Liz Varnedoe remembers her father, Bill Brooks, flying her Barbies in his radio-controlled, yellow model airplane growing up.
“I want a new Barbie out of this,” she recalled telling him.
Brooks, a 74-year-old Huntersville resident who grew up watching fleets of WWII airplanes soar over his Tennessee home, loves flying.
More than that, he always flies safely.
“He’s not a risk taker,” said his son Werner Brooks. “He always knows what he’s doing.”
In honor of his 50-year error-free flight record, Bill Brooks was awarded Monday morning with the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award – a rare feat – from the Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Transportation.
“To fly that long without incident is really something,” Mark Kramer, manager of the Charlotte district office of the FAA, told friends and family during the ceremony.
Brooks’ daughter and both his sons, their wives and five grandchildren lined the conference room of the FAA’s district office during the ceremony.
Steve and Katie Wallace, the children of NASCAR driver Rusty Wallace – who Bill flew as his chief pilot – were also among attendees.
Brooks didn’t expect everyone that came, and if it were up to him, Liz said he probably wouldn’t have told anyone. But she wanted him to be recognized.
“I didn’t want to inconvenience people,” he said to guests before the ceremony started.
A self-proclaimed shy guy, Brooks thanked his wife Heide, his family and the FAA for their support.
“It’s a real honor,” he said. “It’s a milestone, I know that.”
Brooks received his private pilot certificate on February 15, 1965. After nearly three years of military flight training, he was deployed to South Vietnam in July 1968.
During his tour Brooks received numerous awards. He returned to Vietnam two more times before the end of the war.
“Your grandad went to Vietnam more than once, and came home,” Kramer said to Brooks’ grandchildren in the room. “That’s a big deal.”
Brooks spent several years in Germany and training in other parts of the United States before coming to Fort Bragg, North Carolina in 1979 to join the Golden Knights, the U.S. Army parachute team. He retired from the army in 1984 as a CW4 Master Army Aviator.
Five years later, Brooks began flying for both the Carolinas Medical Center and Rusty Wallace. He rotated weeks flying organ donors and burn patients with flying the racecar driver.
In 1996, Brooks was hired by Wallace and Roger Penske to manage the Wallace Flight Department and transport the Penske Racing South Team Travel Operations, who he worked for until retiring in 2013.
“I don’t know where those 50 years went,” he said.
But he still flies occasionally on contract, and frequently for recreation. And he continues to build his model planes, and even model tractors, from scratch.
“If I was flying tomorrow,” Brooks said. “I’d look forward to it like I was flying my first flight.”