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‘Silver Eagle’ soars into his golden years

  • David Mroczek's 1978 Cessna 152 is reflected in his aviator sunglasses after refuelling at the Orange Municipal Airport.<br/>Recorder/David Rainville

    David Mroczek's 1978 Cessna 152 is reflected in his aviator sunglasses after refuelling at the Orange Municipal Airport.
    Recorder/David Rainville

  • If you look closely, you can see pilot David Mroczek’s house below, as well as the Northfield Meadow, where he hitched his first plane ride.<br/>Recorder/David Rainville

    If you look closely, you can see pilot David Mroczek’s house below, as well as the Northfield Meadow, where he hitched his first plane ride.
    Recorder/David Rainville

  • David Mroczek flies his Cessna 152 over the Pioneer Valley while reporter David Rainville takes a break from his flight lesson for a photo shoot.<br/>Recorder/David Rainville

    David Mroczek flies his Cessna 152 over the Pioneer Valley while reporter David Rainville takes a break from his flight lesson for a photo shoot.
    Recorder/David Rainville

  • Capt. David Mroczek, left, stands with his flight crew in front of the KC-97 Stratotanker he flew in the US Air Force.<br/>Image courtesy of David Mroczek.

    Capt. David Mroczek, left, stands with his flight crew in front of the KC-97 Stratotanker he flew in the US Air Force.
    Image courtesy of David Mroczek.

  • David Mroczek takes reporter David Rainville for his first flight in a small plane.<br/>Recorder/David Rainville

    David Mroczek takes reporter David Rainville for his first flight in a small plane.
    Recorder/David Rainville

  • Measuring 24 feet from tip to tail, with a wingspan of 33 feet, the Cessna 152 defines the term "small plane." David Mroczek has owned this model twice, buying it back from the former student to whom he had sold it.<br/>Recorder/David Rainville

    Measuring 24 feet from tip to tail, with a wingspan of 33 feet, the Cessna 152 defines the term "small plane." David Mroczek has owned this model twice, buying it back from the former student to whom he had sold it.
    Recorder/David Rainville

  • David Mroczek's 1978 Cessna 152 is reflected in his aviator sunglasses after refuelling at the Orange Municipal Airport.<br/>Recorder/David Rainville
  • If you look closely, you can see pilot David Mroczek’s house below, as well as the Northfield Meadow, where he hitched his first plane ride.<br/>Recorder/David Rainville
  • David Mroczek flies his Cessna 152 over the Pioneer Valley while reporter David Rainville takes a break from his flight lesson for a photo shoot.<br/>Recorder/David Rainville
  • Capt. David Mroczek, left, stands with his flight crew in front of the KC-97 Stratotanker he flew in the US Air Force.<br/>Image courtesy of David Mroczek.
  • David Mroczek takes reporter David Rainville for his first flight in a small plane.<br/>Recorder/David Rainville
  • Measuring 24 feet from tip to tail, with a wingspan of 33 feet, the Cessna 152 defines the term "small plane." David Mroczek has owned this model twice, buying it back from the former student to whom he had sold it.<br/>Recorder/David Rainville

From the first time David Mroczek snuck down to the Northfield Meadows to hitch a ride in Tommy Russel’s “tail-dragger” airplane at the age of 12, he knew how he wanted to spend his life.

He only got to fly in the 1946 Taylorcraft a couple of times, but he was hooked nonetheless. His parents were less than pleased — they’d hoped their boy would pick a “safer” hobby.

On June 24, Mroczek marked 60 years since his first solo flight. Ten years before, he was given the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award for 50 years of incident-free flying.

The Northfield native, who turned 80 on the Fourth of July, has logged more than 13,000 hours at the controls since his teenage years. If he were to put all those hours together into one flight, he wouldn’t land for 18 months.

As a youth he dreamed of being a pilot, but it seemed out of his reach. Eventually, he found someone willing to teach him for free — Uncle Sam.

Mroczek joined the U.S Air Force at 19, though he lacked the required two years of college credit.

“I was just out of high school and the recruiter in Greenfield told me it was out of the question,” he recalled. But Mroczek wouldn’t take no for an answer and his persistence paid off.

