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Remembering aviators who died in 2020

Aviator and musician John Denver captured the feeling of flight in On the Wings of an Eagle, where he sings, “Oh my home is in the mountains, I am free, I am free. I am one with wind and eagles, I am free. Given wings to sail in gracefulness, the sky, the sky. Given voice to sing in breathlessness, I find that I can fly, fly away.”

These pilots understood that feeling of freedom in the sky and made significant contributions to aviation.

Historian, author, and retired Air Force Col. Walter Boyne

Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Walter Boyne, a bomber pilot, author, and former director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, died January 9 at age 90. The military pilot began a decades-long writing career in grade school and went on to author numerous aviation novels, historical books, and more than 1,000 articles based on his flying experiences and acquaintances. Boyne was a major influencer in the early days of the museum, where he served as the facility’s director in the 1980s.

Team Chambliss pilot Steve Andelin

Steve Andelin, a member of Team Chambliss, died January 24 in a crash during in Guatemala. He was piloting a Zivko Aeronautics Edge 540 painted in Kirby Chambliss’s Team Chambliss Red Bull livery when the aircraft slammed into a ramp during practice for a private airshow, killing Andelin and two people on the ground. Team Chambliss recognized Andelin in 2018 for his “deep expertise” with the Edge 540 Red Bull Air Race Master Class aircraft when he crewed the season-ending race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. His experience as a test pilot for the manufacturer and aeronautics degree were among the highlights of his aviation career. Andelin, of California, was a 2003 member of the U.S. Unlimited Aerobatic Team—along with Chambliss. He learned to fly in his father’s Aeronca Champ, held A&P and IA certificates, and was a retired Boeing 787 captain.

Twin Tigers airshow performer Mark Nowosielski

Tiger Airshows performer Mark Nowosielski died January 25 in a fatal crash that also killed Nathan Sorenson, the 13-year-old son of pilot, Twin Tigers team owner, friend, and mentor Mark Sorenson. They died when the Mustang II homebuilt aircraft flown by Nowosielski crashed near Big T Airport, a private airfield in metropolitan Atlanta. Nowosielski and Mark Sorenson entertained EAA AirVenture and Sun ’n Fun Aerospace Expo audiences with snap rolls, stalls, and inverted flight during day and night performances in distinctive, identical orange-and-black-striped Yakovlev Yak–55 aerobatic taildragger aircraft. The Southwest Airlines pilot told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2018 that his flying passion began with radio-controlled aircraft in his home country of South Africa before the family moved to Georgia when he was a teenager. He went on to earn a degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and later learned to perform aerobatics. He earned the 2013 U.S. National Advanced Aerobatic championship and was an unlimited-category member of the 2015 U.S. World Aerobatic team, according to the International Aerobatic Club.

Longtime HAI leader Matthew Zuccaro

Just weeks after retiring from the helm of the Helicopter Association International, Matthew Zuccaro died February 25 at the age of 70. Zuccaro had recently attended HAI Heli-Expo in California, where he was honored with the FAA Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award for “50 years of professionalism and skill as a pilot,” and where the association’s new president, James Viola, was introduced to the membership. “Matt was one of a kind in our industry,” said Viola. “Helicopters were part of his life, beginning with his U.S. Army service in Vietnam. Throughout his career, he made safe helicopter operations his priority, and we are a better, stronger, and safer industry today because of his efforts on behalf of rotorcraft.”

Pilot and ‘Actors Studio’ host James Lipton

Pilot James Lipton, the bearded baritone host of the TV program Inside the Actors Studio, died March 2 at age 93. He wore his “AOPA wings” on his suit jacket lapel because he was as proud of his aviation background as he was of his many screen and stage contributions. During an interview with comedian Robin Williams, the Good Morning Vietnam actor quizzed Lipton on AOPA’s then-symbol, which led to a humorous exchange between the two personalities. Aviation was a passion since childhood, the TV host told AOPA Pilot magazine during a 2012 interview. In 1980 he earned his private pilot certificate after training primarily in a Cessna 152 and 172 at East Hampton Airport in New York. One of his greatest challenges and triumphs was scoring a 97 on the FAA private pilot knowledge test, “which was the highest score that anyone had gotten at our flight school in a long, long time,” he told AOPA Live® Video Producer Paul Harrop. “I felt that I was qualified to continue to take my checkride and get the ticket and ask other people to put their lives in my hand.”

