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Master pilots: After 50 years of safe flying, taking nothing for granted

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Pilots A.J. Rigby and Charles Craddock love the freedom of flying.

Distances that require hours behind the wheel of a car can be traveled in minutes by air. Craddock and his wife of Murrells Inlet visited children in Tennessee and returned to their native West Virginia over the holidays. Though he no longer owns a plane, Rigby of Georgetown still has his pilot’s license and can spin tales of trips to all points of the map for business and pleasure.

Their love of flying and their dedication to safety have given them entry into an exclusive club. Both have been presented Federal Aviation Authority Wright Brothers Master Pilot Awards and recognized for 50 years of professionalism, skill and maintaining safe operations. Their names will be added to the FAA’s Roll of Honor in Washington, D.C. They join Pawleys Island pilot Doug Decker, who was named a Master Pilot last year. The award is the most prestigious the FAA issues to pilots.

Craddock, 80, and Rigby, 90, have had emergencies in the air. They never take a safe trip for granted.

“There are three things you can’t use,” Rigby said. “They are the fuel you left on the ground, the runway behind you and the air above you. At Charlotte, I always taxied to the end of the 9,000-foot runway. I didn’t need it, but the only time I ever took an intersection takeoff was in New Orleans in the fog trying to beat the weather. The end was fogged in. That’s the only time I didn’t use the entire runway.”

Craddock has used the same mindset: Err on the side of caution. “When you deal with airplanes,” he said, “safety pays.”

Craddock said he’s never had what he would consider a close call, even though the engine of his Luscombe 8A’s engine quit shortly after takeoff in the 1970s in West Virginia. It was a cold day in December, Craddock said, and he and his passenger checked the fuel lines and the sump pump for water before they fired the engine up and taxied to the end of the 4,700-foot runway. “Because it was cold,” he said, “we were off the ground in 250 feet. When we were about 75 feet in the air the engine quit. The silence was deafening.”

Since he had plenty of runway — that’s where using the entire length came in handy — Craddock set the airplane down and taxied into the median. He opened both sides of the cowling to see what had happened to his engine. “We couldn’t see a thing,” he said. They checked the gas lines again for water. When a mechanic arrived, Craddock decided to try and crank the engine again. It started right up and he taxied back to the hangar to have it checked out. “The only thing they could figure was there was water in there somewhere and it had frozen,” he said.

Craddock has had electronics fail in flight but doesn’t consider that an emergency. When a computer screen went black on a flight to Mount Airy, N.C., he reverted to his training and read the “steam gauges” indicating the artificial horizon, air speed, altitude and so forth. He flew home without the electronics too. Technicians found the box had a defective power supply once the plane was back in Georgetown.

“When you get in the clouds and all that stuff quits, you get awake in a hurry,” Rigby said.

Rigby’s only close call came while landing his 1947 Beechcraft Bonanza in Orlando, Fla. He was flying his youngest son and mother to see a rocket launch from Cape Canaveral. “When I went to put the landing gear down” he said, “something under the seat snapped. This plane had one switch to let you know the gear was down. The light didn’t come on. I called the tower and said, ‘I think I have a gear problem.’ They said the right main gear and the nose gear were down, but the left door was open about an inch. I put the gear back up, cranked it down by hand 50 turns. It came down and I could put weight on the left wheel and the light would blink on.”

Rigby asked the tower again how the landing gear looked. The controller said it looked like it was down. “What are your intentions?” the controller asked.

Rigby’s reply: “To make the softest landing you have ever seen.”

Sure enough the landing gear collapsed when the plane touched down. Rigby said the left wing scraped the runway, leaving a mark about the size of a cigarette pack on the bottom near the wing tip. He pulled the plane into the dirt to keep from closing the runway and breathed a sigh of relief.

Rigby said he got plenty of advice from “these 200-hour pilots” about what he should have done to make sure his propeller didn’t hit the runway. “I wasn’t worried about no dad-gum propeller,” Rigby said. “I was worried about me and my son and my mama. Your priorities change.”

Rigby said he’s had autopilots quit and found his way to an airport. He smelled something burning on a flight over the mountains and decided it was an alternator. “You could smell it, but that’s about it,” he said. “I cut the electrical system and flew home so my mechanics could fix it.”

Both pilots caught the bug for flight in simpler times.

“I remember Pearl Harbor,” Craddock said, “where we were and what was going on.” He was thrilled when Jimmy Doolittle’s Raiders struck Tokyo. The American B-25 was his favorite bomber and the P-51 Mustang his favorite fighter because a guy from his hometown in Huntington, W. Va., flew one. Craddock bought a quarter interest in a J-3 Piper Cub in 1962 and learned to fly. His next plane, a Luscombe 8A, was a step up. It had a starter and a “coffee grinder” radio, he said.

Craddock worked for the international conglomerate FMC Corp. He worked on projects far and wide. He rented planes and flew near Baltimore, Detroit, Orlando and Greenville. He got into a club in Orlando and could fly back to West Virginia for a weekend. He got his instrument rating when he was working in Princeton, N.J. “We were able to get off the ground and go into the clouds,” he said. “It’s the best thing I did.”

Craddock flew King Air planes while working in Argentina in the ’90s and others in Ireland and Chile. In all, he’s flown 23 planes during his career. He owns a single engine Cessna 182 based at the Georgetown County Airport.

Rigby said his first experience with airplanes came in the early 1930s when he accompanied his father, a Kingstree Gulf Oil distributor, to an air show in Florence. He got to ride in a Stinson biplane.

He was an adult before he decided to become a pilot. While testing electric meters in Dublin, Ga., Rigby saw people flying at an airport. After 4 hours and 15 minutes of instruction, he was flying solo. He rented planes to fly in Kingstree to polish his skills and learned one valuable lesson: never fly near the Aiken nuclear bomb plant. Two jet fighters scrambled to take a look at him when he was following the Savannah River. He bought his first plane, a 1947 Bonanza, in 1965, and started taking instrument training. He traded for a Beechcraft Debonair in 1970 and after 20 years traded for a Beechcraft Bonanza A-36. He sold that plane four years ago.

Rigby was chairman of the county airport commission and acted as airport manager. He still attends commission meetings.

Craddock said the county airport is friendly and gives good service. “They don’t hold you up for the prices of stuff,” he said. “The planes based here, they take good care of us. They will put a plane in a hangar, gas it up and close the door. You don’t get that at a lot of places.”

Craddock said his years of safe flying have gotten him another recognition in addition to Master Pilot. He’s been invited to become a UFO: a member of the United Flying Octogenarians.

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