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Kansas pilot receives Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award

October 5, 2018

SALINA, Kan. (AP) — A yearning to soar through life on his own terms nudged Rex Russell into a career off the ground.

Most of his march has followed a unique beat, some 5,400 hours of it pushing pedals and riding on air thousands of feet above ground.

“I just like doing things different than everybody else,” said the 85-year-old pilot from Mentor.

After graduating Canton High School in 1950, the young Russell got busy amassing a timeline packed with cherished experiences.

The journey’s evolution, so far, unfolds at Rex’s Antique Museum, 704 E. Mentor Road. More than 100 guests were expected to witness Russell receive the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award by the U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration, the Salina Journal reported.

While there were some close calls, Russell said he’s enjoyed some seven decades of safe flying.

“I’ve stayed alive I guess, ’cause I’m mean and ornery,” he boasted in a somewhat raspy voice.

Russell’s foray into the cockpit was anything but conventional. Early on, there was no textbook to study and far less instruction than was required.

“I was down in Wichita once and paid for an airplane ride, probably in 1951,” he said.

That was innocent enough, but fast-forward about a year, and the farm boy from Canton tasted enough real excitement to propel him into flying for a living, even “hauling” some rich and famous folks all over North America.

Russell was working through a seven-year stint with Beech Aircraft at the Herington Airport, doing everything from tearing down airplanes so they could be rebuilt, to sheet metal work and testing ground starting units for jet engines. Then life changed quickly.

One day, his supervisor (and a flight instructor), Phil Osborn, “who I did not know,” Russell said, asked the brash young man if he’d be interested in buying Osborn’s plane for $400.

“Flying lessons were included,” Russell said.

He was able to fund the purchase with $150 of his own savings and the rest he borrowed from kinfolk. The 1941 L3 Aeronca was his, but there was a catch. The plane was in Marion, so on a Friday night, they hitchhiked there 26 miles from Herington. Russell then rode his plane while the seller piloted it home.

“On Saturday morning, Phil came by in a Model T Ford sedan, a 1920 I think, and took me to the airport,” Russell recalled.

After just one hour and 45 minutes of instruction, Osborn announced it was time for his young pupil to fly solo. That was Nov. 6, 1952.

“He just got out and said ‘go,’” Russell said.

He was grossly below the required 20 hours of flight training with an instructor today before flying by yourself, on your way to earning a private license, according to firstflight.com.

“I was all excited. Taking off was no problem, but you come around and land, and it was scary. It shakes you up pretty good,” Russell said. “I about overshot the airport, but the first landing was good.”

Eager to share his experience, the 20-year-old took to the air on Sunday. He landed in a field by his brother-in-law’s home near Holland in Dickinson County and “took our whole family for rides, all afternoon.”

As it turned out, Russell’s fun flights were “very illegal,” even then.

“You had to have eight hours before you could solo, and 40 hours before you could haul people,” he said. “To be honest, I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong.”

Back at work on Monday, Osborn and others set him straight on the requirements.

Russell’s early flight education was fairly common in those days, echoed Bill Gross, 72, chief flight instructor at Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus, also a Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award recipient.

“We did a lot more seat-of-the-pants learning back then,” he said. “I used to fly with Rex a lot of years ago. He’s a good one, and he definitely got the experience over the years.”

Russell officially soloed on Jan. 28, 1953, and on Oct. 3 of that year, he received a private pilot’s license.

“I kept flying for myself, as a hobby,” he said, adding all kinds of airplanes to his pilot’s list, including multi-winged and multi-engine aircraft.

“One winter, (a friend) hunted coyotes while I flew,” Russell recalled. “He would average 24 coyotes for every 25 shots.”

There was a bounty on the predators at the time. Morris County paid $3 for every pair of coyote ears, and Dickinson County paid $2, he said.

The friend would gun down the beasts, and Russell, who had become proficient at landing in fields “so I could go see people,” would set the plane down so the client could collect his prizes.

“We didn’t always know where the county lines were, so we’d fly to Morris County (Council Grove) and collect our three bucks a pair,” Russell said. “Then they would tell us to dispose of the ears, so we’d fly into Dickinson County (Abilene) and collect two bucks more.”

He didn’t pass certification to be a commercial pilot until the mid-1970s, and began flying for a living, as a charter pilot, and later a contract pilot for Schwan’s Sales (Tony’s Pizza). Russell was also an instructor for the Beech Flying Club and taught ground school at Kansas Technical Institute in Salina.

Among his more notable passengers were Jack Parr, former K-State basketball or played in NBA; former Kansas Gov. John Carlin, D-Smolan; well-known Salina businessman and philanthropist, Dean Evans; and former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole.

“I flew (Dole) quite a little bit. He’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever known,” Rex Russell said.

He recalled flying the senator to Mankato for a funeral when bad weather prevented landing. Dole opted to divert to his hometown of Russell to see his mother. No one was supposed to know, but “when we landed, all the city fathers came out, wearing read suit coats, and they rolled out a red carpet,” Rex Russell said.

The senator was not pleased, the pilot recalled, and began to ask who leaked his visit to the city.

As it turned out, Rex Russell said, the welcoming party was intended for Kansas Gov. Robert Docking, a Democrat.

“When his plane landed, there was nobody there,” pilot Russell said, “and when Bob came back and found out what happened, I never heard anybody laugh so hard in my life.”

Russell enjoyed his years as a commercial pilot. Those customers, he said, “made something of themselves, and most of them were really nice people.”

Russell’s career included a share of “close calls and forced landings.” The “scariest” experience occurred in the late 1970s while flying Schwans officials from company headquarters in Marshall, Minnesota, to Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was the co-pilot on that night.

“The weather was really bad, a blizzard. We were halfway through the flight and the control panel lit up like a Christmas tree. It said we’d lost the right engine,” Russell remembered. “And about that time, it showed that we lost the left engine.”

The King Air was at 18,000 feet. He radioed an air traffic center for help, asked the pilot for suggestions of what angle and speed to glide at and land.

As it turned out, Russell said, “There was nothing wrong. The electric eyes that ran things had just iced up.”

He has conquered a number of engine failures, including one near Wichita while the owner of Salina-based Crane Rental, one of the largest privately owned crane companies in the nation.

Russell said he was nonchalant about the crisis, and landed the plane close to a farmhouse, “so we wouldn’t have to walk.”

Because Russell was talking to the local control tower before landing, all three major television stations in Wichita showed up.

“It was no big deal,” he said. “I’ve never really been scared in an airplane. I’ve always felt like we could set it down and not hurt anybody. That’s the advantage of little airplanes over the airlines.”

Being careful, prepared, and “detail-oriented” are among the traits that set Russell apart, pilot Bill Gross said of his longtime friend.

“Rex’s flying style is awesome. He’s always thinking,” Gross said. “Whatever he does, he does well.”

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Information from: The Salina (Kan.) Journal, http://www.salina.com

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