Dansville Castle on the Hill Pilot turns 100

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Pete Wilkins (center) with friends

Pete Wilkins (center) with friends

             This past February, Pete Wilkins, pilot for Bernard McFadden, turned 100 years old, after being honored for his “100 orbits around the sun,” as Pete quipped, on February 6th during a dinner presentation with the Professional Pilots Association (PPA) in Columbus, Ohio. That evening they honored him, PPA member 32, receiving a recognition for being an original and oldest continuing member of the PPA.
             Pete, who now lives in Ohio, grew up in Hornell and was born in Bath in 1919. He served in the Army Air Service in 1937, and he soloed a Waco 10 aircraft. He managed the Dansville Airport 1950 through 1952, giving flight instruction there. He also flew for Bernard McFadden, the operator of Castle on the Hill resort.
             Jeff Roberts, one of Pete’s personal friends, recalls Pete Wilkins describing this experience. “Bernard was rather aggressive and very much into men’s physical fitness,” said Roberts. “This was post WWII era. Men’s health was prominent. Bernard could bring in the press; they would chase him everywhere.” Roberts explains that Bernard McFadden decided to create jump boots using shoes with springs attached. Pete was the pilot flying Bernard this day and the demonstration was a success. “He put on the boots and a parachute and went all over the airport,” said Roberts. “The military bought the contract.”
             “Bernard decided that the next thing he would do would be for a Navy contract,” Roberts said. Bernard told Pete that he wanted to be dropped into Niagara Falls. “He told Pete, ‘I have a new Mae West,” which is a floatation device used when a pilot jumps into the water. He planned to pull a cord and have it inflate around him. He believed if he used it in Niagara Falls, it would be a good demonstration. He knew the Navy would be watching.”
             There was just one problem with Bernard’s plan. “At that time, a lot of people were trying to do the barrel routine,” explained Roberts. “It had become illegal to drop things into Niagara Falls. If anyone dropped anything, including one’s self, from an airplane, both that person and the pilot would be responsible. A pilot would be held accountable for any object that fell from his airplane. He could lose pilots license, go to prison and never fly again.” Pete refused, and Bernard fired him. Bernard never jumped into Niagara Falls.
             Pete moved on to Corning Glass as a corporate pilot, then to Columbia Gas in 1952 at LaGuardia Airport. In 1959, he was named Chief Pilot of Columbia Gas, and in 1961, the aviation department was moved to Columbus, Ohio. Pete flew many corporate aircraft including Lockheed Lodestars, Twin Beech’s, Grumman Gulfstream I’s and Merlin IIA’s. He went from aviation to the executive branch of Columbia Gas. He wanted to prove that pilots could be executives, too.
             After 28 years at Columbia, Pete retired in 1981, went back to college and met a young college student from Dansville named Jeff Roberts. “He told stories of Dansville and castle on the Hill that you could just listen to all day,” said Jeff who was just starting a 30+ year career in corporate aviation. Jeff flew for Columbia Gas for 12 years.
             “Pete would talk about people that he trained to fly,” Roberts recalled. One of them was a man named Schwenzer who eventually ran Dansville Airport. “It was a pretty hopping place back when the military contracted out the basic training,” said Roberts. “Now, some of those planes are so old that people wouldn’t now know what they are except in museums.” Pete Wilkins also met people who worked for Glenn Curtis of Hammondsport who invented the airplane as we know it, using ailerons to do the steering.”
             Pete was instrumental in developing aviation,” said Roberts. “He testified in Congress regarding several aviation bills and impacted the institution of the FAA.” Pete Wilkins was one of the first people who trained in simulators, as well, and was one of the original members to train on LaGuardia’s first simulators. “He established a rule at Columbia Gas that pilots be offered an early retirement package when they turn 60,” said Roberts. “He also instituted duty time restrictions for pilots at corporate organizations, which had not been done.”
             As impressive as his accomplishments are, Pete himself is at least as remarkable. “Pete has a photographic memory,” observed Roberts. “People who worked for him said he was an excellent leader who knew how to handle personnel problems.” Roberts explained that in aviation, people problems are a primary concern. “Pilots are a unique, self-starting type of people who often have strong personalities,” explained Roberts. “Pete’s excellent leadership skills made him very good at dealing with that. It also helped that he could remember everything!”
             According to Roberts, Pete’s personality also works in his favor. “He is very engaging and talkative,” said Roberts. “As something of a history buff, he enjoys talking about the past. He is soft spoken, but if you take the time to sit down and listen to him, all kinds interesting facts roll out. He remembers things that happened in the 30s, 40s, 50s. He is a very smart man.”
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