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Ralph Charles, 103; May Have Been Oldest Pilot

Times Staff Writer

After working as a civilian test pilot for Navy bombers during World War II, Ralph Charles reluctantly gave in to his wife Leona’s plea: Stop flying.

For a man who built his own airplane and barnstormed in Ohio in the 1920s, co-piloted pioneer passenger planes in the 1930s and operated a charter service in the Caribbean before the war, hanging up his wings was not easy.

Charles loved flying, but he loved Leona more.

“I’d do anything for her,” he said decades later. “I don’t think she ever knew how much I missed it.”

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Charles kept his promise not to fly until his wife died in 1995, on their 70th wedding anniversary. Then he headed back into the sky.

Charles, who last flew an airplane in the summer of 2001 and may have been the world’s oldest pilot, died of pneumonia Sunday in an assisted-living facility in Somerset, Ohio. He was 103.

The son of a blacksmith who forged machine parts, Charles was born in 1899 in Middletown, Ohio. He saw his first airplane as a teenager when a barnstormer made an emergency landing in a field near his home.

“I got a real good look at it and decided right then I wanted to fly one some day,” he recalled in an interview last November.

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Charles enlisted in the Army during World War I with the hope of learning to fly, but the war ended the day he was to be sworn in.

An eighth-grade dropout who had gone to work as a welder at 14, Charles landed a job at Orville Wright’s airplane factory in Dayton, Ohio.

In 1922, after building his own airplane and receiving flying lessons from one of Wright’s first trained fliers, Charles soloed for the first time.

At the time, he was repairing and maintaining airplanes at the Rinehart-Whelan Aviation School in Dayton. When Rinehart-Whelan folded, he went to work for Consolidated Aircraft at Wright Field.

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After his marriage in 1925, Charles and his wife moved to Zanesville, where Charles operated Wheeler Field, gave flying lessons, built airplanes and offered airplane rides at $3 a head.

But after losing everything during the Depression, he moved to Columbus and worked as a co-pilot for Trans America Transport, a precursor to TWA.

He later flew charter planes based in Newark, N.J., where he often ran into Charles Lindbergh and once flew First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. “I took her back a box lunch, then went back up and flew the plane,” he recalled.

In 1940, Charles and his wife moved to Puerto Rico, where he and a partner ran a charter service between San Juan and St. Croix and St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands.

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Three years later, they returned to Columbus, where Charles tested Helldiver bombers built for the Navy by the Curtiss-Wright Co.

After his wife asked him to quit flying and settle down after the war, Charles opened an auto repair shop in Columbus. He retired in 1965 and they moved to a 23-acre farm near Somerset, a small community about 40 miles southeast of Columbus.

Charles filled his time rebuilding a dilapidated theater pipe organ, to which he added additional pipes, drums, bells and cymbals. He learned to play the giant instrument and turned his garage into a concert hall with seating for about 100. Busloads of tourists frequently stopped by for concerts.

But the skies never stopped beckoning and Charles often daydreamed about turning a portion of his property into a landing strip.

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“Imagine not driving a car for 50 years, only worse,” he told the Associated Press in 1999. “Sometimes when I would mow, I would imagine my tractor was a plane and I was rising up into the sky.”

Then his wife died in 1995 and, no longer grounded by a 50-year-old promise, he bought a high-winged, two-seat Aeronca Defender that he dubbed Blue Boy II after a plane he had once built.

The novelty of an active flyboy who had been born four years before the Wright Brothers’ first manned flight at Kitty Hawk led to appearances on the “Late Show With David Letterman” and the “Today” show.

NASA also invited Charles to watch several space shuttle launches from inside Mission Control in Houston and he was given a chance to operate a shuttle flight simulator.

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But there was only one place Charles was happiest.

“I’m not allowed to take passengers and I can only fly 25 miles away from home,” he said on his 100th birthday in 1999. “But I don’t give a hoot. I just enjoy flying.”

Charles is survived by three step-grandchildren.


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