Noted winglet designer Joe Clark

Joe Clark, the entrepreneurial aeronautical engineer who co-founded Aviation Partners Inc., manufacturer of the innovative blended winglets used on many business and commercial aircraft, died March 30. He was 78. Clark “fervently believed aviation could be a model for green innovation,” said a news release issued by his company on March 31. His now-ubiquitous winglet designs are credited with billions of gallons of fuel savings for the aviation industry.

Flight simulation innovator Rudy Frasca

Rudy Frasca, the patriarch of a family-run flight simulator company that bears his name, died May 11. “He was a true aviation pioneer and avid pilot. He will be greatly missed,” the company posted in a brief social media tribute to the 89-year-old who was born in Chicago on April 19, 1931. The Illinois innovator was fresh out of the U.S. Navy when he built his first flight simulator in the family garage in 1958. He made personal visits to install that model and its coffin-shaped Model 101 successor at local flight schools and colleges with aviation training programs. The strategy helped establish Frasca’s reputation for customer service, quality, and innovation. In the six decades that followed, the family-run company grew into a global flight training device powerhouse with clients in the United States, Australia, China, Germany, Japan, and elsewhere. Frasca raised eight children and also owned and operated a handful of unique and antique aircraft over the years, including a Curtiss P–40, a Supermarine Spitfire, a Grumman Wildcat, a North American SNJ, a Beechcraft T–34, a Fiat, and a replica of a Mitsubishi Zero. He was inducted into the National Association of Flight Instructors Hall of Fame in 2012.

NASA engineer and CFI Weneth ‘Wen’ Dwayne Painter instructed ‘Superman’

Weneth “Wen” Dwane Painter, a military pilot during the Korean War, a GA commercial pilot, and a NASA engineer, was 84 when he died April 21 in Pleasanton, California. Painter grew up in the Midwest, attended a one-room schoolhouse, and was fond of reminding others that the first astronauts were also Midwesterners. He “loved to fly and loved to talk about flying,” an obituary noted. Painter concentrated on flight control systems in the Northrop M2-F2, the Northrop HL-10, and the Martin Marietta X-24A lifting body research aircraft platforms that paved the way for the space shuttle’s energy management and landing techniques. Painter’s NASA career spanned more than 20 years. The aeronautical engineer flew a Boeing B–47 Stratojet during the Korean War, and he was certificated to fly and instruct in a variety of fixed-wing aircraft and gliders. One of Painter’s flight students was actor Christopher Reeve, who went on to portray Superman in action films. The Antelope Valley Press reported that Painter “was fond of saying that he taught Superman how to fly.”

Pilot, philanthropist Zoe Nutter

Zoe Dell Lantis Nutter, who died April 22 at age 104, was much more than the pretty face who helped propel aviation to public popularity. She was also a pilot who had a few things to say about how airplanes are built. Ohio’s Dayton Daily News reported her death under a headline that attempts to summarize Nutter’s remarkable array of roles, “Actress, pilot and philanthropist,” leaving it to the story to quote former First Lady Laura Bush’s synopsis from a 2006 White House presentation of the Ford’s Theater Lincoln Medal: “Few women can claim to be a dancer, a model, a huntress, an aviator, a philanthropist and a pirate … Zoe Dell Lantis Nutter is one of them.”

Idaho flying expert Galen L. Hanselman

Galen Lee Hanselman, 72, known to the aviation community as an expert in backcountry flying and author of a series of backcountry guidebooks, died May 6 in Twin Falls, Idaho. He had been diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune disease, in 2018, and early this year was diagnosed with liver cancer. Hanselman wrote a definitive series of backcountry flying guides, including Fly Idaho! (now in its third printing), as well as Fly the Big Sky!Fly Utah!, and Fly Baja! According to the Idaho Aviation Association, Hanselman’s inspiration for the guidebooks came from a brush with disaster when he found himself “a bit high and fast” at Sulphur Creek Ranch, a well-loved backcountry destination. Hanselman had flown to the airstrip without solid, accurate information because it was unavailable, and decided to accurately document Idaho’s airstrips for other pilots.

Hilton Carter, Tuskegee Airmen member

Tuskegee Airmen member Hilton Carter, a Columbus, Ohio, resident who went on to a distinguished career of public service after World War II, died May 6 at age 91. In an undated video, Carter recalled that he was a crew chief for then-Maj. Daniel “Chappie” James Jr., who went on to become the first African American to achieve the rank of full general. The crew chief saw battle from the warbird aircraft he serviced when substitutes were needed to fill in for a flight mission crew and flew in Boeing B–29 Superfortresses, Curtiss C–46 Commandos, Fairchild C–119 Flying Boxcars, and Consolidated B–24 Liberators—a heavy bomber that he “didn’t like.” He was part of the group of airmen recognized by a Congressional Gold Medal. The pioneering all-black 332nd Fighter Group, 12th Air Force, served in the European theater and in North Africa. The group picked up their noteworthy “Red Tails” nickname from the red-painted tail feathers of their Republic P–47 Thunderbolts and North American P–51 Mustangs flown for the 15th Air Force during fighter missions and long-range bomber escorts.

