Saturday, June 19, 2010

Hunter: a North Knox County barnstormer reminisces

By David Hunter in KnoxNews.

Lynnus Gill lives a stone's throw from the place where he was born 90 years ago, just off Emory Road in Powell. At times, though, he has traveled far, including a tour of Europe during World War II with the 658th Field Artillery Battalion.

Had it not been for his color blindness, Gill most likely would have flown with the Army Air Corps. When the war started, he was already a pilot, having caught the flying fever at the age of 10 when a fellow student nearly hit what is now Powell Elementary School while buzzing a nearby store.

Gill and his older brother Howard - who lives next door - both paid a nickel each for their first airplane ride from the old Sutherland Avenue Airport for a spin over the Bearden area. Both learned to fly early, but for the younger brother, it became a consuming passion.

While Gill was training with the U.S. Army at Fort Sill, Okla., in 1943, he bought his first plane, a 1928 Waco-10, and parked it in nearby Lawton. "A lot of my friends had cars," Gill said with a mischievous grin, "so I bought an airplane."
After rising to tech sergeant and taking part in two battles, Gill then managed a military pool of 150 trucks until war's end. On April Fool's Day, 1948, he got off the bus at Clinton Highway and Emory road and became a civilian again.

Back at home, he married Mattie Ruth Pardue, the love of his life. They had been married almost 61 years when she died in December of 2008. It is still hard for him to discuss it.

While he worked in the family business, N-F Gill & Sons Building Supplies - next to the current Powell High School - he and his wife adopted two sons and made a life for themselves, but he continued to fly on weekends.

Gill barnstormed during 1948-51 with his friend and first instructor, Guy Jones. They flew as far as North Carolina, but generally focused locally on small towns such as Maynardville and Tazewell.

"We'd find a farmer with a cow pasture and make a deal with him," Gill said with a chuckle. "For $1.50 we gave people a 10-minute ride."

It was the last plane he bought, a PT-19 Fairchild, that gave him his worst flying moment. In 1956, he located the plane in Saint Louis, Mo., and he and a friend went out to bring it home. The seller didn't tell Gill the plane was losing oil.

The engine started smoking somewhere in the mountains over Jamestown, Tenn., on the Cumberland Plateau. Gill found a tiny landing strip someone had cut in the woods and landed. His passenger went on foot for oil.

As they readied for takeoff the next morning, Gill told his non-pilot friend he would need help. He showed his passenger how to lower and raise the flaps, then gunned down the strip, not sure if the plane would go over the trees or through them.

"We made it, but back at home we picked tree leaves and branches from underneath the plane. It was a miracle the trees didn't do serious damage," Gill said.

Lynnus Gill looks back on his many adventures, the wisdom of 90 years in his face, but when he grins a certain way, the young daredevil he once was shines through.

You can almost see him in an open cockpit, navigating with nothing but railroad tracks and rivers to guide him.

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