Bill Pancake can tell you the exact date his life course was set: Sept. 6, 1946.
That’s when he took his first airplane ride at just 6 years old.
“That really got things going,” says Pancake, whose very life has been defined by aviation.
The lifelong aviator has amassed a variety of honors, including the latest, the General Aviation 2018 National Aviation Maintenance Technician of the Year.
His is a tale of times gone by, when a young boy could escape hard times at home, make his way to the local airport, wash planes and mow grass to earn a dime to buy a balsa wood model airplane.
As he got older, he’d do chores at the airport in exchange for rides on planes at Keyser Airport in West Virginia, then started working on the planes.
A story he tells of the early years personifies Bill Pancake.
“On Sunday, the sixth of June in 1954, there was an airplane taking off from the field and it had engine failure. Bill Long was the pilot. He put the airplane down on a football field, which was adjacent to Potomac State College, which is part of West Virginia University here in Keyser. He wiped the right landing gear out and bent up the right wing tip and did some fabric damage.
“We were repairing the airplane. I was 14 at the time. The last Wednesday of each month the CAA (the predecessor to the FAA) would come around and make their monthly visit to these small airports. If anything needed done or they saw what needed corrected, they’d surely let you know.
“Well, we forgot it was Wednesday, and it was in the summer, and school was out. I was behind a hangar working on this airplane. I saw these two gentlemen walking up, and they had on a suit and tie, and at the age of 14 I knew that wasn’t good. They started talking to me, and their names were John Gibson and Bob Bell. I got to know them later on, they were two real fine gentlemen, but they got upset about an unsupervised kid doing aircraft maintenance.
“At that time, they were out of Washington D.C., and on their way back to D.C., they decided they needed to kick butt, so they wrote a two-page, typewritten letter to Stanley Dantzic, who was the airport manager at that time, about unsupervised kids working on airplanes. Well, we had to lay low from then on, just make sure that the wrong people didn’t come around that way.
“Anyway, I finished up the patching on the wing tip, and a few other minor things, and then they had another gentleman do the welding on the landing gear. I still remember the N number of the airplane, N1397E. That airplane is still flying today. It’s in the Baltimore, Maryland area. Anyway, that’s how I got started working on airplanes.”
His encyclopedic memory for dates, names, and numbers is one of the first things you notice when talking to Bill.
Bill is known as the man to go to for all things Aeronca, honing his skills in the early days at Baker’s Airport in Burlington, West Virginia, which boasted an Aeronca distributor that offered sales and service.
“At that time, Aeronca wasn’t making airplanes, but we were maintaining them. That’s how I really got a start on Aeroncas. We were covering five or six airplanes a summer.
“I got to know the airplane real well,” he adds, then casually mentions that he has more than 5,000 original Aeronca factory drawings.
“I’m pretty well known worldwide for this particular airplane,” he says, noting that he’s had 13 award winners at Oshkosh, including six Grand Champions.
“I knew what to do to get a grand champion, because I knew what they looked for,” he explains. “Most of the people that I was helping with their projects, a lot of them started their project, and then couldn’t get it finished. Then they brought it to me to finish.”
Although best known for his restorations of Aeronca airplanes and Continental engines, he has also maintained older Pipers, Cessnas, Wacos, Pitcairns, Mooneys, Maules, Ercoupes, Republic Seabees, Stinsons, Staggerwing Beeches, Stearmans, Rearwin Cloudesters, and Bellancas. He’s worked on a variety of engines, including Jacobs, Warners, Wrights, Pratt and Whitneys, Curtiss OX-5s, Lycomings, and Franklins.
He’s also received FAA approval for five Supplemental Type Certificates (STCs) for modifications to vintage aircraft to make them safer and easier to maintain, including a starter system that eliminates the need for hand propping, and an improved method for attaching fabric to structures.
Life took a different turn for Bill in 1960 when he began working for West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company (Westvaco) as an electronics technician. However, during the 42 years he worked there, he never lost his passion for aviation.
In 1973, a full 29 years before he retired from Westvaco, he opened his own restoration shop, Pancake Aviation.
Word soon spread that Bill was back in the airplane business, and what started as a side gig grew into a successful company.