Football coach and aviator Pepper Rodgers

Longtime NCAA football coach Pepper Rodgers was also an aviator and novelist who could play the ukulele, do a cartwheel, and tap dance, The Washington Post reported upon his death May 14 at age 88. He was “equal parts cheerleader, alchemist, comedian and evangelist,” the newspaper said. His role as a Georgia Tech scholarship athlete helped lead the Ramblin’ Wreck to an unbeaten season in 1952. Though he was drafted by the Baltimore Colts in 1954, Rodgers instead finished his degree and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force to fly Republic F–105 Thunderchief jets.

Snowbirds Capt. Jennifer Casey

Canadian Forces Snowbirds Capt. Jennifer Casey, 35, was killed and Capt. Richard MacDougall was injured after they ejected from a Canadair CT–114 Tutor jet shortly after takeoff from Kamloops Airport in British Columbia on May 17. The two-person, single-engine military trainer crashed into a nearby neighborhood during a repositioning flight for Operation Inspiration, a series of aerial tributes to coronavirus pandemic front-line workers and COVID-19 patients. The day’s scheduled “flypast” to the Okanagan area had been canceled the night before due to rain and low visibility, a social media update noted. “Her loss is a serious blow to not only our Team, but to the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Canadian Armed Forces as a whole,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Mike French, Commanding Officer of 431 (Air Demonstration) Squadron in a statement. French complimented Casey as a “tireless and energetic officer” whose social media savvy “endeared her to the public.”

Antique Airplane Association founder Robert L. ‘Bob’ Taylor

The vintage aircraft community mourned the loss of Antique Airplane Association founder Robert L. “Bob” Taylor, who died June 20 at age 95. He established the association in 1953 to unite a diverse group of antique aircraft enthusiasts celebrating the care, feeding, and flying of older aircraft. Taylor also co-founded the Airpower Museum in 1965 with a variety of vintage aircraft including Harold Krier’s de Havilland DHC–1 Chipmunk and Frank Price’s Great Lakes 2T–1A aerobatic airplanes. A Mooney M–18 Mite and a Jim Bede-designed BD–5 are representative of more modern “classics” stashed among more than 30 antique aircraft on display or under restoration. In 1970, he located the museum at Antique Airfield near Blakesburg, Iowa, where an annual Labor Day fly-in brings together a community of pilots, mechanics, and aviation enthusiasts who are attracted to aviation’s Golden Age. The pathway to the past that Taylor provided allows Antique Aircraft Association members an opportunity to meet and exchange repair and flying tips, share photos, and swap hangar stories. It’s a very tight-knit community that accepts people from all walks of life, the family emphasized.

Former Phillies pitcher, CFI Tyson Brummett

Former Philadelphia Phillies pitcher and GA pilot Tyson Brummett and three passengers were killed in a Cessna 172 accident July 3 in the Wasatch Mountains east of Salt Lake City, The Deseret News reported. Brummett, 35, a CFI who turned to aviation after his professional baseball career, was featured in an AOPA article about his role with Goggles for Docs, a grassroots nonprofit that gathered and airlifted ski and snowboard goggles to help protect doctors on the coronavirus front line.

Emily Howell Warner, first female pilot hired by an airline

Emily Howell Warner, a National Aviation Hall of Fame inductee and the first woman pilot hired by a U.S. airline, died July 3 in Littleton, Colorado. She was 80. Warner, a Denver native, trained as a flight attendant all the while believing that the flight deck was where she actually belonged. She told The Denver Post on the occasion of her induction into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2014 that she was 18 years old when she took her first flight in an airplane. She began as a first officer and was promoted to captain in 1976, earning the distinction of the first woman to hold that position at any airline. Her career would eventually include many flying jobs and more than 21,000 hours logged.

