A yellowed clipping pinned to the Carrollton, Georgia, FBO’s bulletin board outlived all other media stapled to it. Inkjet-printed pages of airplanes for sale came and went, whether they were smoking bargains or overpriced clunkers that only moved after the owner passed on. But this clipping persisted, a faded photograph of the Wright Flyer at Kitty Hawk, with a line of men posing before it. Someone had annotated the photo with a ballpoint pen, pointing out Wilbur and Orville Wright and their alleged flight instructor, Owen Virgil Gray.
O.V. Gray, the subject of the good-natured ribbing, wasn’t quite that old, but he also wasn’t far from it. Mr. Gray was a fixture at the Carrollton Aviation FBO, where he shared duties with me every Wednesday and Saturday, as we tried our very best to keep the couches anchored, a neverending quest for folks like us who were born seven decades apart but consumed with a similar passion for flight. But unlike me, Mr. Gray was late to the flying game. Waiting until he was in his 40s before learning to fly, he worked as a mechanic at Delta Air Lines and kept his flying passion as a mixture of hobby and side hustle.
It was a different time when he was in his prime— Wichita, Vero Beach and Kerrville were churning out airplanes at a fevered pitch, and someone had to deliver these machines to their owners. If memory serves, Mr. Gray delivered airplanes for all the big manufacturers at one time or another on his days off from swinging wrenches. He recounted tales of being stuck in a miserable downpour when delivering a Cessna Skymaster, and he slept in the airplane as the squall shook it in its tiedowns. Another time, moving a Mooney, he landed at an airport that had locked up for the night. He tried to hop a fence to get into town and came nose to nose with an angry guard dog—his hop back across the fence was automatic and immediate.
He and his late wife, Pearl, had a Cessna 170 for years, and I believe he told me that they’d made it to every state except Hawaii, enjoying the slow-scrolling vista from the ragwing Cessna’s cabin. Along the way, he became a fixture at Carrollton’s old and new airports—the old one closed after the new one opened in 1970. He often took young pilots along when he flew, and he shared things he’d learned as he flew.
In a tired 152, the one I later soloed in, we shot hundreds of landings, always on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons. Winds didn’t slow the old man a bit; if any- thing, they sped him along. A gusty winter afternoon would have him tacking up to 20 miles an hour onto his approach speeds. He told me no telling how many times that he’d lost friends in a Cessna 170 that’d stalled while turning crosswind on a gusty day. We’d level off and accelerate to cruising speed before turning crosswind.
I can’t tell you how many times I tried to make that turn in a climb only to feel the yoke slide forward in my grasp. “Those gushes will get you,” he’d say. More than once, I sat in the right seat as he planted that 152 on the asphalt nearly at cruising speed, dancing in the breeze, but his corrections always kept it on the runway despite the wind and aerodynamics trying their very best. My actual flight instructor had to spend more than a little time un-teaching a few of these techniques as I learned that airplanes really should stall or nearly stall before they rejoin the planet’s surface.
I heard of multiple students, a bit unsure of themselves, reaching out to Mr. Gray before their solo cross-country flights. On the appointed day, one item joined the run-up checklist: “Passenger Door: UNLOCK.” After the roar died down following the run-up, a small man would emerge from the tree line, carrying his seat cushion, and he’d quietly ride along, offering help if it was solicited or required, and make a similar exit upon return to home plate.
David Mitchell, one of the local pilots, spearheaded the effort to get the airport named after Mr. Gray when his 90th birthday rolled along, and we threw him a big birthday bash. Some of the Atlanta news crews came out to interview our nonagenarian aviator. Leaned against the wing of a friend’s Mooney he occasionally flew, I got to star as his current pupil in an interview with the local NBC affiliate.
For years afterward, Mr. Gray’s visits continued, often with his lady-friend Frankie in tow, and we’d eat lunch at a greasy-spoon diner for his meat-and-three fix—it’s a Southern thing—before he’d go out for a walk on the taxiways for a couple miles before going around the patch. Hot weather didn’t faze him; he’d drape his button-up shirt across a taxiway light and do his stroll in an undershirt and blue jeans. He drove with a loaded revolver under a pillow between the front seats of his car and sewed a button flap across the back pocket of his pants because he wasn’t about to volunteer his wallet to pickpockets even if he would seem to be an easy target. He ate his fried okra doused in ketchup, and his country-fried steak swam in gravy. His lifestyle stood in stark contrast to every bit of health education I’d been given in the schoolhouse, yet he thrived.
Later in his 90s, he slowed the visits and, eventually, they all but stopped. When he did come to the airport, the stays were shorter, and anyone around thronged a little closer to hear his quiet voice as it faded bit by bit.
When he turned 100, we held one last big bash for him, with cake and Solo cups full of sweet tea. The EAA 976 hangar, filled with tables and well-wishing pilots, brimmed with energy as the old man eased around, saying hello to all who came out to see him. He climbed into someone’s J-3 and took a trip around the patch, none of us particularly concerned whether he’d held a medical certificate anytime lately. The airplane didn’t know or care as it drew a fine circuit around the pattern—leveled off for the crosswind turn, of course.
Our mutual friend Margaret Cone called me in late autumn 2009, and I feared the worst as I picked up the phone. “O.V. says he wants to see you,” she said, and I ducked into his East Point home, close enough to the airport he’d retired from that you could hear the jet engines idling as you stood in his yard. His hearing had gotten worse, which was really saying something, but we talked for a while. The words “I’m proud of you” struck home.
I left, saddened with realizing my friend wasn’t long for the world, and Margaret called again in December, with a room number at Emory Hospital. “He’d like one last visit if you could.” I was working night shift while furloughed from flying, and I sat with him for hours in between a couple of shifts.
He’d taught me a lot about flying, a few funny jokes, and how to enjoy home cooking. In his final hours, I learned how to let go when the time comes. His rattling snore was the repeating story for much of the time as I sat and held his hand, telling him thanks and choking out a flying story or two just in case he could hear my distractions from the pumps, alarms and visits as nurses poked and prodded. I missed the funeral, but even more, I missed him.
But I eat my fried okra doused in ketchup, and I keep my speed up in the turns. Some lessons have a way of sticking with you.