There are only two kinds of pilots, those who are still alive and well, and those who have gone off to – as I call it – fly with Lindbergh.
It is with sadness I must report that Charlie Minkler has gone off to fly with Lindy.
Of course, most of my readers have no clue who Charlie Minkler is, but I can assure you that you'd have remembered him if you'd ever met him. Charlie was about 95 the last time I saw him down in Fresno, at a meeting of the Central Valley Aviation Association (CVAA). He was still damn spry, and could remember my name as if he were my age. He might have moved a touch slower as he approached 100 years old, but he never lost any of his lifelong passion for flying machines and the pilots who flew them:
When I think about what a pilot who was born in 1907 has seen in their lifetime, it boggles my mind. In the same year that Santa delivered Charlie on this planet (yes, he was a Christmas baby) – a guy by the name of Ben Epps (see photo) was flying the very first airplane in the state of Georgia. This was only four years after the Wright's got the party started at Kitty Hawk, and airplanes were still nothing but sticks, wire and fabric.At about 10 years old – the official age when young boys fall in love with airplanes – Charlie might have dreamed about flying across the battlefields of Europe, chasing down the elusive Red Baron in World War 1.
As a young man, Charlie watched commercial aviation evolve from Boeing biplanes hauling a few courageous souls sprawled out atop the mail bags, into silver eagles with two engines like the DC-3 which were capable of carrying people coast to coast. When he was into his 40's, he most likely was astonished when the Brits launched a new-fangled jet airliner called a DeHavilland Comet in 1949, considered to be the world's first commercial jet airliner.
Charlie was two years from retirement age when the first Boeing 747 entered service. He spent his working years as a telegraph operator for the Santa Fe Railroad, along with minding the family general store in the microscopic town of Minkler, a “blink and you'll miss it” speck on the road to California's Sequoia National Park. He was never far from an airport or a cockpit throughout his adult life, and he developed a reputation as an adventurer without fear. He finally gave in and actually earned a real pilot's license at age 72, and at an age when most men would be happy exploring a La-Z-Boy, Minkler immediate took off in a Cessna 150 on a solo trip...
As is always the case with our senior pilots, Charlie lost his medical along the way, and was grounded...more or less. Rumor has it that he bought an ultralight to still “fly” but actually really only taxied it around Reedley Municipal Airport...a stone's throw from Minkler, which he called home his entire life.
Somewhere along the way, he met up with a very likable lady pilot named Kathie McNamara. He and Kathie made trips around the world together, to Africa for a safari, or to Australia to explore the outback on a “fly it yourself” air tour. Kathie had a Cessna 150/150, and you can be certain that Charlie was almost permanently welded to the right seat. And at age 98, Charlie flew commercial down to Argentina to live out a lifelong dream of riding with the Gouchos.
The last time I saw Charlie, it was 2003, and I was working hard to get my Welcome Sky Aviation Scholarship Program up and running. The program was simple...coax rich pilots to donate money, and then pay for flight training for the best and brightest 16-21 year olds we could find. It was a way to cultivate new pilots, to replace those who have lost their medicals.
At that 2003 CVAA meeting, Charlie came up to me, remembered my name, and said “Dan, I really appreciate what you are doing with that program of yours. Guys like me won't be around forever, and we need the young ones coming up behind.” I told Charlie that one of our Welcome Sky students had just earned his private pilot ticket on a scholarship donated by Mazzei Flying Service in Fresno, and as founder of the program, I was going to honor Charlie's many years of flying by declaring that Adam Peterson, the Mazzei graduate, was “officially” going to be replacing him in the sky. Charlie smiled wide and replied “you know, that Adam, I hear he's a fine young pilot.”
On that day, a torch was passed.