Former HAI leader James Wisecup

The helicopter community mourned the death of longtime air ambulance pilot, safety advocate, industry stalwart, and past Helicopter Association International (HAI) chairman of the Board of Directors James Wisecup, 71, who died of cancer in Cedar City, Utah, July 30. HAI President and CEO James A. Viola remembered the safety-conscious Wisecup as a “highly respected member of the rotorcraft community” who was “always willing to share his experience and passion for flying,” the association said in a news release. The 16,000-hour dual-rated pilot was born on June 17, 1949. The decorated military veteran experienced three engine failures during his Vietnam War service. The helicopter association said Wisecup teased that “the first was caused by a mortar round, the second by an artillery shell, and the third by a rocket-propelled grenade.” Wisecup’s commercial aviation career began in 1974 and took him around the world. The FAA Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award winner and designated pilot examiner performed approximately 700 checkrides with Southern Utah University students.

Aviation advocate and ally Ruth Varn

Ruth Varn, a staunch activist, GA advocate, and recipient of AOPA’s Laurence P. Sharples Award in 1986 for her efforts in defending Florida’s Albert Whitted Airport, died August 22 in Newport News, Virginia, at age 94. As former head of the Albert Whitted Advisory Committee and the Albert Whitted Political Action Committee, Varn devoted countless hours advocating for the airport and gave many speeches urging the city council to support the airfield. She was an active participant and community leader as the airport came under developers’ attack on two occasions—first in 1986 and again in 2003. Today, the reliever airport is home to more than 180 based aircraft and handles approximately 98,000 aircraft operations annually. Albert Whitted Airport boasts a total economic impact of more than $79 million and supports 665 jobs.

Mission Aviation Fellowship cofounder Stuart King

Stuart King, a British missionary pilot who in 1945 cofounded an organization that later became Mission Aviation Fellowship to reach people living behind physical and economic barriers, died August 29 at age 98, the group announced through social media. King was remembered by the organization as “highly skilled, tenacious, and dedicated to helping those in need.” He joined the Royal British Air Force hoping to become a pilot during World War II. However, an engineering degree forced a change in plans when he was instead chosen for an aircraft engineering role and posted at Duxford, England. His military experience as a chief technical officer ignited a desire to use aircraft for good and led King to establish the fellowship to reach isolated people through aviation. The fellowship currently operates 132 aircraft worldwide and serves humanitarian and missionary missions in 34 countries and 1,500 remote locations.

George Biggs, Tuskegee Airmen member

Retired U.S. Air Force Maj. George W. Biggs, who was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen and served in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, died at age 95 in Nogales, Arizona, on September 19. Biggs wanted to join the U.S. Army Air Corps as a 16-year-old, but he was initially prohibited by his father—a military man himself—who admonished Biggs to first finish high school. He was accepted by the service the day after he turned 18 in 1943. He qualified for aviation cadet training and was placed into the Tuskegee Institute with other Black service personnel, where they trained in Boeing-Stearman PT–17 Kaydets and Fairchild PT–19 Cornells, and learned to fly Curtiss P–40 Warhawks, Bell P–39 Airacobras, Republic P–47 Thunderbolts, and North American P–51 Mustangs painted with distinctive red tails. After the war ended, Biggs re-enlisted as a non-commissioned officer in the newly created U.S. Air Force. During the Korean War he flew bomber missions on Boeing B–29 Superfortresses and on Martin B–26 Marauders. When the Korean conflict ended, he was stationed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and flew Boeing B–47 Stratojets. Daughter Rose Biggs-Dickerson said her father was one of the first African American officers stationed there and he “worked hard to help other Black airmen settle into life at the base.” Serving in the military runs in the family, explained Biggs-Dickerson: “Dad was the oldest of four brothers, and they were also in the Air Force. His other brothers were also bombardiers/navigators during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. My father, being the oldest, was the only brother to serve in World War II, but they all had very successful military careers.”

Ag pilot Randy Berry

Randy W. Berry, the chief pilot and co-owner of Eagle Vistas agriculture flying school in Inverness, Florida, died September 23 in a crash during an aerial application. Berry, 67, was flying the school’s Piper Pawnee at the time of the accident, which occurred in a field south of Inverness Airport. “For unknown reasons, the plane crashed into the tops of trees in a heavily wooded area, catching fire,” the Citrus County Chronicle reported. Berry was the only occupant of the airplane. Berry’s aviation career spanned more than 50 years and included aerial application and flight instructing. He and his wife, Beverly, founded Eagle Vistas in 2007, and the school has trained pilots from around the world. The Berrys were the focus of a feature article, “Homegrown,” in the September 2020 issue of AOPA Pilot.

