Veteran by airplane
9 min read

Before I started working at this central Texas plant as an electrician, the people I would soon be working with already knew I was a private pilot with my own airplane. At the time, my plane was still hangared in Garden City, Kansas. I had many people approach me with questions about being a pilot and flying. I was queried about everything from what permissions I need when I want to fly to how one learns to fly. There were numerous conversations about something I love talking about. The most fascinating aspect of these discussions involved my dispelling the view that becoming a pilot was just for the super-rich.

On the very first day, a maintenance mechanic, John Perez, came to the electrician’s shop to meet me. He got right to the point of flying. John had never flown at all. He had many questions including what it would take to have me take him flying. At that time, I had one problem with the plane: I was in need of nitrogen for the nose wheel. I was due for my annual also. John would check with me from time to time to see if there was something he could do to help get the airplane ready to fly. His enthusiasm meant a lot to me.


Giving an airplane ride is especially fun when it’s the first flight of any kind for your passenger.

Naturally, I had (still have) a lot of people with an interest in flying, whether it was their first time ever or first time in a small airplane. Choosing the first person to take when I finally got everything done was easy. John rarely comes to the electrician’s shop. He was there on day one with an earnest interest. He’s one of those guys who would help you out with anything you were doing. When the time came to take the Comanche with passengers, John was number one on the list.

On the day of flying, he showed up at the airport not knowing what to expect. I was doing my pre-flight when he met my wife Tina after he parked. He admitted to being a little nervous. We got boarded and took a short tour over Quanah, Texas. It was smooth flying and a decent landing. We are planning to do some more flying to destinations with the wives. It’ll be a hoot.

I like having a debriefing session after flying with someone for the first time. John found his first flight to be something he wasn’t expecting. I will assume he thought it would be much more troublesome than it was. In fact, it was an easy, natural event. Quite different than what most people come to believe flying to be who have never flown in a small airplane. I am working one person at a time to change that thinking.

I was approached by Mark Leija next. I’m not sure what Mark’s title is at the plant. He is over electricians and mechanics but under the maintenance supervisor. Mark had an interest in not just himself but his son flying sometime. We were able to work out a time to fly but his son was not available. So I just took Mark with later plans to take his son and him on another flight.

We had a great day picked out that was smooth air the entire morning. We flew the same area John and I flew. We toured over Quanah and over a private lake east of town. Mark being more familiar with the area pointed out details of the town and was quite comfortable with the Comanche’s performance in the air. The landing was on the numbers and quite uneventful.

Passenger by Comanche

“Once you are in the air and taking in the experience, all your problems in life are gone.”

Both of these guys enjoyed their time in the air. Mark commented after the flight something that all of us know all too well: once you are in the air and taking in the experience, all your problems in life are gone. When they were in the air, what they see of the world is far below and very small. I believe this perspective is what makes flying so phenomenal. It draws you away from the surface of the Earth and all the problems down here. I did more than take these guys for their first flight in my airplane. I gave them a new perspective.

I was given an amazing opportunity last week.

John McSpadden is a life-long local here in the Hardeman County area. He welcomed me and Tina to the area when we moved here. We have had many conversations about the colorful history of Quanah. John would come by to visit with newspaper articles and stories he had saved over the years about Quanah’s past. I learned a lot about this nice little part of Texas. Hardeman County is a rich and vibrant community and I am glad to be residing in it.

John is a Korean War veteran who flew bombers and helicopters. As of late, he had not been coming by to visit. I found out a couple months ago that his health was failing and he had been moved to a nursing home in the nearby town of Vernon, Texas. While there to visit Tina’s grandmother a few weeks ago, I saw and exchanged quick pleasantries with him.

Last week, after I left for work, John and his son James came out to the house. They told Tina they were wanting to talk to me. Tina explained that I had left for work already. James told Tina the reason for their visit. Tina immediately texted me. I had to reread her text. My reply was, “John wants to fly?” I was floored. John was making a request. He wanted to go for a flight in an airplane one last time.

No way was I going to pass on the opportunity and honor to fly an American veteran combat pilot. No way at all. To think of all the pilots I am sure John knows, and he came to me for this request. A request I was honored to fulfill. Tina and I made it happen.

I picked the next Thursday morning. I would be off work at 7 a.m. and I could fly then. Tina got right on the arrangements. Since James would not be available, we decided we would fly to Wilbarger County Airport rather than drive to get John and drive him the 30 miles back to Quanah. Tina called Wilbarger County and the nursing home. The airport assured Tina that a courtesy car would be available and the nursing home said they would have John ready to go if she called when leaving Quanah.

