“I’ve always been fascinated with flying,” LeMaster, who is resigning Dec. 14 as manager of the Ottawa Municipal Airport, said. “My first baby blanket had airplanes on it. I was nuts about airplanes from the start.”
LeMaster, who was raised in Ottawa and graduated from Princeton High School, said he began flying at age 14 and took his first solo flight at age 16.
“I learned to fly at Conard Field, about two miles north and northeast of Ottawa,” the 80-year-old pilot with more than six decades of flying experience said. “I still feel good, and I still pass my pilot’s physical every year.”
Consequently, LeMaster said, although he is resigning his post at the airport, 2178 Montana Road, Ottawa, he’s not retiring from aviation.
“I still plan to buy and sell planes,” LeMaster said Wednesday from his office at the airport.
LeMaster purchased his first plane, as fate would have it, at age 16.
“I was working for Johnson Electric Company, and the owner, Vernon Johnson, was a pilot and had his own private runway [near Ottawa],” LeMaster said. “One day I saw his silver and blue Hudson coming down the road. He was holding a handkerchief up to his chin. I asked him what had happened, and he told me he had wrecked his plane, and he and his wife were fine but she had lost her purse.”
“He offered to sell me the plane for $400, so I bought it, and I found his wife’s purse [in the plane],” LeMaster said. “The plane didn’t have any major damage, and my Scoutmaster at the time was an aviation mechanic, and he helped me with it.”
LeMaster continued to fly the single-engine, four-seat Stinson Voyager until he sold it the day he entered the U.S. Air Force in 1951.
Based at Laredo, Texas, LeMaster flew liaison flights and worked as a certified air traffic controller at the base’s control tower. He also learned about the crop-dusting trade while in the service. After serving from 1951 to 1955 in the U.S. Air Force, LeMaster said he returned to Ottawa and reopened Conard Field, which had been closed down for about five or six years.
“After I reopened Conard Field, the city [of Ottawa] approached me about running the Ottawa airport, so I did that from 1955 to about 1961,” LeMaster, who also served four years in the U.S. Air Force Reserves, said.
LeMaster also owned an aerial spraying business for 34 years, serving customers in a 100-mile radius of Ottawa.
“I had a loyal customer base — some of them were with me the whole time I was in business,” he said. “The Ottawa Coop bought it out from me about 20 years ago.”
While spraying agriculture crops, primarily for insect, weed and musk thistle control, LeMaster said, he never had an accident.
“I never hit [an overhead] wire in all that time, which is pretty rare for that many years in aerial spraying, but I’m sure I came close,” he said, laughing.
LeMaster also logged a perfect, accident-free record in all his years barnstorming across the United States, taking literally thousands of people for rides at aerial shows in a variety of antique airliners he bought and sold through the years, he said.
“I never had an accident, and I’ve never had any complaints,” he said. “I’ve flown thousands of people.”
While he has had to make emergency landings, LeMaster said, he’s never wrecked a plane.
One of his most harrowing experiences, he said, was when both engines of his twin-engine plane stopped working over Iowa while he was flying a patient and her husband from Emporia to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. He had to land the plane in a snowy field.
“I was able to land the plane safely, and they got an ambulance in and took her to the Mayo Clinic. They found out what was wrong with her, and she lived for a long time,” LeMaster said of the happy ending to the story.
Buying and selling several antique airliners through the years, LeMaster has a story to tell about each one.
A 1931 Boeing 247 — which LeMaster said was the oldest Boeing airliner flying at that time — now is in a museum in England. He also owned a pair of 1929 Ford Trimotors, which were nicknamed “The Tin Goose” by the aviation industry,
“The TriMotor was my favorite,” LeMaster said of the antique airliners he has owned.
In 1980, LeMaster sold a Bushmaster 2000, a replica of the Ford TriMotor design, to Tom Watson, former IBM president and then-U.S. ambassador to Russia.
“I flew the plane to Owls Head, Maine, to have it there when Watson returned from Russia,” LeMaster said. “He had his own private landing strip and house on an island about 13 miles off the coast.”
While awaiting the ambassador’s return, LeMaster said, he stayed as a guest of the Rockefeller family.
LeMaster also owned a DC-2 plane, reclassified as a military C-39 and used to fly “military brass” during World War II, that was the only one of its kind still flying in the world.
“The Air Force contacted me and asked me not to fly it,” LeMaster said. “They told me it was the missing link in their Air Force museum.”
LeMaster followed the U.S. Air Force’s wishes and flew it to Miami, where an anonymous buyer then donated it to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force near Dayton, Ohio.
Through the years, LeMaster said, he has flown in all 50 states and Canada.
His favorite passenger through the past six decades, he said, was former U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong, who died in August at age 82.
LeMaster was at the Johnson County Executive Airport in summer 1976 in Olathe preparing his 16-passenger 1929 Ford Tri-Motor airplane for its next flight when the airport manager approached him with a request to allow someone to ride with him for a while. That someone was Neil Armstrong, LeMaster told The Herald in August.
“Every time I sit on the porch or drive along and I look up at the moon, I think ... [my] hand shook the hand of the first man to walk on it,” LeMaster said in that August interview, “and got to take him for a ride. He rode with me.”
LeMaster has amassed a list of flying credentials as long as his arm during the past 60 years. He has a commercial pilot’s license for single- and multi-engine planes and has his instrument rating. He also is a certified flight instructor, commercial helicopter pilot and a Federal Aviation Administration-certified air traffic controller.
In addition to his aerial spraying business, LeMaster managed the Coffey County Airport near Burlington from 1985 to 1996 and is on his second stint as manager of the Ottawa airport, since 2006. LeMaster’s son, Tony LeMaster, also has managed the Ottawa airport.
“Between my son and I, we managed the airport for more than 30 years,” LeMaster said.
The last entry in LeMaster’s flight log book — the ninth log book of his career — is dated just a few days ago on Nov. 19.
“I’ll be 81 in January, but I still plan to continue flying and buying and selling planes,” LeMaster said. He and his wife plan to take some time off and travel to their home in Las Vegas, where he likes to golf. He also enjoys fishing in the Ottawa area.
LeMaster, owner of LeMaster Aviation Inc., said he still looks forward to flying as often as he can.
“I’ve logged over 34,000 hours,” LeMaster said as he looked skyward outside the hangar at Ottawa Municipal Airport. “If you figure that up, that means I’ve spent more than four years of my life up there.”
Doug Carder is senior writer for The Herald. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org