Irascible, opinionated, and proudly unrefined, Wilson Connell “Connie” Edwards, 85, died May 3 in his native Texas.
Edwards learned to fly as a teen and later spent decades performing secretive contract flying for government agencies in the 1950s and 1960s, much of it in Central and South America. He was the aerial coordinator for the 1969 movie Battle of Britain, and performed much of the on-camera flying in Spitfires, Hurricanes, and Spanish Buchons painted as Messerschmitt 109s.
In the 1950s, he bought dozens of war surplus P–51 Mustangs and other iconic aircraft for a small fraction of their later worth as collectors’ items. He took airplanes as payment for much of his movie work and later sold them for millions of dollars.
“I know the value of what I’ve got, and I don’t haggle,” Edwards said during a 2015 interview in characteristically uncompromising fashion. “Pay my price, or don’t waste my time.”
Edwards became an early investor in Walmart after founder Sam Walton made a chance landing at Edwards’ gravel airstrip in Big Spring, Texas, in search of a place to hunt quail. Edwards started a highly successful quarry when Texas stone (a prized form of petrified wood ideal for masonry) was discovered on his property. The relatively recent boom in hydraulic fracturing, which made formerly marginal oil fields highly profitable, also was a windfall for Edwards.
Edwards flew a B–25 as a corporate aircraft for years, and he was a founder of the Commemorative Air Force (then the Confederate Air Force) but had a bitter falling out with the Dallas-based organization.
Despite his landlocked location, Edwards adored seaplanes—especially the multiengine variety—and flew them far and wide. He had two PBY Catalinas, an Albatross, and a Mallard at his ranch airstrip, and he flew one of the PBYs to England and back in 2011 (although he regarded the Albatross as a far superior airplane). He also regularly flew the big seabirds to the Cayman Islands, as well as the annual EAA convention in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where he hung jet skis from the wings.
Edwards began selling some of his aircraft after son Wilson Connell “Tex” Edwards Jr., was killed in a 2013 car accident. Tex was an accomplished pilot and Edwards anticipated his son would someday take over the idiosyncratic fleet.
“I was going to give it all to Tex,” Edwards said. “Now that he’s gone, there’s no sense keeping it.”
Edwards lived in a literal castle of his own design and surrounded it with elaborate sculptures he made by hand. He entertained fly-in visitors and cruised the grounds of his sprawling ranch in a white pickup truck until a few days before his death. (He was hospitalized Wednesday after falling at home.)
“He was always forward-looking and positive,” said Terry Adams, a friend and fellow warbird pilot who saw Edwards a week ago when he landed his T–6 at the ranch airstrip. “He asked me if I wanted a beer, and I told him of course not because I was flying out soon. He just laughed and smiled. Connie was Connie. No one was ever going to change him—and that’s what we loved about him.”