Saturday, July 14, 2012

Pilot, 88, honored for 50 years of safe flight - Spokane International Airport (KGEG), Washington

Photo Credit:  Tyler Tjomsland
Bill Webber of the United Flying Octogenarians walks past his plane carrying the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award which was awarded to him on Thursday at Spokane International Airport.

Photo Credit:  Tyler Tjomsland
Lew Wetzel climbs aboard as Ann Orton goes through a preflight checklist before leaving Spokane International Airport on Thursday after a United Flying Octogenarians meeting. Orton, now 81, became a pilot at age 78. “I love flying to see my children,” she said.

Bill Webber began piloting planes in 1962 as a swimwear salesman traveling to meet clients throughout the Northwest, and half a century later he’s still flying. 

The 88-year-old Spokanite marked his 50th year as an aviator this April. To commemorate the accomplishment, the Federal Aviation Administration has selected Webber for the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, which recognizes airmen with at least 50 years of safe flying experience.

Webber is vice president of the United Flying Octogenarians, an international group of airmen who continue to fly well into their 80s. Several of his friends from the group flew their planes to Spokane for the award ceremony Thursday morning at the XN Air executive terminal at Spokane International Airport.

“We don’t see too many who do this,” Webber said. “Most people here today have no fear of flying in their 80s.”

Ann Orton, 81, developed her interest in flying a few years ago when Lew Wetzel, a retired Air Force pilot of the same age, took her out for an exhilarating ride in a glider.

“I enjoyed it so much that I took up flying lessons,” Orton said.

Now Orton has a pilot’s license and regularly does aerobatics with Wetzel, her neighbor. The activity, she says, is like flying in a roller coaster.

For her 80th birthday, Orton flew her Piper Cherokee 140, which she upgraded to 170 horsepower, all the way to California to see her children.

“I thought this old body would have a tough time, but it went fine,” she said.

More than 2,170 pilots throughout the U.S. have won the master pilot award, according to the FAA. That includes at least 51 from Washington.

“There are like 12,000 pilots in Washington,” said Jim Hultgrien, a program manager for the FAA safety team. “So, it’s not a real common thing.”

Of the master pilot award recipients, about 250 are UFO members, Webber said.

Webber has spent 3,985 hours in the pilot seat during his 50 years of flying.

Nowadays, he works as a financial adviser, flying to help clients in Portland and Western Washington manage their stock portfolios. Webber’s plane is a Piper PA-32 Cherokee Six, which he said has just enough room for four guys and four sets of golf clubs.

When not flying for business or golf trips with friends, Webber volunteers for Angel Flight, a nonprofit organization of pilots who voluntarily use their planes to help people in need of medical assistance.

“It’s very good at doing Angel Flights, taking people to and from hospitals and doctors,” Webber said about his plane. “We take people to hospitals when they can’t afford it.”

He has done three Angel Flights this year and 76 altogether.

“It’s a nice way to pay back society for all its good will,” he said. 

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