Marvin L. “Lefty” Gardner, who soared with the eagles over a long life in aviation, died December 24 at the age of 87. Gardner died peacefully, in contrast to a life filled with exciting adventures, ranging from flying behind enemy lines in World War II to aerial application of herbicides to stunning air race and air show performances in his famous P-38, aptly named White Lightnin’.
Lefty Gardner took his first airplane ride with a barnstormer in a Jenny in 1935. From that time on, he wanted to fly. As a teenager, he watched AT-6s swarming overhead while he hoed cotton with his father, daydreaming about what it would be like to be at the controls.
He started flying in actuality at the age of 21, when he joined the then-Army Air Corps. He flew 34 missions in the European Theater during WW II in B-24s and B-17s, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters. After that tour he joined an elite group of pilots flying into Sweden, at night, carrying supplies for the underground and POWs. After 12 of those missions he came home and finished his education at Texas A&M, receiving a BS degree in agriculture.
Lefty Gardner and his brother started an ag flying business in Crystal City, Texas, then he went on his own, developing a process used to control mesquite and other noxious brush on Texas ranches, creating better grazing conditions for cattle. He retired from that after 35 years.
He was a founder of the Confederate Air Force, now known and the Commemorative Air Force, and a member of its general staff for many years. As the first procurement officer for the CAF, he held both A/P and A/I licenses, enabling him to travel the world to repair and ferry home World War II aircraft. He became Chief Check Pilot for the CAF and was rated in every airplane the organization acquired.
Gardner was famous for his flying skill, notably in White Lightnin’, which he flew in many Reno Air Races and, in later years, in hundreds of air shows. He took first place in the Gold Race at Reno in 1976, flying his P-51 Mustang, Thunderbird. He raced at Reno for more than 25 years. As an air show favorite, he wowed the crowds as he performed uniquely graceful aerobatics in White Lightnin’.
For those who knew him, there was never a dull moment with Gardner as he created fun and laughter with his mischief and practical jokes. His patriotism was deeply felt and led to some extraordinary adventures that we will not chronicle here. His family and his huge number of friends and acquaintances will miss him.