Rhulin A. Thomas, who in 1947 became the first deaf person to successfully fly solo coast-to-coast, a radio useless to warn of electrical storms and other perils, died Dec. 6 of pancreatic cancer at the Hospice of Northern Virginia. He was 89 and lived in Alexandria.
The trip's purpose was to prove that deafness was not a liability to pilots and also to meet up with two aviators, George Truman and Clifford Evans, who had just returned from a trip around the world flying in tandem. Truman had been Mr. Thomas's flight instructor at the College Park airfield.
Although the very first deaf pilot to cross the country was Calbraith Perry Rodgers, a curmudgeonly character who took the trek in 1911, he crashed and had his plane rebuilt several times along the way. Rodgers died the next year, in a crash.
Because Rodgers was a largely forgotten figure, deaf pilots viewed Mr. Thomas as the prime inspiration for decades, said Clyde C. Smith, president of the International Deaf Pilots Association.
Only a few years ago did an IDPA member discover Rodgers. But, Smith added, "We still consider Rhulin the first deaf person to fly across the nation. . . . Rhulin earned it."
Mr. Thomas's journey lasted from an Oct. 26 takeoff at Rehoboth Beach, Del., to his touchdown Nov. 7 in Van Nuys, Calif. Ever since childhood, he had wanted to fly, family members said.
In his 65-horsepower, single-engine J-4 Piper Cub, Mr. Thomas skipped from airport to airport in towns such as Donora, Pa., and Anderson, Ind., and larger cities such as St. Louis and Phoenix. Mr. Thomas navigated by staying low enough to see the airfields.
Such precautions did not stop him from getting close enough to spy three tornadoes, flying between two of them at one point in Liberty, Mo.
He also made numerous rain-induced forced landings, experienced one dead-motor landing in Illinois and got lost in a storm between Indianapolis and St. Louis.
But the most treacherous experience was the whipping wind at California's Banning Pass, a "notorious graveyard of pilots," according to an account of Mr. Thomas's flight in "Great Deaf Americans," published in 1983.
Mr. Thomas told authors Robert and John Panara that he experienced a "roller coaster ride" at Banning Pass as he flew between 9,500 and 11,000 feet.
Mr. Thomas's flight was received with acclaim. The mayor of Los Angeles greeted him, and he also was honored at a White House reception. In 1948, Army Maj. Gen. Harry H. Vaughan, a military aide to President Harry S. Truman, gave Mr. Thomas a medal for courage sponsored by the National Association of the Deaf and the Missouri Association of the Deaf.
"He always felt confident in himself, but his friends and family thought he was crazy," said his wife of 65 years, Gladys Thomas.
During the flight, Mr. Thomas lost touch with his family because he could not afford to send them a wire or other form of communication. His wife and daughter knew of his safety only after he returned from California -- by train.
Born Rhulin Albert Thomas in Manila, Ark., he became deaf at age 2 after contracting diphtheria. He graduated from the Missouri School for the Deaf and attended Gallaudet University in the early 1930s.
Mr. Thomas began working in the U.S. Senate mailing room and as a linotype operator for local newspapers, including the old Washington Evening Star, from 1939 until the early 1960s.
He then joined the composing rooms at newspapers in Tennessee before returning to the Washington area in 1965 as a linotypist at The Washington Post, where he retired after a decade. After moving to Florida in the late 1970s, he came to Alexandria in April to live with his daughter.
His memberships included the National Association of the Deaf and the International Typographical Union.
Although he frequently reminisced about his 1947 trip, Mr. Thomas stopped flying soon afterward. "He didn't have the money to continue his dreams, and he changed his priorities," said Gladys Thomas, who said the family bought a house in 1949.
Besides the J-4, he also owned a Culver Cadet. But by 1950, he had sold both planes.
Still, Mr. Thomas could count on the pleasure of renting an Ercoupe and flying from College Park to Staunton, Va., to pick up his daughter, Ruth, from the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind.
After Ruth graduated in 1952, Mr. Thomas did not fly again.
Survivors include his wife, Gladys Houff Thomas of Alexandria; his daughter, Ruth Mae Thomas Tester of Alexandria; three sisters, Raven Chandler of Centreville, Margie Hanna of Cheverly and Wanda Saglinbene of Sanford, Fla.; two grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.