PELL CITY — He never thought it would happen—a ride in a 1942 Douglas DC-3 airplane.
“It’s been a lifelong dream to fly in a DC-3,” said Emory Wheat, of Pell City. “I didn’t pilot it, but I stood up front and could observe the crew in operation and see out the windshield. It was quite a thrill.”
Wheat said the 1942 aircraft was built the same year he was born.
“It’s been in service for 83,000 hours—it’s had better care than I have in my almost 70 years,” he said.
Wheat’s love of flying began early and has lasted decades.
“I started working at an airport when I was 10,” he said. “I started taking flying lessons when I was 12. I never had a job that didn’t involve airports or airplanes.”
Wheat’s wife, Charlotte, said he would ride his bike to the small airport in Churchville, Maryland, where he mowed grass and washed planes.
“He was a very likable kid, and pilots would give him rides,” she said. “When he was 12, his feet were long enough to reach the pedals and he began lessons. He has a God-given gift for it.”
Charlotte Wheat said she arranged the surprise ride in the DC-3 with a pilot friend, Toby Blanton. Blanton and pilot Ron Alexander flew the DC-3 to the St. Clair County Airport Thursday morning.
“I’d flown in a DC-3 years ago, and never dreamed that I’d get the chance again,” she said.
Blanton said no one knew they were coming in the DC-3.
“I’ve known Emory for about 10 or 15 years,” he said. “We fly corporate together, but for different corporations. We were in Atlanta this morning working on a film and had the opportunity to fly out here and take him on a ride—we went around the lake. Then we will fly back and put it in the hangar. The plane belongs to the Peachstate Antique Aircraft Museum.”
Terry Capps, director of capital improvements for the airport, was in on the surprise and also flew in the DC-3.
“It was a great trip,” he said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience to fly in a DC-3.”
Emory Wheat said although he didn’t get to pilot the DC-3, he has piloted many, many other aircraft over his lifetime aviation career.
“A couple years ago, the FAA presented me with a 50-year recognition award, the Wright Brothers Aviation Award, for 50 years of continuous flying,” he said. “Mayor Bill Hereford gave me a key to the city and proclaimed it ‘Emory Wheat Day.’”
Emory Wheat said until he stopped flying recently due to an illness, there wasn’t much he couldn’t fly.
“I’ve flown many single engine and twin engine planes, from experimental airplanes to corporate jets,” he said. “And rotorcrafts (helicopters), too.”
He said seaplanes are also on his list of piloted crafts.
“I’ve flown and landed on the lake here many times,” he said. “Flying has always been my full-time hobby and I’ve made a good living at it. It’s the best of both worlds. You can enjoy going to work and doing what you do.”
Charlotte Wheat said the couple even moved to their Pell City home specifically because it was three miles away from the airport.
“We were living in Trussville, but it was too far away from the airport,” she said. “We moved to that house about six years ago just because it was three miles away. The airport was kind-of his club. If Emory wasn’t flying for work, he was flying for pleasure.”
Charlotte Wheat said her husband also worked on airplanes and is a plane mechanic.
“The J-3 Cub is my favorite plane to fly,” Emory Wheat said. “It’s a single-engine tandem two-seater training airplane that was built in the late 1930s. I’ve had four or five of them over the years.”
Emory Wheat said he loved his career as a pilot—being able to do what he wanted.
“I’ve had a few close calls over the years,” he said. “I had engine failure one dark, snowy night and crashed out in South Dakota. There were no injuries. It was a successful landing—we just didn’t make it to the airport.”
Emory Wheat said he also has an Ohio Deer Hunting License that reads, “This certifies that J. Emory Wheat may legally hunt North American White Tail Deer in the State of Ohio. This license is only valid during Lear season.”
“They gave me that deer hunting license as a joke,” he said. “I was in Ohio in 1995 and on takeoff hit a deer with the nose of a Lear jet. I circled the airport and landed successfully. It wasn’t so lucky for the deer.”
Emory Wheat said he is thankful to good friends for Thursday’s surprise ride in the DC-3.
“It was a lifelong dream and I got to do it,” he said.