After learning to fly 72 years ago, at 95, Ed Parker hopes to once again take to the skies this autumn. (Color photos by Gary B. Gray/Johnson City Press, Black-and-white photos contributed)
How many people do you know who are qualified — right now — to jump in an airplane and take a solo fight?
OK. How many people do you know that are planning that flight at the age of 95?
Heck, how many 95-year-olds do you know — period?
Ed Parker, a Johnson City business owner and experienced military pilot and instructor, is hoping to reach his goal of flying a four-passenger, single-engine Cessna 172 at Tri-Cities Regional Airport in November.
“I learned how to fly at Tri-Cities 72 years ago,” Parker said from his office at Johnson City Bedding Co. on West Market Street, a business he purchased in 1972. “I thought 95 was a good age to do it. It’s a great experience, and it’s a good place to relax.”
Parker, who still performs all accounting duties for his business, is an easygoing sort. He absolutely appears in good health, and his mind is sharp.
“I don’t know how many pilots have flown at 95 — I’d say not too many,” he said before a wide grin stretched across his face. “I’d just like to add my name to that list.”
To fly the plane of his choice, he first must get a physical. He also would need a flight instructor to not only grill him during “ground instruction,” but also to fly a plane with Parker at his side, allowing him to take over the controls and check his vision and reflexes.
“He will then determine whether he thinks it’s OK for me to fly alone,” he said. “I’d probably just fly around the airport and land.”
Parker says his children have expressed concerns about the idea itself and that dad may not be taking enough precautions to avoid any potential problems.
“It’s not a problem,” he said. “I’ve had about 4,000 flying hours. I just have to convince the flight instructor I can do it.”
The affable Parker was born in 1919 and celebrated his 95th birthday on July 28. He is a Johnson City native who graduated from the former Lamar High School. He also attended Bristol Commercial College and took his first job at Farmer’s Bank in Blountville.
“Jobs were real scarce back then,” he said. “World War II came along, and I went into the Civil Aeronautics Administration, now the Federal Aviation Administration. They enlisted us in the reserves to keep the draft board from getting us.”
Parker lived and trained on the King College campus while making his initial flights from the airport. It was 1942.
He trained in a tandem seat Piper Cub and moved on to further training in a Waco UPF7, a biplane designed for acrobatic flying, “circus flying,” he called it. With his commercial license in hand, he took the next step and learned to navigate cross-country at Lovell Field in Chattanooga. He continued learning and teaching until he was assigned to the Army Air Corps in Union City, where he taught cadets the basics.
“Most of the students had never been in an airplane,” he said. “That was very hazardous duty. It was a small area and there were quite a few instructor deaths. I had a few close calls, but nothing too serious.”
Not all pilots had an obligation to military service, but Parker did. He had the option of joining the Aviation Cadet Program, which he chose. But this meant becoming a “regular,” and heading off to boot camp at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi.
“While there, we took various tests to see who was best qualified for what,” he said. “I received the classification of ‘navigator,’ but I wanted to be a pilot. I explained to them I had several hundred hours of flying time and they reassigned me to pilot training.”
And so it was off to Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. Then he headed to Carlstrom Field in Florida and Shaw Field in South Carolina, where he received training to fly an AT6, a high-powered plane with retractable landing gear.
“I wanted to be a fighter pilot, but that wasn’t to be,” he said.
In 1945, he received his Silver Wings and was commissioned as a second lieutenant.
“When they pin those wings on you, they expect you to fly anywhere at anytime,” he said. “At that time air crews were plentiful, so they shifted me from place to place. I landed in Alliance, Nebraska, assigned to a troop carrier that carried paratroopers.”
Parker may not have seen action as a fighter pilot, but he very nearly got a dose.
He was in Johnson City on leave when the first atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.
“We were training to participate in the invasion of Japan,” he said. “Our briefers told us based on reports from the Normandy invasion that our crews would suffer a 70 percent casualty rate.”
So how did he feel about news of the atomic explosion?
“I was pretty happy about it,” he answered. “I wasn’t too excited about flying a C-47 over there with them shooting at me. We were literally getting ready to ship out.”
He exited the service in October 1945 and took a job in Paducah, Kentucky, teaching young flyers. But that business went broke, so he took a job in Florida as a flight operator. Suddenly, the government decided to no longer train pilots under the GI Bill, prompting that school’s closure.
Following stints at a few other jobs, the Korean War reared its head and Parker was called to duty at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. He was released after two years and returned to Johnson City, where he took a job as an accountant with Baylor and Backus on East Watauga. That gig lasted 17 years.
He then formed his own firm, Parker, Stewart, Shorter and Carden.
“Johnson City Bedding Co. was one of my clients when they decided to sell,” Parker said. “I bought it in 1972 when it was on West Walnut Street. We moved to our current location in 1981.
Parker has owned a Mooney M-20, taking occasional flights with his son. But he hasn’t been behind the controls in a while.
That’s about to change, and the motivation seems very personal.
“It’s been coming on,” he said with another casual, yet confident grin.
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