Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Paul Welke honored with two prestigious Federal Aviation Administration awards

Federal Aviation Administration staff John Farnham (left) shakes hands with Paul Welke (far right) after he was honored with the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award Award from FAA office manager in Grand Rapids, Mark Kosco (center).

Paul Welke (left) opens a gift presented to him by Ken Tough, (right) chair of the Charlevoix Airport Advisory committee after a ceremony where Welke was honored with the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award Award and the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award. Also pictured next to Welke is Charlevoix Municipal Airport manager Liz Myer and in the center is Charlevoix City Council member Shirley Gibson as they congratulate Welke on his achievement.

CHARLEVOIX — A Beaver Island pilot was honored with the most prestigious award given by the Federal Aviation Administration — recognizing half a century of flight during a ceremony at the Charlevoix Municipal Airport on May 11.

Paul Welke, of Island Airways, was presented with the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award Award and the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award in front of family, friends, city officials and fellow pilots in the airport's hangar last Tuesday.

“Just in awe,” Welke said. “This is more overwhelming than I could have imagined. I didn’t even know these awards existed.”

The award recognizes professionalism, skill and expertise in aviation and 50 years of flight. These awards are the highest aviation awards given to civilians and recognize pilots for maintaining safe operations.

“It is certainly very humbling,” Welke said.

Welke was presented with a lapel pin, a Blue Ribbon award documenting his flight history and a plaque for his aviation service. Welke also reassured those in attendance that this celebration was no retirement party.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Welke said. “I still will be flying because there is no other place I’d rather be. I enjoy what I'm doing.”

Island Airways uses the same airstrip Welke grew up using to land the family plane. He soloed his first flight at 16 years old in 1965. He became a private pilot as a cadet in 1967 in a L16 and Welke got his commercial rating in 1972.

For his first flying job in 1972 he was paid $3 per flight, said wife, Angel Welke. “Anyone who has known Paul for a long time would know that aviation is his life.”

In the last eight years, Welke has flown nearly 5,000 hours and been on duty more than 14,000 hours. He has done 13,246 landings and takeoffs and in his total career flown more than 32,000 hours and an estimated 100,000 career landings and takeoffs, Angel said.

Welke’s connection to Beaver Island has fostered some deep relationships with island year-round and summer residents.

"Nearly everyone on the island has a Paul story,” Angel said. “I think practically everyone can say he flew this family member off or themselves for one reason or another. That’s just Paul. The phone goes off at 2 a.m. and he is flying.”

One family that attended the ceremony recalled how Welke risked his own safety to search for family who was on a charter plane that went down on the island in the winter of 2001.

“He saved myself and our three kids and asked for nothing in return,” said Mirth Gault, who was on board the flight that stormy February day. “He is a very special person to our family."

Not knowing if anyone was looking for them was beginning to take its toll on Mirth, she added.

“I was just about to give up,” she said. “It was 15 hours since we crashed and then Paul’s plane flew over us.”

Before Welke began the search, the storm had grounded the U.S. Coast Guard, said Robert Gault.

“The weather was so bad they would not go up,” Gault said. “But Paul stood next to his plane on the runway and waited for a break the clouds break and he went up.”

Gault describes the situation as desperate and time was not on their side. The weather was drastically getting worse. Temperatures at the time of the crash were around 36 degrees. By the time Welke was able to get in the air 15 hours later it was snowing far worse than before and the temperatures had plummeted to 17 degrees and were still declining, Gault said.

“God was on our side,” he said. “If Paul didn’t find them when he did, they would have died in the plane, that night. The next day, after the rescue the snow covered the plane. Without Paul, I would have been without my family. To think about how desperate that situation was and for him to go up in that weather is just selfless.”

The Gault family said Paul’s honor and recognition from the FAA is well deserved.

“He is the most humble guy you will meet,” Gault said. “If anyone deserves these two awards, it is Paul Welke.”

Welke now joins the ranks of Chuck Yeager and Neil Armstrong, who are also recipients of the award.

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