He already loved model airplanes.
But after flying in a Piper Cub airplane over Gainesville at age 14 — taking off from a dusty field now known as Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport — John B. “Jack” McKibbon Jr.’s interest in aviation soared.
It would be lifelong passion.
On Saturday, April 28, McKibbon will be recognized for a history of flying, from bombers in World War II to planes for his business travel, with his induction in the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame.
The honor is set to take place at the 2018 Annual Enshrinement Banquet at the Century of Flight Hangar at the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins. The museum is at the Robins Air Force Base.
“I was very surprised to know I was even nominated,” McKibbon said during a recent interview at his office at McKibbon Hospitality in Gainesville.
McKibbon, 94, was nominated by the Rev. Tom Smiley, senior pastor at Lakewood Baptist Church in Gainesville and a close personal friend.
“Jack McKibbon represents what I think is the best possible candidate for induction into the Hall of Fame,” Smiley said. “I’m very, very pleased the selection committee accepted that recommendation.”
McKibbon was born in Newnan but grew up in Gainesville, graduating from Gainesville High School. He went on to North Georgia College (now University of North Georgia), graduating into service during World War II.
“The war came and I had no idea of doing anything else but being a pilot,” McKibbon said.
His first solo flight was on Oct. 20, 1943 in Arcadia, Fla., and he earned his flying wings in April 1944. McKibbon flew B-25 bombers in the Pacific during World War II, inflicting “significant damage to Japanese ships and airports” during his 59 combat missions in the South Pacific, according to a press release announcing his induction.
“I never was hurt but lost a couple of (fellow cadets),” McKibbon said.
He didn’t say much else about the war.
“I wouldn’t want to do it again, and I wouldn’t want to have my boys to go through that,” McKibbon said.
He was recalled to active duty in 1951. Assigned to the Strategic Air Command, he flew KC-97 refueling aircraft for B-47 and B-50 bombers.
“This was early in the evolution of air-to-air refueling, and McKibbon trained other pilots to perform this challenging task,” the press release stated.
McKibbon flew as a private pilot after his military service, and for a short time had a flying school at the Gainesville airport.
In his business career, he has owned several aircraft, including Cessnas and Beechcrafts.
After the war, he had mixed business interests, including founding Mar-Jac Poultry with brother Marvin in 1954.
He also went into the motel and restaurant business, which has evolved into what is now McKibbon Hospitality, developing and managing more than 80 hotels in eight states, according to the company website.
“By the 1960s, the company had become one of the earliest Holiday Inn franchisees, with hotels in operation throughout the state of Georgia,” according to the company. “Hotel development and operations became the core focus and have been ever since.”
His son, John McKibbon III, took over the company in the early 1990s and today serves as chairman.
In an email last week, the younger McKibbon spoke of his father, now chairman emeritus, and his influences on him.
“I remember flying with him all of my life,” he said. “He taught me how to fly. I had to hold the plane on course and on altitude, and he was very strict if I lost focus for even a minute.”
He recalled flying with his father in a “terrible thunderstorm,” back in the days “when our plane didn’t have radar.”
“He radioed in to ask for some vectors around the storm, but the controller was no help at all,” the son said. “My dad never lost his composure as the plane was tossed about in very turbulent weather.”
He said his father “loves flying and owned a plane from the time he completed his missions in World War II until he was almost 80.
“Our company still owns a plane, and whenever he is traveling with us, he loves to fly the plane from the right seat, next to our pilot, from takeoff to landing, even at the age of 94.”
“I haven’t landed (a plane) or taken off since I was 85,” McKibbon said.
Asked why he stopped, he didn’t pause in his answer.
“You have to be on top of your game,” McKibbon said.