Harry Moyer parked next to his 1964 Mooney at the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport, stepped out to gaze at his airplane and commented, “There’s our time machine.”
“We save a little time when we go places,” Moyer elaborated this week. “My wife, she thinks it’s barbaric to drive to Los Angeles.”
The San Luis Obispo couple has been shaving hours off travel time for decades.
Moyer bought his ’64 Mooney plane in 1975, but the 95-year-old pilot has been flying far longer than that — since 1942, to be precise, when he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet while studying engineering at the University of Akron in Ohio.
He received his fighter training in the South, learning how to fly the P-40 Warhawk and P-51 Mustang in Baton Rouge, La.; and the P-47 Thunderbolt in Tallahassee, Fla.
“We were kind of apprehensive about the amount of power — 1,200 horsepower,” Moyer said of piloting the P-40 fighter. “It was exhilarating,”
During World War II, Moyer flew in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and China. A photo of Moyer standing next to a P-40 in China in May 1944 now graces bottles of Tribute, a 2013 Red Blend produced by Pianetta Winery in San Miguel as homage to those who have served or are serving in the U.S. military.
With each bottle purchased, the winery will make a donation to Honor Flight Central Coast California, which takes veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit memorials. Moyer traveled to D.C. in 2013 with the group.
More recently, he flew to Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the 59th Test and Evaluation Squadron, activated just before the war in January 1941. Moyer shared his experiences with the group and, after he returned home, decided to donate his flight jacket to the base’s museum.
Flying has been a lifelong passion for Moyer, sparked in part by the National Air Races that started visiting Cleveland in 1929 and into the 1930s, when he was 9 or 10 years old.
Love of airplanes
Moyer built model airplanes and befriended another high school freshman in a model airplane club. His friend’s younger sister, Gabrielle, caught Moyer’s eye. Harry Moyer and Gabrielle were engaged before he departed for war and married upon his return in 1944 — they’ll celebrate 72 years of marriage this year.
Gabrielle Moyer’s brother, Ted Schoettel, was also a pilot, flying a P-38 fighter, but he died in 1944 when his plane was shot down over Indonesia.
Moyer first joined the 59th Fighter Squadron, 33rd Fighter Group in North Africa, and flew to Pantelleria, an island between Tunisia and Sicily, where they escorted light bombers — B-25s and A-20s — against strikes on Sicily.
His squadron was later moved to China, joining the 23rd Fighter Group of the 14th Air Force to protect the B-29 bombers stationed there from Japanese attacks. On the way there, Moyer fondly recalled spending time at a British officers’ club in Karachi, the first capital of Pakistan, where the bar opened at 4 p.m. and offered “gin, scotch and vodka.”
After performing various missions in China, Moyer transferred back to the U.S. in September 1944, serving as a P-40 instructor pilot in New Mexico until the war ended.
“It was a little dicey,” he said of his missions, with seemingly characteristic modesty. “But we were trained to do this. I didn’t have it as tough on my end of it — the guys who had it really tough were the guys carrying the bayonets and rifles. We had it fast and furious.”
Later, Moyer moved west and started an insurance business in Los Angeles, where he and Gabrielle raised three sons. After about 26 years, they bought a hunting lodge near a cabin they owned in Duck Creek Village, Utah, and ran it as a year-round lodge. They moved to the Central Coast about 10 years ago to be near one of their sons.
At home in the air
Moyer bought his first plane, a 1963 Mooney, sometime around 1967. Over the years, the couple has flown cross-country a few times and made numerous trips in the western U.S. and to Mexico. Moyer estimated he’s logged about 5,500 flight hours.
“That’s a long time up in those skies,” Gabrielle interjected as he talked. These days, Moyer stays a little closer to home, taking friends or flying solo to “exercise the plane” by flying up to Paso Robles or to visit family in Camarillo. The Moyers are planning another trip to Mexico in the spring.
When asked how long he might continue to fly, Moyer said: “As long as I can. As long as I feel I’m capable of getting it up and down without damaging anybody. It’s hard to think that one of these days I shouldn’t do it. But if I’m still capable of it …
“Flying just gives you an exhilarating experience of seeing the world from a different perspective,” he added. “Just being up there like a bird and being able to maneuver and just take advantage of the three dimensions that you’re in and experience the sensation of flight — the movements, the pressure, the controls and just the exuberance that it gives you.”
Cynthia Lambert: 805-781-7929, @ClambertSLO