Bill spends most of his days now helping aircraft owners and mechanics. It’s not unusual for him to get phone calls and emails from people across the world — Russia, Chile, Brazil, Canada, and most of the 50 states — asking for his help. He’s always quick to invite those who need his help to his shop in Keyser, West Virginia.
People often ask Bill how long it took him to solo.
“Oh, I had 50 or 60 hours before I soloed,” he would tell them. “They said, ‘Why so many?’ I said, ‘I had to wait until I was old enough.’”
He soloed on his 16th birthday, Feb. 9, 1956, and earned his private pilot certificate on his 17th birthday, passing his written test with a score of 100%.
“It was the same way with my oldest grandson, Michael,” Bill says with pride. “He had a good bit of time when he soloed. I soloed him on his 16th birthday, on the same field I soloed on my 16th birthday.”
Bill soloed Michael on July 4, 2004, and his youngest grandson, Curtiss, on Oct. 30, 2008, both on their 16th birthdays from Miller Field, the same airport that Bill soloed from on his 16th birthday in an Aeronca Champ.
“It gave me a real nice feeling when those two guys took off,” he recalls. “I watched the wheels leave the ground and I just had goosebumps all over me.
“Now I’ve soloed a lot of other kids on their 16th birthdays, but I never had the feeling that I had when I soloed Michael and Curtiss,” continues Bill, who holds commercial, instrument, multi-engine, and Certified Flight Instructor ratings, as well as Airframe and Powerplant Mechanic (A&P) with Inspection Authorization (IA) ratings.
He’s now helping one of his grandsons build a Van’s RV-8, while he looks forward to teaching his granddaughter, Hannah, to fly soon.
His middle grandson, Robert, is the family’s “car guy,” according to his grandparents. A chef by trade, Robert enjoys auto cross racing — and Bill enjoys helping him with his Porsche restoration projects.
Reaching the next generation is critical, adds the veteran aviator.
“There’s so many other things today to take the interest of younger boys and girls away from aviation,” he notes.
He adds that pancake breakfasts and Young Eagles flights, like the ones offered by his EAA Chapter 426 in Wiley Ford, West Virginia, are a big help.
“That brings out a lot of kids,” he says.
Another entry point: School science fairs. Bill has been a judge at these fairs for years.
In fact, four years ago the West Virginia Eastern Regional Science Fair established an award in Bill’s honor. The Bill Pancake Aviation Award is given to the student whose project exemplifies an aviation-related subject. The year’s winner, Joey Gentile from Jefferson High School in Shenandoah Junction, West Virginia, was able to go to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh this year as part of the EAA Air Academy.
“I think that’s real nice — they get kids started back looking at airplanes again, instead of looking at video games,” he says.
His greatest aviation memory
When asked about his greatest aviation memory, Bill immediately thought of the two days he soloed his two grandsons. Then he quickly changed his mind, asking to “back up a bit.”
“My greatest memory?” he says. “There was this girl peeping out of the window of the school bus. Then she started hanging around the airport in Burlington, West Virginia. She was friends with my cousin, but all I could think is ‘what’s that little skinny brat hanging around here for?”
A friend at the airport took Bill aside and told him, “Pancake, you better get your head out of that airplane and look up — she’s here after you.”
This June, Saundra and Bill Pancake celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary in Middletown, Ohio, at the National Aeronca Association Fly-In.
“We’ve had a real good marriage thanks to the airplanes,” Bill says.
The couple have one daughter, Dr. Stacey Boggs, who is a math professor at Allegany College in Cumberland, Maryland, and Potomac State College, which is part of West Virginia University.
In 2006, Bill received the FAA’s two highest awards — the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award and the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award — given for being an aircraft mechanic and a pilot for 50 years without any infractions, violations, or accidents. At the time Bill received these awards, he was one of only 40 pilots in the U.S. to receive both awards, and the only West Virginian.
In 2008, Bill was inducted into the EAA Vintage Hall of Fame at Oshkosh.
In 2010, Bill and his wife Saundra started working on creating a West Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame when they discovered that the state was one of only 14 that didn’t have one. Four years later, in 2014, the Hall of Fame became a reality, and Bill was among the first group of inductees, along with Gen. Chuck Yeager, astronaut Captain Jon McBride, and other notable West Virginian pilots.