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thedrifter
12-15-03, 03:04 AM
Some souls soar to the heavens
December 14,2003
MIKE SHERRILL
DAILY NEWS STAFF

The eyes shine when they talk of flying.

The words can falter, fall away like the ground, while memories and smiles climb through the clouds.

Maybe it was the time, growing up around World War II, with its newsreels of dogfights and bombers manned by America's hero pilots.

Or, maybe they experienced something in their own first flight that marked them with a crystalline purpose found in clear blue sky.

"Every airline pilot you ever talk to has that quintessential moment where they know that was what they wanted to do," retired Marine Corps pilot and military aviation instructor Mark Thoman said.

For Richlands native and pilot John Brown, a lot of it had to do with the time - the bustling postwar years in Onslow County with the mechanical birds buzzing.

"Every time an airplane passed over, I had to stop what I was doing and look," Brown said of his childhood.

And even for an old salt like Onslow County resident and Marine veteran Leon Coxe, flying born from military missions still held a fascination. A "vet's vet" at 76, Coxe still talks in acronyms and likes to meet with the guys to swap flying stories.

But Coxe flew as a radar operator starting in the mid-1950s before the booming days of business flights and airline tickets available online. He knew then he was experiencing something special.

"You'd get up so high and say no one sees something like this," Coxe said.

As the country's attention this week turns to two Ohio brothers in the bicycle business who, a century ago, made history in the sandy Outer Banks, Onslow-area aviators sense the excitement those brothers must have felt.

They know how far the country moved in the 12 seconds that Orville Wright had their Wright Flyer in the air at Kitty Hawk, and how far it's flown since then.

Family affairs

Alice Brown, John's wife of 43 years, was the first woman to land at Onslow County's Albert J. Ellis airport more than 30 years ago. She's amazed that people know that.

"I was the first woman to land at (Ellis). Really, what does that mean?" Brown, 62, said. "I think that just shows that flying still holds something for people."

Actually, Brown's more proud of her Sept. 13, 1970, solo flight. Sure, she grabbed her instructor by the arm as he left the plane. But she took off, and her husband remembers the giggle from the radio as she taxied.

"I think she still does it to this day," John Brown, 63, said.

Alice Brown talks about the adrenaline and the clear blue sky, but she said the words can't describe the feeling.

"I wish I could tell you how it felt. I couldn't sleep for 48 hours (afterward) I was so excited," Alice Brown said.

She's also proud of the first time she flew with her mother in 1973. Brown's mother was so motivated afterward she got her first driver's license that day after never driving before.

Her father, though, often gave her grief. A southern woman just wasn't supposed to be a pilot in those days.

"Then I found out he was bragging about me all over the county," she said.

John Brown worked through high school cleaning bricks to pay for flying lessons. He says Alice lands better and is more meticulous with the instruments.

"He flies by the seat of his pants, so we make a good couple," Alice Brown said.

Flying has made its imprint on the family, with a hangar at home. A red windsock flaps halfway out the grass runway along their driveway off Huffmantown Road. A small yellow airplane signals their drive at the road.

They have relatives who are pilots, and their only son is an air traffic controller who is married to an air traffic controller.

"I think it's made us more of a close-knit family," Alice Brown said.

The Browns are the first in their family to take flight, but Thoman learned from his father.

After spending the big war as a nose gunner in the B-24, Thoman's father was a flight engineer with American Airlines when the mechanic flew with the crew and fixed the plane "in his suit and tie and uniform" between stops. Now, mechanics are on the ground at every airport.

"My father's idea of an ideal Sunday was to go to the airport and watch the airplanes take off," Thoman, 53, said.

The retired major who spent two years in the Marines flying planes and helicopters remembers his "moment." He was 6, flying with his father in an old two-seater when he took the controls for the first time.

He could barely see out the thing, working the stick of the "big overgrown kite."

"I was absolutely sold at that point," Thoman said. "I knew I wanted to be an airplane pilot."

Now and then

Thoman knows the Wright brothers' story as he helps guide aviation's future.

Before the Marines, he was a history major in college. Now, he instructs military pilots on the V-22 Osprey simulator at New River Air Station.

Growing up, Thoman tried to work aviation into all school projects regardless the subject. He was once told by an English teacher that one more paper or book report about flying would flunk him.

"She was trying to broaden my horizons whether I wanted to or not," he said, still wearing his flight suit after a day in the simulator.

Thoman is quick to defend the Osprey, explaining with wide eyes its new features and computer controls. He says the simulator, its wrap-around screen and hydraulic movements, are the closest he's seen to the real sensation.

His mannerism can betray how serious he takes his job. His gestures are animated. His voice can bounce like a boy explaining the latest in "awesome" video game technology or Alice Brown's when she talks about flying.

"It has been an extraordinary 100 years. It's an extremely good example of humans with the desire and determination to do just about whatever they want to," Thoman said.

The Wrights' story inspires. Neil Armstrong had a piece of the brothers' plane in his pocket when he stepped on the moon in 1968, Thoman said.

"The Wright brothers taught us how to fly, and showed us it can be done, and 65 years later we were landing on the moon," Thoman said. "That's simply a reflection of having a goal and desire and enthusiasm."

As much as the first flight was an event, Thoman said that what the Wrights did in the four years leading up it was truly "amazing,"

They used a wind tunnel and twisted the propeller. They studied the hover of gulls to see how wings should move. They built an engine light enough and with enough horsepower to fly.

The Wrights worked a constant carousel of calculations - wing length, engine weight, horsepower and propeller size. Altering a single variable changed all others.

"That's the battle aeronautic engineers face today," Thoman said.

50 years of fun

Smaller and faster computers and lighter and stronger materials have altered the face of flight.

But Coxe, who retired as a chief warrant officer 4 in 1979 after 23 years in the Marine Corps, was there in the early days of jet fighters, running radar on the prop-driven F-7s. Pilots flew the roads and streams in Korea, escorting bombers and fighting nighttime dogfights later in the jet-powered F-3s.

"You always want to be in the fighters. We did have jets 50 years ago, but they've changed a hell of a lot," Coxe said.

"You never thought about the technology that came along, you just learned it."

As the nation celebrates the 100th year of flight this week at Kill Devil Hills, Coxe recalls being in the lead plane of a 12-fighter formation 50 years ago flying low over the Wright Brothers National Memorial for the golden anniversary.

The squad practiced for two days and buzzed the monument during the celebration. A friend, Bozo Snyder, quipped that he flew so low he could see a traffic cop.

"It was just another hop. I didn't even think about it," Coxe said. "I never thought that here we'd be 50 years later."

John Brown also likes to remember the salad days of flying the old stick-controlled planes.

"I'd rather fly with a stick than a wheel any day," he said. "This type of aircraft, you have to wear it."

Thoman also tools around in a small plane he keeps in Maysville. Problems really do seem to slip away into the clouds.

"Pilots are very young at heart," he said. "I'm out there simply for the joy of flying."

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Sempers,

Roger
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