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An Aviator's Last Father's Day

 

John Allen with his father on June 12, 2012, at the Cynthiana, Kentucky, Young Eagles rally.
John Allen with his father on June 12, 2012, at the Cynthiana, Kentucky, Young Eagles rally.

John R. Allen Jr.'s first military photo
John R. Allen Jr.'s first military photo as a private in the Army Air Corp at Chanute Field, 1940.

By John M. Allen, Brig Gen (ret)
Director, FAA Flight Standards Service

July 2, 2012 - "Wants to be: Aviator." "Likely to be: Private in Army."

That's what appeared in my father's 1940 high school yearbook. My father and his classmates were both right, except his classmates were short-sighted. He wasn't.

As I write these words, my dad is slipping away from cancer. But one gift of these last weeks is the chance to share our aviation memories, as only aviators can do. On his last Father's Day, we sat together, quietly enjoying each other's company and sharing memories of lives so heavily flavored by fixing and flying airplanes.

My dad enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1940 and spent 20 adventure-filled years, flying primarily throughout the Pacific as a flight engineer on C-97s and C-124s. He had to be good, because he retired as a "charter chief"- that is, he was in the very first group of sergeants to earn the newly established rank of Chief Master Sergeant.

My dad was always humble about his military service and his accomplishments. Still, he regaled anyone even half interested with his many military and flying stories. Though his stories were usually directed to relatives and his friends, my cousin Bobby and I listened with wonderment.

We didn't know it then, but my dad's stories sparked an interest that grew into a lifelong passion for aviation. I wound up spending 32 years in the Air Force, flying airlift in the C-141, living experiences not unlike his. Bobby took a different path in aviation, but no less fulfilling and no less important. He was pulled to the local airport in Cynthiana, Kentucky. Today he is the proud owner of a Cessna 172 and serves as the non-paid manager of this highly successful little airport bounded by the Licking River, a set of train tracks, and an honest to God poor farm.

One of the most cherished aviation memories of my dad involves the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA). He and I were very fortunate to spend some quality aviation time together at AirVenture 2010. Since he was already too frail for the kind of walking required to see everything, a golf cart piloted by me became his magic carpet. Like every visitor, he was awestruck by the aviation wonderland he saw as we whirred around the grounds. We offered a lift to many, who gave us a lift in return by sharing their own aviation stories.

The most magical memory took shape when I asked my dad what airplane provided his very first flight. I expected him to say a T-6 Texan or Stearman from his aviation cadet days but, to my amazement, he told me that his first flight as a kid in Cynthiana was in a Ford Tri-Motor. You can probably guess what happened next. I yanked the golf cart into a tight spiral and made a beeline for the flightline, where they offered rides in - you guessed it - a Ford Tri-Motor. To make the experience even sweeter, I got to sit right seat and actually fly that magnificent aircraft with my dad in a window seat in back. And there was still more magic. My dad got rides in a helicopter and a floatplane. Later in the day, he met and chatted with EAA Founder Paul Poberezny. What an amazing experience it was to see two elder statesman aviators I so greatly admire sharing airplane stories. It was a long, wonder-filled day for my dad, but it left an indelible impression on us both.

It is fitting that my dad's last outing, which took place the weekend before Father's Day, was a trip to the Cynthiana Airport's Young Eagles event with my son and me. Somehow, he mustered the courage and resolve to stay for the entire event. It was a poignant day for all of us, watching my dad watch cousin Bobby use his airplane to introduce another generation to the wonders of aviation. And it was truly a family event. While Bobby flew, his wife Jeana ran the show. My brother, his family, and I pitched in to help. My dad got to see 286 kids get airplane rides that day, most for the very first time.

As he and I talked of these many memories on Father's Day just a week later, I told my father how much he had contributed to the spectacular Young Eagles Day in Cynthiana. Though his eyes were closed as he sought to endure his physical pain, he smiled in satisfaction when I explained how such a day might not have happened without the spark of interest he had provided to people like Bobby and me. I'd like to think he realized he had made a difference in this world - as a man, as a father, as an aviator. Thank you, Dad, with all my heart, both for the life you gave and the life you inspired.

In loving memory of my dad, John R. Allen Jr.

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