“I think the he let me take the test just to get rid of me.”

He waited, and got some bad news.

“They told me I’d failed. I was heartbroken; I just knew I’d done extremely well.”

Dejected, he spent the summer working for a Brattleboro, Vt., furniture store, contemplating his next move. Then, one day that fall, an Air Force captain showed up at the shop looking for him.

He had actually aced the tests, and the Air Force was willing to send him to flight school, college or no. He’s still not sure why he was told at first that he’d failed.

“He asked me when I wanted to go and I said ‘wait a minute, I’ll pack a bag.’”

He was perhaps a little too eager. Mroczek still had one more exam to take. He was finally among the Air Force’s ranks the following February.

He started in a Piper L-4 trainer and received seven hours of practice before his first solo flight on June 24, 1954. It was make it or break it — if he couldn’t complete the flight without error, he would have been ejected from flight school.

After his successful solo and a bit of good-natured hazing, it was official: Mroczek was a pilot.

“At the end of the day, as I walked back to the barracks, they threw me in the pool with all of my clothes on.”

He moved on to the T-6 Texan, then the T-28 Trojan, both advanced training planes. From there, he went to the B-25 Mitchell bomber, then the C-119 Flying Boxcar, Convair T-29, and C-47 Skytrain transport planes, to name a few.

For the bulk of his service, he flew a Boeing KC-97 “Stratotanker,” a massive freight plane outfitted with cavernous fuel tanks that were used to refuel bomber jets in mid-air, including B-52s loaded with nuclear weapons. He piloted the flying fuel station for six years.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Mroczek and crew busily fuelled bombers to keep them ready for a Cold War flare-up. His longest flight lasted 13.5 hours, he said. Burning 500 gallons of fuel an hour, the KC-97 went through about 6,750 gallons of aviation-grade gasoline that flight.

After his time at Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee, he was transferred to an Iowa base, where he worked as a liaison until 1963, when he retired at the rank of captain after 10 years of service.

Though Mroczek has never crash-landed or had to bail out of a plane, he’s come close.

“My most hair-raising experience was flying the KC-97 to Spain with 70 new Army recruits on board,” he recalled.

“Halfway there, at 11,000 feet, one engine started to have a lot of problems, so we had to shut it down. I asked the navigator about our options. Should we turn back and land on the East Coast? Should we keep going to Spain?”

They decided to press on and descended a couple thousand feet, where the thicker air would be easier on the engines.

“All of a sudden, the turbocharger exploded on the other outboard engine. Then, we had two down and were running on just the two inboard engines.”

Two Civil Air Patrol planes came out to intercept the plane and advised Mroczek to ditch it. The CAP’s SA-16 Albatrosses were capable of landing on the water, but Mroczek didn’t think they’d be able to carry all 75 passengers and crew members home.

So, again, he pressed on.

“We kept losing altitude until we were at 3,000 feet and the plane leveled off,” he said.

To keep the aircraft aloft, they began to jettison just about everything that wasn’t tied down.

“We started throwing everything that we could off of the plane, including our clothes, to cut down on weight and maintain altitude.”

Once they were over the Spanish coast, they hit turbulence and lost altitude, now down to 1,500 feet. They began to have engine trouble again.

“One of the inboard engines was so hot, we couldn’t keep it running without cooking it, so I said ‘let it cook.’”

The engine burst into flames on the final approach, but they made it to the airstrip and landed in the nick of time.

The crew was debriefed and told to go pick up new uniforms because they were going to be placed on alert and had to be ready for action — or so they thought.

“When we got back, they showed us a Volkswagen bus with a Spanish-speaking driver and told us we were being sent to the Spanish Riviera for a week of R&R on the Air Force’s dime.”

Despite his brush with disaster, Mroczek never wanted to give up flying. Since he left the Air Force, Mroczek has twice gone into business as a pilot.

As a civilian pilot, Mroczek made a living flying a corporate Cessna Citation jet for a company in East Longmeadow, shuttling executives to important business meetings as well as family vacations.

“They had a corporate jet so they could make it home in time for dinner.”

Meanwhile, his own dinner got cold.

He also chartered his own plane for Lunt Silversmiths, shuttling the owners back and forth for weekend excursions.

