A former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot who became a prisoner of war in Vietnam, a resort owner who spent several years as an acrobatic pilot, and a state official who was the “face of general aviation” in Arkansas for more than 20 years are the latest inductees into the Arkansas Aviation Hall of Fame, the Arkansas Aviation Historical Society has announced.
Retired Brig. Gen. James Robinson Risner, a native of Mammoth Spring; Jim Gaston, who owned Gaston’s Resort in Lakeview; and John Knight, the former director of the Arkansas Department of Aeronautics, will be inducted in a ceremony Nov. 5 in Little Rock. Risner and Gaston will be inducted posthumously.
The induction ceremony will mark the end of a five-year hiatus for the Arkansas Aviation Hall of Fame. More than 100 people were inducted into the hall from 1980 to 2010, said Richard Holbert, the president of Central Flying Service and a society board member. Next month’s ceremony will be the hall’s 32nd, he said.
“Along with the regeneration of the Arkansas Aviation Hall of Fame Award for the lifelong aviation achievers will be scholarships to help aspiring young pilots with an aviation education,” the society said in a news release.
Risner, the son of a sharecropper, was one of the nation’s most decorated pilots in the Korean and Vietnam wars. Born in Mammoth Spring in 1925, his family moved to Tulsa when he was a boy.
U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was a prisoner of war with Risner at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” called him “an inveterate communicator, an inspiration to the men he commanded and a genuine American hero” upon Risner’s death in 2013.
Risner was a double recipient of the Air Force Cross, the second-highest military decoration for valor that can be awarded to a member of the Air Force. The society said he was the first living recipient of the medal. He was awarded the first for valor in aerial combat during the Vietnam War, and the second for gallantry as a prisoner of war of the North Vietnamese.
Risner became an ace in the Korean War, and in Vietnam he commanded a squadron of F-105 Thunderchiefs during the first missions of Operation Rolling Thunder in 1965. He flew a combined 163 combat missions, was shot down twice, and was credited with destroying eight MiG-15 fighter aircraft.
Imprisoned in 1965 after he was shot down the second time, Risner was tortured for 32 days, culminating in his coerced signing of an apologetic confession for war crimes. Risner spent more than three years in solitary confinement.
Even so, as the officer of rank with the responsibility of maintaining order, he helped lead American resistance in the North Vietnamese prison complex through an improvised messaging technique called the “tap code,” endearing himself to fellow prisoners with his faith and optimism. Risner and his Navy counterpart, Cmdr. (later Vice Adm.) James Stockdale, were credited with organizing their fellow POWs to present maximum resistance. He was a POW for seven years, four months, and 27 days.
In his autobiography, The Passing of the Night: My Seven Years as a Prisoner of the North Vietnamese, Risner wrote that his faith in God and prayer were instrumental to his survival.
Gaston was raised outside of Olathe, Kan. His love for aviation went back to his early years watching planes fly over his home. The Gaston family came to Arkansas and bought a resort with an 1,800-foot grass airstrip. Flying lessons started for Jim in his early 20s, first with a Piper Cub, then a Cessna 150.
He later developed an interest in acrobatic flying.
In an interview, Gaston said, “I flew a Pitts for the first time and absolutely fell in love with it. I was told that the best instructor for a Pitts would be Marion Cole in Louisiana. I called him up, and like the gentleman he was, he told me to fly down for training. I flew down and got into the Pitts.
“I figured that Cole would perform the takeoff in the Pitts and then hand the plane over to me. Not so! I was instructed, by Cole, to take off and fly the entire time.
“I flew about 10 or 12 years as an aerobatic air show performer.”
Gaston was better known for his association with the Arkansas Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission. He was first appointed by then-Gov. Dale Bumpers in 1973. Then-Gov. Mike Huckabee appointed him commissioner emeritus in 1997.
He received the Arkansas Tourism Person of the Year Award in 1985 and was inducted into the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame in 1992.
In 1998, he was chosen by Active Years as one of the Most Admired People in Arkansas. In 2010, Gaston was chosen as the Arkansas Business Executive of the Year. Gaston held various leadership positions with the Arkansas Hospitality Association and received its Silver Cup for Tourism Award.
Knight spent 27 years with the Arkansas Department of Aeronautics, including about 22 years as director. Under his leadership, Arkansas aviation and airports moved forward with millions of dollars of new construction each year.
“Airport operators in Arkansas enjoyed his years as director,” according to the society. “Without doubt, every airport received state money to improve their airport during his administration, many of them multiple times.”
He retired last year having served as director under four governors. The annual appropriation of the department went from $500,000 to $15 million by the time he retired.
Knight was born in Vicksburg, Miss., and attended Star City High School and the University of Arkansas at Monticello.
In 1965, Knight received his private pilot certificate. He later earned a commercial pilot certificate. He also received ratings to fly multiengine aircraft and fly using instruments only and is a certified flight instructor.