Photo by Eric Leslie
United Flying Octogenarians
Like many others, Donald Ferreira enjoys getting out early on summer days and enjoying the countryside before it gets too hot. Rather than go for a walk, however, the Red Bluff resident takes to the sky.
“I like to get up early in the summer, jump in the plane and fly very low, next to the canyons. It’s very relaxing,” Ferreira says.
Ferreira, a retired electrical engineer, is 82, and he’s two years into his membership of the United Flying Octogenarians, an international organization of people who have piloted aircraft on their 80th birthday or beyond.
Ferreira’s only concession to his advancing years has been to downgrade his plane from a sporty Van’s RV-4 to a slightly more sedate homebuilt Summit from Just Aircraft. In a flying career that stretches back to 1946, Ferreira has been at the controls of everything from a glider to a modified B-29 Superfortress.
Jack Kilpatrick, 85, is another UFO member and he can trace his fascination with flying all the way back to his childhood. As a boy, when he wasn’t scanning the skies for planes, he was up to his elbows in glue, fabric and wood, carefully assembling airplane models. His favorite was the SPAD, the French-made biplane that American World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker made famous.
As an adult, Kilpatrick owns (and flies) a replica SPAD that he built himself over a span of 12 years. Assembled and painted in such painstaking detail that Kilpatrick says Rickenbacker himself wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, the plane tells a different story in the air.
“It’s not very sweet. How in the hell we won a war in this thing I’ll never know. It’s 99 percent romance and 1 percent airplane,” Kilpatrick says. His other four planes include a twin-engine Piper Aerostar with a pressurized cabin that can comfortably carry six at an altitude of 20,000 feet elevation and an Aero L-29, a demilitarized Russian jet.
Of the Czech-built trainer, he says: “I use it if I really want to have fun. It’s fun to fly and you can do anything you’ve got the guts enough to try, but it’s hungry—very, very hungry. It burns a lot of fuel. I’m crazy. I like airplanes. It’s the only way I can explain it,” says Kilpatrick, who owns the Redding Jet Center at Redding Municipal Airport.
Kilpatrick may be crazy about airplanes, but he’s physically fit enough to continue flying them, according to Redding resident William Baker, a UFO member and a FAA-certified flight surgeon who routinely conducts mandatory flight physicals on North State pilots.
Baker, 88, began his aviation career in the Army Air Corps flight school during World War II, training in B-24s before moving on to B-29s at the Roswell Army Air Field in New Mexico. After the war, he earned his bachelor’s degree and then was recalled to the Korean War, where he flew 146 missions as a “bird dog” in liaison airplanes.
Baker says his job was to spot artillery, direct fire, mark targets for jet bombers, protect ground troops and avoid enemy fire. He was awarded four air medals for his service and admitted to the Quiet Birdmen, a secretive society of military and general aviators who have logged 500 or more hours of flight time. Past members include Charles Lindbergh and Gen. Jimmy Doolittle.
Baker continued to fly as a civilian, through medical school at UC Irvine and a medical practice with stints in Southern California and Mount Shasta. The proud owner of the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award—presented to pilots who log 50 years of accident-free flying—Baker has owned a variety of planes and currently pilots a late-’40s Ercoup.
Jack Kilpatric, 81, another Redding pilot, made his UFO membership official with a qualifying flight on his 80th birthday. His started flying lessons in 1966, took a break to run a business, and got his pilot’s license in 1978. He’s a recreational flier with close to 1,500 hours of flight time, including 500 hours on Civil Air Patrol missions.
“I love doing it. Some people like to hunt or fish—I’m like that with flying,” says Kilpatric, the part-owner of a Piper Cherokee 180.
Flying is recreational as well for 81-year-old Richard Wilkinson, who picked up the habit in 2006 after flying in his cousin’s Glastar homebuilt. “I said, ‘Teach me how to land in case something happens,’ and I did my first unassisted landing in Prineville, Ore., after three hours of training,” Wilkinson says.
On the ground, Wilkinson is well known for the elaborate Christmas decorations and Salvation Army kettles he sets up at his Barrel Court home in Redding. In the air, he says he flies for the fun of it. In addition to UFO, he’s part of Fly Thursday, a group of North State pilots who select various airports for weekly fly-in luncheons.
There are about 1,500 members of UFO in the country, with retirement-friendly California and Florida enjoying the largest memberships, according to Charlie Lopez, 86, the Miami-based vice president of public relations for the organization.
What motivates those octogenarians to continue flying? “Ninety-nine percent will say it’s the feeling of freedom you get. It’s a genuine feeling of being above everything. All the big problems on Earth just don’t seem to be there anymore. The freedom, the exhilaration, is one of the big feelings of flying.”