Wonder of flight worth the wait
As a young boy, Tom Oliver would build model airplanes and dream he was a member of the Flying Tigers, the group of American pilots who aided the Chinese against Japan in World War II.
He was born just before the U.S. joined the war, and the heroics and acrobatics of those World War II pilots remained fresh in the minds of Americans during Oliver’s childhood. One day he was going to be a pilot, too. Maybe he wouldn’t fly a fighter jet, but he’d soar through the sky. One day.
People get married, have children and raise those children through college and beyond. For many people, rais-
It was right up my fun alley, restoring things, so when I bought the airplane, you should have seen it, it was unbelievable. There was enough dirt on top of the wing to grow a garden. The paint was pretty well gone, but mechanically it was in pretty good shape.
— Tom Oliver Pilot in training
ing a family takes precedent over nearly everything else. So, Oliver waited.
What is life, if not complicated and ever-changing? The unluckiest of people have to watch while their spouse struggles through a slow, painful, cancer-filled death. Oliver had to watch it twice. Suddenly, those dreams didn’t seem so important anymore. So, he waited.
Sure, Oliver had flown with friends, and had the chance to occasionally steer a place. But to fly alone, to be in total control, that was placed out of Oliver’s reach. He waited.
In the meantime, he stayed busy. He played football at Western Illinois University and had a brief stint with the semi-professional Quad Cities Raiders in his hometown of Moline, Ill.
He joined the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, though he was never sent overseas. He worked at several industries, sold cars, retired early, restored a ‘66 Mustang convertible, moved to California, built cabinets, entertainment centers, kitchens and finished entire basements and finally moved to Georgia.
Oliver waited until he turned 70. His friends told him he was too old. He didn’t listen; he was done waiting.
He purchased a Cessna 175-A airplane on the cheap from an estate sale and restored it himself. His experience with the ’66 Mustang came in handy.
“It was right up my fun alley, restoring things, so when I bought the airplane, you should have seen it, it was unbelievable. There was enough dirt on top of the wing to grow a garden,” Oliver said. “The paint was pretty well gone, but mechanically it was in pretty good shape.”
Federal Aviation Administration-certified mechanics checked out his repairs, and local Gary Digby made a whole new interior for the plane.
He passed his medical exam, after jumping through a few hoops, got his student’s pilot license and finally flew.
But it was the solo flight he was truly looking forward to.
“I was flying one day down to Covington and landed down three to four times, when my instructor (Rusty Horton) told me, ‘Pull over here and let me get out. Make two landings and come to a complete stop each time. I’ll give you a thumbs up or thumbs down.’ The fellows from Covington were all watching,” Oliver said.
“It was so much fun. I wasn’t nervous or afraid; I was very focused. I did two good landings, and everybody was all hooting and hollering for me. What a thrill that was. Now I’m able to fly on my own.”
The wait was over. He had the help of several friends along the way, notably Denny Grant and Horton, his patient unofficial and official instructors.
Next up for Oliver is becoming certified at night flying. Though Oliver lives in Lenora, Ga., just south of Snellville, he mainly trains at Covington, because his closest runway is grass.
“I can’t say enough about the folks at the Covington airport. There was a total stranger (Alan Duvall) that jumped in there and helped run me back up to my home base in Lenora when my plane’s starter failed,” Oliver said. “The fellows down there at Covington, or at my airport in Lenora are the kindest, most generous people you’ll ever meet. Pilots stick together, and they had pity on me because I was a rookie.”
Oliver was able to fly with his oldest son, Michael, recently, which was a great thrill, and he hopes to eventually get the rest of the family into his four-passenger plane. He’ll have to take turns to fit in wife Stella, daughter Julie, son Steven and Oliver’s three grandchildren. He doesn’t mind waiting just a little longer for them.
Tom Oliver didn't let age stop him from fulfilling his dream of learning to fly. A lifelong love of airplanes has translated finally culminated in Oliver learning to fly at the age of 71.