After more than half a century in the cockpit, Dale Mastley is trading his wings for solid ground.
The Gainesville resident has been a pilot and flight instructor for 54 years, starting in Minnesota in the mid- to late 1960s after serving four and a half years as an aircraft electrician in the U.S. Navy.
His goal was to fly commercially, but none of the airlines were hiring at the time, so he changed course, finding himself in the cockpit of an air ambulance that responded to calls across the Midwest. Flying out of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Mastley’s job took him around Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa and Wisconsin, occasionally branching into Wyoming, Montana and Nebraska.
“You never knew where you were going to go one day or the next day,” he said. “Sometimes you might be in the air eight or nine hours before you got back home.”
Mastley later went to work for a building materials company, instructing student pilots on the weekends until he retired and returned to instructing full-time 21 years ago, this time with Advanced Aviation at the Gwinnett County Airport.
“There’s teaching people to fly, and then there’s teaching people to be a commercial pilot after that, and there’s teaching people to fly on instruments — in the clouds where you can’t see anything,” Mastley said. “And then there’s also teaching people to be flight instructors. So there’s the whole gamut.”
And Mastley, 78, covered all of those bases — first as a student, attaining each of the certifications over a three-year timeline before helping his own students do the same.
He’s never done the math on the number of students he’s taught throughout his career, though he estimates the figure is somewhere in the hundreds.
“He’s had a lot of feedback from a lot of these people,” his wife, Betty Mastley, said. “‘You got me here.’ ‘If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be here.’ I think that has been very satisfying to him, just to know that he changed their lives.”
“Flying for a hobby is expensive; teaching people to fly doesn’t cost anything,” Dale said. “But that’s not the main reason — I really enjoyed meeting the people and getting the satisfaction of watching them complete their training. Everybody’s different, so it takes a different procedure with each person; people come with different ideas and different attitudes and different reasons for wanting to learn to fly. But to take them from scratch where they are afraid, actually, and taking them all the way through is fun. Satisfying.”
Aviation, it seems, runs in the family; Dale’s father was a gunner on a B-24 in World War II, though he had his pilot’s license prior to the war.
“That was his love, his hobby,” Dale said, noting his dad flew about five different airplanes for sport in Dale’s growing-up years, the first of them being a yellow Piper Cub. “Then he kind of worked his way up to more modern airplanes as they could afford them.”
In fact, it was Dale’s father who introduced him to flying when he was just a tike of 3 years old.
“He started me back then; he’d strap me in the seat and take me flying,” he recalled. “I grew up in it. My dad and a couple of his buddies always had an airplane together, and he would take me flying every week, sometimes a couple times a week. Really, that was the start.”
Dale didn’t always have his mind set on becoming a pilot, however.
“I think I made that decision when I was in the Navy,” he said. “I just found out I loved it. It was a challenge. I had an advantage starting out, because growing up in it, I wasn’t afraid of it. I was used to the feel and the smells, what it looks like and feels like, so I could very easily step into it. That’s why I don’t play golf — I was always flying.”
Betty also had a set of wings, as a flight attendant for United Airlines. In fact, she was training for the job when the two met in January 1966.
“We’ve been together ever since,” Dale said.
Flight attendants couldn’t be married in that era, however, so Betty had to quit one year in.
“It was a whole different way of presenting — everybody was single, you had to be a certain weight,” she said. “They gave us a lot of training on makeup and hair.”
But 20 years and a class-action lawsuit later, she donned her uniform once more.
In 2017, Mastley received the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award from the Federal Aviation Administration commemorating 50 years of continuous safe flying. In his entire career, Mastley has been involved in only one accident, he said, in a tandem airplane with a student at the controls and Dale in the backseat. That was in 1986.
“We took off and we were climbing, he turned around to ask me a question and when he did, he pulled the stick back and pushed the rudder in — that’s what you do if you want to spin in that direction,” Dale said.
Fortunately, Dale said, they were only about 100 feet off the ground.
“We were lucky. Instructing is inherently dangerous, because they do a lot more than you normally do just flying. You’re teaching people who don’t know how to fly and you have to let them have the controls, and that includes landing and things like that. There’s a lot of dodging.”
Betty counts Dale among the safest pilots to ever grace the skies.
“I haven’t worried about him,” she said.
Dale and Betty have flown together, but “not a whole lot.”
“Betty’s not the kind of person who likes to go up and just bore holes in the sky for no particular reason,” Dale said.
Before they moved to Gainesville just over four years ago, the Mastleys occupied one of 26 houses surrounding the runway of a private airport in Gwinnett County.
“Basically, you could walk over to the runway, take off, go to Myrtle Beach or someplace, come back, land at home and walk home,” Dale said.
Dale has since parted ways with all of his personal airplanes. His last was a yellow experimental homebuilt Van’s RV-4, though he said he isn’t the one who built it.
“I wouldn’t have the patience. It takes a long time — six, seven years — and usually ends up in divorce,” he quipped.
Of all his flights, two outshine the rest on the highlight reel.
One was his first solo flight out of the old Sky Harbor airport in Chicago circa December 1965.
“That was a big day,” he recounted. “(The instructor) said, ‘If the airplane sinks, add power; if it goes up, take power off coming into the runway.’ That was his only instruction.”
The other trip took off about 15 years ago, when Dale and a friend ferried a six-passenger plane from San Francisco to Atlanta. They circled all the sights along the way, like Yosemite, Las Vegas, the Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon.
“We flew right over three mountain ranges without oxygen, so we could only go so high,” Dale said. “That was big for me. I really enjoyed that.”
Dale plans to continue flying enough to stay current, though he probably won’t be taking off as often as he used to.
“There’s a time for everything,” he said. “There just comes a time.”