It’s rare for anyone to find… and then fly… the aircraft they made their first military flight in as a pilot a half century or so after the event, let alone on the anniversary of that feat, but this article by Harry Ballance describes just such a moment. Here is the story about retired naval aviator Robert F. Lindley and his aerial reunion with T-34B Bu.140720.
You Can Go Home Again, Sort Of: Robert F. Lindley’s Fifty Second Anniversary Flight
words: Harry Ballance photos: Gerhard Frenz
December 7th means different things to a lot of people. For those of a certain age, it is most often associated with Pearl Harbor Day; the seminal event that drew the United States into the Second World War. However, for Bob Lindley, it means more than that. It was the date he first flew a U.S. Navy airplane.
Bob was raised in bucolic Sapulta, Oklahoma, and always had an eye towards the sky. He soloed a J-3 Cub when he was sixteen, and always knew, from that time forward, that his life would be intrinsically wedded to airplanes. During his college years, Bob also met, and subsequently married, the love of his life, Anna. When Bob graduated from NortheasternUniversity, he had already amassed some four hundred flight hours, working around the local airport, and befriending those who had airplanes and were willing fort him to fly them. The writer has always maintained that if a young person has a passion for airplanes, it will show through and become obvious to those further down the track, which generally enables theformer to be mentored by the latter. And so it was with Bob.
Bob was accepted into the Naval Aviation Officer Candidate program and became an Ensign after some fourteen weeks of intensive study and low grade harassment, all designed to show that he had “what it takes” to be a naval officer and pilot. After commissioning, he began ground school at Naval Air Station Pensacola to learn about the Navy way of flying as well as the systems and operation of the Beech T-34B Mentor.
On December 7th, 1965, Bob walked onto the flight line at NAS Saufley Field in Pensacola and began a studied preflight of the airplane that was to be the first Navy airplane he had ever flown; a gleaming white T-34B, Bu.140720.Bob went on to fly this airplane several more times before he moved on to the T-2, but he always had a soft spot in his heart for it.During his career as a Naval Aviator, Bob flew the A-4 Skyhawk and A-7 Corsair II, including two tours in Vietnam where people were shooting at him!
With such impressive credentials, Bob was employed by Delta Air Lines as a pilot in 1970, where he flew, among other airplanes, the Douglas DC-9, DC-8, McDonnell Douglas MD-88, Lockheed L-1011,Boeing 727, 757 and 767. He retired in 2003, after some thirty three years of service, as a Boeing 777 Captain. For Bob, flying airliners for a living was more than a job; it was a calling. He was the ultimate professional.
During these years, Bob and Anna raised two children, Sarah and Rob, while continuously owning and operating vintage airplanes. Bob restored a Stinson SR-8 Reliant, which won the Reserve Grand Champion Antique Award at Oshkosh in 1991, which he couldn’t have achieved without the willing enthusiasm of his wife.
Their son, Rob, soloed a T-33 sailplane at the age of fourteen and a Citabria at age sixteen. He graduated form Georgia Tech and was commissioned, like his father, an Ensign after having matriculated through Naval ROTC. He went on tomake a career in the U.S. Navy, concluding his active duty as a flight instructor on the T-45 Goshawk.Rob, continuing in the footsteps of his father, went on to become a Delta Airlines pilot, andis currently a Boeing 757/767 Captain and Flight Instructor. Like his father, he continues to fly light airplanes.
Fast forward to the Summer of 2017. Every Saturday morning at the PeachState – aka Ron Alexander Memorial – Airport, just South of Atlanta, a group of pilots, affectionately known as “The Geezers”, gather for breakfast, which sometimes stretches into a lunch event. The same people turn up, but always with different and interesting stories. The participants are a diverse group; active duty airline pilots, retired airline pilots, A&P mechanics, light airplane pilots, and about anyone else who is interested in airplanes.The common bond is a passion for mostly vintage airplanes. One of the regulars, Harry Ballance, had just purchased a T-34B, and conversation evolved around the table as to whether or not any of the former Naval Aviators present had ever flown the airplane.It turned out that Bob, after a check of his Navy logbooks, had made his first flight as a Naval Aviator in this very airplane!
From this point onward, it was determined that Bob and Rob should fly the airplane on December 7th to commemorate the fifty second Anniversary of Bob’s first flight in this airplane. It is not very often in one’s life that an airplane can re-enter itsome fifty two years later! The plan, in its infancy, looked like a great idea. However, there were several significant defects with the airplane that were not disclosed in the “pre-buy” inspection.Harry flew the airplane to New Smyrna Beach, Florida to have it“sanitized” by Curtis Boulware and TimMorris, both acknowledged T-34 gurus.There were some pretty extensive areas of neglect that needed attention, and there was some doubt whether the repairs could be completed in time forthe airplane to make it back to Atlanta before the anniversary arrived. But the guys in New Smyrna had the Mentor ready by December 6th. However, there was a line of bad weather that day extending on an east-west line right at the border between Georgia and Florida.After a whole lot of “bobbin’ and weavin’, and some great weather avoidance vectors by Air Traffic Control, the T-34 returned to Atlanta that evening in sufficient time for Bob and Rob to make their epochal flight on the morning of December 7th. GerhardFrenz was the designated camera man, and Leo Roberson, another Navy and Delta alumni,flew the camera ship. As Bob, Rob and #720 were tucked in pretty close to the camera ship, the grin on Bob’s face said it all. To loosely paraphrase Thomas Wolff, “You can’t go home again”; perhaps true, but this was even better.
WarbirdsNews wishes to thank Harry Ballance and Gerhard Frenz for the words and images in this article!