Monday, August 15, 2016

McDonough, Henry County, Georgia: Love of flying keeps local man soaring

Retired Navy Capt. Steve Seal flew his vintage military airplane in the AirVenture 2016 air show is Wisconsin last month. Seal has taken his lifelong love for flying and now teaches aviation at Strong Rock Christian School in Locust Grove. 

McDONOUGH — Retired Navy pilot Capt. Steve Seal got the opportunity of a lifetime last month when he was invited to fly in an internationally known air show.

Seal, 61, first attended the AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wisc., in 1997 as a fan, but never dreamed he’d have the chance to participate in “one of the world’s premier aviation events.”

“I could die today and everything in my life would be complete,” Seal said.

Seal took part in the War Birds portion of the show, flying his 1943 L-5 Stinson Sentinel. War Birds are vintage military aircraft.

“For me to be there flying with all those people watching, it was amazing,” Seal said. “At one point there were 35 planes in the air in a 4-mile radius flying together. It’s hard to describe the thrill.”

Seal has been flying for 40 years, and over that time he developed an interest in vintage aircraft. He jumped at the chance to buy his “L-Bird” a little over a year ago.

“These planes need someone like me to adopt them,” Seal said. “I feel it’s important to keep the history of aviation alive.”

Seal took off from Tara Field in Hampton on July 29 to make the eight-hour journey to Wisconsin. With a flying range of 1,500 feet to 350 miles and a cruising speed of 115 mph, he was able to take in the sights of the country.

“It’s a privilege as a pilot to see the earth from 1,500 feet. It’s almost a God thing,” he said. “When you’re flying you start to see how big and beautiful the world is. When you’re flying over mountains, then over something like the farms in central Illinois, it leaves you wondering about the people down there. I love it and it’s still a thrill for me.”

Modest beginnings

Seal’s love of aviation began when he was just a young boy.

Growing up in the small town of Morrisville in East Tennessee, his parents would often take him to get ice cream, then head to the local airport to watch planes land and take off.

Those memories are now more than 50 years old for Seal, but he recalls them as though they just happened.

The era was also a time when many of Seal’s friends had fathers who were World War II veterans. The topic of war and military service was still much a part of the nation’s conversations.

“I’d say probably three out of every four kids I grew up with had dads who were vets,” Seal said.

Seal’s own father was disqualified from military service because two of the five Seal children had already enlisted, with one having died in the war.

So when Seal was accepted in the United States Naval Academy following high school, there was a real sense of pride in his family.

His folks never pushed him toward military service. But what they did push him to do was get an education.

“My parents never graduated high school,” Seal said. “I think that’s what drove them to emphasize school to me. They knew I needed an education.”

Through his love of aviation that developed as a small boy and continued through his childhood reading paperback books about soldiers flying in battle, Seal chose to become a Navy pilot.

“It all worked out for me,” Seal said. “Who would have thought this little boy from a lower middle class family would some day fly airplanes in the Navy.”

But Seal did. For 23 years he served, climbing the ranks and eventually retiring as a captain in 2000.

“It really taught me that we can never limit ourselves,” he said. “I’ve been all over the world.”

For Seal, retirement didn’t mean sitting on a beach or playing golf for the rest of his life. Flying was a part of who he was. Just months after leaving the Navy, he became a pilot for Delta Air Lines.

“Of course, nobody knew that 9/11 was right around the corner,” he said. “I was furloughed with about a 1,000 other pilots after that happened.”

So instead of flying for a living, Seal became a Navy JROTC instructor at Luella and Henry County high schools. After several years of serving in the position, Seal retired again.

Passing it along

The teaching bug bit Seal again a few years later. He wanted to pass along his love of flying to the younger generations. Last school year, he became a part-time teacher at Strong Rock Christian School in Locust Grove teaching aviation. Students learn the principals of flight and its history starting in 1918 with the Wright Brothers. Kids “fly” using a desktop flight simulator where they learn learn to take off and land.

“I want to give them an interest in aviation and show them the thrill of flying,” Seal said.

He also wants to instill in his students, like his parents did, the importance of education.

“Who would have thought a little boy from East Tennessee could do what I’ve done, but I did it,” Seal said. “I want them to know they can too.”

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