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Taking the Skyway: Our Neighbor Rick Stevens

By WILLIAM PAINE

william.paine@soutwesttimes.com

When kids today play baseball at Loving Field, most are not aware that back before the New River Valley Airport was ever conceived, it served as Pulaski County’s only airport.

In 1953, 17-year-old Rick Stevens spent a lot of time at Loving Field as part of the Ground Observer Corps.

“It was an early, early warning system,” Stevens recounted. “They issued us binoculars and we sat out at the airport and watched for airplanes. When airplanes came by, we classified them as single or multi engine along with their direction, approximate speed and approximate altitude and called it in. I hung out at the airport a lot because there was a flight service station there. In those days, it wasn’t the FAA yet, it was the CAA – Civil Aeronautics Agency.”

Stevens was born in 1936 in Washington D.C. but before his first birthday his parents parted ways. He was subsequently sent to Snowville where he was raised by his grandparents. He grew up as the country went through WWII and then the Korean War and so, it’s little wonder that Rick Stevens aspired to join the military at a young age … a very young age.

“I was underage when I joined the Army,” said Stevens. “I was found out and discharged about a year later and that’s when I came back to Pulaski High School.”

Stevens graduated from Pulaski High School in 1955 and found work as a Park Ranger at Claytor Lake.

“I really wanted a military career but after having been in the Army, it was pretty obvious that a military career would be OK if you were an officer but enlisted, not so much,” said Stevens. “So, I wanted to go to VMI and, in fact, was accepted at VMI.”

Upon further review, however, administrators at the Virginia Military Institute found that Stevens had not completed a required course in Geometry. He could still enter VMI if he completed this class and so, he signed up for a high school geometry course.

“Math and I are not friends at all,” said Stevens. “I was struggling to get that credit.”

A medical issue kept Stevens out of school for several days and when he returned to class he asked his teacher if she thought he could catch up.

“She says, ‘Honestly, no I don’t,’” Stevens remembered. “God bless her, I asked her the question and I appreciated the honest answer.”

So much for VMI.

“In 1955, employment was a little skinny down here,” Stevens continued. “So I said, I don’t think I want to go back in the Army because I don’t want to be infantry. I said you know the Air Force has got some really good tech schools. I think I’ll join the Air Force and try to get a good tech school and learn something that will give me a career for when I get out. So I did.”

At an Air Force career counseling session Stevens requested that he be trained to be an airborne radio operator. Instead, he was placed in the Ground Controlled Approach program.

“That’s the guy sitting in front of two radar scopes,” Stevens explained. “He’s the one that says ‘You’re on Glide Slope … if the guy is high or low or left or right you issue headings to get him back on course, till he can break out of the clouds and see the runway and land.”

Stevens took his training in Mississippi and while there, took flying lessons with the Keesler Air Force Base Flying Club. He soloed in 1956 in a J3 Piper Cub which Stevens describes as “a delight to fly.”

When his training was completed, Stevens was stationed at Langley Field, where he spent the next two and a half years working as an air traffic controller for the Air Force.

One morning, after having worked the night shift, Stevens was fast asleep in his bunk when he felt someone shaking his foot.

“That was a real no, no because when you work all night, you have to sleep sometime,” said Stevens. “So I said, ‘Get the hell away from here!’ The guy clears his throat and I open one eye and saw this great silver eagle on this guy’s hat. He was an officer.”

The officer informed Stevens that he was due to be shipped overseas but that he could choose between spending 18 months in Okinawa or one year in the Aleutian Islands.

“Now I wish I would have chosen Alaska but at the time I thought ‘damn it’s cold up there and I don’t like cold weather,’ so I chose Okinawa,” said Stevens.

Eighteen months later Rick Stevens was discharged from the Air Force and by 1960 was back in Pulaski. One day he happened to see a friend of his, who was producing a swap and shop show on WPUV, the local radio station.

“We were sitting at the soda fountain having a Coke at Martin’s Pharmacy,” Stevens recounted. “He said, ‘What are you going to do now?’ I said I don’t know I’m looking for something to do.”

