Mastering the skies

Local pilot honored with Wright Brothers award

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MAGNOLIA SPRINGS, Alabama — Family and friends gathered Saturday, Nov. 21 at the Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 1265 in Magnolia Springs to honor longtime member Ray Reeves with the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award.

Presented by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award “is the most prestigious award the FAA issues to pilots certified under Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) part 61,” according to faasafety.gov.

The award is named after the Wright Brothers, the first U.S. pilots, to recognize individuals who have exhibited professionalism, skill and aviation expertise for at least 50 years while piloting aircraft as “master pilots.”

“I am truly speechless,” said Reeves. “I have logged a lot of miles and burned a lot of gas over the years. I have lots of stories to tell, some of which you will hear later and some of which I can’t tell here.”

The award, which would normally be presented by Richard Henry, FAA safety team program manager, was instead presented by Russ Kilgore, EAA Chapter 1265 president, because of travel restrictions due to COVID-19, Kilgore said.

Reeves was presented with a certificate and lapel pin, along with a copy of Reeves’ complete flight history, which had to be reviewed before the award was issued. A stickpin similar to the lapel pin was also presented to Reeves’ wife Rita, who submitted the application.

“I wouldn’t be here without her hard work and dedication in seeing this done,” Reeves said.

Reeves’s name, city and state will be added to a published “Roll of Honor” located at faasafety.gov/content/MasterPilot/RecipientList.aspx.

In order to be eligible for the award, nominees must meet the following criteria:

A native of Atmore, Reeves said he first caught the flying bug when he was a teenager, hanging out at a local crop-duster’s air strip.

“I thought that’s what I wanted to do for a living,” he said, “but after I clipped a power line during a flight, I decided that I was too young and dumb, so I decided to give it up for a while.”

At age 26, in 1963, Reeves began taking lessons in Mobile and also took lessons with an instructor at the Atmore Alabama Flying Service in 1964. He obtained his private pilot’s license at the same facility in May of 1965.

Soon after, he purchased his first airplane, a 1959 Piper TriPacer 9642 Delta and has since purchased or built around a dozen planes, he said. His current plane, which he claims to be his last, is a 1973 Cessna Cardinal 177B.

After serving in the military, Reeves said, he bounced around a lot and ended up moving to Baldwin County from Mobile in 1998.

In 2002, at age 65, Reeves purchased a 1989 Yak 52 Russian Trainer and flew formation flying with the Red Stars. According to flyredstar.com, formed as the Yak Pilots Club in Virginia in 1993 with 18 members now boasts more than 500 members. Reeves said his group was made up largely of local pilots and some from the Muscle Shoals area.

“The name comes from the fact that the planes were used for training pilots in Soviet-bloc countries,” he said. “They let me know in uncertain terms that it didn’t matter how old I was, I was expected to learn the formations and do what I was assigned to do. Lives depended on it.”

Reeves said he flew with the Red Stars for five years including a formation that included 30 planes, before deciding to continue flying only for “civilian pleasure.”

“I decided I had done what I set out to do and had accomplished what I came to accomplish,” he said.

Reeves has also logged nearly 30 flights as a Young Eagles sponsor, a program designed to indoctrinate young people ages 8 to 17 by offering their first flying experience for free.

“Many of the young people introduced to flying through this program go on to be commercial pilots,” Reeves said. “It’s one of the best programs I’ve had the pleasure to be involved with.”

Reeves recalled one experience introducing a young man to his first flight that didn’t go quite as planned.

“We went up and went through some simple maneuvers when he asked if we could do some dives and loops,” he said. “I asked him if he was sure and if he was sure he wouldn’t get sick. He assured me that he wouldn’t. I asked him again and he assured me again that he wouldn’t. He did.

“I knew something was wrong when I asked him a question and he didn’t respond. I found the evidence later when I was cleaning out that area of the plane.”

Now at age 83, Reeves said he continues to fly about once a week, mostly what he calls sight-seeing or observational flights.

“I go up and fly around to see if anybody’s changed anything since I last went up and then I come back down,” he said.