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Pioneer pilot lost over sea in World War II
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When Gainesville's airport was merely a dirt strip on the hill where the more modern facility is today, Hugh Minor Sr. was among the handful of pilots who flew regularly.

Hugh's name is mentioned along with Dean Parks when the history of Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport is discussed. His family lived beside the airport, and he owned property that became part of it.

People would pay a few bucks for a ride in Hugh's airplane. He earned a reputation as a daredevil as he would try to scare his passengers with loops or spins and buzz farmers plowing fields.

"Sundays we were red as roses," said Henry Minor, one of his three sons. He, brothers Everett and Hugh Jr. would hang out at the airport in the 1930s, selling plane ride tickets or running to a nearby gas station to get fuel for their father's plane. Hugh Sr. taught Lee Gilmer to fly, the Minor brothers say, and Gilmer eventually became the longtime operator of the municipal airport that bears his name.

Hugh and Henry recall other local pioneer aviators such as brothers Everett and Ernest Bell and wing-walking Harvey Ogle. Their father only finished the ninth grade. "But he was able to do anything he wanted to do," Henry said.

He lied about his age to join the Army Air Corps in 1921. When he returned to Gainesville, he opened an automobile garage at the intersection of what is now Industrial Boulevard and Atlanta Highway.

But every chance he got he was flying, sometimes strapping his three sons in a Waco plane, trying his best to frighten them. He worked as a mechanic for the Civilian Conservation Corps in Monticello before eventually moving to Coffeyville, Okla., where Hugh bought into an airport and flying service.

Later, he began work for Pan American Air Ferries in Miami, Fla. When World War II broke out, the Army took over the company and commissioned Minor as a second lieutenant. His job was to ferry planes to battle zones.

Hugh made only one ferry flight, but he was proud of being co-pilot of a B-17, a plane he'd longed to fly. The B-17 reached its destination in North Africa without problem. But his crew was aboard a B-24 on the flight back to Miami, and no trace of it has ever been found. It was last reported over the South Atlantic on Jan. 18, 1943. Aboard the plane were a crew of six, seven U.S. Army officers and enlisted men, and 13 British airmen.

Hugh's wife, Lois Martin Minor, had dropped him off at the Homestead air base early one January morning in 1943, never to see him again. The children, Hugh Jr., 12, Henry, 10, Everett, 9, and Olivia, 13, were in school.

Mrs. Minor received a telegram Feb. 1, 1943, that her husband was missing. No clue to why the plane apparently crashed in the South Atlantic Ocean ever emerged.

However, in mid-February that year, a life raft containing the body of Maj. Arthur Mills, the pilot with Minor going over, washed ashore at Natal, Brazil. The military identification tags of six others also were in the raft, along with fish bones, a colonel's eagle insignia that had been bent into a crude fish hook and a navigator's notebook. Hugh Minor's dog tags weren't in the raft, and it couldn't be determined if he ever was in it.

At the end of the school year, the Minors returned to Gainesville, where the boys carried on their father's flying tradition. Everett, who recently died, became a flight instructor after serving in the Air Force and a career with Lockheed Aircraft.

Henry, a self-professed "airport bum," took the doors off his plane and hauled skydivers, flew power line patrols with Gilmer and retired from American Telephone and Telegraph. Hugh Jr. retired after 20 years in the Air Force and worked for Lockheed before going into private business with his brother.

Military officials erected a monument to the lost airmen in Carthage, Tunisia. Another marker in memory of Hugh Minor Sr. sits beside the Alta Vista Cemetery grave of his wife, who died in 1994. Mrs. Minor never gave up on her husband returning, Hugh Minor Jr. said.

"She just kept thinking he'd walk through the door one day," he said.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and on First published April 27, 2008.