Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Athens, Georgia man, flying for 57 years, earns Master Pilot honor

Michael Mullaney, left, from FAA Aviation Safety shares a laugh with Bill Barry at Athens-Ben Epps Airport on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016. Barry was presented with a Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award for his 50 years of safe flight.

The Wright brothers took to the sky in the first airplane in 1903 — 113 years ago. Bill Barry has been flying airplanes for half that time.

“I have flown one-half the time mankind has flown,” the retired 78-year-old Athens dermatologist said. “It’s scary to be that old.”

In 1959, Barry piloted for the first time in a Cessna T-37 — 56 years after the Wright brothers. Now, 57 years later, Barry is receiving the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, a Federal Aviation Administration certificate granted to pilots who have safely flown for 50 years. Only 3,508 people have received the award since its creation more than 50 years ago.

“It is a delightful and unsuspected capstone to a long flying career,” he said.

Bill Barry laughs during a ceremony honoring his fifty years of safe flight at Athens-Ben Epps Airport on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016.

This career started after Barry’s 1959 graduation from the United States Military Academy at West Point, a school whose alumni include former presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower. In his 20 years with the U.S. Air Force, he maneuvered through various positions: military test pilot, flight surgeon with NASA, flying two tours and 263 missions in Vietnam and ultimately attaining the rank of colonel. He worked on projects such as NASA’s X-15 Mach 6.72 experiment, helped design the ejection seat for the F-16 and worked with future military technology at the Air Force Special Weapons Center.

Barry was also selected to work in aerospace medicine for the majority of his Air Force career. He studied at Harvard University and the National Institute of Health and worked with the surgeon general’s office. He joined the White House Fellows program and was mentored by Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, James Fletcher, the administrator of NASA at the time, and Frank Borman, commander of the Apollo 8 mission. At the end of Barry’s military career, he commanded the Travis Air Force Base’s hospital — the second largest hospital in the Air Force at its time.

Bill Barry shown here during his time with the U.S. Air Force. Contributed

“I’ve been very fortunate to be around some very talented people who have… mentored me,” Barry said.

His feet have touched the soil of all seven continents, he has hit a top speed of nearly Mach 2 at 1,526 miles per hour and he has logged 10,380 hours — or 432 days — of flying while piloting 88 different kinds of aircraft.

Deciding he enjoyed a long military career, he navigated to Athens in 1979 and became a dermatologist at Dermatology of Athens for 22 years before retiring in 2001. He now spends his free time flying his three planes, one self-built and each outfitted with red and black University of Georgia colors, hunting, golfing at the Athens Country Club and traveling with his family and military friends.

Bill Barry shown here during his time with the U.S. Air Force. Contributed

He is indeed my best friend and we’ve hung in there together as good friends for, gosh, 50-something years,” said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wayne Lambert who graduated from West Point in 1959 with Barry. Barry was Lambert’s best man in his wedding and the two have kept in contact since. “He’s proficient, he’s smart [and] he’s very savvy.” 

Although the Master Pilot award recognizes 50 years of accident-free flying, Barry said he’s had his fair share of near misses. He once blew the tires and breaks off his fighter when landing to prevent going off the end of the runway. He also dropped and exploded a tip tank during pilot training, harming no one.

Still, Barry said he’s “blessed” to receive the Master Pilot award because of its timing in his life.

“You never know what tomorrow will bring — stroke, heart attack,” he said. “That’s why this FAA award is meaningful because a lot of my friends who are more qualified than I am [to receive this award], they’re not around here to accept it.”

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