Won­der of flight worth the wait

The Covington News - - Front Page - Gabriel Khouli gkhouli@cov­news.com

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.

Gabriel Khouli/the Cov­ing­ton News

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.

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