Monday, February 16, 2015

Mike Reed and Rick Cunningham: Childhood friends receive master pilot award

Mike Reed, recipient of the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, checks the oil in his American Champion Citabria plane inside a hangar at the Pekin Municipal Airport.
 Julie Schimmelpfennig / Times correspondent 

Childhood friends Rick Cunningham and Mike Reed share a love of the air, and their decades of flying experience have been recognized.

Both were awarded the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award in October in Springfield during an annual meeting. The two were given the prestigious award by the Federal Aviation Administration’s Dave Slaybaugh from the Flight Standards District Office.

Cunningham and Reed met the criteria by demonstrating professionalism, skill and aviation expertise by flying without an accident or violation for 50 or more continuous years. Reed said they each received a plaque and pin.

“People all over the country apply for this award,” Reed said. “Rick and I were the only ones from Pekin who won.”

Reed said his plaque is hanging in his office at home. “After your first solo trip they cut your shirt tail off. I have that hanging in my office, too. I put my Master Pilot Award right under that,” he said.

The two friends have been interested in planes even before they had a driver’s license. Reed recalled they used to ride their bicycles to the airport in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1957 just to “hang-out.”

He got his student pilot’s license on his 16th birthday in 1960. After first learning to fly, he began working at the airport fueling and washing planes. “The opportunity was there,” Reed said. “I traded taking lessons for working there.”

Throughout the decades, Reed has worn many hats in the aviation industry. He worked to receive his private license to commercial license to becoming a flight instructor. “My goal was to be an airline pilot,” said Reed.

He took a job with Eastern Airlines when he was about 21 years old. Reed was with the company for nearly 25 years. For 20 of those years, he was a DC-9 co-pilot. He flew mostly domestic flights but occasionally flew internationally. Eventually Eastern went out of business.

Most of his time was spent at an airport. In fact, he met his wife there. She was an emergency room physician who also attained a pilot’s license. Reed joked that meeting someone at the airport was really the only way he would ever meet someone special because he was there all the time. “We flew all over the country together,” he said.

After the couple had a child, Reed shared his love of flying with their son. Every year Reed would take his son to the Oshkosh Air Show.

In 1996 Reed joined the FAA at O’Hare International Airport as an aviation safety inspector. He worked 15 years at that job and then retired. Reed then moved to Pekin.

Although Reed has retired, he still keeps his private pilot’s license current. Throughout his career he has owned planes for personal flying. Reed has two aircraft in hangars at the Pekin Municipal Airport. One is his American Champion Citabria built in 2007. He said the design of the plane dates back to the 1930s. However, it has all modern instruments. “It’s my main, fun airplane to fly around in,” he said. His other aircraft is a Cessna 150.

“I’m enjoying my retirement here at the airport,” Reed said. He serves on the Pekin Airport Commission. They meet every third Tuesday at 3 p.m. at the airport, he said.

He has pictures hanging on a board inside one of the hangars of planes he has flown or owned. One picture of a plane he flew ended up appearing in Life magazine. Reed remembered he took off from Kennedy Airport in New York and an engine blew up, causing a fire. “It happened right on take-off,” he said. “We were only in the air 4 minutes. We just circled and came right back to land.” A photographer snapping pictures of planes that day captured the image of the plane on fire and it ended up in the magazine, according to Reed.

Reed enjoys flying during the last hour of the day in the summer. He loves the view. He also hopes more young people take an interest in flying.

“Fewer kids are being trained,” he said. “There are some, but just not at the pace of the 1950s and ’60s.”

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