“We flew them, they retired them”
By David Williams and Bill Mulkins
I used to wonder what happens to pilots when they grow old. Pilots are an interesting group of individuals. Pilots tend to be independent, confident, self-initiators, risk takers, and best of all story tellers. It is usually not hard to tell when a group of pilots are in conversation. A sure give away is seeing a lot of hand movement, a loud lackadaisical tone to their voice, and all other’s eyes fixed on the speaker with an occasional smile or nod of agreement. Such is the atmosphere on any given Saturday around brunch time at McCain’s Café in Salado, Texas.
Salado is a small village in Central Texas with a population of about 2,000. One-third of the inhabitants are over the age of 65. Many folks come to settle in Salado from all over the country. It has a wonderful little creek that passes through the middle and quaint little shops, restaurants and galleries to keep the tourists busy. One such restaurant is McCain’s Café, located on Main Street next to the red brick Civic Center, which use to be the original elementary and High School, but now is the Independent School District Offices and the local courthouse.
McCain’s Café is a meeting place for many citizens of Salado and the nearby homesteads. It became a meeting place for some local pilots about 10 years ago. Prior to this group becoming the Antique Pilots Association of Salado in 2017, they were just known as the Pilot’s Club. Unofficially, it was for pilots only, whether you were a military pilot, former military pilot, or civilian pilot. It also did not matter if you flew airplanes, helicopters, or gliders; you just had to have been a designated pilot.
It is a come as you are collection of pilots who enjoy meeting together for comradery and storytelling. There is a Topic of the Week that is sent out via email or text prior to the meeting. Everyone who joins in the brunch will have to tell a story related to the topic, which never seems to be an issue, as pilots all have similar adventures at one time or another. Stories about initial flight training, flight instructors, bad and good co-pilots, best and worst flying conditions, in-flight emergencies, unusual passengers or cargo, pilot call signs or nicknames, fastest speed, highest altitude, best or worst airfields, flying in foreign countries, unusual cockpit equipment, and the list goes on and on.
As I sit in these gatherings and listen to the stories, I can’t help but think of the rich history being unfolded in front of me. To the speaker, they are just a way of life as a pilot. You just did what you had to do at the time. You never really thought that your contribution would be an important part of History. You find that many of the pilots enjoy telling the stories, but few feel the need to capture them in writing. They are personal and not always fond memories. Aviation comes with its causalities and difficulties remembering friends who served faithfully and gave their all for their family and country. Allow me to share with you some of those pilots who belong to the Antique Pilot Association.
Our oldest pilot is John “Jack” Oliver, COL USAF Retired. Born in 1925, now 95 years old, he flew as a B-24 “Liberator” bombardier/navigator in WWII in southern Europe, completing 53 Combat missions. He later became a jet pilot and flew numerous aircraft for the US Air Force. He has logged time in B-19, B-24, C-47 Gooney Bird, T-6 Texan, P-51 Mustang, and his beloved M-20 Mooney. Many of his stories revolve around his time flying during WWII over southern Europe and being sure we all remember the 169 aircraft lost and 1,479 casualties during that time. Other stories centered on flights over South America, several trips to the North Pole “Operation Looking Glass” while on active duty in the Air Force, and many trips within the United States in his Mooney aircraft with his beloved wife of 74 years, Miriam. Jack retired from the United States Air Force as a Colonel with over 30 years of service.
Charles “Chuck” Wood, Lt. Col. USAF. He was a fighter jet pilot with multiple tours in Vietnam and test pilot qualified. His nick name by his fellow pilots in Vietnam was “Claw”. Once he was on your Six O’clock position behind an enemy aircraft, he would not let them go. Currently owns and flies his twin engine B-60 Beechcraft Duke. There are very few Air Force jets that Chuck has not flown at least once, including Russian made aircraft. He was even qualified in the Navy F-18 Hornet and flew off an aircraft carrier for six months with the Navy. In his younger days he flew missions in the U-2 “Dragon Lady” spy plane.
Janos “John” Karo, a retired Army Chief Warrant Officer, helicopter pilot, and served in Vietnam. He has the distinction of being a S-64 Skycrane Heavy Lift Pilot. He also logged time in UH-1 Hueys and AH-1 Cobras. John’s story begins with learning to fly in Hungry during the Russian occupation. His escape and opportunity to join the US Army while living in a refugee camp in Italy is only the beginning of one adventure after another that took him through Army flight training, Vietnam and culminated with countless stories of flying in Europe with NATO and US Senior Officers as his passengers. His pilot story telling is unmatched and often the source of ribbing from other pilots as John is known for his lengthy, detailed, and colorful descriptions.
