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Remembering aviators who ‘danced the skies’ in 2017Remembering aviators who ‘danced the skies’ in 2017

As 2017 closes out, AOPA pauses to honor those who made major contributions to aviation before they “slipped the surly bonds of Earth.”

AOPA remembers the lives of major contributors to aviation. From top left: Eugene "Gene" Cernan, Doris Lockness, Luigi Pascale, Bill Brennand, Craig Dotlo, James C. Ray, and Javiar Arango. Bottom left: John Karkow, Clyde Shelton, Vernon Ehlers, Lois Kay Gott Chaffey, James W. Brown Jr., King Michael I of Romania, and Stephen Merritt. Composite image by AOPA staff includes courtesy photos and AOPA file photos.

The poem High Flight by World War II Spitfire pilot John Gillespie Magee Jr. suggested that in death, pilots “danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings” because they were no longer encumbered by Earthly connections. 

Aviators remember more than a dozen standouts who died in 2017including an astronaut, an aviation hall of famer, an aircraft designer, a racing legend, an advocacy expert, a philanthropist, an aircraft collector, a test pilot, a designated pilot examiner, a legislator, a Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), a businessman, a king, a humanitarian, and an aerobatic champion.

Astronaut Eugene "Gene" Cernan was the last human to walk on the moon. The Apollo 17 commander logged 22 hours and 6 minutes of lunar surface exploration. He was a passionate pilot who challenged the nation to continue its outer space exploration. Cernan was 82 when he died Jan. 16.

Doris Lockness was inspired by female aviator Amelia Earhart and earned her pilot certificate in 1939. The aviator was a WASP member and one of the 100 most-influential women in aviation and aerospace. Lockness was 106 when she died Jan. 30.

Italian aircraft designer Luigi Pascale built his first aircraft in 1951 with his brother Giovanni. He was known for numerous designs including the P48 Astore single, P68 Victor light twin, P55 Tornado racer, P92 Echo two-passenger single, P2012 11-place twin, and many more. He founded aircraft manufacturing companies Partenavia Construzioni Aeronautiche and Tecnam Aircraft. Pascale was 93 when he died March 14.

Wisconsin air racing legend Bill Brennand guided Buster to the Goodyear Trophy in 1947 during the first air race he entered. He also helped establish the Experimental Aircraft Association’s EAA AirVenture Seaplane Base. Brennand was 92 when he died March 14.

Former AOPA Eastern Regional Manager Craig Dotlo was a general aviation airport defender and advocate on state legislative issues. The retired Federal Bureau of Investigation supervisory special agent and instrument-rated private pilot was 71 when he died March 30.

Aviation philanthropist and World War II veteran James C. Ray preferred anonymity for his charitable work. He was an AOPA President's Council member and acted as an adviser to more than 300 startup companies. “He never met an electronic gadget he didn’t love,” wrote longtime friend Chuck Ahearn. Ray was 94 when he died April 1.

Airplane collector Javiar Arango was a World War I aircraft authority and a board member emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. One of the Californian’s goals was to “obtain enough of the Fokker, Nieuport, and Sopwith models to complete a valid study of their evolution.” Arango was 54 when he died in an aircraft accident April 23.

Icon Aircraft designer Jon Karkow was the lead test pilot for the manufacturer’s spin-resistant, two-place, folding-wing A5 amphibian. Prior to Icon, he helped develop numerous aircraft for Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites, plus the rigid sailing foil for the 1988 America’s Cup Star & Stripes entry—which revolutionized yacht racing. Karkow was 55 when he died with Icon employee Cagri Sever in an A5 crash May 8.

Sought-after pilot examiner Clyde Shelton was a Southern legend for administering more than 10,000 checkrides in Alabama and Tennessee. The two-state aviation hall of famer attracted pilots from hundreds of miles away because of his reputation for being understanding, though he told AOPA he was “no Santa Claus.” The 86-year-old Shelton had administered 10,379 checkrides before he died June 10.

Former U.S. Rep. Vernon Ehlers was a nuclear physicist, pilot, and AOPA member who served nine terms in Congress. He co-founded the House General Aviation Caucus and was also known as a passionate educator and a strong advocate for the funding of science and environmental protection. Ehlers was 83 when he died Aug. 15.

WASP member Lois Kay Gott Chaffey flew 17 different types of aircraft during World War II, including the P-51 Mustang and B-25 Mitchell. The physical education teacher from Idaho also wrote three books: Women in Pursuit: Flying Fighters for the Air Transport Command; Hazel Ah Ying lee, Women Air Force Service Pilot, World War II: A portrait; and Flying the ’64 Flood. Chaffey was 97 when she died Aug. 21.

James W. Brown Jr. bought Hartzell Propeller Inc. in 1987 and led the propeller company for nearly a quarter century that spanned the aviation industry’s tumultuous 1990s. The skilled U.S. Navy pilot stepped aside and handed the operation to his son in 2000, who continues the propeller manufacturer as a family-run business. He was remembered by aviators as a business leader who played a “very significant leadership role” in reinvigorating general aviation. Brown was 84 when he died Nov. 20.

King Michael I of Romania had ascended the throne twice, and was a commercial pilot and an AOPA charter member. In 1944 Michael was 22 when he led a coup against his country’s pro-Nazi government head that freed Romania from Hitler’s grasp. His decision to have Romania’s forces fight side by side with the Allies against the Nazis reportedly shortened World War II by some six months and helped “save hundreds of thousands of lives,” according to a Romanian journalism website. King Michael was 96 when he died in Switzerland Dec. 5.

Bahamas Habitat founder Stephen W. Merritt was a certificated flight instructor, airport manager, and humanitarian with a deep concern for the Caribbean islands and their people. Merritt established the charity organization in the wake of a catastrophic 2010 Haitian earthquake and flew relief missions to the island when very few others would or could. More recently, he assisted Bahamians and Haitians recovering from 2016’s Hurricane Matthew. Merritt was 70 when he died Dec. 17 after an airplane accident in North Carolina.

Mary Gaffaney was a two-time world aerobatic champion, a helicopter pilot, and a Miami glider school owner. Gaffaney also put her aviation skills to work as a skywriter during a time when it was rare for a female pilot to achieve such a feat. During her aerobatic heyday, the Florida-based pilot was featured in Sports Illustrated magazine and she was inducted into the International Aerobatic Club Hall of Fame in 1991. Gaffaney was 91 when she died in December.   

David Tulis

David Tulis

Associate Editor Web/ePilot
AOPA Associate Editor Web/ePilot David Tulis joined AOPA in 2015 and is a seaplane-rated private pilot who enjoys vintage aircraft, aerobatic flying, and photography.
Topics: Pilots

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