High, A. J. (1923–2013)

By: Cynthia Marshall Devlin

Type: Biography

Published: March 16, 2022

Updated: March 16, 2022

A. J. High, pioneer aviator, U. S. Air Force veteran, vice president at Texas International Airlines (formerly Trans-Texas Airways, see TEXAS AIR), and aviation historian, was born on April 8,1923, in Cleburne, Texas, to parents Hawley Allord High and Eva (Harper) High. His birth certificate indicated his name was A. J., the initials. The family lived in Fort Worth at the time of the 1930 census. As a young boy, with his older brother Harper High, he worked long hours in a twenty-four-stall milking barn on the family’s dairy farm, while their father worked nights as a railroad foreman. After the brothers completed their chores, they went hunting for that night’s meal—often rabbits, squirrels, or birds. A team of mules given to him for his tenth birthday ensured he could bale hay on the farm, and he baled hay on other farms located in Tarrant County. After the family moved to Sherman, Texas, High mowed lawns, delivered milk, set up bowling pins, unloaded and stacked beer, and worked in a drugstore as the night manager. A health issue put his father in the hospital where he met a nurse that he eventually married; the marriage left the family divided. High’s mother made a living as a professional photographer at her father’s business Harper & Company. Because his brother Harper was attending Texas A&M College (present-day Texas A&M University), High lived with his father in a boarding house in Sherman (as listed in the 1940 census), although the two were not close. He wanted to enroll in the Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) program. At age seventeen he moved to Dallas and lived with his mother and grandfather. With a loan and a little cash, High enrolled in North Texas Agricultural College at Arlington (present-day University of Texas at Arlington). After a year he wanted to transfer to Temple Junior College (present-day Temple College), however, after arriving he discovered that CPT training had been cancelled, and he realized he had only ten dollars in his pocket. The school chancellor noted High’s determination and arranged a campus job. High also worked two more jobs.

While his brother Harper worked as an instructor for the U. S. Army Air Services Pilot Primary Training School, High befriended his brother’s students to assist him in his effort to fly. In December 1941 his collaborators gave him the chance to sneak a Piper Cub, owned by Pop Bloss, out of a hangar in Temple, Texas. High later remembered the flying experience as one of those once-in-a-lifetime events when he felt the joy generated by sailing free and unencumbered through the night skies. He landed, but instead of heading toward the hangar as agreed, he took off once more for another spin in the night sky. Since the plane and pilot survived, his collaborators figured that Pop Bloss had known what had taken place, but they were never confronted by him. High soloed without the CPT course or a student’s permit.

Seven days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, A. J. High, at the age of eighteen, joined the U. S. Army Air Corps (which was later reorganized as the Army Air Forces). At age nineteen he graduated as a second lieutenant on November 10, 1942. After comprehensive training at numerous bases, he flew and trained combat crews on such aircraft as the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, the Cessna UC-78 trainer, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, the North American B-25 Mitchell bomber, and the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. High was with the 73rd Bombardment Squadron on the Aleutian Islands in the Pacific Theater in June 1943. After serving in the battle for the Aleutians against the Japanese, he and his squadron obtained a thirty-day leave, and A. J. High married his girlfriend, Irene Marie Broussard Arceneaux of Lake Charles, Louisiana, on December 12, 1943. They married in Franklin County, Ohio. High finished his military service training combat crews, and later he also did flight testing. He separated from the U. S. Army in 1945 in San Antonio. He joined and remained in the Air Reserve until he was officially discharged from the United States Air Force on November 1, 1957. 

After the war High sought a job as a pilot but found that both Braniff Airlines and American Airlines (see AMR CORPORATION) declined him a position. He went to Meacham Field in Fort Worth to obtain his civilian airplane instrument rating and hoped that attainment would ensure his employment. By accident, High met a pilot that introduced him to Temple Bowen, president of Continental Trailways, who planned to start a local service airline with surplus military aircraft. High went to work for the new carrier Mercury Airlines on April 1, 1946. The airline was based in Brownwood, Texas, as the army had deeded Brownwood Army Airfield to the city. Mercury flew from Fort Worth and Dallas to Houston but ceased operating by September 1947 because the airline was not profitable.

