Sky cap­tain of New­ton County

Lo­cal man brings his­toric air­liner to his home­town

The Covington News - - FRONT PAGE - BRYAN FAZIO bfazio@cov­news.com

About 40 miles from Cov­ing­ton, hun­dreds of com­mer­cial air­craft, painted in stan­dard is­sue with over­whelm­ing thrust ca- pac­ity and com­puter-as­sisted flight con­trols, shut­tle in and out of the world’s busiest air­port. It’s a for­mula for ho-hum air travel, in­ter­rupted only by the ever-present Trans­porta­tion Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion em­ploy­ees.

More than a half-cen­tury ago, there was no doubt that air­lines took pride in both the beauty of their air­craft and the lux­ury their cus­tomers en­joyed.

This week, New­ton County res­i­dents don’t have to travel back to the 1930s, or even to Harts­field-Jack­son, to see air travel at its best.

Gene Chris­tian, a Cov­ing­ton res­i­dent since 1995 and a DC-3 pilot since the early 1970s, flies the

Flag­ship Detroit, for­merly of Amer­i­can Air­lines and cur­rently the old­est fly­ing Dou­glas DC-3. Over 14,000 of the Dou­glas Air­craft Co. air­planes were pro­duced, in both the com­mer­cial and mil­i­tary (the C-47, which flew in World War II, de­liv­er­ing air­borne troops to France and Hol­land) ver­sions. The air­plane, built in 1920, is cur­rently be­tween tour stops, headed out to Gails­burg, Ill. Sept. 5, lead­ing the home­town pilot to keep it parked nearby.

Chris­tian flew the Flag­ship Detroit -- all com­mer­cial air­planes were named af­ter cities or states in the early days of air­line travel – into the Cov­ing­ton Mu­nic­i­pal Air­port re­cently, with a crew that then took flights home out of At­lanta’s air­port. Chris­tian chose to keep the iconic Amer­i­can air­liner parked in Cov­ing­ton un­til it heads to its next des­ti­na­tion for the Stear­man Fly-in.

While the air­craft is parked near the air­port’s en­trance, other pi­lots have ad­mired its shiny ex­te­rior and twin Wright Cy­clone en­gines. This Satur­day from 1 p.m.-3 p.m., the pub­lic will get its chance to look at this fly­ing piece of Amer­i­can his­tory.

Not only is the Flag­ship Detroit the first of its type to be used by Amer­i­can Air- lines; it also was a means of trans­port for First Lady Eleanor Roo­sevelt and was pi­loted by avi­a­tion author Ernest K. Gann.

A New­ton County res­i­dent is now part of that lin­eage. Chris­tian is an in­struc­tor for the DC-3, teach­ing pi­lots how to fly the twin-pro­pel­ler clas­sic and has flown about 70 dif­fer­ent air­craft in his al­most 50 years of fly­ing. He grew up around air­lines, as his fa­ther worked for Delta and his mother worked for an in­sur­ance com­pany that in­sured air­line pi­lots.

As a fresh­man at Auburn Univer­sity, Chris­tian was of­fered a chance to learn to fly in ex­change for help­ing to build an air­craft han­gar. The young collegian went up in the evenings for about a half an hour be­fore dark, and em­barked on the path that would be­come his ca­reer.

He started fly­ing the DC-3 in the early 1970s af­ter the flight school he was work­ing for in Grif­fin bought three of them from Ozark Air­lines.

“I didn’t know then that was to be my lot in life,” Chris­tian said.

He will en­joy his time at home in New­ton County, while his neigh­bors will en­joy his his­toric-air­borne of­fice, un­til it’s time for him to fly out to an­other fundrais­ing event for the non-profit com­pany, also called the Flag­ship Detroit Or­ga­ni­za­tion. Along with the crew he will take about six pas­sen­gers (not in­clud­ing the vol­un­teers dressed as what were then known as “stew­ardesses”), who be­came mem­bers of the Flag­ship Detroit Foun­da­tion on a do­na­tion ba­sis.

In­for­ma­tion on how to be­come a mem­ber of the foun­da­tion, help­ing to keep the Flag­ship Detroit fly­ing for a good cause, and get­ting your­self aboard, will be avail­able at the Cov­ing­ton Mu­nic­i­pal Air­port Satur­day.

Dar­rell Everidge/the Cov­ing­ton News

The DC-3 Flag­ship Detroit, pi­loted by Gene Chris­tian, sits parked at Cov­ing­ton Mu­nic­pal Air­port in be­tween stops on the his­toric air­plane’s tour.

Dar­rell Everidge /The Cov­ing­ton News

New­ton County res­i­dent Gene Chris­tian has been fly­ing DC-3s since the early 1970’s.

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