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McNeely: Not Really Retired At All

Aerobatic pilot continues to pursue love for flying and performing air shows

By Barbara A. Schmitz

July 27, 2018 - Gene McNeely just knew: It was time.

After 20-plus years flying with the Aeroshell Aerobatic Team, Gene called it quits in 2017.

“My flying was fine, but all the traveling was getting to me,” Gene said. “We’d leave on a Thursday to go to an air show, do a practice show on Friday, fly the air show on Saturday and Sunday, and then leave on a Sunday or Monday to go home. Then we’d do maintenance on the plane and leave again the next Thursday. At my age, it was just tiring.”

Gene admits it’s a little difficult to watch the team fly without him. “Retiring from something you really enjoy is not easy,” he said. But he’s not really retired at all; he is still flying 10 solo shows a year including EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2018, he’s still rebuilding T-6s, and he continues to race at Reno where he has had success for 31 years. And he’s done it all while being married to his wife, Iris, for 60 years.

Gene said he became interested in flying in high school. He earned his private pilot certificate, then joined the Navy and got his ratings thanks to the GI Bill. “For some reason, I wanted to be a crop duster,” he said. So he became a commercial ag pilot, spraying cotton, soybeans, and wheat in Arkansas. About the same time, he also started a small cargo hauling business.

Flying as a crop duster indirectly fueled his interest in aerobatics. “Spraying crops is almost like flying aerobatics since you’re flying low to the ground in an environment where you’re strictly flying by the seat of your pants,” he said.

Gene also bought old T-6s to use their motors on his crop dusting planes. “I finally bought a T-6 that was too nice to take the motor off,” he said, so he developed his own aerobatic solo routine and flew air shows in the 1980s. About the same time, he built a Christen Eagle and competed in aerobatic competitions.

He sold both businesses around 1990 and retired. But he didn’t stay retired for long. “I knew some of these boys flying on the North American Aerobatic Team; they had a three-ship formation out of Alabama,” he said. So in 1994, he joined the team and starting flying right wing. When they later became a four-ship team, Gene started flying slot.

“I told them if we were going to dive at the ground, we needed good sponsors and needed to get paid for doing this,” Gene said. “So I went to work to develop sponsorships.” He found a major sponsor in Aeroshell, and in 2001 the team officially became the Aeroshell Aerobatic Team.

Gene said the team is like a family. Only once did he recall getting irritated at his teammates. “It was the year of the 100th anniversary of flight and we had 33 air shows that year,” he said. “We got a little testy with each other before the year was over since we were on the road for every weekend for 33 weeks.”

But Oshkosh was — and still is — one of his favorite shows. “We’re all family here … and I always look forward to seeing all my friends,” he said.

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