Unusual Attitudes: Oscar Night in Georgia

** Left: Capt. Winn Baker showing me the finer
points of a Provost cockpit. Right: Capt.
Ron Alexander in the left seat of a Delta
Airlines DC-3.**

An excerpt from “One of the Trusted”

by Gill Robb Wilson:

_You look down at your _

hands on the wheel.

They are veined and hard and brown.

Tonight you notice they look a little old.

_And, by George, they are old. _

But how can this be?

_Only yesterday you _

were in flying school.

Time is a thief. You have been robbed.

_ _

_Beyond doubt they are always _

somewhat apprehensive aloft.

_But why do they continuously _

come up here

_ in the dark sky despite _

their apprehension?

You have often wondered about that.

You look down at your hands again.

_ _

They come because they trust you —

you the pilot. They turn over their lives

_and their loved ones and _

their hopes and dreams

to you for safekeeping.

_To be a pilot means to be _

one of the trusted.

To be a pilot is to hold life in your hands — to be worthy of faith.

_ _

No, you have not been robbed.

_You aren’t “just a pilot.” _

There is no such thing

as “just a pilot.” Your job is a trust.

The years have been a trust.

You have been one of the trusted.

Who could be more?

The temperature inside the museum at Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins, Georgia, ideal for men in dinner jackets, was a little frosty for bare shoulders and a thin silk evening dress. But there was plenty of warmth from being with friends at the 2013 Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Since 1989, 100 aviators have been enshrined — sons and daughters of the south but with names iconic even to a Yankee: Epps (three generations of them), Pitts, Maule, Cochran, Rickenbacker, Bevo Howard, Allen Paulson, Lowe, Jungemann and a host of others. Last year I was honored to introduce my DC-3 mentor and friend from Griffin, Georgia, Bob McSwiggan. This year the honors were going to two men I’d known from the years I’d gone to Griffin to fly the DC-3 with Bob — Winn Baker and Ron Alexander. The third honoree, Lewis Jordan, is a Griffin boy who helped launch ValuJet and then AirTran, a hugely successful operation recently acquired by Southwest Airlines. I’m awed by that kind of business acumen, but I don’t know Mr. Jordan … c’mon, he isn’t a pilot.

At dinner I somehow scored a seat at a table with two former inductees, Connie and Ed Bowlin, both retired Delta captains (and famous for their “his and hers” P-51s), as well as Captains Sam Bass, Tony Manzo and Larry Lavine and their wives. Yeah, I was definitely in Delta Airlines country.

Taking our seats, we were confronted with mountainous hunks of iceberg lettuce followed by a mystery meat entree that looked suspiciously like FOD from the nearby Warner Robins runway. Dessert was a Little Debbie look-alike sitting in a puddle of yellow goo. My intake that day had been an airline-size bag of pretzels and a couple of Tootsie Pops, but I kind of pushed stuff around on my plate as I chatted, fervently hoping the Wendy’s on the road to the motel stayed open late. Throughout dinner long speeches were delivered, sponsors were thanked, “dignitaries” were recognized, anthems were sung and invocations were prayed — all interspersed with assurances from the Master of Ceremonies that they’d really, really streamlined things this year.

You’re nodding your head if you’ve endured one of these long-winded award ceremonies, but you also understand that the weather, the room temperature, the menu and the speeches have no impact on the importance of the event. This was a splendid affair, a perfect evening, and I wouldn’t have missed the induction of two of my personal heroes into the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame for the world.

Ron Alexander (who grew up in Bloomington, Indiana) came to Delta Airlines and to Griffin, Georgia, after graduating from Purdue and serving as an Air Force Captain in Vietnam, where he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. OK, I’m a hero worshiper, but this guy’s just too good to be true — a perfect gentleman, a generous friend and an aviation businessman of considerable fame. Aircraft builders and restorers recognize the name from his Alexander Aeroplane Company, but since then he’s launched several other aviation ventures. Most interesting is his Candler Field Museum project, a living documentary of the original Atlanta airport, called Candler Field. This functioning airport and museum is at the Peach State Aerodrome near Williamson, Georgia. Ron owns a J-3 Cub, a DC-3, a Waco YMF-5 and a Stearman Cloudboy. He’s also one of only three pilots who fly the exquisitely restored Delta DC-3. And that’s how we met …

Another retired captain was managing the operation when the airline’s DC-3 was touring the country. However accomplished and experienced he was, he’d never flown the Douglas Racer and was anxious to get some time at the controls. Unfortunately, this led to a series of relatively minor misadventures. Then, taking dual instruction in Ron’s DC-3 (almost as perfect as the Delta model), the airplane ended up on its nose. Since he was PIC, Capt. Alexander had to take the FAA re-exam (709) ride, and guess who did the honors? I felt like Wrong-Way Corrigan giving a flight test to Charles Lindbergh.

Winn Baker is a vibrant, handsome guy whose career kind of parallels Ron’s — 34 years and nearly 40,000 hours flying for the airline. Whenever I’d see him around the airport at Griffin, he’d always have something new or exotic to fly. One year he turned me upside down and inside out in a Provost jet trainer. In other years we would fly his Lockheed Lodestar, the beloved Piper Vagabond he first soloed, assorted Cubs and, one year, a Meyers OTW (Out to Win). Winn loves airplanes, loves to fly and has spent a lifetime sharing that joy. He’s a demo pilot for Pilatus and flies from the airport at St. Simon’s Island, where he lives and where his dad, Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame legend Francis Anderson “Sam” Baker, was the original operator. Winn soloed the Vagabond there at 16, earned his ratings and made his bones instructing and flying charter until he came to Delta.

Some years ago, not long after losing a close friend in an airplane accident, I saw Winn at Griffin, standing on the ramp next to his newly acquired Meyers OTW. We talked for a while, and I confessed I was having a hard time — the pilot who had died was a very close friend, and I had responded to the accident site. Curious and probably inappropriate, but there it was. Winn listened and nodded and then told me about his son, “Chip,” who was following in his footsteps, soloing at 16 and proudly flying for a Delta commuter. Chip had stopped at the house in Griffin to change into uniform and was driving to ATL to pick up his flight when somebody crossed the centerline on the highway and he was killed. On the gravestone at Palmetto Cemetery in Brunswick, Georgia, are etched the words of Gill Robb Wilson:

“Chip” Samuel Winn Baker, age 25, died January 25, 1986

And of the living ... none, not one

Who truly loves the sky

Would trade a hundred

earth bound hours

For one that he could fly.

The audience at Warner Robins that night was full of Georgia’s civilian and military aviation elite. Many were elderly but fine-looking men who’d retired from long careers at Delta and other airlines. I watched the videos and listened with half an ear, but I was really looking around and thinking about the lives, the stories, the hopes and dreams that had brought them together here. From wildly diverse backgrounds and places, they shared a passion and, as youngsters, pursued the dream of learning to fly. Some had gone to college, many had military experience, others survived low-paying flying jobs to build enough time for a shot at the dream — to be airline pilots. I thought about the hours of study and the years of training, about uprooting families, flying the line, upgrading to more complex equipment, about exacting and exhausting simulator sessions, about surviving furloughs and sweating physicals — so many miles, so many thousands of hours, so many years. And as I thought about the experience and skill in that room, the determination, the willingness to accept responsibility, I knew that every one of them had earned a place in the Aviation Hall of Fame.

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Martha Lunken is a lifelong pilot, former FAA inspector and defrocked pilot examiner. She flies a Cessna 180 and anything with a tailwheel, from Cubs to DC-3s.

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