If someone writes a book about the history of aviation in North Georgia, Gainesville resident Bill Rogers will surely be in it. Before there was Gilmer Memorial Airport, planes were using an airstrip next to the Chattahoochee River. Rogers was one of the earliest pilots. In 1947, at age 16, he spent after-school hours washing airplanes in exchange for flying time. After the Navy turned the facility over to the city, Bill stayed on as as an “airport bum” to help service local planes. He continued to serve in and with the aviation military for 35 years.
“One of the more interesting experiences was a 1972 flight from Albany to Riverside, California,” he recalls. Flying an airplane across the country isn’t as easy as it sounds. There are no labels on the ground below. Towns all tend to look the same, so the best guidance is by lakes, waterways and roadways. Compass and two-way radio are crucial tools. This is where Rogers ran into problems. “I was using my personal craft, a 150 hp Bellanca. Sadly, I was only as far as Alabama when the radio went up in smoke.” Undeterred, he continued his quest for California, avoiding crowded airspace and stopping every 4 hours for a fill-up. “At 1,000 to 2,000 feet altitude, I wasn’t in the way of the big airliners 5 miles above me. There’s a small airport every 25-30 miles along I-20, so I followed the Interstate and just landed by sight each time.”
Crossing the Rockies was no problem. But a dust storm near Thatcher, Arizona required an unscheduled overnight stay. “In the morning, another plane was reported missing, so I flew to the Painted Desert on a search mission. Finally, in Riverside, California I found parts that fixed the radio, and the trip home was more straightforward.”
From the air, North Georgia’s mountains look like an ocean of green, making sight navigation difficult. As Chief Check Pilot in the Civil Air Patrol, Rogers regularly joined search parties for lost airplanes. “Spotting downed planes in the steep terrain and dense forests is hard work,” Rogers recalls. “It took us two weeks to find one that had crashed into a mountainside near Ivylog, north of Blairsville.”
Now retired, Rogers looks back at six decades of flying, conducting search missions and being part of North Georgia’s aviation history.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.