High sought employment with Richard Earl McKaughan’s Aviation Enterprises in Houston, and his persistence ensured a job as a pilot with a start-up local carrier that McKaughan dubbed Trans-Texas Airways (TTA) that flew out of Houston Municipal Airport (now William P. Hobby International Airport). High was one of sixteen original pilots for TTA. He worked out of the Aviation Enterprises hangar with the other pilots and wrote manuals and prepared to fly DC-3 aircraft across Texas. Each pilot gained certification by flying, and the pilots were paired together, the most experienced with the least. The airline operated with ninety-eight employees in 1947, and the inaugural flight occurred on October 11, 1947. Some of the TTA destinations included Brownwood, Palestine, Del Rio, San Antonio, Fort Worth, Dallas, Lufkin, Nacogdoches, Beaumont--Port Arthur, Harlingen, Victoria, El Paso, Austin, and Eagle Pass.  The airline flew oil company personnel in and out of Houston, and TTA flew ranchers from small towns in West Texas to metropolitan cities. During his career as a pilot, High experienced several close calls both personally and professionally that included landing in a sand storm, hydroplaning on the runway, losing radio contact, and running out of fuel. 

On April 8, 1948, High transitioned from his role as first officer to the rank of captain. He led the pilots’ union from 1949 to 1961 and negotiated most of the contracts. He rose to high levels of management and was trusted to represent the airline to the public. High was a member of the Air Transport Association and became president of their executive operations board. His experience with scheduling flights for the military and for Mercury Airlines led to his coordinating TTA’s route schedule. After 1960 he became a check air man and assisted with the integration of twenty-six new DC-9 jets that McKaughan added to the fleet beginning in 1965. High assisted with manual writing and the process of training the pilots. TTA became Texas International Airlines (TXI) in 1967, and he assumed the position of vice president of flight operations on September 1, 1967; he held that position until 1971 when he returned to flying.  High hired pilots, trained pilots, fired pilots, and integrated new aircraft into the route system as TXI continued to expand. By 1969 Houston Intercontinental Airport (now George Bush Intercontinental Airport) officially opened for business, and TXI under command of Captain High landed the first aircraft on June 8. From the 1970s into the early 1980s High was a commercial pilot for TXI, which merged with Continental in 1982.

High, like all pilots at the time, had to officially retire at sixty years of age. That meant pilots would fly their last flight with family, friends, and dignitaries on board the day before their birthday. High’s retirement flight arrived on April 7, 1983. He could choose his flight attendants and co-pilot. Rules for fly-bys—buzzing the airport at low altitude as a sort of last hurrah—had been banned. But A.J. High was granted an exception and brought the plane in at 450 knots (about 500 miles an hour), 200 knots above the limit. Planes on the runways blew their horns. He buzzed the airport the total length of the runway and landed safely after a go-around. A passenger called in to a radio host and commented, “I just made a flight with the craziest damn fool! He buzzed the airport because he was retiring.” The flight remains historic among former TTA/TXI employees and is reflective of High’s credo and that of many chance-taking wartime pilots that developed the aviation industry in Texas and in America when he stated, “We learned to fly by flying.”

After his retirement in 1983 he worked for Corporate Executive Aircraft and continued to fly until he retired from that position in 1993. High diligently sought to record and promote the importance of air travel for the state of Texas by actively participating in the dissemination of its history. From 1992 to 1998 he volunteered as a docent at Houston’s Lone Star Flight Museum, where he organized a timeline of commercial aviation in Texas. After the death of his wife, High married Claudette Pfennig on July 31, 2005. His memoir, Meant To Fly: The Career of Captain A.J. High, Pilot for Trans-Texas Airways was published in 2008. Eager to share the history of Texas aviation and his role and that of other early pilots in transforming Texas into a modern industrial state, High was instrumental in organizing the 1940 Air Terminal Museum at Hobby Airport in Houston and served as its first director. In 2012 he was elected CEO and chairman of the board. He was the last survivor of the original sixteen TTA pilots and felt compelled to write and speak of those pioneer “tree-toppers” that moved ranchers and oilmen around the state of Texas.

A. J. High died on April 3, 2013, in Pearland, Texas. His funeral Mass was held there at St. Helen’s Catholic Church, and he was buried in Forest Park East Cemetery in Webster, Texas. He was survived by his daughter and second wife.

Captain A. J. High, 1940 Air Terminal Museum (https://www.1940airterminal.org/history/captain-aj-high), accessed March 4, 2022. George C. Eads, The Local Service Airline Experiment (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1972). A. J. High, Interview by Cynthia Marshall Devlin, March 17, 2005, 1940 Air Terminal Museum, Houston, Texas. A. J. High with the assistance of Kathryn Black Morrow, Claudette Pfennig-High and Barbara Frank, eds., Meant To Fly: The Career of Captain A.J. High, Pilot for Trans-Texas Airways (Houston: Morrow House Publishing, 2008). Houston Chronicle, April 6, 2013.

  • Aviation and Aerospace
  • Military
  • World War II
  • Transportation and Railroads
Time Periods:
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Texas in the 21st Century
  • East Texas
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • Houston

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Cynthia Marshall Devlin, “High, A. J.,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 28, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/high-a-j.

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March 16, 2022
March 16, 2022

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