Gene Meade has spent an accumulative two and a half years of his life in the sky.
The Casar pilot has flown planes for more than 50 years, logging time as everything from a Civil Air Patrol pilot to a flight instructor. He has flown more than 60 makes and models of planes over the years.
Last month, Meade received the Wright Brother’s Master Pilot Award, the most prestigious award given to pilots by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Only 4,700 pilots have received the award aimed at honoring pilots who have demonstrated professionalism and aviation expertise for 50 years without an accident.
“I count myself lucky of that. I’m just fortunate,” Meade said.
Meade’s wife, Carol, was by his side as he accepted the award at the Shelby-Cleveland County Regional Airport. She even earned a certificate of her own for her support over the years.
“I’ve been his co-pilot all these years,” she said.
Stories from the sky
Meade has plenty of stories to tell from his time in the sky.
The highlight of Meade’s years of flying was the time he got to fly a B-17. He was told he could take it wherever he liked, so he decided to fly above his hometown of Casar and South Mountains.
“I had a super day,” he said.
But Meade has also had his share of shake-ups in the sky. His decades of accident-free flying was not without one particular close call.
Flying with a student pilot in 1999, Meade had to take over due to an engine failure. Without time to make it back to the Shelby airport, Meade made an emergency landing on U.S. 74 west of Shelby.
He managed to bring the plane down with a smooth landing, but needed a Diet Coke to calm down afterward.
“A lot of people saw this and they thought we were making a movie with E.O., Earl Owensby,” Meade said. “No we weren’t making a movie, but that was the most excitement I’ve had.”
It started at a young age
Meade was always drawn to the planes he saw overhead.
He remembers a few times where he was chastised by his older brother for watching planes fly over their Casar farm rather than picking cotton.
“I wanted to learn to fly from day one… It was born in me to fly,” Meade said.
Meade took to the sky for the first time in 1957 at age 17 when he hitchhiked to the Shelby airport for a flight lesson.
Meade went on to serve in the Army, and earned his Germany student pilot license while serving in Germany in 1961. The Veteran Administration later paid for 90 percent of his flight training along with two years at Cleveland Community College.
Meade has done aerial photography for the National Weather Service documenting tornado damage and flown for the South Carolina Forestry Service overlooking forest fires.
He has taught countless students since becoming a Certified Flight instructor in 1970. He loves hearing about his former students who have gone on to earn accolades while flying for the military.
“I’m proud to see people excel and do better,” Meade said. “That’s our objective, to make good, safe pilots.”