Michigan pilots of all backgrounds meet weekly
By DANIELLE SALISBURY Jackson Citizen Patriot AP Member Exchange NAPOLEON, Mich.– One by one, the little planes rumble up the grass runway. Their pilots — a World War II veteran, a retired corporate flyer, a mechanic, a philanthropist — chat on their radios, and soon they are in the sky, peering at familiar landmarks from 550, 1,200 or 4,500 feet. “God, this is a great country we live in,” Rich Willis, 74, of Grass Lake said on a recent weekend. It was a sunny, about 70 degrees. A light fog had lifted and he was sitting behind the controls of his 1965 Piper Cherokee 180. Individual trees blended into clusters, fields became patchwork quilts and pools shrunk to bright oval puddles. “How many people can get up on a Saturday morning and see this?” he told the Jackson Citizen Patriot . This particular day, there were six of them, and they were heading to Plainwell, north of Kalamazoo. Every Saturday and Sunday in the warmer months, when the weather is agreeable, a small group of pilots gather before 8 a.m. at the Napoleon Airport. They fly to one of about 25 airport restaurants in Michigan or neighboring states. Usually home by 11 a.m., they are something of a flying breakfast club, a group of retired men linked by their mutual affection for aviation. They have flown thousands of hours all over the United States, and the world. It’s a hobby. A vocation. “A sickness,” said Larry Traskos, 75, who flew corporate planes for more than 30 years, working for General Motors and then Chrysler. “When you come up here, you have the ultimate freedom,” said Tony Hurst, 72, of Jackson. He is president of the Hurst Foundation, owns the airport and was flying a 1967 Cessna 172. “You can go anywhere and do anything you want to do.” Hurst has been to South America, Mexico and the four corners of the United States in small planes. He flew air bus, carrying freight and executives for several years. He has a hangar filled with various air contraptions collected since he began flying in 1965, more than 10 years after the oldest among them: Don Mericle, 91, of Jackson. Mericle first flew in an airplane, a B-24, in 1945 on the island of Morotai, south of the Philippines. He was a Navy seaman, trained as a gunner’s mate and assigned to the U.S.S. Cofer, one of the first ships to arrive in Nagasaki after the atomic bomb dropped. In between invasions, he “shot the breeze” with airplane mechanics and was offered a ride. “That gave me the bug,” he said. He returned home in 1946, still had “the itch,” and bought an airplane for $1,400 in 1952. “I’ve had one ever since,” Mericle said. Now retired from the soft drink business, he flies a tiny 1946 Ercoupe, a lesser plane he purchased five to seven years ago for about $19,000. It lacks the horsepower of his companions’ crafts and he often is first to leave and last to arrive. He is going to sell it, he promised one Saturday from his airport hangar, a space decorated with newspaper clippings and other memorabilia. Months later, he was making the same assurance, from the same space. “He’s been saying that for 10 years,” Hurst explained. Over omelets and oatmeal, the men razz one another — and sometimes, the familiar waitresses. They talk about gangster Al Capone, race riots in Detroit and their shared military history. Hurst was drafted during the Vietnam War. Traskos was a Navy pilot from 1966 to 1974; Willis went to Navy officer training school and spent 1 1/2 years in Sicily. “He went on vacation,” quipped Mericle, witty and spry, as he sat with his 20-something grandson, placed in grandpa’s plane when he was still young enough to ride in a stroller. They talk about their families. Last summer, Mericle celebrated his 69th wedding anniversary. “Now how many women does that include?” Traskos joked. Mostly, they talk about airplanes, their travels and aviation. Willis, who worked for Consumers Energy, earned his pilot’s license in 1970, took a break while his children grew and purchased his plane in 1995. Traskos goes every winter to his home in a “fly-in” community near Daytona Beach. His wife Faye, despite some altitude unease, calls the immaculately maintained 1981 Cessna 180 their third home. He took her in an airplane on what might have been their first date more than 50 years ago and flies over their Devils Lake house on Saturday mornings, scanning the water to see if she has emerged in time to greet him from the dock. Trasko has always liked airplanes. In his school books, he drew pictures of them, and he laments that there are not more young pilots. The airports they visit are occupied mostly by older men, he notes. His own daughters were not too interested. Everyone wants an airport, but in someone else’s neighborhood, he said. As he moves through the sky, he points to places below, mentions the shrinking wetlands and raves of the fall landscape. It is unlike anything seen driving the roads in a car, he said. “Absolutely beautiful,” he said. “We’ve all been fortunate, to still be flying.” Ask any of the men why they do it and the answer to them seems obvious. “What’s not to like?” Hurst said and motioned to the countryside, quiet and expansive from the sky. The only sound was the hum of the engine.