This past weekend, my two sisters and I had the honor and pleasure of attending the 2011 Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame Gala and Induction Ceremony. Our father was a pilot and he was recently nominated for the Hall of Fame, so we were invited up this year to their 10th Anniversary Gala celebration and to see the museum. The Tennessee Museum of Aviation was built and opened in 2001 and is located on the airport in Sevierville, TN. Their website states that “it is dedicated to the preservation of aviation history, including the aviation history of Tennessee; to the advancement of aviation education and to honoring those who have made significant contributions to aviation and aerospace for Tennessee, our nation or the world.” Four aviators a year are inducted into the Hall of Fame… three living and one deceased. My sisters and I enjoyed both the museum and the Gala/Induction ceremony. It was a splendid event done in such a way as to pay the highest honor to ALL the inductees, past and present. And believe me, those honors are well-deserved. I’m not sure about my sisters, but it was somewhat of an emotional evening for me. I know my father would have loved it. He would have loved seeing the museum and viewing all the aircraft in the hangar. He would have loved seeing old friends and seeing the induction ceremony. Seeing some of the old warbirds my father used to fly brought tears to my eyes and I just couldn’t help but feel his presence among us. One of the inductees this year was Brigadier General Norman C. Gaddis, USAF. While on a combat mission in Vietnam, he was forced to bail out of his plane near Hanoi. He was immediately captured and became a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for 2,124 days. If I’m doing my math correctly, that’s almost 6 years. He told a little of that story and his ordeal. I could not even imagine what that must have been like. I had a lump in my throat the size of a baseball throughout his speech, and the speeches of his two sons. One of the aircraft I saw in the museum hangar, was a medevac helicopter used in Vietnam. I had never seen one of those up close nor did I have a clue of just how massive those helicopters were. I had a good friend and colleague, Howard Deck, who was a medevac helicopter pilot in Vietnam for three tours of duty. While Howard generally didn’t talk about his experiences in Vietnam, I knew that he had been shot down three times and received severe burns to both legs during one of those incidents. Howard died in a tragic car accident not quite two years ago at the age of 66, and it wasn’t until after his death that I learned he was the recipient of the Purple Heart. Seeing that mighty bullet-ridden medevac aircraft, and how enormous it was, put another huge lump in my throat and brought tears to my eyes. I was abruptly and unexpectedly overwhelmed with an indescribable loss for my friend. And I suddenly had a newfound respect for him that I had not experienced (or felt) when he was living. And that made my heart sad.
My father started flying at the age of 15 in the late 1930s. You had to be 16 to solo. He worked around the airport in his hometown in Indiana to earn enough money for flying lessons. He made his first solo flight at 16. He obtained his pilot’s license before he had his driver’s license. He used to ride his bicycle to the airport. With the onset of World War II, he joined the Army Air Corps, which later became the U.S. Air Force. He became a civilian pilot for the Ferrying Division, Air Transport Command (ATC) where he ferried military aircraft, both domestic and foreign. Later he accepted a position as Production Test Pilot for North American Aviation in Columbus, Ohio. His duties included test flying the F-86 and F-100 for the USAF and the FJ series of fighter planes and the AJ series of bombers for the U.S. Navy. He moved our family to Nashville, Tennessee in 1960, when I was just under a year old. As a corporate pilot, he continued his flight training and authored the book, Your Jet Pilot Rating. He had a Secret Service Clearance that complemented his flight experience, and was selected on many occasions to pilot for such dignitaries as Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. He also donated his services as a pilot to fly young burn victims to the Shriner’s Hospital for Children in Cincinnati, Ohio. Without a doubt, my dad’s greatest love was being a Flight Instructor. He became the owner of Nashville Aviation Academy, where he shared his love of aviation and experience with budding pilots for over 35 years. He held Commercial Pilot, Flight Instructor, Instrument, Single and Multi-engine ratings with reciprocating, turboprop, and jet applications, and Land and Sea Ratings. At one time he taught aviation acrobatics. He obtained over 33,000 hours in flight with 19,866 as a flight instructor. My dad was still flying and teaching students at the age of 71 in 1992, and was still pursuing a passion that he dearly loved and was devoted to. That year he was diagnosed with cancer and succumbed to it two years later. It was said by a close friend and fellow pilot at his funeral, that he is in heaven now, and he’s teaching those angels a thing or two about flying. The thought of that made me smile, and it still makes me smile today. I miss him so much.
Growing up as daughters of a pilot exposed my sisters and me to a lot of aviation. We laughed this weekend when we reminisced about how each of us learned to drive on a runway. True story. We all learned to drive on Berry Field airport runways, before it became Nashville International Airport (BNA). BNA stands for Berry Field Nashville. There was another “grown child of a pilot” at the gala this past weekend who sat at our table, and who laughed when he told us he too had learned to drive on a runway. I think part of my learning to ride a bicycle occurred on a runway too. Yep, growing up around airports was a lot of fun. I have many happy and vivid memories of playing in hangars and getting to sit in the cockpit of different airplanes and jets that most people will never set foot in. I remember my dad letting me and my sisters taxi the airplanes in and letting us help him tie the planes down (something I always loved to do). My sisters and I watched countless planes take off and land, and we took many airplane rides and trips in planes.
Unfortunately, I didn’t inherit my father’s love of flying (which I have probably mentioned a time or two in this blog). If the truth be known, flying panics and terrorizes me like nothing else can. Also, for me, there’s that little inconvenience of a thing called airsickness. My father used to own a little orange and turquoise Cessna and I lost count as to how many times I threw up in that little airplane. My first question after learning we were about to go up, was, “Daddy, did you remember the barf bags?” He learned never to forget the airsickness bags when I was along. And you can bet, I just about always used them. Sometimes just the smell of the plane was enough to make me airsick. And after a few years, all I had to do was SEE that little Cessna from a far distance, and I could start heaving. My father used to tell me it was all in my head. I didn’t have a car in college and my dad would often fly up on Friday to bring me home for the weekend (yes, in the infamous orange and turquoise Cessna). Thankfully, for me, it was only about a 15 minute ride. He usually had a student along and I always enjoyed seeing my dad in “flight instructor mode.”
Another perk to having a father who was a pilot, was that my sisters and I got to meet and see some famous people. Some of the few I remember were Elvis Presley, Three Dog Night, Bobby Sherman, Jack Wild, Minnie Pearl, and President Jimmy Carter. I’m sure there were others.
I love being around older aviators who are around my dad’s age. I have always noticed they are some of the happiest people I know, especially when they get to share their knowledge and love of their passion, aviation. They are plain and simply a joy to be around. And they always seem to have funny stories. I enjoy talking and listening to them and just watching them from a distance. To me, they seem to exude happiness.
Hopefully, this time next year, my sisters and I will be returning to the Hall of Fame Gala to watch our late father get inducted into the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame. What an honor that would be! It’s all very exciting when I think about it. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. And if that doesn’t happen? Well… let’s just say, we’re bursting with pride over his nomination. My dad will always be my hero. ALWAYS. And nothing will EVER change that.