“It was fun for about five years,” he said.

After that, the job lost its charm.

Like a limo driver waiting in a prom night parking lot while teens dance the night away, Mroczek was stuck sitting on the tarmac while his fares spent their Saturdays touring places like Martha’s Vineyard with their families.

To beat the boredom and stay in shape, he started bringing his bicycle along on the jet and would often pedal around Chicago while his co-pilot watched the plane at O’Hare International Airport. Then, his boss found out.

“One of the executives called me in once, because he wanted to know what he was paying us (pilots) to do while the plane sat at the airport,” he said. “I told him I rode my bike to help me stay in shape.”

At first, his boss didn’t believe him, so Mroczek took him to the cargo hold and opened the bag that held his bicycle.

“He said ‘well, I’ll be darned’ and I never heard another word about it.”

At the time, flying wasn’t Mroczek’s only job. In 1971, he opened the Bicycle Barn in the old tack shop behind his home on Northfield’s Main Street.

“My idea was to run the bicycle shop when I retired from flying.”

Mroczek did eventually retire, but not like he’d planned. He closed the bike shop in 2004 and still teaches the occasional flight lesson.

When he ran Silver Eagle Aviation at the Orange Airport, Mroczek had as many as three planes at once and went through five aircraft altogether. He and a few other instructors kept busy teaching others to fly.

Mroczek estimated that he’s taught 75 to 100 people to fly. Though he’s no longer a full-on instructor, he still takes pilots up for their biannual recertification. He also helps pilots get their “instrument certification,” which allows them to fly in low visibility, navigating by instruments rather than sight.

Mroczek closed up shop at Silver Eagle Aviation in the early 1990s, when George H.W. Bush sent the country into its first war with Iraq — Desert Storm — and some of Mroczek’s instructors were deployed.

He’s still got the same hangar at the Orange Municipal Airport, where he keeps a 1978 Cessna 152, a single-engine, two-seat trainer plane with a cozy cargo hold that fits 120 pounds of whatever you can cram into the tiny space.

He mostly saves his high-test (and high-cost) aviation grade gasoline for paying recertification trips, though he does take the occasional pleasure-cruise.

“Once in a while, the wife and I will fly to Jaffrey N.H. for a $150 ice cream at Kimball Farm,” he joked, remarking on the high cost of low-lead 100 octane aviation gasoline, going for about $5.65 per gallon in Orange. How far he gets on a gallon depends on the wind, but his two 13-gallon tanks — one in each wing — are good for a total 3.5 hours of flying time.

Before fuel prices skyrocketed and Mroczek downsized his fleet, he flew a two-engine, six-seat Piper Seneca II. He and his wife, Becky, would remove its back seats, toss in their bicycles and take a quick flight to Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard, where they’d pedal around, stop in the shops and enjoy the day. They just had to make sure to get back into the air before the evening fog set in and grounded them.

They’d also take the Seneca to visit their daughter in Florida years ago. It was a seven-hour flight with one stop to refuel — about twice the time an airliner takes to fly to the Sunshine State and about a third of the driving time.

Mroczek has seen a lot change in the aviation world since his first flight.

Newer planes are outfitted with GPS, making old methods of navigation obsolete. Many of the instruments of old are being replaced by “glass panels”: computer screens that display maps, weather conditions and other important information.

Even Mroczek’s aging Cessna makes use of new technology. An iPad mounts snuggly to the plane’s yoke, letting him look up airport approaches, wind speeds and updates like the no-fly zone around Air Force One during the president’s recent trip to Worcester.

One innovation Mroczek wishes he had in his Air Force days are the noise-reducing headsets that modern pilots may take for granted. They cut the engine’s roar to a dull hum and let pilots talk to each other without shouting across the cockpit. If he’d had those 60 years ago, he said, he probably wouldn’t need the two hearing aids he wears today.

Even so, if he had to do it all again, he would.

“I consider myself one of the luckiest people on Earth,” said Mroczek. “I got to do what I love every day of my life.”

Staff reporter David Rainville has worked at The Recorder since 2011. He covers Bernardston, Leyden, Northfield and Warwick. He can be reached at drainville@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 279.

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