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A pilot since his college days, Al Reeser flew trans-Atlantic transport planes for the Air Transport Command during World War II. Now 99 and living at Essex Meadows, he’s still finds opportunities to take flight. (Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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World War II is a chapter in a history text for most people today, but for Al Reeser of Essex, it is real life memories. During the Second World War, Al, who is now 99, was a co-pilot flying for the Air Transport Command (ATC), which flew supplies from the United States to war zones and flew wounded back to the United States.
ATC was not staffed by military pilots. The federal government contracted with commercial airlines to provide the transport service, but pilots and co-pilots like Al wore military-style uniforms and had access to privileges like officers’ clubs when they were on military bases.
Though he got his start with Eastern Airlines, most of Al’s ATC career was as a pilot for American Airlines, the company for which he continued to fly after the war was over.
Al had tried to become a military pilot before becoming a member of ATC, but an enlistment physical discovered a hole in one of his eardrums and he was rejected. He recalls that he had many subsequent physicals during his ATC service, but no one ever found that ear drum hole again.
“It had probably healed,” said his daughter Pamela Winstead, a doctor who lives in Essex and accompanied him on a recent afternoon as he talked about his wartime service.
During the war, Al flew to Europe out of LaGuardia Airport in Queens, but it was not a direct route. The airplanes he co-piloted stopped first in Newfoundland and then, he says, “if the wind was good,” they landed in Scotland.
But that didn’t always happen. Al remembers times they landed first in the Azores.
“And another time in Morocco,” he recalls.
The cockpit was not pressurized and the planes flew at significantly lower altitude than today’s aircraft, usually at around 10,000 feet. There was oxygen on board in case they craft had to go higher, to 14,000 or 15,000 feet, but, “nobody liked to use it,” Al says.
The navigation equipment was a far cry from a modern-day computerized instrument panel. According to Al, there was a dome over the cockpit that the plane’s navigator removed to take dead reckoning calculations of altitude with one of the classic tools of navigation, a sextant.
On one flight, returning to Bermuda, AL says his airplane ran into headwinds, and the fuel supply grew low.
“I thought we’d have to get the rafts out, if we didn’t crash,” he says.
Once a submarine shot at Al’s airplane, but otherwise there were no brushes with wartime danger.
At World War II’s end, Al continued with American, becoming a captain and flying domestic routes. For some of that time, he co-piloted a Convair 240, a 40-passenger craft with one flight attendant. He recalls a close call in Toledo, Ohio, in the days before air traffic control monitored the space around airports, when cloud cover obscured an airplane that was a mere 500 feet away. The clouds broke just in time. The pilots were able to avoid a collision, Al says.
One of his fondest memories is of a far bigger airplane than the Convair 240. Al took delivery in Roswell, New Mexico, of American’s first company-owned 747. (Prior to that delivery, Al says American rented a 747 for two or three months from Pan American Airways.)
Al’s last several years were spent in Fort Worth, Texas, as an assistant vice president for airline administration, but he continued to maintain his flying credentials.
After his retirement at the then-mandatory age of 60, Al worked for three years for a private airplane entrepreneur before leaving the industry completely. He took up woodworking, building three Windsor chairs, but soon he was into another traveling mode: recreation vehicles. He and his wife traveled throughout the United States, in their RV much of the time on the West Coast. Their vehicle was not a small camper.
“Forty feet, 35,000 pounds; I like driving a big machine,” Al says.
Al grew up in Honey Brook, Pennsylvania, some 40 miles from Lancaster. The town’s population, he recalls, was around 1,000 people; his graduating high school class had 19 students, of whom only two went to college. Al was one of them.
He lived in a boarding house when he started at Penn State and two other students living there were taking flying lessons.
“I got interested from them,” he says. “It was something different. Not everyone was doing it, a small-town boy learning to fly.”
Al soloed in l938 in a two-cylinder airplane that had 36 horsepower.
“Not scary at all,” he remembers of that solo flight.
For the last nine years, Al, now a widower, has lived at Essex Meadows and believes he is the oldest male resident. Besides that distinction, he believes he has another, thanks to the bolo ties he always wears.
“I think I introduced them at Essex Meadows,” he says.
With a bit of prompting from his daughter, he reveals one of his secrets for a long and happy life.
“A little Scotch every evening,” he says, observing that he wouldn’t want to live forever, maybe just to 104 or 105.
“I think 110 is too long,” he adds.
Al recently gave up driving his own car, and now has it for sale. For his 99th birthday in August, his family arranged for a bit of nostalgia: an airplane ride from Chester Airport. But there was a difference from when Al was in his glory days at ATC and American Airlines: for his birthday ride, there was an instructor in the cockpit.
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