Science, freedom, beauty, adventure: What more could you ask of life? Aviation combined all the elements I loved. There was science in each curve of an airfoil, in each angle between strut and wire, in the gap of a spark plug or the color of the exhaust flame. There was freedom in the unlimited horizon, on the open fields where one landed. A pilot surrounded by beauty of earth and sky. He brushed treetops with the birds, leapt valleys and rivers, explored cloud canyons he had gazed at as a child. Adventure lay in each puff of the wind. ~ Charles Lindbergh
Charles Lindbergh made his remarkable flight across the Atlantic Ocean when my father was two months shy of his third birthday. For my dad’s generation, that flight was like Neil Armstrong’s step onto the moon: one large leap for mankind. It showed all the world that anything is possible, that no natural barrier might stand unbreached, that aviation can connect all the distant places of the world. Lindbergh was my dad’s hero. He was everyone’s hero: the unmatched Lone Eagle.
Al was seventeen and a senior in high school when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He turned eighteen the next summer and joined the Army Air Corps that fall. He tested well as a navigator, and told the detailer, “Thank you, but I want to be a pilot.” He received his commission in June 1944 while he was still nineteen, underwent weapons training, and traveled to England at Christmastime. In Europe, he flew the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, the most advanced, powerful warplane of its time. He named his own plane Laurali after his mother, though the spelling was different and the artwork on the fuselage would probably have shocked her. After all, he was a fighter pilot.
Let me tell you a couple of war stories my dad told me while we fished together during a blue-sky afternoon on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. Dad’s unit is stationed in Belgium. One beautiful spring day in 1945, he’s flying in a loose formation with his squadron. One particular anti-aircraft gunner down below is so accurate, they’ve nicknamed him Fritz. They change course about every ten seconds so Fritz can’t draw a bead on them. The cloud formations and blue sky capture Dad’s attention, and he relaxes his concentration for twenty seconds or so. He misses a course change. K-BOOM!! A powerful explosion just off his tail brings Dad back to reality. That gunner on the ground almost blew him out of the air while he enjoyed the view. Dad recalled, “I didn’t make that mistake again!”
On another mission, Dad’s in the cockpit preparing to take off. He pulls back the throttle to gun the 2,000 horsepower engine, and the P-47 accelerates down the dirt runway. At the far end of the field, he can see a dozen supply trucks lined up, waiting for the driver of the lead truck to clear some obstacle from the road. Just as his aircraft has enough speed to take off, the tire on the left landing gear blows out. Suddenly a routine takeoff becomes an emergency. He aborts and speeds off the end of the runway, right towards the supply road. Imagine how that looks to the truck drivers: a huge warplane hurtling straight at them at a couple of hundred miles an hour. Dad said he never saw a line of trucks go into reverse and back up all together so fast! Outcome: trucks and pilot unharmed; one tire to be replaced.
After the war, Dad flew large passenger planes for Northwest Airlines on the long, great circle routes over Canada. On weekends when we were little he took us to the airfield north of Valley City, North Dakota, where he flew a Piper Cub, or the Bonanza he owned with friends. He flew gliders at Greenfield, Iowa, his sport biplane all over the country, and his beloved Cessna Cardinal many times down to New Orleans and back. No piloting challenge lay beyond his reach. When he visited his daughter Laura in Anchorage, he said, “Now I can learn to fly seaplanes.” And he did. For twenty-five years, until he was seventy-five, Al competed in aerobatics contests. This was precision flying at its most demanding. He diligently practiced the maneuvers and routines he would fly in those contests, and his fellow pilots knew him as a competitor who worked hard to win.
Not surprisingly, Al shared his passion for flight with his family. Every year at the end of July he made a pilgrimage to the huge airshow in Oshkosh, and he invited all of us to join him. His son Brian is a pilot, and his grandson Willem plans to be one someday. Over Memorial Day weekend I had my first glider lesson in Massachusetts. When I told him about the flight on the phone the next day, he gathered all the breath in his dying body and exclaimed, twice, “That’s great!” Those were his last words to me.
So let’s remember today an aviator whose heart belonged to the air and the sky, a man who looked skyward all through his life, an accomplished pilot who knew the freedom, power, and beauty of flight in all its forms.
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew,
Up, up the long, delirious burning blue.
John Magee wrote those lines near the beginning of the war, the war that became in its way the beginning of Al’s life. It became his opportunity to fly: he grasped it and never let it slip. Now, a lifetime ago, God welcomes this promising young aviator home.