Wineka column: Air Force vet Bob Wofford, 83, finally makes his first solo flight
CHINA GROVE — Bob Wofford’s son, “Woof,” did the honors, cutting out a back panel of his father’s U.S. Air Force T-shirt.
The time-honored tradition signifies a pilot’s completion of his first solo flight. Bob Wofford and those people at the airport to mark his accomplishment soon took off for a Lone Star Steakhouse, and by the time the evening was over, “the whole restaurant was celebrating with us,” family friend Brandon Mallory says.
The world has plenty of pilots. Not many wait until they’re 83 to start flying. Wofford has never allowed himself to dwell too much on his age and what he should or should not be doing based on it.
“I don’t mind getting older,” he says, “but I’m not going to get old.”
That philosophy explains how Wofford, an Air Force veteran who served three tours in Vietnam, faithfully logged his flying hours with instructors at Concord and Rowan County airports, studied all the regulations and manuals, passed his tests and successfully made the solo flight early Saturday evening out of the Rowan County Airport.
He had to make three full-stop landings and takeoffs on his own.
“If you can, you can, and if you can’t you can’t,” Wofford says.
Instructor Davey Amos presented Wofford with a small award for his accomplishment. Everyone signed the piece of T-shirt that was cut away from Wofford as he bent over a wing.
Wofford flew a light SportCruiser, which weighed in at about 800 pounds. He took his first lesson Feb. 13 from Larry Morris, who was based out of Concord Airport.
When Wofford decided he would not go for his private license, he switched airports and instructors. His sports license allows him to fly only during daylight hours and only under visual flight rules (VFR). He can’t carry more than one passenger.
Should he go for his private license, Wofford will have to pass a Class 3 medical examination. He and his doctor, who also is a pilot, feel sure he would pass the medical exam, even with his diabetes, but Wofford is following the doctor’s advice to log a lot of hours first on a sports license.
Wofford has not ruled out purchasing an airplane in the future, if he ever earns his private license.
Given Wofford’s 21-year career in the Air Force and the thousands of hours he logged in the air during that time, it’s amazing he waited this long to fly solo.
Wofford grew up in Newberry, S.C., as the oldest of seven kids, “all still kicking,” he says.
He graduated high school (the last year it was 11 grades), and by January 1948 he had joined the Air Force. He received his aircraft and engine maintenance training in Biloxi, Miss., before being sent to Goose Bay, Labrador.
Wofford attained flying status two months after arriving in Goose Bay and started his training as a flight engineer. From Goose Bay, he was reassigned to Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts, from where he flew in C-54s and participated in the Berlin Airlift.
There were other missions, such as Project Blue Jay in Greenland.
In 1952, he made the transition to the SA-16 Albatross, an amphibious aircraft capable of open-sea landings, and he became part of the 582nd Air Resupply and Communications Wing,
The Air Force activated the wing in September 1952 at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho. With the men’s training partially completed, they were relocated to Great Falls AFB, Montana.
By February 1954, the group was deployed to Molesworth RAF Station in England.
From here, Wofford went on classified missions, transporting equipment and people behind enemy lines or extracting others from hostile territories.
The planes flew at low levels to avoid radar.
Often the crew, except for the navigator, didn’t know where or why they were going the places they did, but they weren’t supposed to ask questions.
Wofford flew with the 582nd from 1952-56. Looking back, he says, it was his most interesting and favorite time in the Air Force, because the men were like family.
Wofford married Peggy Correll of Landis in September 1952. Wofford’s aunt, who worked at Cannon Mills in Kannapolis, previously had arranged a dinner date between them while he was on leave from Goose Bay.
“It just stuck,” Wofford says. “I kept coming back to Landis every chance I could get.”
They were married 52 years and a month when Peggy died in October 2004. The couple had a son, Robert Wayne Wofford, who goes by “Woof.” He was born while Wofford was in England.
In December 1956, Wofford was one of the first men permanently assigned to Myrtle Beach AFB, and he stayed there flying in SA-16s until 1961.
After four years at Pope Air Force Base, he returned to Myrtle Beach as senior controller of the maintenance complex. He retired in 1968 rather than face a fourth tour in Vietnam.
Wofford’s three tours in Vietnam covered 1963, 1965 and 1968.
Wofford remembers the night before his scheduled 10 a.m. retirement ceremony with several other non-commissioned officers. His wing commander called him at 2 a.m. and said they would have to launch three squadrons of jets overseas.
Wofford opened the control room, and by 4 a.m. the launches started. He was still launching the last squadron while the other men were going through the retirement ceremony and parade.
“I was busy working my last full day in the military,” he says.
Of his 21 years in the Air Force, Wofford was flying in planes 18 of those years — though he was not piloting them.
Only 38 when his Air Force career ended, Wofford went to work immediately for Burlington Industries in Greensboro.
Jobs in Fayetteville and Woodleaf followed before he settled into a 19-year career with Isenhour Brick in East Spencer, retiring in May 1995.
Wofford said he decided to take flying lessons partly out of boredom and partly from talking with his doctor pilot in Mooresville.
“I think my background helped me a whole lot,” Wofford says.
Compared to the heavy aircraft he was always flying in during his Air Force days, the light, single-engine airplanes are like high-performance sports cars, given how sensitive the controls are, Wofford says.
“He is just a natural, very smooth,” says Mallory, who has flown with Wofford and his instructor. “It seemed like he was doing it for years.”
Over the years, Wofford has kept in close contact with his buddies from the 582nd Squadron, which has met in cities across the country for reunions.
Wofford organizes the regular gatherings.
Now he’ll have something new to talk about when the boys get together again.
“It gives you a feeling of independence and confidence,” Wofford says of the feeling he has while flying. “You’re here because of your efforts, and to get down, you better know what you’re doing.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or email@example.com.