Sun Lakes Resident Trades Airplanes for Railroading

Gary Vacin

For years, he flew huge jet aircraft carrying hundreds of passengers or thousands of pounds of cargo to airports around the world with the largest load of 825,000 pounds. Today, he drives 1/8 scale locomotives carrying up to 30 passengers around a two-mile course at the Maricopa Live Steamers Railroad Club in Deer Valley.

Sun Lakes resident Jim Theobald misses his days in the air, but he’s more than content spending hours at the controls of his locomotive. He especially enjoys the club’s Christmas Lights Run, featuring more than one million lights on Fridays and Saturdays between Thanksgiving and Dec. 30.

Theobald logged more than 30,000 hours flying for Flying Tigers Airlines and Federal Express. The longest tenured member of the Sun Lakes Aero Club (SLAC), he has owned several smaller aircraft. But a medical condition ended his flying career in 2014.

“I fought with the FAA for several years trying to get my medical back, but finally gave up,” he said. Today, he commutes via motorcycle to the Steamers railroad in Deer Valley every Sunday to enjoy his railroad hobby.

Fifty years of accident-free flying earned him an FAA Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, presented at an SLAC gathering in 2014.

Theobald started flying during his junior year in high school in Chicago. His soloed in a J-3 Cub. He obtained his licenses in proper sequence, then taught aviation and ground school for eight years before a two-year stint in the Navy as a navigator on the aircraft carrier USS Midway.

His commercial experience started with the Flying Tigers, and about 20 years later, Federal Express merged with the Tigers, giving him 34 years of commercial flying. His favorite aircraft is the Boeing 747, flying captain for 18 years across both the Pacific and Atlantic.

Theobald says his closest calls were: (1) making a zero-zero weather landing in London. “We couldn’t see anything until the 747 came to a stop on the runway,” he says; and (2) landing an airliner in the eye of a hurricane in Guam. “It was a six-hour flight from Sydney, Australia. A hurricane had hit the area, but there was a big, round hole in the weather right over the airport. The hurricane hit five minutes after we landed. That’s an experience I’ll never forget,” he says.

He retired from Federal Express in 1998 as captain on a DC-10, then moved to Sun Lakes. With his thousands of hours in jetliners behind him, he turned to general aviation, joining the Sun Lakes Aero Club in 2000. He owned several airplanes, including a Cessna 414, Cessna 210, two Piper Cherokees, a Piper Arrow, and a Piper Comanche, which he flew to several Aero Club fly-ins to various spots around the Southwest.

But he says the Boeing 747 was the most fun to fly.