Saying Goodbye One Last Time

Saying Goodbye One Last Time

Like life, flying can be unforgiving at times. Let’s face it, accidents happen in all walks of life, no matter in the air or on the ground. It’s especially difficult when it happens to someone who you admire and consider not only a friend but a person who cares more about making sure others succeeded in flying and life itself than about his own success. Those are the rare breeds of humans who walk among us. I am amazed at how many aviation people have touched my life and the lives of many others in such a positive, meaningful way. It’s their memories I will cherish forever and that’s why it’s always difficult to say goodbye.

The drive through rural Georgia started to become eerily familiar about 10 miles from my destination near the city of Griffin. It had been almost two years to the day since I had last visited Ron Alexander, who I knew for almost 20 years, at his grass strip called Peachstate Aerodrome; an airfield cut out of the red Georgia clay, adorned with antique airplanes and period hangers that Ron re-created to resemble the old Atlanta airport from the 1920s and 1930s called Candler Field. I was there to do a story on Ron and his Stearman Cloudboy. Ron proudly explained the details and idiosyncrasies of the Cloudboy and it was evident this was one of his favorite airplanes, along with the Curtiss Jenny that was parked nearby. When it came time to talk about Ron’s aviation accomplishments, his humility took center stage. He didn’t dwell on his time in Vietnam supplying Special Forces camps in his de Havilland Caribou while under enemy fire. He briefly mentioned he received the Distinguished Flying Cross for “one hairy mission,” and then became an airline pilot with Delta for 30 odd years.

He did however elaborate about his first antique airplane projects and his undying love of two types: the Stearman and a J-3 Cub. He sold the PT-17 Stearman, claimed he missed it from time to time, but swore he would never part with the Cub. Ron told me, “There is nothing better than a late afternoon flight in a J-3 or an old biplane and leaving all of life’s problems on the ground as you watch the final, peaceful rays of the setting sun.” A half hour later we did just that; Ron was off my right wing in the Cloudboy as I shot dozens of photos of him over the Georgia countryside. After landing, I took several candids of Ron in the cockpit of the Cloudboy with leather helmet and goggles adorning his head while his left arm rested on the rim of the cockpit; we both agreed he resembled a barnstormer from the ’20s or ’30s.

Nearing the field, my thoughts begin to wander, like they have for the last four months, thinking about the last time we saw one another in October of 2016. Ron was in Oshkosh for a Vintage Aircraft Association board meeting and invited me back down to his place to fly in the Cloudboy and the Curtiss JN-4 Jenny. We agreed I would visit on my way to Florida right before SUN ’n FUN International Fly-In & Expo 2017. As we gave each other a hug, shook hands, smiled at one another, and said our goodbyes, the plan between us had been cemented. Less than a month later, that plan was shattered.

On November 17, 2016, I stared at the e-mail and re-read it a dozen times, hoping it was a lie; Ron, along with a passenger he was giving a ride to, had died in the crash of his Jenny.

It was almost surreal when I arrived at the field on March 25. Airplanes of all shapes, sizes, and pedigree were parked nearby. Friends, associates, and fellow pilots were milling about, sharing Ron stories including this one, “We all have great ideas, unfortunately most just remain that. But when Ron Alexander had an idea, not only did they come true, he made them magical.”

Positioned in front of the museum hangar were hundreds of white chairs, all perfectly aligned and all facing a podium where three American flags, folded tightly, were displayed front and center. But just a stone’s throw away, in the Doug Davis hangar that houses the youth education program that Ron founded in 2013, was a beehive of activity with kids of all ages working on a variety of airplanes that included a Sonex, Piper Cub, Bird biplane, Stearman, Decathlon, and an Aeronca Champ. Knowing Ron, it’s what he would have wanted: them focusing on the present and working on the airplanes and not making a fuss over him or his memory.

“This is the future of aviation,” he told me on my previous visit. “We need to plant the seed early, if we want aviation to survive. It’s our obligation to teach them how to fabricate wood and metal, rib stitch fabric, and show them that these old airplanes have so much more life to give a future generation of new pilots, namely, them.”

I stood in the corner, watching Ron’s protégés lay their youthful hands on these old treasures, smiling at the contagious aviation excitement inside, witnessing the seeds that he planted flourish right before my eyes.

As if on cue, they all stopped working on the projects and filed outside as the memorial service began. Ron’s DC-3, affectionately named The Candler Express, made two low passes over the field and then banked sharply away. A gentleman I was standing next to told me that last summer he convinced Ron to become an ordained minister so Ron could marry him and his fiancé in the DC-3 over Candler Field. I smiled at the thought of “Father Ron” blessing the new couple, and then jumping back into the left seat to fly. It didn’t matter what airplane he occupied, Ron adored flying, and loved to share it with others, especially young people.

As guests began to take their seats, eight AT-6s roared overhead while several people spoke about Ron. One in particular, 17-year-old Cayla McLeod, shared with us the pact that she and Ron had made. Ron said he wanted Cayla to learn to fly a tailwheel airplane, which she did. But Ron wanted her to keep moving up and get checked out in the Cloudboy and the DC-3. Cayla said she would be a willing participant, but pressed Ron on why he was so persistent about her flying those airplanes. Ron told her, “Because if I ever end up in a nursing home, I want you to bust me out so we can go flying!” With laughter flowing from the crowd Cayla told us about the last time she saw Ron. She had been one of two people holding the Jenny’s wings steady while Ron taxied out with Larry Enlow in the front seat. Ron stopped taxiing long enough to tell Cayla that if there was still enough sunlight left, he would give her a sunset Jenny ride next.

“Had I known that would have been the last time I saw Ron, I would have never let go of that wing,” said Cayla.

As the crowd absorbed her final words, four Stearmans appeared overhead, with one dragging a trail of white smoke behind it, pulling up and away from the rest to signify the missing man. A trumpeter began playing taps while the three folded flags were presented to Ron’s wife and daughters.

The silence was broken by the gentle hum of a 65-hp Continental engine attached to a bright yellow Cub, Ron’s Cub, that slowly flew by, made a turn overhead, wagged its wings and disappeared over the horizon.   

Although the day was filled with bright blue skies, trimmed with ivory white clouds of various shapes and sizes, the tears flowed like rain from the hundreds of people who came to celebrate Ron’s life.

All of us let it rain.

Blue skies my friend.

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Jim, EAA 119684, is an avid pilot and longtime contributor to EAA publications. He is EAA director of publications and editor of Warbirds and Vintage Airplane magazines, and the owner of a 1943 Aeronca L-3 and a 1945 Stinson L-5.