A special tribute to members' favorite pilots, fathers

June 10, 2014

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“Isn’t it strange that we talk least about the things we think about most?" – Charles Lindbergh

Father’s Day is set aside to honor and celebrate all dads who work tirelessly to support, educate, and protect their families in times of hardship or prosperity. They strive to raise their children to be respectful, responsible, and to be good, productive adults with morals and family values. 

Pilot Protection Services staff recently asked program participants who is or was their favorite pilot. They received an enormous amount of touching stories, and the overwhelming majority acknowledged fathers. A few members, along with a member’s young daughter, were kind enough to allow AOPA to share their inspiring stories.

Jim Clees, AOPA member No. 06256952, on his father, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Robert J. Clees

My dad, Lt. Col. Robert (Bob) J. Clees, USAF, deceased, was my favorite pilot.  He was a fighter pilot in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam with 4,000 flying hours, about 600 in combat. 

As a second lieutenant, he flew P-47D Thunderbolts in the 9th Air Force, based in Great Britain and France.  He was shot down by FW-190s on June 24, 1944, about 100 miles behind enemy lines.  The French Resistance hid him for two months, until he could escape back into friendly territory. He rejoined his squadron and completed his combat tour with a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), Purple Heart, and a fistful of Air Medals.
    

Bob Clees

As a captain, dad flew F-51Ds and F-86Fs during the Korean War.  He flew on the last F-51 combat mission in U.S. history. His unit, the 18th Fighter-Bomber Wing, stood down each squadron, in turn, to transition from props to jets without ever leaving the combat zone.  After three rides in the T-33 for a quick lesson in handling jets, the pilots started training flights in the F-86. My dad was bounced by MiGs during one training hop. No damage done.    

As a major and lieutenant colonel, dad flew F-4Cs out of Danang Airbase, South Vietnam. He escorted F-105s over North Vietnam. He flew interdiction missions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and close air support for ground units in South Vietnam. He flew a top-secret mission, at tree-top height, dropping special, parachute-retarded supply pods at lat-long fixes inside North Vietnam. He never knew what was in the pods or for whom they were dropped. The egress route took him through a valley that had anti-aircraft guns along the ridge tops. The secret to surviving that leg was to stay low on the deck, because the guns could not depress their barrels low enough to shoot downward. He was awarded a second DFC for that mission. Dad was the operations officer (second in command) of the 390th Tactical Fighter Squadron, the Wild Boars. He told me that by the end of that combat tour, while there had been some battle damage, there had been no combat losses and no aircraft accidents.  Those were his favorite wartime statistics. 

In a nearly 30-year career, dad flew the PT-19, BT-13, AT-6, P-40, P-47, P-51, T-33, F-86F, F-86D, F-102, F-84F, F-4C, F-4D, and F-4E.  He survived two bailouts, one from the P-47 when he was shot down, and one from the P-51D while patrolling along the coast of Japan in 1947, when the engine lost coolant and seized up.

B.J. Hunter, AOPA member No. 01081677, on his father, Robert N. Hunter 

Robert HunterMy Dad is my favorite pilot, Robert N. Hunter. He was a World War II B-24 pilot with 51 missions including five over Ploesti, Romania, and a B-29 instructor pilot after his tour overseas. He went back to school after the war and became a civil engineer. In his work he got to fly some but after growing up in the depression he couldn't justify flying personally. When my Dad started flying again in his work, my mother who didn't know him when he was in the service commented later that she had never seen him as happy as when he was flying.

Tracy Tarango, on her husband, Luis Tarango, AOPA member No. 01744629

My favorite pilot is most certainly my husband! Now to tell you the story of why: A long time ago there was a little boy who lived Cuchillo Parado in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. My husband lived there with his mother and father and siblings (two younger twin sisters and an older and younger brother.) His father was the equivalent of whom weTracy Tarango would call the justice of the peace of the little town. 

