NEW KNOXVILLE – Local pilot Paul LeBlanc was presented the FAA’s prestigious Wright Brothers Master Pilot award for 50 years of safe flight. The Jan. 9 ceremony was held at the Neil Armstrong Airport outside of New Knoxville.
LeBlanc was presented the award by FAA’s Paul Gillenwater, the FAA Safety Team program manager for the Flight Standards office in Columbus.
In his remarks, LeBlanc said he always felt his mission in life was to pass along knowledge to new pilots, learn new information, and work with his fellow pilots.
Airport manager Ted Bergstrom reminded the crowd that there was one other pilot in the area who had received this award, that being Neil Armstrong.
Auglaize County Airport Authority member Gene Will listed LeBlanc’s extensive accomplishments, starting with earning an Ohio State University degree in Aeronautical Engineering and taking ROTC training. A five-year Navy assignment followed. He eventually became a pilot in the corporate aviation business for a series of companies, ultimately working for Dole before his retirement in 2000 after 25 years of service.
Since he has his own plane, he continued to do charters and personal flying. In 2006, he bought a farm from his mother’s estate outside of Wapakoneta, where LeBlanc says “I finally have time to do other things like train horses and learn the violin.”
LeBlanc said his career was not without its bumps. One challenge early in his career came in 1973, when a fuel shortage put a stop to his plans to fly for a commercial airline such as Delta, because no one was hiring pilots. While he waited for the situation to ease, he took on commuter flying jobs and taught flying while managing a Vermont airport. Ironically, by the time the hiring freeze eased in 1978, LeBlanc, at thirty-three years of age, was considered too old to fly for Delta.
LeBlanc emphasized that even when circumstances such as the Delta hiring freeze held up his planned career, he kept learning, taking classes and training to be well-qualified for the next step in his career.
LeBlanc said his career with Dole offered him many opportunities to meet celebrities, such as Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Bob and Elizabeth Dole, Henry Kissinger and Barbara Walters.
He said the most challenging airports to land in were riotously busy Washington, DC, as well as in downtown Hong Kong, where in the latter case, they would land between buildings. He added that there were few scary moments because “when an emergency comes, such as landing on glare ice, in white-out conditions or your engine just stops, you are so heavily trained you just react to it.” He admitted that there were times when he thought “Wow, if that had been closer, we wouldn’t be here.”
However, he said some of his fondest memories of flight were of earlier years. For example, while in the Navy, operating a P-13 sub-hunter plane, he learned how to take off and land on snow and ice during his two year assignment in Iceland. “The brakes were useless on ice so we steered with differential thrust of the engines.” After his Navy years ended, he said another happy memory was of flying a plane with skis in Vermont. “Once it snowed, we could land almost anywhere and often did.” He said they would make it a full day, taking off in the morning, fly all day and return with fuel still in the tank.
LeBlanc, who actually has 15,000 hours of flight experience in his 55 years of flying, maintains an office and a plane at the Armstrong airport. He offers instructions and says he plans to fly into his 90’s. While he is already qualified in flying five types of planes, including jet, glider, and sea plane, he still looks for more certifications such as helicopter and blimp flight.
His younger brother Dennis said his big brother had been interested in aviation for most of his life. He recalled a time when his then-ten-year-old brother fashioned dry cleaner bags and string to experiment in floating kittens from the second floor of their home. “No kittens were harmed but I had to be the grounds man who caught the kittens when they landed, because they would take off fast as soon as they hit the ground and that would tear that parachute apart.”
The Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award is named in honor of Orville and Wilbur Wright, two American aviation pioneers credited with inventing, building, and flying the world’s first successful motor-operated airplane. The Wright Brothers made the first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft with the Wright Flyer on December 17, 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The brothers were also the first to invent aircraft controls that made fixed-wing powered flight possible.
To be eligible for the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, nominees must hold a U.S. Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) or Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) pilot certificate. Have 50 or more years of civil and military piloting experience or 50 or more years combined experience in both piloting and aircraft operations. The effective start date for the 50 years is the date of the nominee’s first solo flight or military equivalent. The 50 years may be computed consecutively or non-consecutively and be a U.S. citizen.