For a while, 1968 was a good year for Joe Manchin. He was becoming a pilot in his own airplane and had enrolled at West Virginia University on a football scholarship. But things changed. First there was an injury that ended any hopes of college football, and then the family furniture store burned to the ground; he was forced to leave school and return home to help his parents rebuild the business.
Even facing such hardship, the family managed to hold on to the Cherokee, and it wasn’t long before Manchin had his certificate and was using the small four-seater to take his new wife, Gayle, and then the first of the Manchin children flying. “Our children grew up going to vacations in that little airplane. We’d just put them in the back and go. They later had a hard time adjusting to driving to vacations.”
In 1975, the Cherokee 140 gave way to a Cherokee 235, which was replaced in 1981 with a brand-new Piper Saratoga that the instrument-rated Manchin still owns and flies today. That alone would qualify him as one of the few flying governors in the country’s history, but his aviation experience goes well beyond family trips or the occasional use of the Saratoga as a cost-effective traveling machine on state business.
After his intensive recurrent training at FlightSafety International in Wichita (“You feel like you’re drinking out of a fire hose”), it’s not uncommon for residents of West Virginia to see their chief executive arrive in the left seat of the state’s well-equipped Cessna Caravan, an aircraft that supplements the Beechcraft King Air 350 that’s used when faster travel and a few more seats are required. The Caravan was purchased around the time that the state decided to combine its aviation resources into one department. Removing himself from the process, the politically astute two-term governor knew that plans for which aircraft should be purchased and how it should be used were best left to a committee of aviation experts. The committee recommended Cessna’s big turboprop single, a choice applauded by Manchin because, “This is an aircraft that we could fly into almost every short-field operation, with almost the utility of a helicopter, but with the mobility of being able to take the bomb squad with their robot, or the SWAT or rescue teams. It’s so versatile; a multi-mission machine.”
Whether on a family flight or in the left seat of the Caravan to one of the more than 40 airports in the state, Manchin says that his flying time is the only time he can “turn off” being the governor. “During the time I’m in the cockpit everything else comes second. If you truly want to clear all of your concerns, thoughts, and challenges, flying is the only thing I know that really does it. Nothing clears me like flying.”
The flying governor of West Virginia lent his support to the GA Serves America rally at AOPA Aviation Summit in November.