I often heard my husband talk about his dad (who sadly passed from illness when my husband was only twelve) who would have to call for a plane if someone got really sick or hurt to come and get them and take them to the city hospital. Now my husband's family was not wealthy and at times he said they did not even have shoes or food because times were very hard in the little town and with his family. 

But back to my story, he said that the airstrip was all the way on the other side of town from where their house was and when the plane would come he said he would run as fast as he could to the airstrip (a lot of times in bare feet) just hoping he could get there in time to see the plane land. What a treat he said it was for him just to get to see the plane. He had a love for aviation from that young age. 

After his dad passed, he came to this country with an uncle to find work so he could send money home to his mother and siblings. He allowed his brothers to finish school and helped to care for his two twin sisters, who were only babies when their dad died. I can't imagine having that on me at any age much less at twelve. By the way, he was born in Texas so he was able to go back and forth legally. A big plus for sure but how scary that must have been for him. 

As time passed and through so many difficult days and years my husband became successful in his job and was able to work and save to get his pilot license. What a joy that must have been for him that day when he first got to solo. 

When I met my husband he was already a private pilot and I never knew the story until little by little he began to tell me. It was often painful for him to talk about because of the hardships he had to face at such a young age. He always worried about his mother and his brothers and sisters. He had taken on the role of man of the house after his dad died because he said that he felt he had to do something for his family so they could survive. And again, all this from a twelve year old boy–how humbling that was for me to listen to. I've never had that worry much less as a child of twelve. 

With tears in his eyes he said to me, "Can you believe that, me, that little boy from a poor family in a rural little town in Mexico actually got to become a pilot?" My, how God blessed him so, I thought! 

Later after we were married my husband and I were on a job assignment of his in Kentucky and he found a plane for sale (he always looked at the controller website dreaming of owning a plane like I'm sure every pilot does, right?!) I watched him always look and hope with the same hope I'm sure was in his heart as a little boy running barefoot through town to just catch a glimpse of the plane, not ever thinking he would get the opportunity to fly one .That was something that his heart so desired but he never thought he would be able to do coming from such a humble life. Every week he would look at controller and dream. 

I want you to know that I got on my knees and begged God to give him a plane of his own. My husband has always taken care of everyone before him, and does so to this day. I have never met a more loving father, grandfather, husband, brother, uncle, or human being in my life. 

While we were in Kentucky, God blessed him with his own plane—a Piper Cherokee. We drove from Kentucky all the way to Michigan to look at it and hopefully to be able to get it.

When he took off from Michigan bringing it home I thought what a surreal moment that must have been for him, I thanked God for blessing this wonderful man and for bringing the heart’s desire to a little boy who never thought then but now knows that all things are possible!

Every time I see my husband’s face after he lands and steps from the plane he looks as if he is that little boy again smiling from ear to ear. What a glorious feeling it is when you’re up there in the sky with just you and God he, says. I am so thankful that God brought his heart’s desire to him because he is so loving and giving to all that know him! 

Thank you for listening to my story and I hope that you find it as inspiring as I have. My husband is not only the greatest pilot I know but is also my hero! 

Kimberly Nutt on her father, Michael Nutt #01208948

Michael and Kim Nutt“My name is Kimberly Nutt, and I am 12 years old and just finishing 7th grade. I enjoy flying with my favorite pilot, my Dad, because he always lets ME fly the plane. He also educates me on the airplane and the different landmarks below us. My favorite part of the flight is when we are about to take off and also when we fly above the clouds sometimes. I also like when we go to air shows, fly-ins, and aviation museums, like that National Museum of the United States Air Force. I am already following in my father's footsteps by having an instructor teach me about the motor glider. I hope to be able to solo the motor glider in two years when I turn fourteen. I love flying with both of my parents because my Mom is a pilot too!”

AOPA would like to wish every father out there a very special Father’s Day. Share your father's flying story in the comments below.