Pilots: Paul Gilbert

February 1, 2009

When Paul Gilbert regained consciousness in the basement of a Belgian farmhouse on Sunday, September 10, 1944, a faint light through a “little dim cobwebby window” was the first evidence that he had survived bailing out of his flak-riddled B–17G.

Gilbert recalls his twenty-first mission: “We were tossed out of formation by a blast under number four that lifted the wing to the vertical and narrowly missed the lead ship. With a windmilling prop, it took maximum power on the other three to keep up. The engine eventually caught fire leaving the target and I ordered a bailout. At the forward hatch, the navigator and I wrestled the co-pilot loose and shoved him out.”

Climbing the basement stairs of the farmhouse, Gilbert met his protector—a nervous farmer’s wife. His co-pilot was delivered unharmed later in the day. After dinner, the door flew open and six armed and rough-looking characters stormed in, forced them into a car, and drove eastward without a word. “We felt we’d had it,” Gilbert said. They were delivered to Patton’s Third Regiment for identification and then were given weapons and told to take a spot on the front lines. An appeal to a brigadier general produced an unused staff car and a harrowing nighttime drive back to Paris and safety.

After the war, Gilbert developed a business constructing grain elevators and drying units throughout the Northeast. He looked into getting to job sites with a helicopter, then decided it was too expensive, and turned to fixed-wing aircraft. Gilbert said that getting back into flying in 1959 was like starting over. Range approaches and ADF had given way to VOR and ILS. But Gilbert progressed quickly to a commercial certificate with instrument and multiengine ratings, and he has owned more than a dozen aircraft, including three Stinson Voyagers, three Piper Twin Comanches, and an Aztec. Gilbert’s airstrip near York, Pennsylvania, was licensed in 1966. The strip has been home to a lifetime of flight operations—including playing host to a fly-in of the Flying Farmers. His favorite aviation experience is the joy of combining flying with the needs of his business. Today, Gilbert is owner and proprietor of Woodberry Farms, which includes riding stables and farming operations near his airfield, where he keeps a Cherokee 180 that he flies with his grandson (also named Paul) at the controls these days. The aviation spirit is alive and well in Gilbert’s family as grandson Cory recently soloed at Bob Jones University in South Carolina.

Gilbert exudes a quiet modesty like others of an era that author/journalist Tom Brokaw called “the Greatest Generation.” Of his wartime experience, Gilbert says, “Thousands of pilots and crewmembers had similar experiences. The real heroes are those who never came home.”