The owner of Dodson Aviation knew guests were coming Thursday for a planned company party, but he didn’t know they had a surprise in store for him.
Among the well-wishers were representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration who presented Dodson with the Wright Brothers “Master Pilot” Award. The honor recognizes pilots who have demonstrated professionalism, skill and aviation expertise by maintaining safe operations for 50 or more years, according to the Federal Aviation Administration’s website.
“There’s only 62 of them that have ever been awarded in the state of Kansas,” Dodson said. “And I’m the 62nd one to get it.”
Thursday’s company party-turned-award ceremony at Dodson Aviation, located at the Ottawa Municipal Airport, 2110 Montana Road, Ottawa, came thanks to family members and colleagues who nominated Dodson for the honor, he said. Dodson’s children, J.R. Dodson and Donielle Summers, along with pilots Dodson previously taught, wrote in letters of recommendation for the award, he said.
“[J.R. and Donielle] had one of my granddaughters call me and tell me she had a deal for the high school, that she needed to write a story about somebody in Kansas,” he said. “So I gave her an interview and all this information about five or six months ago, not knowing she was getting it for the award [nomination]. That was what my kids used to give to the FAA. Plus the letters from a lot of my students that I’d taught how to fly.”
About 75 to 100 of Dodson’s former students showed up to see him receive the award, he said, which took him by surprise.
“Most of [the former students] are retired airline captains, but a few are still flying,” he said.
Dodson’s passion for aviation began with a $3 plane ride at the Fairfax airport in Kansas City, Kan., where he took his first flight and learned how to fly, he said.
“Me and a buddy of mine was driving around and saw the sign at Fairfax that said ‘$3 airplane rides’, and I’d never been in an airplane and he hadn’t either so we went in there, and me and my buddy flipped a coin to decide who got to ride up front,” Dodson said. “I won the coin flip so the flight instructor took us up and let me fly it around and I just loved it.”
At the time, Dodson was working as a baker at Dolly Madison Bakery and began to take flying lessons, he said.
“I went though training myself. I got all the books and started reading up on it,” he said. “I taught myself to pass the written [exams] and stuff to get the pilot’s license, but to get my ratings, I had to use an instructor pilot to teach me to fly.”
After earning his own flight instructor certificate, Dodson solicited students and soon earned a large following. When his students became too many to handle on weekends and evenings, he quit his position as a baker at Dolly Madison and began as a full-time flight instructor at Fairfax.
Dodson eventually used the money he saved for a car to instead buy an Ercoupe aircraft, he said.
When he sold the Ercoupe in the 1960s, Dodson never expected to see his first plane again, he said, but his employees managed to make it happen.
“My employees, about six or seven years ago, went out and found this airplane,” he said. “It belonged to a farmer down in South Carolina and they bought it and when I got back here in December from Africa, they gave me it.”
The Ercoupe was not only Dodson’s first plane, it was how he met his first wife, he said.
“I used to take all my girlfriends flying in it,” he said chuckling. “My first wife, that’s how I met her. I offered to take her one night for a plane ride over the Plaza lights [in Kansas City, Mo.] She bit on it.”
‘It’s been like fun’
In 1966, Dodson’s work brought him to Ottawa, he said, where he had been teaching a few doctors to get their instrument ratings.
According to his nomination letter, he formed Dodson Aviation Inc. at Fairfax Airport in 1967 as a flight school and aircraft sales company. It was a natural progression, as many of his students had enlisted his aide in finding their own aircraft after getting the itch to fly.
In 1969, he began managing the Ottawa airport and moved his family to Ottawa, the letter said. He continued to run the business at Fairfax and Ottawa until 1974 when he consolidated operations at his newly constructed hangar at Ottawa.
It’s at that hangar where Dodson Aviation buys, repairs and sells airplanes, he said.
“We fix airplanes, buy and sell them, dismantle them for the parts department in Rantoul,” he said. “We have an FAA radio shop where we repair radios. We don’t do customer work, just our own.”
It’s been nearly 20 years since the last time Dodson instructed someone on flying, he said, but still tries to fly himself every so often.
“I fly maybe once a month, once every two months,” Dodson said. “I usually fly using the airlines. It’s just not that big a world at 500 miles per hour.”
Looking back, Dodson said some of his happiest times were when he was young and just starting out, when he’d fly eight to 10 hours a day. Though that has changed, he said, he still enjoys what he does.
“I always liked flying, so I’ve had a great life because I’ve done my whole life on what I’ve liked doing,” he said. “It really hasn’t been like work. It’s been like fun.”