Richard “Dick” Willetts was a 17-year-old high school student in Albia in 1944 when he took his first airplane ride and fell in love with flying. Seventy-six years later, Willetts, 93, was awarded the prestigious Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award for over 50 years of exemplary aviation by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Still in high school, Willetts passed his initial flying exam, but the entered the Army Air Corps at the age of 18 near the end of the war and spent a year in occupation Germany as a crew chief on a P-51 Mustang.
When he returned to the United States he followed in his father’s footsteps with the U.S. Postal Railway Mail Service and ended up in Chicago where he finally took his first flying lesson. He married his wife, Martha Jane Keeton in 1949 and then returned home to Albia where he worked 37 ½ years with the postal rail service on the M&St.L working mail on the Albia to Albert Lea, Minn. Route and the Des Moines to Ottumwa route.
But flying was his passion. In 1950 he bought the first of four airplanes, a Piper Cub. He would later buy a Globe Swift built in 1946, a Christian Eagle bi-plane and a Cessna. He also gained numerous pilot’s licenses and flew commercially as a charter pilot. He flew over land and sea, learning to land in a pontoon airplane.
He also started an aerobatics business, doing hillbilly clown acts at air shows, mostly in his Piper Cub.
The award Willetts received from FAA was partly based on safe flying, but like anyone who flies for over 70 years, you’re going to have a close call or two. The closest call Willetts remembers actually happened with both feet squarely on the ground. “A great big guy at one of the air shows I was performing in didn’t get the hillbilly jokes, thought I was being serious, was offended and came after me,” said Willetts. “It took a couple of cops to stop him and try to tell him the whole bit was a joke. He was still mad.”
The other memory of close calls happened while practicing some aerobatics above Hocking Hill. “I was flying straight up in the air at about 600 feet when my engine went out because of an ice build up,” he said. “Realizing the only place to land was right under me, I leveled off and changed my mind a half dozen times as to how I was going to glide the plane down before I landed in a field. There were a couple of other times I experienced some engine failure and once or twice got caught in some weather, but nothing too serious.”
Willetts was 91 when he flew his last flight under his own license. He still goes up occasionally and takes control of the plane, but someone is always with him now.
He was given the award during an EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) meeting in Ottumwa.
“They give you this award for staying alive despite the mistakes you make,” he said.