Sunday, April 29, 2012

Celebrating in the sky: Birthday Flight

By Paula Stuart 
News Chief Correspondent
Published: Sunday, April 29, 2012 at 7:43 a.m.

WINTER HAVEN -- There are probably no more than 10 people in the United States who still fly an airplane at the age of 90, according to Jon Brown, owner of Brown's Seaplane Base in Winter Haven. One of those rare individuals was recently spotted in the air on his 90th birthday. Jim Torphy flew his 1946 Piper Cub airplane solo on April 17, and called it his "birthday flight."

"My son, who is a corporate pilot for 34 years, encouraged me to do it. It didn't feel any different, though. I didn't feel any sense of gratification or accomplishment. It's just like tying your shoes; just routine," he said.

Brown said, although Torphy is still active and flies regularly, this was still a surprise to him.

"It was 7 a.m. I was getting planes ready. This plane flew over me and I said, 'I bet that's Jim,' so I turned my lights on and honked the horn and he followed me back to the hangar," Brown said.

Torphy retired at age 62 from Bloomington, Ind., where he was the airport operator for many years. A friend took him to Brown's Seaplane Base, and Torphy started working there as a flight instructor. Later, he and his wife, Gabby, of 63 years relocated to Winter Haven.

"Jim came down here in 1973, when my father owned the base. He got his seaplane rating. He was a land plane pilot first," Brown said.

Torphy got the "flying bug" at an early age.

"I can remember when I was 12 years old some barnstormers came through our town and took me for a ride. I got the bug. I really wanted to fly. I am real fortunate. Anybody who had a plane back then made their money hauling booze in the prohibition days," Torphy said.

As a young man, Torphy worked on B17s and was also a flight engineer. He attended both B29 gunnery school and B29 electrical school in the 1940s. He then trained ROTC classes at the Torp Aero Service Flight School in Bloomington for Indiana University, beginning in 1963.

"We were training them for private pilot course. After college graduation, they were going to active duty military. I was contracted by Indiana University until the end of the Vietnam War," Torphy said. "Flight training was not offered at all the colleges. We trained mostly Army and Air Force, and had one Marine."

Brown said hundreds of Torphy's students became pilots for the Army, Air Force and Marines, including United States astronaut Kenneth Bowersox.

More than 130 people celebrated Torphy's 90th birthday party, recently held at Brown's Seaplan Base. Torphy even got a letter from coach Bobby Knight of Indiana University. Torphy flew him Knight across the country when he was in Bloomington.

"The party was a big surprise to me. A lot of people came. The furthest one was from Dallas," he said. "They put a plaque on the back porch (of Brown's Seaplane Base.) It is officially the 'Jim Torphy Room.'"

Brian Meadley attended the birthday bash. He flew in England in the Royal Air Force for 20 years. Meadley, 81, is a part-time flight instructor at Brown's Seaplane Base.

"We have a holiday home in Winter Haven. When I'm here, I'm practically full-time," Meadley said. "I think he's a terrific chap. I've known him for 25 years, and flown with him several times. He doesn't miss a thing in the air. He is still a very accomplished pilot and also a very nice man. It was a jolly-good party in the hangar at the seaplane base."

Brown said Torphy is rare, as many pilots eventually lose their certification due to medical or physical circumstances.

Torphy said, "I'm just going to keep flying."

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