Wednesday, December 31, 2014

AirTran final flight

John Souders flew the inaugural flight for AirTran Airways.

MARIETTA — Dallas-based AirTran Airways had its final flight Sunday after more than 20 years in the sky, and one east Cobb man was there for it all.

John Souders, a decorated Marine aviator and Vietnam veteran, was the first pilot AirTran hired when it began operating in 1993 and sat in the cockpit for its final flight last weekend.

The airline was bought by Southwest Airlines in 2011. 

Souders, 71, retired from flying at age 60 but stayed with AirTran as an instructor. He said he was glad to be a part of AirTran’s last flight. 

“It was a very nice experience,” he said. “The captain was the current chief pilot for AirTran, Floy Ponder, who I had hired back in 1994.”

Souders sat in the jump seat for the flight, dubbed Flight 1 in honor of the airline’s first flight, which had the same flight number. Souders said he would have rather had a different seat, though.

“One, I would have of course loved to have been flying it, and two, it was a bittersweet experience to have had such a fulfilling career,” he said.

He was the pilot for its inaugural flight in 1993 — from Atlanta to Jacksonville, Florida — and said it was exciting to be a part of an up-and-coming airline, which was originally known as ValuJet.

“They were all dynamic people,” he said. “It was a fun operation, and the people were all working together to give excellent customer service and a very good flight for a small flight. It was a very unique experience to see something start and grow. It became very successful very quickly.”

Souders became the airline’s chief pilot in 1994, then its vice president of flight operations a year or so later. 

In that position, he said he was in charge of the pilots and their training and was the airline’s primary interface with the Federal Aviation Administration.

He said he still flew, but not as much as he did when he was a pilot. 

So in 1997, he decided to go back to being a pilot.

“I was just glad to get back in a cockpit again,” he said.

Souders said he never sought out those promotions, but was asked by supervisors to take the positions. He said all he wanted to do was fly planes.

“That was my main interest,” he said.

Souders had to retire from flying in 2003 because of an age restriction imposed by the FAA 

“At age 60, the rule at the time was you can no longer fly with passengers in what’s called 121 flight operations, basically for an airline,” he said. “I then worked full time in the simulator as a check airman and instructor.”

Learning to fly

Souders enrolled in the Navy’s flight school in October 1965 at age 22. He said he knew he would be drafted to fight in Vietnam, so he decided to be a pilot, thinking by the time he finished the 18-month training program, the war would be over because North Vietnam wouldn’t be able to sustain a prolonged war with American forces.

“It’s such an insignificant little country,” he said.

Souders earned his wings in 1967, then went to Beaufort, South Carolina, to qualify to fly the A-4 Skyhawk. Sounders noted that the A-4 was both the type of plane flown by Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) as well as the planes shown in the film “Top Gun.”

After a year of training, Souders was shipped to Vietnam in the summer of 1968, where he flew 360 missions over the course of 18 months. He earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for one particular mission.

“We were supporting troops in contact, and we dropped napalm and bombs within 30 meters of the friendly troops in extremely bad weather,” he said. “The suspected North Vietnamese troops broke contact, and they helicoptered out the friendly troops.”

Souders said he also earned three single mission Air Medals and a 24-stripe Air Medal. 

He was released from active duty in 1970 as a first lieutenant, but stayed in the Marine Reserves until 1985, completing a 20-year career in the military and finishing with a rank of lieutenant colonel.

Kennesaw resident Helen Souders, John Souder’s daughter, said he told her a story about when he flew very close to Bob Hope while the comedian was in Vietnam entertaining the troops.

“So I went and rented the whole set of Bob Hope - The Vietnam Years and found the clip,” Helen Souders said. “And Bob Hope was interviewing Ms. World and my dad buzzed the show. You could see Bob Hope’s lips moving, cussing up a storm, but you couldn’t hear anything because the jet was so loud.”

While in the Marine Reserves, he flew simulated combat missions and participated in exercises with Air Force and Navy pilots.

“It was just flying the F-8 Crusader out of Dobbins (Air Reserve Base),” he said. “You would take off on a typical mission and simulate radar intercepts and simulate air tactics and maneuvers. You’d just basically go up and do what you probably refer to as dogfight.”

Souders attended Georgia Tech from 1970 to 1972 and earned a degree in mechanical engineering. He was admitted into Pi Tau Sigma, an honors society for mechanical engineers. After graduating, he was hired by Eastern Airlines, where he worked until it folded in 1991. 

He worked as an engineer for the Environmental Protection Agency for about two and a half years before being hired by AirTran in 1993.

Coming in for a landing

Souders said now that he’s retired, he plans to spend more time with family. He married his wife, Lou, in May of 1967, after he met her at a wedding while he was in flight school in Pensacola, Florida.

“I was attending a wedding of one of my best high school friends, (and) he married (Lou’s) first cousin,” Souders said.

Souders said his wife is from McCormick, South Carolina, “where she was Ms. McCormick.”

The couple have three children — Helen, John Jr. and Brooks — and five grandchildren. Helen Souders said she was young when her father first got into commercial flights.

“In the early years, it was harder because he had no seniority. There were a lot of times he was gone Christmas morning,” Helen Souders said.

Still, she said her father was always family oriented. Souders grew up in southern California, so the family was able to fly out to the west coast and see where he lived. 

They also got to take a few summer trips to Hawaii, Helen Souders said. 

“It was, I guess, a different life, than maybe some of my friends were able to have, places we were able to go,” she said. “We always knew we came first. We never felt like his career was more important than the opportunity to be with us as his children.”

Souders said he’d also like to take up flying sail planes, which are small, light aircraft without an engine that are towed into the sky.

“They’re so light that once they get going, there’s a meter that you can use to see when you’re actually in an updraft, then you just circle around in the updraft and gain altitude,” Souders said.

Souders said he owns several rental properties he takes care of, and his daughter said he does all the yard work at the properties himself.

“Sometimes he’ll take my son — he’s 19 — with him to help, but for the most part he does all of it. He doesn’t hire out any of it, so I don’t know where he gets the energy. He’s something else,” Helen Souders said.

Helen Souders said having a pilot for a father gave her a lot of unique opportunities when she was younger.

“It was incredibly cool to go to airshows and sit in the tower and watch flying in shows. I got to go in and play in an F-8 simulator when I was a kid. That’s an opportunity many people never would even think would have the opportunity to do. It was a very cool childhood.”

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John Souders flew 316 combat missions in Vietnam.

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