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Four Generations of Pilots

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Most would argue that the Golden Age of aviation began at the end of World War I, but others like to think it began in 1927, when Charles Lindbergh first flew across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis. For John Stover, that year marked the beginning of the rest of his life in aviation.

A doctor took the Arkansas resident on his first flight. By the end of the flight, Stover’s view on life had changed: He would be an aviator.

He did his early flying in a Curtiss JN-4 Jenny. With room for an instructor and a student, it was the perfect airplane for Stover’s early career as a flight instructor.

During his initial years he flew in southeastern Arkansas and held several instruction and flight-service jobs before he was offered his first big break: an opportunity to own a business for flight instruction and flight services, and serve as airport manager in South Carolina. Between 1930 and 1950, Stover flew across South Carolina teaching students; running his operation; and flying J-3 Cubs, UC-77s, Cessna Bobcats, charters, and intrastate airlines.

Then he met a woman. A certificated pilot herself, Mae Cunningham married Stover, and the two became barnstormers: a team performing hair-raising aerobatics, buzzing barns and buildings, and wowing crowds large and small. To finish the shows, Mae would fly the airplane while Stover walked out on the wing.

Mae also played a large role in the glider training they offered at the airport, which in those days consisted of a glider tied to a fast car, which would accelerate full throttle down the runway while the combination of pulling and lifting forces would slingshot the glider above and in front of the tow car.

Stories abound of their adventures, passed on and embellished through the generations:

John flies a suspicious man on a suspicious trip for a suspiciously short stay. A few days later he is arrested as a conspirator in a Mob-planned bank robbery.

John and a student lose their engine, enter a flat spin, and do an emergency landing in the Appalachians of West Virginia. The native country folk think they’re gods and chop down a field of trees so they can take off again.

Stover eventually became the airport manager at Hot Springs, Ark. He later became a farmer and hunter, but his and Mae’s flying adventures would inspire their family for generations to come.

fourgenTheir daughter, Lee, learned to fly in Hot Springs in the 1940s, when her father was still the airport manager. At that point in Lee’s life, her father pulled a lot of weight at Hot Springs. For instance, on her first solo, instead of having her shirttail cut per tradition, her father walked over to a mechanic and had him remove the propeller of the J-3 Cub she just flew. The memento still hangs on her living room wall.

By 1949 Lee had accumulated approximately 300 flight hours, but she stopped flying to work as a station agent for Chicago and Southern Air Lines in Hot Springs, checking pilots in and working the gates at the airport.

Lee met a man named Paul Angel, who had just gotten a job with Chicago and Southern Air Lines. The first time Paul ever saw Lee, he was up on a ladder, elbow-deep in a radial engine and covered in grease. He turned around to wipe his brow and saw her walking through the hangar. Paul was so enraptured by her that he nearly fell off the ladder. A few years later, they got married.

Paul Angel had been a WWII Navy bombardier on a Grumman TBM Avenger, known for torpedo bombing. It was a single-engine bomber that operated off a carrier and held a three-person crew: pilot, gunner, and bombardier.

Paul and Lee started out in Memphis, Tenn., but soon moved to New Orleans, where they’ve lived ever since. Paul’s career continued in the airlines; Chicago and Southern eventually merged with Delta, and he moved up to DC-3s, then Lockheed 1011s, DC-7s, DC-9s, and eventually Convair 440s. Paul became a captain and, with some other pilots from Delta, bought a Republic Seabee to fly extra gigs. Lee became a full-time mom.

The two never formed a barnstorming team like Stover and Mae, but they did pass on the legacy of aviation. They had a son, John Angel. They knew he would eventually do some flying, but they didn’t know that he would take the family aviation tradition perhaps further than any before him.

fourgenJohn started lessons at 14 in New Orleans. His instructor was a man who didn’t smoke but always had a fat unlit cigar in his mouth. The man had been trained by Stover, John’s grandfather, so stories of Stover’s adventures were a common topic in lessons. During John’s checkride, his examiner asked if he could perform his steep turns the way that his grandfather had done them-with 60 degrees of bank instead of 45. John did both, and the two had a good laugh.

John progressed quickly, receiving his commercial certificate and multi-engine ratings before college, then his instrument and CFI while attending college at Louisiana Tech. He managed to work as an instructor while attending classes, and after his sophomore year got his CFII.

John got his first break into professional aviation at only 20 years old. He managed to get a summer job in Puerto Rico as a charter pilot, ferrying people on their way there from New York. The job wasn’t as straightforward as it would seem, however.

He showed up for the first day to a room full of managers speaking Spanish. They told him there were no openings after all, but to stick around for a few days in case one opened up. Confused and slightly worried, John hung out for a few days with a friend who worked for the company. He got the opportunity to fly the right seat with him; the friend was impressed, and four days later, John was flying as captain.

It was a promising start for any pilot with big aspirations, and when it came time to leave in the fall to go back to college, John was hesitant. But his father insisted he finish college.

Following college, John got hired at Southern/North Central Airlines, flying Metroliners, then DC-9s. He enjoyed the job immensely, but sitting with his dad Paul one day, he confessed that he wanted to fly 747s for Delta. His dad, in a fatherly, cooperative, subtle, and gentle tone, said something along the lines of “fat chance.” The two smiled.

The chances of becoming a 747 pilot for Delta were less than good. Then again, there was little in John’s family that was status-quo or likely or expected.

fourgenSouthern/North Central Airlines became Republic Airlines. Northwest Airlines then bought Republic, and then Northwest merged with Delta. Now John captains a Boeing 747-400 for Delta.

John and his wife, Laura Lee Angel, have been married for 31 years and have an 18-year-old daughter, Caitlin. Caitlin began flying at 16 and recently received her private pilot certificate. Even before she received her certificate, she had 30-plus hours of multi-engine time in a Piper Comanche. Caitlin is planning to go to Louisiana Tech, like her father, and if she continues to fly throughout her life, perhaps she will see the family’s fifth generation of pilots.

August 21, 2009

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