Paying Back a Debt

Last week, my friend and colleague Rob Molash asked me if I had any time one night after work to show a young man around EAA’s World War II-era B-17 Flying Fortress. I said I did and when the time came, I drove over to the Kermit Weeks Hangar: EAA Flight Research Center, where the B-17 was at the time, to meet everyone for the tour.

I was greeted by Rob and his guests, a friendly family of five. The youngest son, 7-year-old Kayleb, was the young man I was to show around. He had seen a B-17 from far away once and became enamored with it, although he had never been up close to one. He was carrying a toy of a B-17 that, upon further inspection, turned out to be a model of our B-17 Aluminum Overcast. As we approached the airplane, a tangible wave of excitement swept over the family. Not just Kayleb, who was the reason we were assembled, but the entire family became excited. We opened the rear hatch in the waist section of the big bomber, and I said, “Okay buddy, get on in.” I am not sure who enjoyed that moment more, him or me. As the family climbed in, and I watched the young folks look around in amazement, I was brought back to something I’d been told once.

Not that long ago, I was just like Kayleb. I was just 12 when I started volunteering at the Air Heritage Museum back home in Pennsylvania. It would have been very easy for the men and women of that museum to say, “Come back when you are a little older.” Rather than doing that, they welcomed me with open arms. I became consumed by airplanes. I was not sure what job I wanted with them, just that I needed to be around them.

I had great people to take me under their wing. People like Clair Pazey and Rob Morelli. They were more than just mentors, they were my friends. They helped guide me in decisions and set me on the right track for success. Not just in aviation, but also in life. I would make it through the week not being able to wait for the weekends, not because of parties, but due to the museum work days. I’d spend my time with great ambassadors of aviation like Clair, Rob, Tom Walton, and so many others at the Air Heritage Museum.

In high school, we had to shadow a professional in a career that we might like to enter. I chose aircraft mechanic. I followed Clair and Al Yessel around U.S. Air Hangar 5 at Pittsburgh International Airport for a whole day. I loved the sense of teamwork and constant joking that was very present. It seemed like every person I met was very talented and could be doing an easier job, but wouldn’t dream of leaving the adventure they were in. Clair and Al wrote me wonderful comments to take back to my teacher and I vividly remember saying, “Thank you guys so much. Not just for this, but for everything over the years. Someday I will figure out a way to repay you.” The reply I received was along the lines of, if you want to repay us, just do this for someone else. Try to help open the doors for them. That is all we want.

As Kayleb exited the aircraft I asked him to do me a favor: to come back and volunteer with us here in Oshkosh, when his parents allow him to. While I was standing at that hatch on the B-17, I felt in some small way as though I was chipping away at that large debt I owe to the mentors who could have turned away a nerdy 12-year-old kid, but instead took him under their wing and helped grow that passion.

I am sure that many of you reading this have your own stories of people who helped you on your path in aviation. I would love to hear those stories. As we come to the close of my recounting of a special day I want to take a cue from one of my hometown heroes. Mr. Fred Rogers. He would often say, “Take a minute. Just one minute. And think of someone special who helped you.” I would like very much if you would do that now. I’ll watch the time.

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