A Club Takes Flight

April 21, 1995|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Writer

A half-century ago, Ensign James H. Cunningham was putting his Grumman Hellcat into a dive over a suicide task force led by the Japanese super battleship Yamato.

Today, his exploits are grist for the mill among the retired aviators who gather each week to build models of the planes they once flew and talk about airplanes old and new.

"It's a chance to get together and lie to each other," said Mr. Cunningham, 75, a regular at the Aviation Historical Club meetings at the Parkville Senior Center.

Although Mr. Cunningham won a Silver Star for gallantry in the attack on the Yamato, the retired securities marketing consultant would rather talk about the Kitfox seaplane he's building in the garage of his Pinehurst home. He hopes to fly it this summer.

His progress -- or lack of it -- is a regular topic among the group's 25 members, most of them World War II pilots, air crewmen or aviation mechanics.

Although most have given up flying, they are still hooked on aviation. They also do more than swap war stories and relive their glory days. Several are advanced airplane modelers, and others are experienced artists. And for some, such as G. Robert Light of Perry Hall, a retired engineer and longtime widower, the club offers a haven.

"I'm a modeler, but mostly I come for the fellowship," said Mr. Light, 70, who first showed up at the senior center at his sister's urging. "A lot of good information is passed back and forth, and we have a lot of interesting things here," he said.

Mr. Light flew 17 combat missions over Europe as nose gunner in a B-24 Liberator bomber. But the one he remembers best is the one that didn't count. It was his 18th and last flight, over the Rhine Valley, on V-E day in May 1945.

"We flew at 2,000 feet instead of 20,000 feet, and we could see the people below waving white sheets. We knew they were yelling, 'Don't drop any more of those things on us!' " he recalled.

Homer Wise, 73, a retired insurance underwriter who flew more than 20 missions over Europe in a P-51 Mustang fighter, said he grew up building model aircrafts. "I come here just to be with these guys, to talk airplanes," he said. "They're interesting, a lot of smart people. They've done things."

"It also gives us something to do, instead of just vegetating as couch potatoes," said Les Hendrickson, 76, of Towson, who was a mechanic on a Navy rescue planes in the Pacific.

The dean of the club is Pat Romano, 90, a retired Parkville machinist. He started flying in 1926 with his brother-in-law, who operated Gates Flying Circus at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. Mr. Romano, who flew in the Civil Air Patrol during World War II, said he finally allowed his pilot's license to lapse when he was 85. But he still flies with friends at every opportunity.

The club owes its existence to George Dressel, 72, of Parkville, a retired computer technician who flew 50 missions in B-24s as a gunner and radio operator -- including the famous raids on the Romanian oil fields at Ploesti.

Mr. Dressel came to the senior center five years ago looking for a place to work on his drawing. He was shown to the former classroom and told some of his friends in the Experimental Aviation Association about his new digs. They began to show up at the senior center, and the club was born.

The group's premier artist is S. Joseph DeMarco, 77, of White Marsh, who was bitten by the aviation bug when Charles A. Lindbergh flew the Atlantic solo in 1927.

"All I wanted to do after that was learn to fly," said Mr. DeMarco, who finally earned his private pilot's license in 1970. "I wanted to do it right after the war, but I had to put it off -- for 25 years."

Mr. DeMarco was a civilian engineer during World War II and afterward became well known for his drawings of aircraft of an earlier era, the Sopwith Camel and Fokker fighters of World War I. Prints of his drawings are hot items among aviation enthusiasts.

Although most club members no longer fly, a few are determined to continue for as long as possible.

"I've been flying for 50 years, and I live airplanes," said Henry Davison, 68, of Linthicum Heights, a former technical writer for Westinghouse Corp. and the Glenn L. Martin Co. who owns a Beechcraft Bonanza.

Mr. Davison, a Korean War aviation mechanic who still teaches flying and writes training materials, also was a bush pilot in Minnesota and piloted a commuter seaplane between New York City and Philadelphia.

Another who won his wings early is Lawrence "Bud" Fickett, 72, of Glenarm, a retired engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers. After soloing at age 18, he became a flight instructor who trained Army and Navy pilots during World War II.

From Aldino Airport near Bel Air, Mr. Fickett still pilots a glider once a week or so, "when I have the money."

He was drawn to the senior center after meeting members during the restoration of an old Martin seaplane for the Baltimore Museum of Industry. Basically, he loves doing what the others do.

"I come here once a week and we shoot the bull," he said.

rTC

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