July 1, 2011
By Ian J. Twombly
Lee Wolford is an old, bold pilot—the kind that aviation maxims (and laws of averages) say shouldn’t exist. The retired U.S. Air Force colonel and Vietnam War veteran logged more than 5,000 hours in single-seat fighters ranging from the F–86 to the F–106, and is still doing the type of flying he loves most: formation, aerobatics, and mock dogfights with friends over the high plains east of his home in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“My wife says I’m the oldest teenager she knows,” said Wolford, 78. “It’s way too late for me to change now.”
Wolford flew supersonic, high-altitude interceptors for years before the Vietnam War but volunteered to fly low, slow, piston-engine observation airplanes there. Most of his work as a forward air controller in 1970 and 1971 was done in push-pull Cessna O–2s (military version of the Cessna 337 Skymaster twin), which was critically important but dangerous, unglamorous flying.
“I’d spent all my time in fighters and really didn’t know much about the air-to-ground mission when I went to Vietnam,” Wolford said. “Much of what I learned is that the guys who flew the O–2 did some really great work in a marginal airplane that really wasn’t built for that mission.”
Wolford, an engineer by training, returned to fighters after the war, specialized in aircraft maintenance and modifications, and performed countless test flights. In F–106s, he’d commonly take the Mach 2 airplanes above 70,000 feet to make sure everything worked properly—and sometimes it didn’t. On his final flight in the delta-wing jet, an explosive depressurization at 72,000 feet caused him to lose consciousness, and he didn’t wake up until the airplane had fallen to 18,000 feet in a vertical dive.
“The engine had flamed out,” he said, “but it wasn’t that big a deal. As soon as I woke up, I restarted it and went home.”
Wolford said he had no interest in becoming an airline pilot or working for the government, so he founded or was employed by a variety of aerospace firms. General aviation didn’t appeal to him because he thought nothing could compare to the flying he’d already done.
Wolford owned a motor home, however, and 10 years ago was looking for a place to store it. He rented a hangar at Meadow Lake Airport, and there he encountered Loyd Remus, a pilot and aircraft builder with a wry sense of humor.
“Loyd told me he had an RV, too,” Wolford said. “He was talking about his airplane, an RV–4. Once he took me flying in it, I was hooked. It flies like a fighter.”
Wolford bought a RV–4 and then built an F–1 Evo Rocket, an airplane based on the RV series but bigger and faster, with a much more powerful Lycoming IO-540. The airplane puts out more than 300 horsepower, and it’s equipped with an MT prop and digital IFR avionics. He gives introductory rides to young people, and he donates time and money to the Aviation Education Foundation of Colorado, a local charity that helps them get started in aviation careers.
“I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. I never thought it was possible to have this much fun flying at this stage in my life, or that I’d get to do it with such a talented and cohesive group of people.”
Photo by Allen Birnbach.
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