Dick Padgett, who was a Flying Fortress B17 bomber pilot in World War II, now serves as a tow pilot at Wurtsboro Airport (N82), New York.
WURTSBORO — The Army Air Force was in such desperate need of pilots during World War II that teenagers like Dick Padgett, who already had a pilot’s license, were commissioned as officers after just four months of training - a third of the average time.
Padgett, originally from Hightstown, N.J., volunteered for the war at age 19 in 1943.
He told his grandparents, who raised him, that he didn’t want to be in the infantry because he “didn’t like walking too much.” His love of flying may have had a bit to do with it, as well.
Padgett began flying when he was 13. He got a job at his local airport, working 40 hours a week without pay in exchange for flight lessons.
He took his first solo flight on his 16th birthday, the earliest he was allowed.
During World War II, Padgett piloted a B-17 Flying Fortress with the 8th Air Force.
It was a fantastic airplane, Padgett said, keeping him safe through scores of missions.
On one early mission, Padgett said, anti-aircraft fire came through the fuselage and sent shrapnel up through his back, but he didn’t notice he was hit until they landed and his co-pilot saw the blood.
“You’re so keyed up at that time,” Padgett said.
There wasn’t time to notice pain or fear while flying wingtip-to-wingtip, dropping bombs on munitions factories across Europe, he said.
Once, he got shot down and had to belly-land in Belgium, where he and his men then lived with the Belgian underground for 34 days before they could be rescued by the English.
“We didn’t consider that terrifying; it was fighting for your country,” Padgett said.
After the war ended, Padgett went back to Princeton University to finish his mechanical engineering degree.
People didn’t treat the returning soldiers like what they did was a big deal, Padgett said.
“I had a school teacher who said, ‘Where you been, Richard?’” Padgett said. “I said, ‘I was a little busy.’”
It was the Germans who led Padgett to eventually relocate to Wurtsboro, where he lives now.
He was amazed by the Germans’ flying skills, and heard they all learned to fly in sailplanes, or gliders.
Padgett spent his weekends after the war at the Wurtsboro Airport, learning to fly gliders alongside former Luftwaffe pilots, whom he called “fantastic guys.”
Now 90 years old, Padgett is one of Wurtsboro Airport’s two tow pilots.
He flies an L-19 Bird Dog with his name painted on the side as he tows gliders into the air up to 25 times a day.
He’s spent tens of thousands of hours in planes, and he has no doubt he will pass his commercial pilot’s physical this summer and continue flying.
But even with all those hours, Padgett said he’s still learning, like any good pilot.
“When you stop learning, you better get out of the airplane, because you’re gonna hurt somebody,” Padgett said.