Back before David “Shorty” Wilkinson had a reason to be nicknamed “Shorty,” (because he is, after all, bean-pole tall) he thought every family traveled by airplane, because every family he knew had one. This made sense to him since his mom and dad were from Texas but lived in Georgia. An airplane made visiting relatives possible.
Some of his earliest memories as a child involved the restoration of the family station wagon, a 1943 V-77 Stinson, in the basement of their home. It was thought by his family that this particular airplane was a reconnaissance airplane during World War II as the camera mounts were still in the airplane when his dad and uncle bought it.
The hood ornament of a Plymouth inspired the new paint scheme for the airplane. Out of curiosity I googled this and found that in 1956 the traditional Mayflower hood ornament on the Plymouth was replaced with one that resembled a sleek modern jet. That jet graces the Stinson’s cowling with the contrail descending down the fuselage. It is the same scheme that remains on the airplane today, years after it was sold.
Shorty’s dad flew. His uncle flew. His granddad flew. The love of aviation runs long and deep in the Wilkinson family.
H.L. Wilkinson started the tradition in 1932 when, during the height of the Great Depression, he bought a brand new Alexander Eaglerock from the Alexander Airplane Co. in Colorado Springs, Colo. The Eaglerock came equipped with a Curtiss OX-5 engine. It is often lamented around the airport nowadays that if you want to make a small fortune in aviation, start with a large one, but even during the Depression, the elder Wilkinson was able to pay for his airplane by barnstorming, carrying mail, and offering flight instruction.
His first passenger was his wife (smart man) then, according to his logbook, he was off to Silverton to deliver the mail. It was so neat to sit at my kitchen table with Shorty and read his copy of his grandfather’s logbook. H.L. was not only avant-garde for the times for buying an airplane; he was also the first person to build a hangar in Floydada, Texas.
Entries like “Windy but clear. Flew from Amarillo to Floydada via Dimmitt” or “To Dimmitt. Mr. and Mrs. Gullion, passengers over. Flew about 60 passengers at penny per lb.” painted a mental picture of the quintessential barnstormer, a character any modern pilot would proudly welcome into his family tree.
It wasn’t all work, however as “Brother, friend and I to Mexican border,” suggests that some fun with the airplane was allowed.
Shorty remembers him coming to visit. He also remembers that he had lots of flying magazines that he could look at for hours and hours. The family tradition continued when H.L. taught his own son, Lee, to fly. Shorty says his dad soloed in the Eaglerock.
After the war a PT-19, as well as some surplus Stearmans, came into the family. The story goes that it is not sure which his dad did first, solo an airplane or drive a car. It is known that his mother’s folks were farmers and ranchers, and Lee did court his wife via airplane from Floydada to Vernon and that the section lines often made nice landing strips.
Having been born into an aviation family, there was never a question of Shorty pursuing a pilot’s certificate. He already knew how to fly since he’d been doing so since he could sit in his dad’s lap and hold the yolk and later enjoyed flying countless hours in the right seat. He just needed to take the time to make it legal.
While spending one summer in Texas with family, he hitchhiked to the airport (he actually soloed before he could drive) for his lessons and eventually got a job at the airport to pay for those lessons. But as often happens, the 16-year-old was faced with life. The only rental available, a Cherokee 140, was wrecked by another pilot. He had no car. Now he had no airplane to use for his lessons, so he decided to quit the airport job to drive a truck on a wheat harvest. It was good money for a young kid, but hard work.
“Stupid kid stuff” and funding kept him from completing his training, but he didn’t completely give up his inherited love of aviation and flying. He traveled with his dad to the Antique Airplane Association Fly-In in Blakesburg, Iowa, on occasion and fell in love with the old airplanes. That’s hardly surprising when your dad is an OX5 Aviation Pioneer.
In the late 1960s, his dad took the V-77 from Georgia to Mississippi to look at a possible new project, a 1943 T-50 Bamboo Bomber. The fabric was shot; the airplane needed work but with new partner, Jim Buttram, who was also a Lockheed employee, they loaded up the Stinson with the materials needed to make the airplane safe for ferrying and brought her home to north Georgia.
They eventually parked the T-50 in a pasture, built a tarpaper shack around it, and spent the next five years restoring it. The Stinson V-77, the airplane that held so many fond childhood memories for Shorty, was sold to his uncle to make way for the new project.
His dad flew the new airplane for many years. He later retired from Lockheed and now resides in Colorado with his 1959 Cessna 182.
A few years ago, Shorty realized that if he wanted to continue the family tradition it was now or never. His house was built. His kids were raised. So he walked into the local flight school at Cherokee County Airport in Canton, Georgia (CNI). Just as he was getting started, 9/11 happened and grounded his efforts. When the airspace opened up again, he gave all his attention to getting that ticket. He aced the written and although he already knew how to fly and most of his time was spent going through the motions, he enjoyed flight training with instructor Bill Hall. In the years following his check ride, he went on to get his high performance endorsement (so he could fly his dad’s C-182) and his tailwheel endorsement (never know when he might get the chance to fly another V-77).
He was able to use that high performance endorsement when he recently visited his dad in Colorado and flew the C-182 from a field with an elevation of 7,908 feet and a density altitude of 10,000 feet, a situation not experienced in Georgia.
Now 51, Shorty finds flying relaxing, and he enjoys “the ability to hob knob with like-minded characters.”
It’s especially nice when those like-minded characters are members of your own family.
Deb McFarland is the proud owner of Lester, a 1948 Luscombe 8E, and part of the “Front Porch Gang” at Pickens County Airport in Georgia. Deb can be reached at ShortFinal@generalaviationnews.com.