The history books will forever show that the first man to fly a plastic jetliner was a Baldwin City boy.
Mike Carriker — who grew up in Baldwin City and was a star student and high school athlete there in the early 1970s — was the chief pilot for the inaugural flight of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner on Tuesday.
Baldwin residents who know Carriker — now 53 and living in the Seattle area — said they weren’t the least bit surprised.
“He has more guts than a burglar,” said Merle Venable, a former Baldwin High football coach who coached Carriker. “I don’t know what he would be doing if he wasn’t doing this. That is all he has ever wanted to be.”
On Tuesday Carriker squarely was seated at the center of the aviation world. Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner project has been billed as a revolutionary new aircraft because it is the first commercial jetliner to be built primarily out of lightweight composite material, such as high-tech plastics and carbon fibers.
That fact was on Carriker’s mind prior to Tuesday’s take-off. The Seattle Times reported that Carriker and his co-pilot each wore two parachutes, and the plane was rigged with a pair of special switches. One was rigged to blow out eight windows to depressurize the airplane. The other switch would detonate a charge to blow off an exit door so the crew could jump.
“We have a plastic airplane. … It’s the first time anybody in the industry has taken a large composite wing with a composite spar and gone whipping it out,” Carriker told the Seattle Times in an interview. “Obviously, we think we’re OK. Otherwise we wouldn’t go fly.
“But the proof is still in the pudding.”
The pudding was just fine. The flight, although cut short by weather in the Seattle area, went well. For Boeing, the day was monumental because the 787 project had fallen two years behind schedule because of parts and labor problems. Boeing was determined the plane would fly before the end of the year to prove the program was back on track.
“It is just absolutely a dramatic thing that he did (Tuesday),” Venable said. “I had talked to him before, and he said they were having some trouble, but he has a lot of courage. He is more than just the boy next door.”
Growing up in Baldwin, Carriker was known as a good student and an excellent athlete who received a football scholarship at Wichita State University.
“He was a sweetheart,” said Ruth Ann Nutt, a Baldwin resident who was friends with Carriker’s parents — Elmer “Mike” and Janet Carriker, who are both deceased. “His dad loved flying and his dad also was a ham radio operator. I can still see them standing next to his ham radio pole out in the backyard.”
Carriker, who graduated from Baldwin High in 1973, went on to receive a degree in aeronautical engineering at Wichita State and then became a fighter pilot and a test pilot for the Navy.
He told The Times that in the years since, he’s done much in an airplane. That includes turning a fighter jet upside down and spinning it like a top as it descended. That was fun. Ditching an antique Boeing 307 Stratoliner into Elliot Bay near Seattle after it ran out of fuel, was not.
Baldwin friends say they’ve heard such stories before from Carriker, who always takes everything in stride.
“To him this is just the love of his life, so to him I don’t think it is really a risk,” said Rick Webb, who is a friend and former classmate of Carriker at Baldwin High. “Plus, he’s just so knowledgeable about it all that it reduces the risk.”
Carriker’s former track coach and math teacher at Baldwin High, said Carriker always has been well-served by a good combination of self-confidence and humility.
“Everybody knew he was talented,” said C.R. Herpich. “He wasn’t afraid to try anything. There is no question that he believed in himself. And if he thought he could do it, he probably was going to do it.”
But, maybe, there also was something in the area’s water that helped land Carriker in the 787’s prime seat. The new aircraft has an amazingly strong Douglas County connection. In addition to Carriker, former Lawrence High and Kansas University graduate Alan Mulally largely is considered to be one of the driving forces that launched the creation of the plane. As president of Boeing’s Commercial Airplanes division in 2003, Mulally presented the project to Boeing’s board. Mulally now is the president and CEO of Ford Motor Company.
Webb said Carriker has told him that he thinks his small-town upbringing has helped him handle the rigors of a big-time project.
“He told me once that you can take the boy out of the small town, but you can’t take the small town out of the boy,” Webb said. “He still very much considers Baldwin to be his hometown.”