Thursday morning came and there were storms in the area. After a short wait, the area was clear so the call was “Go.” Tina called to notify everyone and I started the pre-flight. In short order we were in the air for the extremely short flight to Wilbarger County (F05). The air was smooth and calm so I knew I would have a good aerial tour with John. The airport was easy to see on approach but NOTAMs let me know that the primary runway was closed. With wind direction, this was not a problem.

We landed and were welcomed by the FBO. We even had a special opportunity to visit with two veterans who happened to be there. I don’t have pictures of these American veterans, but they are Lee Wilkinson (Anti-Aircraft Artillery, WWII, 526th AAA Gun Battalion), and Harlan Screws (Korean War, B36 Prop Specialist).

Veteran by airplane

Sharing the cockpit with a veteran – even better.

We got John from the nursing home and brought him to the airport. The guys at the FBO were very accommodating. It took the four of us to assist John getting in the Comanche. It wasn’t all that hard. John himself was getting in the airplane. It was obvious he was determined to go flying. We started up and taxied to the favorable runway.

Lift off was nice and straight. I felt a sense that I was on a mission. I noticed something different about my passenger that I have not with any other passenger. Just couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I climbed quickly to one thousand feet above ground level and set to level flight at 120 mph airspeed – naturally less than cruising speed. As we took our short tour over the city of Vernon, Texas, and the area west of town, it occurred to me what was different about this special passenger of mine. John was “On Point.”

He was checking the instrument panel, knowing what the gauges were telling him, and watching the horizon to know how the Comanche was maneuvering. He brought a camera and never touched it. John was back in his environment where he belonged for what may be his last time. It was my honor and privilege to be the pilot for this event. For him, it was back to what he knew. For me, it was my greatest hour as a private pilot.

The landing was nice and neat. It could have been a nasty, terrible, extreme crosswind landing and it wouldn’t have mattered. My passenger flew and landed airplanes and helicopters in war zones. Think about it. We didn’t have to take off, fly and land with enemy gunfire. We flew in a safe and secure nation because brave men and women, like John McSpadden, risked their lives – and some died.

After the flight, John told Tina how impressed he was with the performance of this little Comanche 180. (What did he mean “little”? Not everyone gets to fly bombers).

When we got back home, Tina got a call from James. He thanked us for doing this for his dad. He asked if he owed us anything. Really? I think we owed him for the privilege. I know that for the rest of my life this will be the greatest opportunity as a pilot I get. I hope I get another request like this. I never served in the military. So the Comanche and I will serve those who did.

Special thanks to Advanced Rehabilitation of Vernon, Texas, and Willbarger County Airport for helping make this happen.

David Watt
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7 replies
  1. Mike Sheetz
    Mike Sheetz says:

    The pleasure of taking others for a ride in a light plane for the first time, or a rare occasion, still is something I enjoy every time. It’s great to introduce newbies to general aviation, and taking a veteran for a flight is commedible after all they have done for us. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Joyce Heft
    Joyce Heft says:

    David I am so proud of you for using your talents and knowledge to share the love of flying that only a small number of people will ever really know and enjoy. To this day flying is still the greatest personal satisfaction and accomplishment of my life.

  3. Matthew Forgea
    Matthew Forgea says:

    God Bless your wife and yourself David. I have a Cherokee and am always trying to take people up for their first time in a small plane, and it isn’t until I actually take them, that they realize how much fun it is. Some people have the unfounded idea that all small planes are dangerous, but once we move the plane out of the hanger and I begin to answer questions and let them touch and see the plane, do they begin to relax. By the end of the flight, all them want to know when “we” can go again. These flights are when I tell myself that all the training and costs associated with plane ownership make it worthwhile. Cheers!

  4. Gary Sackman
    Gary Sackman says:

    Beautiful real life story of caring and love for one of the greatest generation. Thanks for sharing your experience with a hero of the “forgotten” war. I am a vet from the Vietnam and Cold War era, but always have the greatest respect for those who put their lives on the line then, so I could live a free life in America. Never forget. God Bless America.

  5. Lisa Lunsford
    Lisa Lunsford says:

    David, this article made me cry. You are an awesome person and I know this meant the world to Mr. McSpadden and his son. God Bless You Always My Friend.

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