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Former Military Pilot Flying Again 40 Years Later

By Bill Wilson, EAA 466133, for Light Plane World

Victor Hernandez
Victor Hernandez took 40 years off flying until this year when he earned his sport pilot certificate.

Members of “The Greatest Generation” are leaving us daily, but at least one sees heaven in lower altitudes. This is the unique story of Victor Hernandez, and it demonstrates a triumph of human dedication and perseverance. Victor, a native of Puerto Rico, is an 89-year-old World War II P-47/P-51 pilot who had the dream late in life to fly again. He realized that dream on April 27, 2011, the date he earned his sport pilot certificate. It is an amazing story of purpose, perseverance, determination, energy, and a dream that wouldn’t die.

You might wonder why a man with more than 4,300 hours in the most sophisticated military aircraft of his day would want to reenter aviation decades later as a sport pilot. In Vic’s case it wasn’t so much limiting physical factors as the practical desire to fly for fun – and fun alone. He says he regrets the decision to not take full advantage of his military flying experience by converting his hours into advanced civilian ratings. But that was only a minor setback for a man used to overcoming odds and defying the conventional wisdom.

We began working in January 2011, and Vic confirmed my belief that pilots never completely forget how to fly. His pitch/power understanding and feel for the controls were excellent. As soon as I saw that, I quit worrying about staying in the air and began working on practical test standards. Thus the time required for him to be certificated was reduced. Where Vic had challenges was with becoming a civilian pilot in today’s aviation environment. In his earlier flying days, military pilots had a crew figuring weight and balance, forecasting weather, and making cross-country decisions. Most civilian pilots do all that themselves.

World War II
In 1942, the war interrupted his engineering studies at Louisiana State University (LSU). Vic entered the Army Air Corps at age 20, trained in Stearmans, Vultee Vibrators, and AT-6s, and graduated to P-47 Thunderbolts.  He was assigned to the 8th Air Force in England in July 1944, flying in the 352nd Squadron, 353rd Fighter Group at Royal Air Force Station Raydon. Vic’s squadron flew bomber escort; his first P-47D combat mission was in September 1944, and a few months later the squadron received P-51s. Vic’s transition training consisted of his CO thrusting the Mustang ops manual at him and telling him to go fly his new plane the next day.

His 39th and most unforgettable combat mission was in December 1944, 28,000 feet over Frankfurt, Germany, escorting B-17s on a massive bombing raid. On the way back, Vic’s P-51 lost coolant, and he had to bail out into the freezing atmosphere. The result was a long, slow, bone-chilling ride to the ground. When he got near the surface, bullets zipped past his head from a hostile home guard, and when he landed, young German women rushed his position throwing stones at him. Vic went on to spend several months in a German Stalag Luft until liberated on Mother’s Day 1945.

Korea
After graduating from LSU, Vic remained an Army reservist – now in the Army Corps of Engineers. When Korea broke out, however, he was still ready to fly and was sent to the Army Flight School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, this time in L-19 Bird Dogs and L-20 Beavers. He flew spotter missions for the infantry, occasionally gazing skyward at his former colleagues who had transferred to the budding U.S. Air Force and flew F-86s.

After Korea, Vic stayed in the Corps of Engineers and flew mapping and other support missions throughout the United States and Central and South America. He retired from the Army as a full colonel in January 1970, having flown combat missions in two wars, served time as a prisoner of war, and accumulated over 4,300 hours. With the pressures of family, new business opportunities, and a civilian career, he thought he would never fly again.

Present Day
Forty years later, while many of his compatriots are in assisted living, Vic got the flying bug again. He learned of the new sport pilot category but had never held a civilian certificate. He mistakenly believed that he could draw on his military experience and fly sport aircraft legally with a driver’s license. Yet in that belief, earlier this year he boldly purchased an experimental light-sport aircraft – an FPNA A-22 Valor – and began looking for someone to check him out.

Fortunately I had previously met Vic, and being an instructor, brought him up to speed. He would have to take the sport pilot tests although his previous experience still counted. Undaunted, Vic studied and flew hard, took instruction well, and easily passed both the knowledge and practical tests. Now he regards his new certificate as his “second liberation” and encourages others of his generation to borrow a phrase from business and “exceed expectations.”

Victor Hernandez
Victor Hernandez exceeding expectations

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