Retiree turns love of airplanes into part-time job

Webmaster’s Note: This story appeared in the Sept. 9, 2007, edition of The Register-Mail, Galesburg’s daily newspaper, and is posted here with the publication’s permission.

BY TOM LOEWY
of The Register-Mail

Lonnie Lee is a man of few words. But he had plenty of gas Saturday.

High-octane, ethanol-free, 110 low-lead gas. And before the start of the 36th annual National Stearman Fly-In’s formation competition, Lee and his big white Ford 600 fuel truck were in great demand.

“This is my second fly-in,” Lee said as he bounced around in the cluttered, bright-red cab of the truck. “I worked it last year.”

Lee is 64 – going on 65 in November – and spent his professional life as a tool-and-die maker.

“I last worked at Allied Welding over in Chillicothe,” he said. “I retired and I took flying lessons as a retirement gift to myself. I got my pilot’s license and I started working out here part time.

“I just love airplanes. I always have. I always wanted to fly and I finally got my chance.”

Lee stopped in front of Chuck Marshall’s 1942 PT-17 Army Stearman.

Marshall perched atop the wing while Lee pulled a long black fuel hose from the truck.

“I’ve probably used 150 gallons of gas this week,” Marshall said. “I need some more before the formation flying contest.”

After Marshall finished pumping the gas, Lee clamored back into the cluttered cab. The front of the truck was the home of empty aviation oil bottles, a small orange traffic cone, a pair of weathered yellow wheel blocks held together with a length of rope and a box of Phillips 66 SAE 25W-60 aviation oil.

Lee had already cleared out two other boxes and his cooler of pop.

“It’s been busy this week,” he said. “Especially today and yesterday. They have been burning through the stuff.”

Harrel Timmons, owner of Jet Air, estimated the Stearman pilots used between 10,000 and 12,000 gallons of gas during Stearman week.

“We give the pilots a break on the cost,” Timmons said. “Self-service is about $4.25 and retail is about $4.50 a gallon. And that was after prices from our supplier went up about 30 cents.

“But I think they are still getting a good deal. I was in San Francisco and the price was $7 a gallon.”

Cost was the last thing on the minds of Stearman pilots. Back on the flight line, Lee was flagged down by Brian Olofsson.

The owner and pilot from Kankakee topped off his 1943 450 Stearman. He said he used about 100 gallons of gas during the fly-in.

Olofsson needed some other services.

“Do you have paper towels,” Olofsson asked.

Lee produced a roll from the floor of the truck.

“You wouldn’t happen to have any duct tape?” Olofsson asked.

“No, I sure don’t,” Lee replied. “But I’d be willing to bring some back for you.”

By the time Lee left Olofsson’s plane, pilots all along the flight line were waving for his services. He radioed in for another fuel truck.

“I really like doing this,” Lee said as he guided the fuel truck between rows of Stearman planes. “The pilots have been patient and polite. About as nice as you could ask for.”

Lee reached the 1944 744-Sierra Navy Stearman after owner and pilot Tonya Hodson finished dumping a bottle of oil into the plane.

“I have a passion for flying – I had that passion even before I owned this Stearman,” said Hodson, who is from Marion, Kan.

California resident Anthony Garcia climbed to the top wing to do Hodson’s refueling.

“You afraid of heights?” Lee cracked.

“You bet,” Hodson cracked back.

The owner-pilot said she “didn’t even want to think about fuel costs.”

“I go to this event and I’ve been to the formation training in Oshkosh the last two years,” Hodson said. “If fuel gets too expensive, I just cut back on other things and start saving my money. I want to fly.”

Hodson helped Garcia down from the plane after the refueling was completed.

As Lee stopped pulled away from the classic Stearman, he considered flying the machine.

“I never have flown a Stearman,” Lee said. “Technically, I’m licensed to. But I haven’t flown on yet.
“You got one?”