His buddy suggested that he ask the station manager for an announcing job.

“I had my own show in two weeks because of my experience in military working with the radio and radar,” said Stevens. “I was mostly talk and pop music. I loved every minute of it.”

Five months later, the FAA accepted his application to be an air traffic controller and he was sent to Norfolk Center control tower.

This same year, Rick Stevens married Ezma Lea. Last Sunday, the couple celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.

Even as he worked for the FAA, Rick was working on his pilot ratings.

“I got my private, commercial and instrument rating working for the FAA, while I was also working one or two part time jobs to get money to fly,” said Stevens. “Finally, I met a guy. He wanted to open his own airline, which he did. It was called the East Coast Flying Service.”

The year was 1963 and Stevens was hired on to fly for this small airline, which worked on a contractual basis.

“The first contract that he got was to fly the original Mercury astronauts all around the country for their training and their personal appearances,” said Stevens.

The East Coast Flying service flew all over North America for a wide variety of groups including coal executives, astronauts, hockey teams, basketball teams and Shriners, who Stevens remembers had a particular zest for life. On a trip taking the Shriners from D.C. to Dallas, his plane made an unscheduled stop in Richmond because they ran out of ice for their drinks.

“Those guys really lived it up,” said Stevens with a laugh.

The work was enjoyable but sporadic and Stevens was always trying to get a job with a scheduled airline. His chance came in 1965 when a call came from the head pilot of Piedmont Airlines, who offered him a job as co-pilot.

Stevens would spend the next 20 years flying for Piedmont Airlines, where he flew numerous propeller powered airplanes including the Martin 404, the Fairchild and the YS11. He would finish his career as captain of the jet powered Boeing 737.

All told, Stevens figures he has 19,000 hours of flying time, with 90% of those hours spent flying heavy airplanes. Though never involved in an accident, he experienced a couple of near misses, which involved smaller airplanes flying into his airspace. On more than one occasion, Stevens had to shut one of his engines down. He remembers one instance in particular.

“I was taking off out of Bluefield and was just probably 100 feet in the air,” Stevens recounted. “The gear was up and I was getting ready to start the flaps up when the overheat light came on. So I shut the engine down. We were supposed to be able to operate with one engine but we wouldn’t climb! So, I was concentrating on flying the airplane, while the co-pilot was troubleshooting. He was all over that cockpit like a monkey and finally he looked out and he said, the prop didn’t feather. When you shut the engine down in a situation like that, the blade of the prop turns 90 degrees to give the minimum surface to the air to cut down drag.”

Realizing the problem, Stevens instinctively slapped the lever controlling the prop into its correct position. The plane began to climb … crisis averted. Bluefield, along with Beckley and Hot Springs airport are among Stevens least favorite airports.

“They’re mountain airports and the runway was never into the wind and on a crosswind landing with a big airplane, you’re working your backside, off to be blunt,” said Stevens.

In 1985, at the age of 49, Rick Stevens had a heart attack and this effectively ended his aviation career. The next year Piedmont and Allegheny Airlines merged to form U.S. Air.

“I missed the last 11 years of my career but the bright side to that is that I wasn’t there to see Piedmont die,” said Stevens. “Piedmont was one hell of an airline and we were really proud of what we had built. Allegheny was pathetic.”

In 1993, both of Ezma Lea’s parents died and she inherited their property on Little Creek. The couple moved there and for several years, Rick ran a cow/calf operation at their farm, but have since progressed into full retirement mode.

The couple have one daughter, Vivian Lea, who today works as an archivist in Connecticut for the Knights of Columbus.

What was the best part about flying the friendly skies for all those years?

“Going to work,” said Stevens without hesitation. “I loved it. There was never a day that I didn’t look forward to going to work. Working for the FAA was exactly the opposite. I hated it. I couldn’t wait to leave. These days I just try to keep the house up. Anyway, that’s basically my story and I’m sticking to it.”

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