Tennessee and Alabama aviation hall of fame member Clyde Shelton, who administered a legendary 10,379 checkrides as an FAA designated pilot examiner, died June 10 at age 86. “We’ve lost a fine fellow,” said Marti Herring of Executive Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where Shelton was a fixture for many years. "He was like a grandfather to us."
Thousands of student pilots and aviators seeking primary and advanced ratings and certificates flew to Huntsville Executive Airport/Tom Sharp Jr. Field, often from hundreds of miles away, so Shelton could administer their checkrides. With a shock of grey hair, a firm handshake, and a disarming smile, he was known as a tough but fair examiner; he was not a pushover.
Shelton was born in Taft, Tennessee, in 1931, and began his aviation career in the U.S. Air Force at age 20. During the Cold War, he crewed on Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star and North American F-86 Sabre aircraft before landing a job with NASA during the early days of space exploration. Shelton worked on the Jupiter-C project that launched America’s first satellite, Explorer-1. He also spent time on the Redstone rocket project that launched Alan Shepard on a suborbital flight in 1961. One of Shelton’s NASA colleagues was Wernher von Braun, the father of modern rocketry, who went on to design the Saturn V rocket used for Apollo space missions.
“Dad would leave work from NASA and go teach people how to fly every evening, and then fly all day Saturdays and Sundays too, after church,” Shelton’s son, Scott, previously told AOPA. Shelton administered checkrides for three generations of his family including wife Sara, who was fond of landing Cessna 150s without using flaps; Scott, who is now an airline captain; and grandson Nevada, who is a U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter pilot.
Scott Shelton told AOPA that his father lived for aviation and was known as much for helping people get started in the field as he was for furthering someone’s aviation career. Max Gurgew, an Alabama flight instructor, pilot examiner, and safety representative, wrote in an email that Shelton was a wonderful person and touched the hearts and souls of many aviators.
Close friend and confidant Donna Meyer said Shelton was an active pilot until he retired in November 2016. “He stayed busy right up until then, pretty much doing two checkrides a day. He didn’t really want to retire.”
Shelton was inducted into aviation halls of fame in both his native state of Tennessee (2010) and his favorite stomping grounds of Alabama (2016). Meyer escorted Shelton and his family to Birmingham for the ceremony at the Southern Museum of Flight, where he mingled and reminisced with guests, aviation officials, and former students.
“He was quite an aviator and a most special individual,” said Meyer. Pilots flying vintage aircraft organized a June 15 aviation flyover of Shelton’s home field following a celebration of life service to honor their friend and longtime flight examiner.