Pilots are usually very particular when it comes to their airplanes. A pilot will lend you anything else before he will let you fly his plane.
That pilot becomes even more possessive when he has built his plane by hand, a process that can take years.
It took John Kee of Rock Hill eight years to turn a Wheeler Express kit into a flying plane.
The plane had to be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration, meeting the required number of hours on the engine and airframe to prove it was air worthy.
To get his required time, Kee turned to just one other pilot – his original flight instructor, Wayne Jones of Rock Hill. Jones flew the plane for several hours, a small number among the more than 11,500 hours in his log book.
But the trust Kee placed in Jones is incalculable.
That trust, experience by hundreds of people who have studied or ridden with Jones, was recognized Monday as the FAA awarded Jones its Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award.
The award recognizes pilots who have demonstrated professionalism, skill and aviation expertise by maintaining safe operations for at least 50 years. Jones is the fourth pilot from the region to earn the award. Harold Mize of York was honored in 2006, Phillip Kelsey of Lancaster in 2012 and Eddie Smith of York in 2014.
Jones, 84, made his first solo flight in 1951. He was an Air Force staff sergeant at the time, in charge of the munitions on the B29 and B36 bombers stationed at Travis Air Force Base in California.
Jones got the flight bug while growing up in Starr, a small town in Anderson County. He would climb the tallest, most flexible tree and make believe it was his airplane.
When the Selective Service Board “published (his) name in the newspaper,” Jones enlisted in the Air Force “rather than become a ground-pounder” – flyboy slang for Army troops.
He wanted to be a pilot, but problems with his right eye disqualified him from flight school.
But that didn’t stop his love of flying.
One weekend, while passing a small airport near Vallejo, Calif., his wife challenged him. “Go in and sign up, or go home and shut up,” Jones remembers.
When his military obligation was over, Jones sold his 1949 Kaiser automobile and bought a Cessna 120, an economy version of the Cessna 40 that lacked wing flaps. It also had minimal instrumentation, but that didn’t affect Jones’ flying, he wasn’t instrument rated at the time.
There was just enough room for Jones, his wife and newborn son. It took them three days to reach home in Anderson.
In 1963, he moved to Rock Hill, working on the one of the first commercial computers, the IBM 1401. Two years later, he started teaching other pilots at the Rock Hill airport.
“He was persistent and perceptive,” said longtime Rock Hill pilot Gardy Wilson, who learned to fly from Jones in 1972. “I had some natural ability that needed work.”
Jones was “meticulous” as a flight instructor, Kee said, taking time to make sure his students were prepared. The failure rate of students by FAA examiners was so low that the FAA awarded Jones “Gold Seal” instructor status, Kee said.
“I just loved flying,” Jones said. “And I fell in love with instructing. When you see someone solo that you have instructed, it’s better than eating a steak. It means you have communicated with them.”
Jones estimates he has accumulated more than 8,000 hours of instruction time.
“I learned more from them than they did from me,” he said.
One of the trademarks of his training was teaching students how to land at night without landing lights. It was one of the first lessons he learned. It helped students learn to fly the plane rather than the plane flying the students.
Jones has flown more than 70 different airplanes. His soloed in an Aeronca 7AC, commonly called a Champ. He is certified in seaplanes and twin-engine aircraft. His pride and joy is his current plane, a Stinson 108 high-wing airplane made in 1949. The four-seat plane is based at the Chester Catawba Regional Airport, just north of Chester.
“It’s heavy, but it rides good,” he said. “You don’t see many of them anymore.”
Jones acquired the Stinson in 1993, the purchase motivated by some sentimentality.
“It was the first plane I was checked out in,” Jones said.