69 years in the air and still flying
By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on October 29, 2007 1:45 PM
For 69 years retired Air Force Col. Ray Kleber has flown airplanes.
At age 13, before he had even driven a car, the man who would later fly 302 missions in the Vietnam War was at the controls of a Piper Cub.
And on Saturday, standing in the main corporate hanger of the Goldsboro-Wayne Municipal Airport waiting to be honored for his 64 years of solo airtime, Kleber, 82, explained how he began flying.
He explained that his interest in planes actually began as a result of eating Old Fashioned Mother's Oats.
Growing up in Aliquippa, Pa., he said that his two older brothers would cut out and mail in the proofs of purchase from the large cardboard canisters of Mother's Oats they would eat for breakfast.
In return they would receive back wooden model kits of the navy bi-plane, the Vought Corsair, as well as leather helmets, goggles and books on flying.
From there, his interest in model airplanes grew -- leading in 1938, to his introduction to the nearby Conway Airport about 20 miles north of Pittsburgh.
He told the story of how one day he knocked on the door of his neighbor, who used to buzz his house in his New Standard bi-plane, and showed him a model that he had whittled.
Kleber said that the man was so impressed that he took him with him to the airport where he then sold commemorative models of Piper Cubs.
"I sold them for 50 cents," Kleber said. "That first day I sold out so fast, the next day, the price went up to $1."
From there, he got the chance to work as a line boy at both Conway and Patterson Heights Airport, which also was nearby.
He washed planes; he cleaned them; he gassed them; and he helped stack them.
"I could make an airplane look like it just came out of the factory," Kleber said.
In return, often in lieu of cash, the pilots would pay him in flight time.
"I built up quite a bit of experience that way," he said. "It was nice way to get a bit of flying, even though legally you couldn't log it."
Then on Dec. 1, 1941, he enlisted in the Pennsylvania Civil Air Patrol, manning watch towers and helping drill other volunteers.
Finally, at age 18, in August 1943, he earned his private pilot's license and quickly joined the U.S. Army Air Forces.
It was the beginning of a 32-and-a-half year career that ended in a three-year stint -- 1973-75 -- as base commander at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.
He explained that though he served during both World War II and the Korean War, he never saw combat, and actually spent much of Korea helping take air samples after atomic bomb testing.
But then in Vietman, he flew more than 300 missions in an F-100 Super Sabre.
"I tried to make up in Vietnam for not having taken part in the other two," he said.
Fortunately, he continued, he was helped by a great plane -- one that, along with the P51 Mustang, would become a favorite.
"It brought back every one of my pilots. We lost five planes, but we got all the pilots back," Kleber said.
It was, though, the only period of time in which flying wasn't always enjoyable.
"That's the only time it isn't fun -- when somebody's shooting at you," he said.
Since then, however, spending time in the air has been nothing but a joy.
"Every day you fly is good," he said.
Throughout his career, he has flown 60 different airplanes and gliders, but today, he spends most of his time either in a Cessna 172 tow plane or in a HPH304C glider -- a skill he actually learned shortly after Vietnam while stationed in Wasserkuppe, Germany, home of the oldest glider school in the world.
"I was hooked," he said. "Flying a glider, you have to think more. When you're landing, you've got to do it right the first time."
In fact, he continued, one of his best days in the air was in a glider -- 29,000 feet over Mount Mitchell, the highest peak of the Appalachian Mountains.
"I just love flying," he said. "If somebody said that I could either go up in that plane or eat, I'd go fly the airplane" -- something he's done before, when as a young pilot, he would fly low over his parent's house, stall the engine, yell out that he was going to be late for dinner and then continue on his way.
And even today, after receiving the Wright Brothers Master Pilots Award -- given to those with more than 50 consecutive years of safe flying -- at the Federal Aviation Administration's Wings Day event Saturday, he has no plans to slow down.
"I still fly regularly," Kleber said. "I'm very blessed that I'm still flying. You don't get to fly for 69 years without having the good Lord in the cockpit.
"It's a great life as far as I'm concerned and I'm looking forward to many, many more years."
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