Saturday, March 2, 2024

Sky high

Retired WWII pilot flies again for 102nd birthday

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For most people, the sky is the limit.

But for retired Air Force pilot Charles Baldwin, the sky is the destination.

The 102-year-old AVIVA Granbury resident got the birthday present of a lifetime Feb. 3, when he got the opportunity to fly a plane again at the Vintage Flying Museum in Fort Worth.

“My first thought was, ‘Wow, let’s go!’” Baldwin told the HCN. “That (thought) was very appealing to me to say the least.”

The idea originated from Nicole Wells, AVIVA Granbury’s sales director, who made a post on social media asking for help in locating someone who could take Baldwin up in an airplane.

“His one bucket list item was to sky dive, so I am trying to meet him halfway,” Wells’ post reads.

Within hours, Wells’ post took off and she was eventually contacted by Robert Johnson, a volunteer with the Vintage Flying Museum.

“Everyone at the museum is a volunteer,” Wells told the HCN. “No one is paid staff, which speaks volumes for their passion for aviation and veterans. (Robert) works for Lockheed (Martin) but spends most weekends with the museum as a volunteer.”

Everything was quickly arranged, and the date was officially set, with Baldwin anxious to get up in the air again.

“The anticipation of it was exciting,” he said. “I flew in private for several years, but I guess the last time I actually flew was about 25 years. It’s been quite a while.”

While the first scheduled flight resulted in a cancelation due to weather, Baldwin was able to reschedule for the very next day.

He said when he first arrived at the Vintage Flying Museum, his thoughts weren’t on flying the plane, but rather getting into it.

"It was not easy for me to just hop up on the wing and climb up in the cockpit,” he said. “We had a stepladder and guys helping me and I just thought, ‘Holy cow, I used to just jump in this thing with this parachute on!’”

After he successfully managed to get in the airplane, Baldwin said he started looking at the instrument panel to get himself oriented in the cockpit.

"It was familiar," he said. "But I had to kind of think about it a little bit to really get well-oriented because that's the first thing you do when you fly on airplanes is locate all the instruments and the controls and it took a little while to do that. I'll tell ya, it was mighty exciting.”

To make the situation even more thrilling, Baldwin also had the opportunity to fly an AT-6 Texan — the same type of airplane that he trained in about 80 years ago.

"I had probably about 60 hours in that type of airplane in training,” he said. “This was the last plane that you fly with an instructor in with you. From there, you go to a single-seat aircraft. But this is what you call an advanced trainer. It’s a good airplane. Very dependable aircraft.”

While the pilot took control of the plane for the majority of the flight, Baldwin was excited to take the lead for a short while.

"I didn't get to fly as much as I would like to have, but I did get to fly some, and I found out I can still fly pretty well considering,” he said.

Baldwin explained that one of the instruments in the panel is a “needling ball,” and how if a pilot makes a turn, the needle will point in the same direction. He said the ball stays in the center if the pilot is coordinated.

"I was able to keep the ball in the center and make a fairly decent turn,” he said. “I think with just a little bit of brushing up, I can fly it again.”

While he appreciated the gift of flying, Baldwin’s birthday surprises didn’t stop there. Another pilot volunteered to take Baldwin’s son, Rick, up in another airplane at the same time, where the duo could fly in formation.

“We didn't know what was gonna happen, and then they told us, ‘Well, we're waiting on another airplane.’ ‘What for?’ ‘Your son's gonna get to fly with ya.’” Baldwin said. “It was so cool.”

He added that Rick “got a kick out of it,” as he had never flown that type of airplane before.

Once Baldwin touched back down, however, he realized just how much he had missed flying.

“I thought, ‘Oh heck, I’m not ready to go back,’” he said. “But that aviation gas is not cheap. I don’t know who footed the bill, but it cost somebody some money, time and effort for me to do this. I know a lot of people to thank for it and hopefully they do realize how much I appreciate it.”

Wells told the HCN that the pilots donated the fuel, and everything was coordinated free of charge for Baldwin and his family.

“It was quite an experience,” Baldwin added. “That was an exciting chapter of my book. I don’t guess you ever get (flying) out of your system.”

When asked if he was going to skydive for his birthday next year to top this one, Baldwin immediately started chuckling.

"Sometime back they asked everybody here ‘What's on your bucket list?’ In jest, I said, ‘Skydive.’ That was strictly a joke,” he said. “The old saying is: ‘It doesn't make much sense to jump out of a perfectly good airplane.’”

Baldwin called the entire experience “a thrill” and added that it was his “best birthday present.”

“I told my daughter, ‘I feel like I'm in a sideshow at a circus with people looking at me trying to get into the airplane. I think I ought to sell tickets,’” he said, with a grin. “But we had a good time.”

Baldwin, who was born in Artesia, New Mexico Jan. 27, 1922, spent around 20 years — both active and reserve — in the Army Air Corps (before it was called Air Force).

As a fighter pilot, Baldwin flew P-47s Thunderbolts during World War II in Europe, serving in a total of 51 missions during his active duty.

At 102, Baldwin revealed that laughter, exercise and luck are the three secrets to living long.

“You gotta laugh a lot,” he said. “You can’t really live, in my opinion, unless you have a sense of humor. I think you have a lot of control over your longevity by the life you lead.”

He leaves readers with this particular advice to help them live longer and retain their youth:

“Just enjoy the ride — and keep breathing.”