When Jack Mehner was a child, he loved airplanes.
"Aviation was fascinating to me from an early age," he said. "I'd build model planes, watch planes in the sky, anything I could do to be around planes."
As an adult, Mehner took his hobby to wing, taking flight training at Cape Girardeau Regional Airport in 1963. He earned his private license in 1965 and his instrument rating in 1968.
On Thursday, in a ceremony at Cape Girardeau Regional Airport, Mehner accepted the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award from Phil Dixon, program manager of the FAA Flight Standards District Office in St. Louis.
According to the FAA website, the award "recognize[s] individuals who have exhibited professionalism, skill and aviation expertise for at least 50 years while piloting aircraft as 'Master Pilots.'"
His name will appear on a "Roll of Honor" on the website, and recipients receive a certificate and lapel pin.
Mehner, a Cape Girardeau resident, is a hobbyist pilot, he said.
"When I moved down from St. Louis in 1963, I started a business, Advanced Business Systems, here in Cape Girardeau," he said. "I took my pilot's training lessons from Cape Central Airways, and was instructed by David Little. I really valued his training."
He said he kept flying through his business career, and when he retired 10 years ago, "I could take more time to fly."
"I've never really wanted to be a commercial pilot," he said. "Most of the joy for me is in being up in the air, seeing the beauty of God's creation. It's like being a bird, but just a little bit noisier."
He took his family on several short trips, but "mostly I just flew for enjoyment."
Mehner joined the Cape Girardeau Pilots' Club, an organization that meets every second Tuesday of the month at Cape Girardeau Regional Airport.
"I've met a lot of great people that way," he said. "It's enjoyable to fly with other people, to ride sometimes too, and this club helps with that. We like to encourage others to fly, to learn to fly, to get their licenses and keep them renewed. Great organization."
Because Mehner's focus is on shorter trips, he flies smaller planes.
"I've flown almost all single-engine planes," he said. "Cessna models, the 150, 172, 182, several Mooney aircraft, Bonanza, Piper Cherokee Six."
Lowell Peterson, another member of the Pilots' Club, built a model RV6A plane in his garage, and together, he and Mehner moved it to the airport.
"I helped him attach the wings and put the seats in," Mehner said. "So he lets me fly it whenever I want.
"We have a great time together. He really did a beautiful job on it." Peterson said, "It's a wonderful thing when you get old enough and you can enter into your second childhood."
In the early 1980s, the Pilots' Club would hold air proficiency races.
"It was a 300-mile, three-hour course," he said.
Entrants were given two hours to plan, and were not allowed use of navigation aids.
"Had to estimate how much fuel you were going to use, how much time it'd take you, and you had to beat the manufacturer recommendations for usage. It was a real challenge!" Mehner said.
Mehner said he found the formula for the air proficiency race and the requirements in a 1970 issue of Flying Magazine.
"We'd love to get that going again," he said.
Of his award, Mehner said, "I think it's exciting. It's really appreciated. One of the other club members, Bev Cleair, sponsored me to the FAA, and endorsed me for all those years of flying. That nomination moved through the channels, and they decided to give me the award, for which I'm grateful."
Though he has not had any accidents, Mehner's career has not been free of incidents.
"When you fly, you have enjoyment and some thrills. I'm really thankful that I've not had any accidents. I had an engine go out once, managed to get it started again.
"I've had some ice buildup on the wings, had to land, but found an airport in time. Had some other moments, but all in all, I've been very fortunate. Little planes are really safe. For the most part, if you keep your wits together and fly the plane, you can usually find a place to put it down."