Having a clean driving record spanning 50 years is hard enough, which makes Terry Stern's achievement of an incident-free 50-year flight career seem downright impossible.
On Saturday, representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration presented Stern with the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, which is given to pilots who fly for 50 years without incident or accident.
The ceremony took place early on a foggy Saturday morning at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport, where Stern meets almost every Saturday morning at the Wings Cafe with his pilot friends.
Stern told the Brainerd Dispatch Wednesday he took his first solo flight in February of 1964 when he was 17 years old. Now 68, Stern is coming up on the 52nd anniversary of his solo flight.
Stern said he wasn't surprised by the award, as he knew once he hit the 50-year mark of his flight career, he could apply for the distinction. He submitted his application and a couple of his pilot friends Chuck Datko, Bruce Olson and Janaka Bolduc submitted recommendation letters on his behalf, and that was that.
"I didn't even put an application in for it right away," Stern said.
Stern said he's logged about 6,500 pilot hours, which isn't much compared to airline pilots who can log 20,000-30,000 hours.
The Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award is quite the recognition for someone "who doesn't like to toot his own horn," said Jeff Wig, Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport manager. That humble attitude is part of the reason for Stern's understated awards ceremony, which took place without much fanfare.
All four pilots are part of a group called T-6 Thunder North American Flight Team, which performs flyovers for different events, Stern said. For those flyovers, Stern pilots his 1944 North American Aviation T-6 Texan.
Stern's T-6 is quite a sight to see when he takes it out on the airfield, Wig said.
"It's got the old radial engine that just rumbles," Wig said. "You stand near it and you can feel it in your gut."
Saturday morning's blanket of fog prevented the arrival of friends who planned to arrive by air with vintage aircraft.
Stern worked as a corporate pilot for a time, was on-call flying for different companies, which gave him the chance to fly a wide variety of planes. He's spent the last 15 years flying in the Commemorative Air Force, which gave him the chance to fly more classic, military-style planes.
Along with his brother Donovan, Stern started Stern Rubber Company in 1969, and the company has been located in Staples since 1973. Flying played a key role in the company's development, Stern said.
"We used aircraft to visit customers and to deliver parts to the customers," Stern said. "Just being able to move people around quickly and help a customer out if they had a problem."
Plenty of Brainerd area companies rely on aircraft to connect their businesses to their customers, Stern said.
"It's important to all of us," Stern said. "Being able to move people around quickly without having to be on an airline schedule is very important."
Stern's flying career has been without incident, but he said that doesn't mean he hasn't had to deal with mechanical issues. He's run across engine or cylinder issues while he's been flying, but he's been able to make sure the issue didn't grow into a big problem.
"It's all stuff you train for," Stern said. "And for me at least, everything worked out very well."
When Stern describes a situation where he fixed an issue mid-flight, people often ask him if the situation was scary, he said. But fear doesn't factor into the situation.
"When there is an emergency, the training kicks in and you take care of it," Stern said. "You just deal with the situation and take care of it."
There's a mix of luck and skill involved in having an incident-free flight career, Stern said. But in his case, it's more the result of good training and preparedness.
"If you lose an engine in a multi-engine aircraft it can be a disaster," Stern said. "But it shouldn't be, with the proper training and preparedness."
The Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award also shows aviation is a safer form of transportation than people think, Stern said.
"I'm not the only one that's gone 50 years without an incident," Stern said.
Stern's honor goes to show there's a thriving aviation community in the Brainerd lakes area, Wig said, filled with "true-blue aviation enthusiasts."
"Aviation has a lot of wonderful people with interesting backgrounds and personalities and interests," Wig said. "I just think it's a wonderful thing to have here in Brainerd."
According to the FAA's online database of Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award winners, there are currently 55 honorees in Minnesota, but Stern is the first from the Brainerd lakes area.
Stern's time behind the yoke varies now, but he averages a couple flights per week. He'll go two to three weeks without flying, and then have a weekend like a recent one where he flies in five different airshows.
With the Commemorative Air Force, Stern does a lot of missing man formation flyovers at funerals for fallen pilots or veterans.
"The idea is to remember the people that sacrificed everything for us," Stern said. "That's probably our biggest mission, is remembering the veterans and the people that gave everything they had to protect our freedom."
Jay Flowers, from the Flight Standard District Office in Fargo, presented the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award to Stern Saturday. Flowers said the FAA started presenting the awards on Aug. 11, 2003, to honor pilots with 50-year, clean records.
"As long as they have a clean record, and have been very active in aviation, then they basically qualify for the award," Flowers said.
The FAA also evaluates applicants for "good, moral character," Flowers said, so there is a processing or vetting process applicants go through. Flowers brought a record book of all of Stern's flight data, about an inch thick, going back to his very first flight. Friends and family looked on as Flowers noted Stern's achievements and presented the award in the airport's conference room.
One pilot who Flowers gave the award to only had 600 hours of flight time in his lifetime, Flowers said. The amount of flight hours depends on how active the pilot has been over those 50 years.
"You can't say that it's one demographic, one or the other, that gets it," Flowers said. "It's just the guys that have been dedicated that long."
Many private or recreational pilots follow a similar flight career path, Flowers said. They start flying when they're young, and then aviation goes on the back burner as they start and raise families. Then, when they hit 55 or 60 years old, they come back to it.
"Some guys need something to do, maybe they've been retired from some other job," Flowers said. "And they'll start doing small charters here and there for different companies."
In the past two years, Flowers said his office has given out around 24 Wright Brothers Master Pilot Awards. It's the recipient's decision on how or where they get the award. Some are fine with a little recognition, he said, but most don't want any fanfare. For those apprehensive pilots, Flowers proposes a solution. He brings the award to the pilot's regular coffee group, buys a round of joe, and presents the award.
A pilot himself, Flowers said it's quite the experience presenting the award to another pilot, some of whom have been flying since World War II.
"Most of these guys had a career before I was even born," Flowers said. "I was born in '62, and these guys were active back in the '40s."
Aviation is an evolving, volatile environment, Flowers said, so many of these pilots have a wealth of knowledge to pass on to the next generation of pilots.
"The scars that these guys carry is the knowledge that they're passing forward to their students," Flowers said.
Pilots come from all walks of life, Flowers said, but one thing is constant: They love to fly.
"If you're a pilot, you love it, you don't back down from it, and it's all you think about," Flowers said. "They're all walks of life, and they all love the profession."