When Dick Merrill takes to the air, a little-known but significant chapter of aviation history flies with him.
The 1953 Cessna 180 that the Chuckey resident has owned and flown for 36 years was repainted several years ago to match the design on a similar aircraft piloted by Geraldine "Jerrie" Fredritz Mock.
If the name is unfamiliar, suffice to say that Mock was the first woman to ever fly solo around the world in a single-engine airplane.
The 38-year-old Ohio mother of three accomplished the daunting feat in 1964 at the controls of another 1953-model Cessna 180. When Merrill, a longtime pilot and aviation history enthusiast, needed to repaint his Cessna, he and his wife Ginger discussed having it redone to resemble Jerrie Mock's "Spirit of Columbus."
He first saw Mock's airplane in the 1980s while it was at a restoration facility in Washington. Today, the Cessna 180 is displayed at the Udvar-Hazy Center, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's annex at Washington Dulles International Airport.
Merrill and Ginger, who is also a pilot, agreed that recreating the red-and-white paint scheme of Mock's airplane was a fitting tribute to her accomplishment. First, they sought her permission.
Mock, who lived in Florida at the time, gave her approval. Sadly, Mock passed away in 2014 at age 88 before seeing the freshly repainted Cessna 180, Merrill said.
The aircraft is well-known to many aviation enthusiasts. Merrill said that last summer, during a stop in Chicago on his way to the annual Experimental Aircraft Association show in Oshkosh, Wisc., members of a women pilots association saw his Cessna 180 and recognized it immediately.
"I've been to several airports where I parked and people knew what it was," Merrill said.
Most people if asked will say that American aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly around the world, Merrill said.
Earhart disappeared in 1937 while flying over the Pacific Ocean.
"She didn't make it. She never came back," said Merrill, a retired petroleum geologist who learned to fly in 1957.
Despite her share of harrowing experiences on her round-the-globe flight that began in March 1964 in Columbus, Ohio, Mock successfully completed the more than 23,000-mile flight in 29-1/2 days.
The Cessna 180 flown solo by Mock had no satellite GPS system. It held up through severe weather conditions, and occasional mechanical problems, including a malfunctioning carburetor over shark-infested waters.
"She didn't have many instruments," he said. "Amelia Earhart had about the same type of navigation."
Since owning his Cessna 180, Merrill has flown all over the U.S. in the sturdy aircraft, including Alaska. He's logged about 2,500 hours total flying time, much of it in the Spirit of Columbus.
"It's like part of the family," Merrill said.
Merrill and his wife moved to Chuckey from Houston about eight years ago after retirement. Their home is near Hensley Airport, where he keeps the plane.
Flying is always a satisfying experience for the long-time aviator, who takes photographs in flight of terrain used by geology professors at several universities, including ETSU.
"It's always an accomplishment when you do a good job. Flying an airplane is like being on the sea," Merrill said. "You have to continually make decisions to make yourself safe. I'm a geologist and I love looking at the ground."
Merrill and Ginger were searching after retirement for a combination of conditions they found in East Tennessee.
"We looked at a lot of places. We specifically were looking for a place that had an airstrip and a little less traffic and a little less humidity," he said. "Tennessee fit the bill."
Merrill plans to fly to several events this summer that have a connection to Jerrie Mock.
A Jerrie Mock exhibit will open June 18th at the Ohio Center for History, Art & Technology in Mock's hometown of Newark, Ohio. Merrill plans to fly to the event with Mock's sister, who lives in Kitty Hawk, N.C.
Also in June, Merrill will fly his Cessna 180 to Columbus, where a woman pilot named Shaesta Waiz will stop on her own attempt to fly around the world. For more information, visit http://dreamssoar.org/.
Merrill's Spirit of Columbus remains a lasting tribute to an aviation pioneer.
"I thought it would be a good thing to do," he said. "(Jerrie Mock) said she would like it."
A story about Merrill's Cessna 180 and his connection to Jerrie Mock's historic flight is in the March/April edition of Vintage Aircraft Magazine, published by the EAA. It can be viewed at www.vintageaircraft.org.
Original article can be found here: http://www.greenevillesun.com