NOAA hurricane hunter, flight ops chief James McFadden

James “Doc” McFadden, chief of programs for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s aircraft operations center, died September 28 at age 86. He was remembered as a champion of hurricane awareness, education, and outreach. Colleagues lauded the research scientist who earned a doctorate in meteorology as “a dedicated public servant who, over the course of his 57-year career, has immeasurably influenced the evolution of airborne data collection at NOAA.” McFadden “was responsible for coordinating all research projects on NOAA’s aircraft, including the agency’s Gulfstream IV-SP and two Lockheed WP–3D Orion hurricane hunter aircraft.” He “played a key role in coordinating thousands of projects on more than two dozen aircraft of various types, makes, and models, including helicopters, seaplanes, fixed-wing light aircraft, heavy multi-engine propeller aircraft, and high-altitude jets,” the group said in an online obituary. He flew through more than 50 hurricanes and passed through the eyes of storms 590 times. McFadden became active in hurricane research in 1965 and performed his first hurricane eye penetration on October 6, 1966, into Category 3 Hurricane Inez off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, Yale Climate Connections remembered in an online obituary. His “active career spanned 52 years, 352 days, earning him a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for longest career as a Hurricane Hunter,” the climate group noted. McFadden’s final storm flight was into Tropical Storm Jerry, northeast of the Leeward Islands, on September 22, 2019.

Neptune Aviation founder Marta Timmons

Marta Timmons was remembered as an aviation visionary for repurposing a fleet of World War II-era Lockheed Neptune P2V aircraft into aerial firefighting platforms that served the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies as wildfire workhorses for decades. The Neptune Aviation founder, multiengine-rated pilot, and fixed-base operator died October 10 in Missoula, Montana. She was praised for modernizing the aerial firefighting fleet with British Aerospace BAe-146 air tankers after retiring the P2Vs and sending some of them to museums for continued service as science, technology, engineering, and math learning platforms. Timmons also made her mark outside of the airport environment as an archaeologist, a detective, and a track and field coach.

Citation Jet Pilots founding member Tracy Forrest

President of the Bob Hoover Legacy Foundation and past president of the Citation Jet Pilots Association Tracy Forrest, 70, was remembered as a philanthropist, an accomplished pilot, and a mentor to the next generation of aviators. The Winter Park Construction founder died in Florida of brain cancer on October 12. Forrest’s passion for aviation led to an airline transport pilot certificate with single-pilot type ratings in several Cessna Citation models, and he supported a variety of aviation programs including Veterans Airlift Command, Corporate Angel Network, and the EAA Young Eagles program. Acquaintances recalled that Forrest befriended aviation legend R.A. “Bob” Hoover later in Hoover’s life after admiring the airshow performer’s competitions in Nevada’s Reno National Championship Air Races. Before Hoover died in 2016, Forrest often flew him to events in a Cessna Citation jet. Vince Mickens, executive director of the Bob Hoover Legacy Foundation, said the relationship turned into a cause to honor Hoover after Forrest and his friend Mike Herman established the foundation to pass along Hoover’s humility, spirit, mentorship, and support to the next generation of aviators.

‘EAA First Lady’ Audrey Poberezny

Audrey Poberezny, who helped found the Experimental Aircraft Association with her late husband Paul Poberezny, died in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, November 1 at age 95. Audrey married Paul in 1944, and the two founded EAA in 1953. She managed the daily operations of the organization in the early years while he served in the Wisconsin Air Guard. Audrey was actively involved in aviation even though she was not a pilot. She was a wing walker, helped sew fabric for her husband’s aircraft projects, and was inducted into the Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame in 1996. 

Record-setting test pilot Charles E. ‘Chuck’ Yeager

Retired U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager, the legendary test pilot who broke the sound barrier, died December 7 at age 97. On October 14, 1947, Yeager flew the Bell X–1 rocket-powered airplane that he named Glamourous Glennis after his wife to a speed of Mach 1.06 (760 mph) over the Mojave Desert to etch his name in history as the first human to break the sound barrier. The flight was so secretive that the public wouldn’t learn about it for seven months. Aviation standout, chase plane pilot, and lifelong friend Bob Hoover backed up Yeager on that mission. In 1963, Yeager was severely burned after he lost control of a NASA-modified Lockheed NF–104A Starfighter capable of achieving an altitude of 120,800 feet. The tumbling crash at the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere was described in author Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff and later depicted by Hollywood in the 1983 film of the same name with actor Sam Shepard playing Yeager. He overflew his hometown airport in Charleston, West Virginia, during a 1986 aviation record run when the 62-year-old Yeager flew a Piper Cheyenne 400 LS from California to New York with World War II triple ace C.E. “Bud” Anderson in five hours and 23 minutes.

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