By Pat Johnson, EAA 59601
Clayton D. Wilhelm, EAA 45123, received the FAA’s Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award on October 10, 2017, during an EAA meeting. The Master Pilot Award is presented to those who have flown safely and skillfully for more than 50 years. An avid aviation supporter, Clayton started EAA Chapter 344 in Helena, Montana, and helped it grow into a robust group of pilots and mechanics that sponsors many Young Eagles flights and several get-togethers each year.
A flight in a Cessna 120 from a hayfield at Pryor, Montana, when he was 12 years old sparked Clayton’s interest in flying and maintaining planes. After graduating high school, Clayton moved to Helena to learn aircraft mechanics and to learn to fly.
While studying mechanics, Clayton joined the Army National Guard and his maintenance officer asked if he had his airframe and powerplant certificates. At the time, he had earned an airframe certificate and was asked to apply for a job with the National Guard. Later, he earned a private pilot certificate followed by a powerplant certificate. He was a National Guard member for 31 years, working 28 of those years as a helicopter mechanic.
Together with Bill Bradford of Bradford Machine Works, Clayton started the Helena EAA Chapter 344 in 1972. They worked to get it started until Bill’s business took precedence and he dropped out while Clayton persisted. Clayton often flew to Oshkosh and was instrumental in getting EAA’s replica of the Spirit of St. Louis to stop in Helena during its 1978 tour to commemorate 50 years since Lindbergh’s flight to Paris. When the aircraft had a cracked wheel rim, Clayton helped replace it after EAA shipped a replacement.
Before Clayton got his first airplane in 1981, he had access to fly many aircraft including a Stinson, a Cessna 1972, a Cessna 150, an Aeronca Chief, and a Maule. Over his career he has flown 20 different aircraft types ranging from a Piper J-3 to a Beech A36. From the time he earned his certificate, he consistently gave people airplane rides, giving more than 350 people their first airplane ride and taking more than 1,000 people total for rides years before EAA Young Eagles flights began.
His first plane was an Ercoupe, which he took to Oshkosh six times with a different passenger each year. Due to his support and encouragement, at least eight people earned pilot certificates. When EAA started the Young Eagles program in 1992, Clayton began providing flights for young people.
Clayton built two homebuilt airplanes and has done the first flights and the entire test flying for the Phase I flight tests. He is still flying his last homebuilt, a Van’s RV-6A in which he now has more than 370 hours.
After retiring from the National Guard, Clayton worked for six years for the Montana Aeronautics Division, maintaining its aircraft and the airway beacons. After he retired, he became an EAA technical counselor serving as an experienced airplane builder and mechanic volunteering to help EAA members make the right choices during construction to pass FAA inspection.
Clayton credits his wife, Donna, for much of his success in the past 50 years as she has always supported him, flown with him, and helped him with maintenance.