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World War II veteran pilot finally earns his wings


HILO >> Despite his heroic service as a bomber pilot in World War II, Walter F. Hughes was not licensed to fly commercially for 70 years after his return to civilian life.

Until, that is, a woman who heard his story decided it was simply an unacceptable state of affairs for a man who had given so much to his country.

For Marilyn Haymore, there was much with which to be impressed when it came to hearing the life experiences of the then-newcomer to the Big Island. It was 2004, and Hughes, a resident of Hawaiian Paradise Park, was speaking at a meeting of her club, the Experimental Aircraft Association of Hilo.

Hughes told of operating out of Hardwick Airfield in Norfolk, England, and surviving a total of 35 missions flown in B-24 Liberator Bombers over Nazi Germany. It was an amazing feat in and of itself, seeing as each time one of the planes flew over enemy territory, there was only a 50-60 percent chance of the crew on board coming home without being captured, wounded or killed, he said.

On Nov. 21, 1944, Hughes lost his best friend and co-pilot, Peter Scott, when he was struck by enemy flak during a mission to bomb a Hamburg oil refinery.

“Engine hit, holes all over . Ship almost lost right wing. . Could not save Pete, he was killed outright,” he wrote in his mission notes.

Between Sept. 10, 1944, and March 25, 1945, Hughes and his crew helped the 93rd Bombardment Group of the Eighth Air Force to turn the tide of the war in the European theatre, damaging and destroying oil refineries, tank factories, ordinance depots, military air bases, railroad yards, gun emplacements, ships, docks and more.

They also flew important resupply missions, one of which, he remembered, required them to fly so low to the ground that he would have to occasionally pull back on the stick to avoid striking the bodies of dead cattle and horses on the ground.

“We were so low, we could see some of the dead paratroopers hanging from the trees. We watched people shooting at us,” he said of the March 24, 1945, mission to resupply Gen. Bernard Montgomery’s British paratroopers as they crossed the Rhine River near Wesel in western Germany.

Hughes’ stories were filled with amazing and sobering details like those, and they had a profound effect on Haymore, an avid pilot and student of aircraft history.

“He’s done so much to pave the way for people like me, to be able to have a pilot’s license and fly,” she said.

But it was something he mentioned in an offhand way at the end of his 2004 speech at the EAA that really frustrated Haymore and got the gears in her head turning.

Despite the government policy at the end of the war of providing all demobilized pilots a commercial pilot’s license for use in their civilian lives, Hughes had never received his.

“It stuck with me,” she said. “And I’ve been thinking about it for 11 years.”

Upon completing his tour of duty in the spring of 1945, Hughes had a full plate as he returned to his home state of California. As he was on leave, working to catch up with family and friends, courting his soon-to-be wife, Violet Sasso, and building a career, he was ordered to a separation center in San Pedro, California, to be released from active duty.

As luck would have it, however, that particular center had only been in operation for a couple days when he arrived, and the forms needed to provide him with a commercial pilot’s license were not on hand. He was told that if he came back in a week, he would be able to apply for the license.

Unable to make the day-long trip back to San Pedro, the idea of obtaining his license just slipped away, and in his subsequent career doing research with poultry, it ended up being something he didn’t really need.

But to Haymore, the idea of Hughes not having something he was owed was too much to bear. This summer, during the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual convention and fly-in in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Haymore ran into officials with the Federal Aviation Administration, and used the opportunity to share Hughes’ story and kick off an effort to see him receive his license.

James Viola, division manager of the FAA’s General Aviation and Commercial Division, explained from Washington, D.C., last week that it was the first such request he’d ever fielded, and one which required some creative problem solving. At the time of Hughes’ release from the Air Force, the FAA did not yet exist, so there was some confusion about whose jurisdiction such a decision involved, and what qualifications Hughes might have to provide to see the process through.

“There was a short-lived debate about whether to allow him (to get the license) without taking a knowledge exam (on the rules of commercial aviation),” Viola said. “I said, ‘I’m not going to require a 93-year-old man to take a knowledge exam.'”

Previously, Viola had seen such debates take too long. In one instance, a request for a particular certificate from the FAA had been made regarding a Medal of Honor winner. But the internal debates and red tape took so long to muddle through that the man ended up passing away before the process was complete.

“I didn’t want to see that happen again,” Viola explained. “I said, ‘We need to just do this, it’s the right thing to do.'”

After about a month of emails between Viola’s office, Haymore, and Hughes’ daughter, Trisha Macomber, the license became a reality. On Aug. 21, he opened an envelope from the FAA to find it inside.

Of course, the license doesn’t mean that the 93-year-old can just start flying, Haymore said.

“For Walter to actually go flying, he’d have to come up with a current FAA medical certification, and he’d have to take a biennial flight review to demonstrate he’s current,” she said.

Instead, the license is its own symbolic reward, she said.

“I felt he earned it, he should have it,” she said.

Last week, Hughes joined Haymore and Macomber in a tour of the control tower at the Hilo International Airport, where he talked about his experiences and the effort to obtain his license from the FAA. He was humble, saying that he was deeply honored that so many would work to recognize his service.

He also poked fun at himself, saying that after returning home from the war he may have avoided getting his license because he was afraid of flying.

“It turns out I was just afraid of people shooting at me,” he said with a chuckle.

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