You Can Go Home Again, Sort Of – Robert F. Lindley’s Fifty Second Anniversary Flight

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Written By: Harry Ballance

Photos by: Gerhard Frenz

December 7 means different things to a lot of people. For those of a certain age it is most often associated with Pearl Harbor Day; the seminal event that drew the United States into the Second World War. For Bob Lindley,it means more than that. It was the date he first flew a Navy airplane.

Bob was raised in bucolic Sapulta, Oklahoma, and always had an eye to the sky. He soloed a J-3 Cub when he was sixteen, and always knew, from that time forward, that his life would be intrinsically wed to airplanes. During his college years Bob also met, and subsequently married, the love of his life, Anna. When Bob graduated from Northeastern University, he had already amassed some four hundred flight hours, working around the local airport, and befriending those who had airplanes and were willing to let him fly them. The writer has always maintained that if a young person has a passion for airplanes, it will show through and become obvious to those further down the track, which generally enables the former to be mentored by the latter. So it was with Bob.

Bob was accepted into the Navy Aviation Officer Candidate program and became an Ensign after some fourteen weeks of intensive study and low grade harassment, all designed to show that he had “what it takes” to be a Naval Officer and pilot. After commissioning,, he began ground school at Pensacola to learn about the Navy way of flying as well as the systems and operation of a T-34 B Mentor.

On December 7, 1965 Bob walked onto the flight line at NAS Saufley Field in Pensacola and began a studied preflight of the airplane that was to be the first Navy airplane he had ever flown; a gleaming white T-34 B, Bureau #140720. Bob went on to fly this airplane several more times before he moved on to the T-2, but he always had a soft spot in his heart for it. During his career as a Naval Aviator, Bob flew the A-4 and A-7, to include two tours in Vietnam where people were shooting at him.

With such impressive credentials, Bob was employed by Delta Air Lines as a pilot in 1970, where he flew, among other airplanes, the DC-9, Boeing 727, MD-88, Boeing 757 and 767, DC-8, Lockheed L-1011, and retiring in 2003, after some thirty three years of service, as a Boeing 777 Captain. For Bob, flying airliners for a living was more than a job; it was a calling. He was the penultimate professional.

During these years Bob and Anna went on to parent two children, Sarah and Rob, as well as to continuously own and fly vintage airplanes. Bob restored a Stinson SR-8 Reliant which won the Reserve Grand Champion Antique Award at Oshkosh in 1991. Behind every passionate vintage airplane owner is a dedicated spouse. So it is with Bob. Without Anna’s support and encouragement, Bob would have been yet another airline pilot, frustrated by spousal lack of support and encouragement to participate in this facet of aviation.

Their son, Rob, soloed a T-33 sailplane at the age of fourteen and a Citabria at age sixteen. He graduated form Georgia Tech and was commissioned, like his father, an Ensign after having taken Naval ROTC. He went on to make the Navy a career, finishing his time on active duty as a flight instructor on the T-45 Goshawk Rob, continuing in the footsteps of his father, went on to become a Delta Airlines pilot, and is currently a Boeing 757/767 Captain and Flight Instructor. Like his father, he continues to fly light airplanes.

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Fast forward to the Summer of 2017. Every Saturday morning at the Peach State – aka Ron Alexander Memorial – Airport, just South of Atlanta, a group of pilots, affectionately known as the “geezers”, gather for breakfast, which sometimes stretches into a lunch event. Same people, but always with different and interesting stories. The participants are a diverse group; active duty airline pilots, retired airline pilots, A&P mechanics, light airplane pilots, and about anyone else who is interested in airplanes. The common bond is a passion for mostly vintage airplanes. One of the regulars, Harry Ballance. had just purchased a T-34 B, and conversation evolved around the table as to whether or not any of the former Naval Aviators present had ever flown the airplane. It turned out that Bob, after a check of his Navy logbooks, had made his first flight as a Naval Aviator in this very airplane.

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From this point onward, it was determined that Bob and Rob should fly the airplane on December 7 to commemorate the fifty second Anniversary of Bob’s first flight in this airplane. It is not very often in one’s life that an airplane can re-enter some fifty two years later. The plan, in its infancy, looked like a great idea. However, there were several significant defects with the airplane that were not disclosed in the “pre-buy” inspection. Harry flew the airplane to New Smyrna Beach, Florida to have it “sanitized” by Curtis Boulware and Tim Morris, both acknowledged T-34 gurus. There were some pretty extensive areas of neglect that needed to be corrected, and there was some doubt as to whether or not the repairs would be completed and the airplane flown back to Atlanta in time for this to take place. The guys in New Smyrna made it happen, but on December 6, there was a line of weather extending on an east west line right at the border of Georgia and Florida. After a whole lot of “bobbin’ and weavin’, and some great weather avoidance vectors by ATC, the T-34 returned to Atlanta that evening in sufficient time for Bob and Rob to make their epochal flight on the morning of December 7. Gerhard Frenz was the designated camera man, and Leo Roberson, another Navy and Delta alumni, flew the camera ship. As Bob, Rob and #720 were tucked in pretty close to the camera ship, the grin on Bob’s face said it all. To loosely paraphrase Thomas Wolff, “You can’t go home again”; perhaps true, but this was even better.

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