A lifetime of flying

A lifetime of flying

"A lifetime of flying" by Ralph Vincent Edward Van Kerkhove, retired major of the U.S. Air Force and captain with American Airlines

World War II was underway in Europe and Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, just as I finished high school in 1942. Rather than being drafted, my preference was to volunteer for what was then called the United States Army Air Corps. I enlisted one year after Pearl Harbor on Dec. 10, 1942. After graduation from pilot training in April 1944, I was assigned to the 511th fighter squadron, part of the 405th fighter group in the Rhineland, Central Europe campaign as a fighter pilot.

As Victory Day-European (VE Day) was fast approaching, flight crew members who had not completed their normal tour were sent home to the United States for a short rest and further assignment to the Pacific theater. However, fortunately for me, Victory Day-Japan (V-J Day) negated that plan.

Various assignments allowed for building my flight time in Air Force aircraft across the United States including Alaska, and a short tour in the Korean War for a total of 12 years. My career path then led me to become a pilot for American Airlines (AA) for 30 more years which simultaneously included the first eight years in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. At retirement as a captain from AA, the aircraft I enjoyed flying included DC-10s and Boeing 747s.

It would have been a shame to stop having fun at that point, so I enjoyed flying for another 20 years with small airlines like American Eagle, Molokai Airlines, private individuals and finally as recreation. Over the years, my participation in organizations like the Grey Eagles (retired American Airlines pilots) and the Quiet Birdmen - QBs (a monthly gathering of qualified pilots who meet monthly) fulfills my social needs.

Leather carving is my hobby, which was the outgrowth of an engine failure on a P51 shortly after takeoff in May 1948. After escaping the fiery crash, I was left with a compressed spinal fracture and a full-torso body cast. Leather tooling became a way to pass time while recuperating in the hospital.

For 62 years I was fortunate enough to have a career as a pilot that was also my passion and hobby. Not many people can say they made a living doing what they love with a lifetime of flying.