George Romfh, a retired Army Chief Warrant Officer, helicopter pilot, served in Vietnam, who went on to fly with the Commercial airlines and large Cargo Jets. He also logged military time in UH-1 Hueys, AH-1 Cobras and C-90 King Airs. The majority of stories revolve around commercial aviation and what really happens in those airliner cockpits. George is still an active pilot and a home designer enthusiast.
Bob Blake, former Army Captain, another helicopter pilot who served in Vietnam, went on to fly corporate helicopters and airplanes and completed a career as a Captain for Continental Airlines. He also logged time in UH-1 Hueys and AH-1 Cobras. Bob has flown in many, many foreign countries. His stories add a cultural context to flying abroad.
Ed Thomas, retired Army Major, served in Vietnam, primarily a helicopter pilot. Occasionally seen wearing his cowboy hat and driving a Baby Blue 1965 Ford Mustang. Ed served as the Program Manager during the initial development of the AH-64 Apache helicopter. He also logged time in UH-1 Hueys and AH-1 Cobras. Been there, done that, is a major theme with Ed.
William Mulkins, retired Army Captain, served in Desert Storm, flew AH-64 Apache helicopters as a Chief Warrant Officer. Bill is part of that breed of aviator who is post-Vietnam and at the same time on the forefront of advancing army aviation capability. His stories revolve around the capabilities of the AH-64 Apache while flying in Europe and Asia. Bill also relates stories as a glider pilot.
Christiana Mulkins, both a single engine aircraft pilot and a glider pilot, originally from Berlin, Germany, adds to our stories with a knowledge of flying without engines and the importance of knowing your weather patterns and being observant of positioning. No wind… no lift! Christiana also graces us with flights about her Cessna 140.
Marty Verhagen, served a tour in the Marine Corps, was honorably discharged and joined the Houston, Texas Police Department. It was there he had the opportunity to become a helicopter pilot for the Houston Police Department, flying Hughes 300s and 500s in and about Houston’s buildings and wires chasing bad guys making for some interesting stories. The HPD ground units all knew Marty’s call sign, “Fox”, HPD eyes in the sky.
Al Sidaras, a former Navy Aviator, flew primarily airplanes and flies a corporate King Air aircraft. Al is stingy in giving away flight stories from his military days, but an occasional story pops up about his corporate flying. Al is the Chief pilot of his executive flying business, flying Business and Corporate executives around the country.
Mike Stollberg, retired Army Chief Warrant Officer, Scout and UH-60 helicopter pilot. He currently continues to fly UH-60 variants as an Army Contract Maintenance Test Pilot. Mike often down plays his pilot time in the Army, but once you get him going his stories usually put a smile on the rest of us.
Mike Gunter, owns and flies a Cessna 180 and has owned and flown other civilian single engine aircraft throughout the years. Strictly flying civilian, he no less has interesting stories of near misses with deer on runways, and engines ready to quit upon landing sand airborne Bulldozers in his oil field days.
Dennis Fletcher, retired Army Chief Warrant Officer, flew H-60 Blackhawks. In retirement he flew Bell Long rangers for medical evacuation. Plenty of stories from South/Latin America and an occasional reference to his former co-pilot and now wife Christine.
Christine Fletcher was also an H-60 Blackhawk pilot and former Army Chief Warrant Officer, shares occasionally the same stories as her husband Dennis, but often has a different point of view on how things went.
Charles “Chuck” Miller, Vietnam Pilot and Veteran who is also Jack Oliver’s cousin from Hillsboro, Texas. Chuck was an Air force C-141 pilot who flew missions in and out of Vietnam and Southwest Asia during his career in the Air Force. Later he became a Braniff Airline Captain before settling down as a gentleman Rancher/Farmer in Hillsboro. Chuck now flies his two seat Citabria to Salado every Saturday morning for our meeting and parks his plane at the Salado airport. Chuck has a long colorful aviation career and adds much to our Saturday mornings. He has designed our group’s hat with a embroidered Biplane and a motto that states “The Adventure Continues” and it does!
David Williams, retired US Marine Corps Colonel, was primarily a UH-1N Huey pilot. Another post-Vietnam era pilot. The token U.S. Marine Pilot in the group, and is the weekly topic and group leader. Dave gets his share of ribbing from others, but manages to add flying stories that come from U.S. flying, Okinawa flying and shipboard flying; not to mention one crash in the country of Estonia. One of Dave’s more interesting stories was during his Naval Academy Midshipmen days when on a summer cruise on board a US Frigate and it’s encounter with a Russian submarine; quite an interesting story!
There are other pilots who occasionally join us in our brunch and humor everyone with stories of their own. All pilots are welcome, but come early if you want a seat because space is limited.
These are the men and women of the Antique Pilots Association in Salado Texas.