Photos by: Jamie Sanders
Pilot Emilio Hernandez, Karen Mumford, and Bill Linkenhoker (right) in front of the Bonanza they flew from Savannah, Ga., to Indianapolis.
Karen Mumford was sitting in the stands at a pro football game last season when the hometown Jacksonville Jaguars brought a military veteran onto the field to be recognized for his service.
“It just kind of stuck with me,” she recalled. “It was short and sweet, and everybody stood up and clapped for this man.”
The moment resonated on a personal level: Mumford's grandfather, Bill Linkenhoker, is a World War II veteran who enlisted in the Navy in 1942, survived a torpedo attack off the coast of Africa and the torpedoing of his rescue ship, rose to the rank of lieutenant—and fulfilled a lifetime dream of becoming a pilot during his 18-year naval service.
So when Mumford learned that the National Football League had plans to honor members of the military with Salute to Service observances at games across the country, she made some phone calls with the thought that Linkenhoker—whom she describes as “a huge Indianapolis Colts fan—might be a candidate for similar acknowledgement at his home field.
It took a little time to make the right connection. Then in late October, the league notified Mumford that Linkenhoker had been chosen as honorary coin-toss captain for the Nov.4 game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis between the Colts and the Miami Dolphins.
“It was a wonderful feeling,” she said.”I never dreamed it would be a coin toss.”
There was a logistical complication. Linkenhoker, 89, was in Savannah, Ga., where he spends half the year, alternating with his Indianapolis-area hometown of Noblesville, Ind. The prospect of a long trek involving airline travel and ground transportation was daunting.
Undeterred, Mumford fished for the fix on Facebook. :
“It just snowballed,” she said in a phone interview. “It really took off.”
The snowball found its way to Emilio Hernandez of Brunswick, Ga., whose friends—in the literal, not virtual sense of the word—saw Mumford's plea online and brought it to the attention of the pilot and part-time flight instructor, whose day job is senior special agent for the Department of Homeland Security.
Hernandez said he is an immigrant who considers himself to be “reaping the benefit of what this man has done.” He volunteered to pilot the flight. The aircraft for the trip would be a Beech Bonanza made available by a company for which Hernandez sometimes provides flight instruction and proficiency training.
Early on the morning of Sunday, Nov. 4, the flight took off for Eagle Creek Airpark in Indianapolis with Hernandez, Linkenhoker, Mumford, and photographer Jamie Sanders aboard.
“I feel great about it,” said Linkenhoker, chuckling in added satisfaction at the game's final score: Colts 23, Dolphins 20.
As an enlisted man who became a pilot, Linkenhoker is one of the Navy's Silver Eagles, and he also bears the title of Navy mustang for having held every rank from apprentice seaman to commissioned officer.
Bill Linkenhoker with granddaughter Karen Mumford at an Indianapolis Colts game. Linkenhoker was selected as honorary coin-toss captain and made it to the game thanks to pilot Emilio Hernandez.
When asked, he estimated that he has flown between 3,000 and 4,000 hours including patrols in PBY seaplanes, instructing in SNJs, and flying lighter-than-air aircraft, to name a few assignments. But he added that totaling up flight hours “never bothered me much.”
The PBY squadrons were based in Pensacola and Jacksonville, Fla. Linkenhoker also flew P5M twin-engine seaplanes from Banana River.
“That's Cape Canaveral now.”
After the long day's flying to and from the football game the Bonanza has also earned the veteran aviator's praise.
“I love the instrumentation in that airplane,” he said.
At that day's end, the Bonanza had flown the multi-leg trip from Brunswick, Ga., to Savannah, to Indianapolis, and return in 9.2 hours, said Hernandez, who filed IFR both ways, shared some stick time with Linkenhoker, and found satisfaction in “exposing the fans to this man who fought for them so many years ago.”
When the national anthem began to play before the game, it was “an amazing moment,” Hernandez said, noting that only a high-performance general aviation aircraft could have filled the niche that made that moment possible.
Sharing that sense of satisfaction is Mumford, who has clearly outdone herself in a continual quest to show her granddad how much she cares for him.
“There are few things I can get for my grandfather,” she said. “It's hard to come up with stuff to do for him.”