Saturday, July 29, 2017

Richard "Rick" Mellon: Naples man receives Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award after 50-plus years chasing clouds

Pilot and philanthropist Richard "Rick" Mellon has made a name for himself in Naples and the local airport is no exception.

Naples Municipal Airport is where he keeps two of his most prized possessions — a five-passenger aircraft and a 1946 Ercoupe open-cockpit plane built for two.

During a recent visit, the 70-year-old greeted many employees and shared jokes with them. Most everyone called him "Uncle Rick."

"The airport is my second home," Mellon said inside the airport's general aviation building.

He's there three to four times a week flying his planes or giving tours of the airport. 

Mellon earned his pilot wings at age 16 in his hometown of Pittsburgh and has since flown the past 54 years; about 23 of those from the Naples airport. 

In honor of his 50-plus years in the sky, Mellon recently earned the prestigious Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award from the Federal Aviation Administration. The award is named after the first U.S. pilots, Orville and Wilbur Wright.

As a result, Mellon's name was added to the Master Pilot Award — Roll of Honor, along with thousands of pilots nationwide. In order to be eligible for the award, nominees must have a pilot certificate, at least 50 years of military or civilian flying experience and be a U.S. citizen. Including submitting several letters of recommendation from other pilots.

The award was presented to Mellon at a Naples Airport Authority board meeting by H. Matthew Simpson, lead representative of the FAA Safety Team.

“The Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award is given to pilots who exhibit professionalism, integrity, leadership and mentorship,” said Simpson in the press release. “Rick Mellon is the epitome of all of these attributes.”

Mellon caught the flying bug from his father who was a World War II flying instructor. At age 14, he started flying with his father, many times to Atlantic City to visit his grandmother. 

"The (Master Pilot Award) is a recognition of my father’s heritage and the love I acquired of flying through him," Mellon said.  

His father gifted him his first plane, which was a Ercoupe, when he was 16. They sold it later on after it hadn't been used in years. 

When his father passed away years later, Mellon wanted to commemorate him high in the sky. He visited a plane expo and purchased a similar Ercoupe he now flies from the Naples airport. 

"I was fortunate to find it," he said.

Mellon is not just a year-round tenant, but a great ambassador for the airport, said Christopher Rozansky, the executive director of Naples Municipal Airport and the city airport authority.

"He's served in our noise committee, he's done tours and he represents us very well in the community," Rozansky added.

While Mellon flies purely for pleasure, there was a time in his life when he wanted to use his skill for battle. He joined the U.S. Air Force in 1966 during the Vietnam War. Instead of becoming a pilot, he was made a meat inspector for the military veterinary corps, ending his service in 1968.

Mellon wanted to become an airline pilot but the airlines weren't hiring pilots without military flying experience at the time. So he went on to practice law for 25 years, serving as a judge for five.

He never stopped flying, he said. 

Ever since he retired with his wife Melanie to Naples 23 years ago, they've flown to most every airport in Florida. 

"My wife and I would fly out to a city in Florida for lunch and fly back," he said. They have five children together. 

He still enjoys flying over the Gulf to spot sharks and taking U.S. veterans for rides in his open-cockpit plane.

When he isn't in the sky, Mellon likes to give back to his community. He's CEO and board chair of Mellon Philanthropic, as well as president and board chair of Mellon Heritage Foundation. Locally, he is a member of many organizations, including Quest for Success, which he contributed $1 million to last year for scholarships, and Friends of Naples Airport. 

He said he's happiest when he's in the sky.

"I love to chase clouds."

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