Above: Retired pilot Willard Womack, left, visits the Peachtree City hangar that serves as home to the Dixie Wing of the Commemorative Air Force as mechanic Andy Cash works on one of the group’s planes. Photos by Joe Earle.
When Doug Ellis was trying to decide what he would do in retirement, he thought of flying.
He enjoyed playing golf and going fishing, but neither seemed to offer enough of a diversion to fill his days after he moved on from his job as a textile company executive. Flying, on the other hand, “was a great fit for my retirement years,” he said.
He’d taken lessons on how to pilot a small plane when he was in high school and had flown while in college and in the years that followed, he said, but he’d slowed down as he grew older. In his forties, he stopped flying altogether. “I took a sabbatical for about 20 years,” he said.
But he missed it. “I love to fly,” he said.
So, at age 63, he bought a small airplane and once again took to the skies. He recently turned 82 and still takes his plane, which he’s nicknamed “Cricket,” out regularly for short hops and for longer excursions. He and his wife have crisscrossed the country sightseeing from the air.
“She’s a wonderful navigator,” he said. “She loves to have a chart in her lap to see where we are.”
Ellis also takes Cricket out several times each month for trips organized by Angel Flight Soars, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that provides free air transportation for seriously ill patients who must travel to distant cities for treatment. He’s on the board of the organization, which lists more than 900 volunteer pilots and provides transportation for patients in six southeastern states. He says getting involved with Angel Flights “gave me purpose” in retirement.
Ellis plans to continue flying as long as he can. He won’t be alone up there. Federal Aviation Administration reports show that about 14 percent of the 609,305 certified pilots in the U.S. are aged 65 or older.
Federal regulations say that air carrier pilots must retire at age 65, but there’s no age limit on flying. As long as a general aviation pilot can pass the mandatory physical examination, he or she can stay in the air, the FAA says.
Ellis keeps Cricket at Fulton County Airport in northwest Atlanta. Long-time pilot Pat Epps keeps his aerobatic Beech hangered at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport in Chamblee, where he owns Epps Aviation, a fixed-based operator at the field.
Epps has been flying since he was in high school. He comes from a flying family: his father, Ben T. Epps, designed and piloted the first airplane to fly in Georgia, only about four years after the Wright Brothers’ initial flight. Pat Epps flew in the U.S. Air Force and is one of five brothers and a sister who earned pilot’s licenses. Pat Epps, his father, and his oldest brother, Ben T. Epps Jr., all have been inducted into the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame, according to the hall’s website.
Pat Epps just flies for pleasure these days. He said he still tackles acrobatic movements, cutting circles in the sky just as he did when he was younger. “It’s just a skill,” he said.
He says younger pilots joke that he flies “old-man acrobatics… a ballet as opposed to quick or action-packed acrobatics, nothing daredevil about it.”
Flying, he said, provides “some sort of freedom. You feel that you’re not constrained by lanes on the highway. You not constrained by up and down. You see some beautiful sights – moonrise, sunrise, sunsets….”
And he enjoys the challenge, the adventure. “Every flight is different. Maybe you’ve seen it 100 times before, but then the wind changes a little bit [creating] another problem you have to solve. Flying has always been expensive and it’s still expensive, but those of us who are fortunate enough to make a business of it are able to enjoy the fruits of our labor. …
“It’s satisfying. I don’t know that I look at it as ‘fun.’ It’s still a skill. Every flight is another challenge, another test of your skill, to see if you’re still OK.”
George Harrison also sees each flight as offering challenges to overcome. Retired from the U.S. Air Force, where he flew fighters and reached the rank of Major General, he now keeps a small Swift airplane at Falcon Field in Peachtree City, where he lives.
At age 77, he flies two or three times a week, he said. “It’s just a nice rewarding thing to do,” he said. “Every day is different.”
One recent afternoon, Harrison joined a group of men gathered at the hangar and office building operated by the Commemorative Air Force, which is operated by aviation enthusiasts who want to keep World War II-era airplanes flying. The Dixie Wing, the chapter located at Falcon Field, owns seven planes, included a North American P-51 Mustang. At one point in the afternoon, Harrison drove a golf cart to the edge of the airport taxiway for a chance to see and hear up close the P-51’s takeoff on a practice flight.
Willard Womack, an 81-year-old retired airline pilot, also was spending that afternoon at the Commemorative Air Force hangar. He has given up flying, he said, but he still enjoys being around airplanes and other men and women who also like being around them. “I just love airplanes,” he said.
“When you’re an airplane nut like me, and I have been since I was 7 or 8 years old, that’s all I ever wanted to do was fly,” Womack said. “It’s a love affair between me and the machine.”
He especially enjoyed touring the country by air. “Even when I was flying for an airline, I liked looking at geography of the U.S. and [seeing] the history,” he said. “I’ve flown over Fort McHenry [in Maryland]. I flew over Yorktown [in Virginia]. If you study history, you can see it from the air as you move around the U.S.”
In his 19th-floor office overlooking Cobb County, Ellis keeps a folding map marked with bright red lines showing flights he’s taken and places he’s been. Penciled lines run from coast to coast and border to border, showing he’s taken jaunts literally all over the map. “I’ve landed in every state in the Lower 48,” he said.
He’s flown north to Canada and south to the Florida Keys and the British island Turks and Caicos. He’s covered the west. “I just love to fly the cross-country routes,” he said. “It takes me three days to get from Atlanta to Vancouver. I’ve followed the Oregon Trail, guidebook in hand. I’ve flown the Lewis and Clark trip.
“Flying the southwest [U.S.] is just beautiful. My favorite flight of all is leaving San Francisco, going down the Coast Range down to Death Valley and landing in Death Valley and seeing the altimeter go to minus 250 [feet]. That’s a beautiful flight.”
He has no intention of keeping to the ground any time soon. “I plan to fly as long as I’m healthy,” he said. He’s known of a pilot still flying at age 94, he said, so “I’ve got a long way to go.”
What keeps him heading back into the clouds? “Just the act of flying,” he said. “The freedom of being in the air in your own plane…. I love it. I just love it.”
Don’t Miss It!
DeKalb Peachtree Airport presents its 2018 Good Neighbor Day Open House Airshow on Saturday, May 19, from 12 noon to 5 p.m. There’s no admission fee, and parking is just $10 per vehicle. Check out the performers, attractions and details at pdkairshow.com.