LeRoy Brown should hate me, but he doesn’t. He should at least be mad at me, but he isn’t — and for that I’m eternally grateful.
You see, I met LeRoy in the worst of circumstances for an editor. We had published a story from a freelancer that told of the long-ago exploits of a pilot and his B-17. Great story — problem was the guy who told it was the wrong guy. He was giving himself credit for things LeRoy had done. So understandably, LeRoy was upset when he called our offices.
We were able to smooth things over a bit — but it still galls LeRoy to this day that that man would lie so much — but remarkably, he has not only forgiven me, he has become my friend.
We talk on the phone several times a month, so I was particularly excited about this year’s Sun ’n Fun because I would finally get to meet LeRoy and his beautiful wife Wanda as he was being presented with the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, along with six other pilots.
As I walked up to the FAA Production Studios on the Sun ’n Fun campus, there was a throng of people waiting to go in. I instinctively headed towards LeRoy and finally got to introduce myself in person. When I asked if he was excited, he leaned into me and, “This is like Shakespeare — much ado about nothing.”
He was more worried that someone had spilled coffee on his suit coat than receiving an award for 50 years of accident-free flying.
Surrounded by family and friends, LeRoy and the other six recipients made their way into reserved chairs in the studio for the presentation.
Along with family and friends were several rows of chairs filled by students from the Central Florida Aerospace Academy as their benefactor, James C. Ray, was also among the recipients. Ray, a long-time pilot and very successful businessman, donated the money to build the high school on the Sun ’n Fun campus, as well as created flight training scholarships for the students.
As the program began, Jim Minardy, a FAASteam Program Manager, noted that this was a “very special morning,” adding that handing out these awards is one of the greatest opportunities FAA officials get.
First authorized in 2003, the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award isn’t just given to anyone. The pilot must be a U.S. citizen who has been flying for 50 years accident free. Along with the application, they must have three letters of recommendation.
They receive a plaque, as well as a lapel pin. And because these aviators couldn’t do it without the support of an understanding spouse, their wives also receive a lapel pin.
As the ceremony began, LeRoy was the first to be acknowledged, as the awards were handed out alphabetically. They noted his statistics: First soloed in 1942 in a J-3, eventually flying for National Airlines and Pan Am.
Among the quotes pulled from his recommendations: “He is a man for all seasons, a super individual, a true friend to many, and an exceptional pilot.”
After receiving his plaque, Minardy asked if he’d like to say a few words. In true LeRoy fashion, he kept it simple: “I started out as a crop duster and I didn’t want to be an airline pilot,” he began. “But a friend talked me into it — he stayed for one week, I stayed for 29 years.”
As he wrapped up his comments, LeRoy took a moment, then noted he wasn’t sure where the time had gone. “It feels like I just learned to fly yesterday.”
The other recipients had similar comments, with Richard Farmer noting that receiving this award “was a long way from flying a Luscombe in a field in Colorado in 1946.”
John Leidenheimer took a moment to thank his uncle, who let him sit on his lap in an airplane.
As James C. Ray was introduced, he got a standing ovation from the students he has helped so much in the past year. It was noted that he believes “achieving one’s solo flight is a life-changing experience.” I think those kids would agree.
Actually, I think most pilots would agree — and I also think that most pilots would disagree with LeRoy about this award being “much ado about nothing.”
Only 3,000 or so pilots have achieved this award, which honors the best of the best and the pilots that we all look up to and aspire to be.
So, LeRoy, whether you like it or not, you have joined a rarefied group of aviators. I hope you take a moment or two to bask in the knowledge that what you have achieved over the past 50 years is something to be celebrated — and is something to make “much do” about!
Janice Wood is editor of General Aviation News.
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