Bob continued to add more examiner authorizations and was able to give Private, Commercial and Instrument ratings in single engine land and sea airplanes. He was also authorized to give private and commercial multi-engine flight tests in Cessna 310 and 320 series, Beech A55 and 95 “Barons and Travel Airs”, Trecker “Gull” P-136-L1, DeHavalind DHC-6-300 “Twin Otters”, Piper PA-23 “Apache” and PA-30 “Twin Comanche” series, Aero Commander 560 series, Grumman G44 “Widgeons”, Douglas “Dolphin” model 9, and Commercial “Type Ratings” in the Grumman G-73 “Mallard”. The Douglas Dolphin is unusual as there is only one left flying and Bob was the only examiner authorized to give flight tests in that airplane.In 1998 at the age of 78, Bob earned a “Type Rating” in the Grumman G-64 “Albatross”, the largest of the Grumman amphibians.
In the almost sixty years that Bob operated the Philadelphia Seaplane Base he became very well known. Much of his business was giving seaplane ratings to airline pilots that came through PHL on layovers. They would find the seaplane base, come in look around decide to fly with Bob and then go back and tell all their buddies how much fun it was to get a seaplane rating in Philadelphia. This of course created a never-ending supply of customers for seaplane ratings.
Bob Mills passed away from congestive heart failure on March 29, 2008 at Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach, Florida. He was 87. Bob reviewed this article for accuracy a few weeks before he passed away. He will be sorely missed. His passing is truly the end of an era for the aviation community in Philadelphia. Seaplane operations at the Philadelphia Seaplane base continue under the direction of Bob’s successor and good friend Hank Grenfell. Bob’s memory will live on with every seaplane landing on the Delaware River.