Flight delay


More than 60 years elapsed before 87-year-old Karl Klingelhofer of Tucson, Ariz., revisited his love of aviation and earned his sport pilot’s license.

But if you ask him when he decided he wanted to fly, he draws a blank. He can’t pinpoint an instance or a moment that lit a spark — it was always in his blood. It just took him a little longer than most to get his wings.

Born and raised on a farm in small-town Sparland, Ill., Klingelhofer didn’t have much exposure to aircraft. “I think there’s a stoplight there now,” he laughs.

Karl_in_cockpitIn high school, he built a fair amount of model airplanes — but so did countless other teenage boys who never became pilots.

Even Klingelhofer’s military career didn’t materialize into a flying career, as he’d hoped. He enlisted in 1944 in the Army Air Corps, at age 17 — a move that began a six-year military career — but his stint would involve almost no flying.

He didn’t know that then, of course.

His first step toward being a pilot was to pass a cadet test. Then, after high school graduation, Klingelhofer was sent to Michigan State College for cadet training. Six months later, only he and 24 other trainees remained of the original 50.

From there, Klingelhofer and his class were sent to Mississippi for basic training — “and more tests,” he points out, warily. Within three months, the group had dwindled to just 12.

Karl_in_uniform_1945That dedicated dozen soon boarded a troop train to Yuma, Ariz. In the three months Klingelhofer spent there, he received no flight training. In fact, it was only by “hitching a ride” with an AT-6 pilot, whom he flagged down by the runway one day, that Klingelhofer managed to score his first airplane ride. That day, the pilot didn’t mention he’d be practicing aerobatics. Klingelhofer got air sick — but that didn’t curtail his desire to go on.

His second was in the bomb bay of a B-25 Mitchell three months later, when he and four others returned home to Illinois on a two-week furlough. “We hitchhiked that one,” he says.

That furlough proved to be momentous in more ways than one. That was when Klingelhofer met his wife of more than six decades. “I have a box in the closet of 817 letters we exchanged over the next three years,” he says. “And, I’d estimate there are about 75 missing.”

As luck would have it, Klingelhofer got to see a lot more of his future wife when he was sent to Scott Field in Illinois for radio school. “While I was there, I wrote to her about t25 P-51s lined up by my barracks,” he recalls. “That was a thrill!”

When the war ended, the Army discharged Klingelhofer and about 50,000 other troops like him as “surplus.” He was 19. Given the opportunity to enlist in the Air Force Reserves, he did so and remained in their service until he was 23.

Klingelhofer then went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in agricultural/civil engineering from the University of Wisconsin in 1948. He worked for the Department of Agriculture for more than 30 years, some of which were spent at the headquarters in Washington, D.C.

At age 75, he retired after doing some consulting work and two volunteer assignments in Costa Rica and the Island of Roatan.

In all that time, Klingelhofer had very little involvement in aviation, except a lot of airline travel and getting a thrill with every takeoff and landing. He also enjoyed watching the planes land and take off from Washington National Airport (now Reagan National Airport) with his grandchildren.

“There was a very good observation point near the northwest end of the runway,” he says. “But that’s about it. My wife encouraged me to go take flying lessons, but I decided I’d rather spend that money on travels with her.”

And travel they did; Klingelhofer and his wife visited 43 countries in their 60-plus years together. She passed away in 2008.

Klingelhofer said that her passing led him to “form a new second half of his life.” And that’s probably what drove him to Marana Regional Airport (AVQ) in Marana, Ariz., in October 2009 for his first flight lesson.

Fast forward one year later, when Klingelhofer decided to fly out of nearby San Manuel Airport (E77) in San Manuel, Ariz., instead. “It was a shorter, prettier drive,” he explains. “It was also about one-third less expensive.”

It was at E77 where Klingelhofer first met Parrish Traweek, flight instructor and owner of PC Aircraft. The two had their first flight lesson in April 2010. Little did Klingelhofer know that Traweek would be a major driving force in his pursuit of a sport pilot license — whether he liked it or not.

Karl_and_Parrish“He wouldn’t let me quit!” Klingelhofer chuckles. “It was on my bucket list to take one lesson.”

Before long, Traweek had Klingelhofer his favorite aircraft: an Aircoupe. “I like that it has no rudder pedals,” he explains. “It steers on the ground with a wheel, like a car.”

At that point, Klingelhofer “got a little more serious” about getting his sport pilot license. “My goal then was just to solo,” he recalls — which he did in September 2010.

“Then, I decided to do a cross-country flight,” Klingelhofer continues. “I did that in April 2011. It was about two-and-a-half hours in the air, by myself.”

But, that part didn’t scare Klingelhofer; those confounded tests did. Knowing he’d have to pass yet another exam, he almost quit. Once again, Traweek egged him on. Never a fan of studying, Klingelhofer signed up for an online course of 40 one-hour lessons in preparation. Then, he paid his $150 and took the test last March. He passed with a score of 85 — 15 points higher than the required 70.

At that point, Klingelhofer left for a (much deserved) two-month European vacation. When he returned, Traweek lost no time, urging him to take the next step — his checkride exam.

Klingelhofer canceled once. “But, he wouldn’t let up!” he recalls. “He didn’t let me cancel again.”

Although Klingelhofer asserts that consistency in his landings was a challenge, he was persistent. That tenacity paid off: Last September, he cleared the final hurdle in pursuit of his sport pilot license by passing his checkride.

Now that Klingelhofer has his pilot’s license, he says maybe he’ll take some piano lessons. He found a pretty good deal on those, recently. And, he’ll be flying at least once a month.

Another certainty? More travel. Quite a bit more.

Karl_Parrish_and_unknownHe regularly visits his sons in Maine and California. And, in recent years, he has traveled on his own to Europe, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India and China. Now, he’s planning a cruise from Hong Kong to Singapore, in conjunction with a trip to the Philippines.

When asked how his dearly departed wife would feel about his newly acquired pilot’s license, Klingelhofer thinks for a minute.

“Well, I think she’d go flying with me,” he says, finally. “She was very adventurous.”

It takes one to know one.


  1. Leonard Nolden says

    You put me to shame. I have always been so proud to have gotten my private at 60 years and 3months. now at 76 years I fly as sport pilot and have no intention to stop.

  2. says

    I love what you did dear amigo. I am a 65 years old man and I dreaming to become a pilot since I was 10 or less (I guess). May be some day I will.

    Carlos Alfredo Garcia Russi
    “Never Give up!!”

  3. larry maynard says

    Wow! Karl, you are a great inspiration to all of us youts. I am only 62 and retired about a year and a half ago. It’s hard to imagine still flying at age 87 but if Karl can do it maybe some of the rest of us will be able to. Thanks.

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