Duane Cole: pilot and patriot

Published 12:16 pm Monday, August 25, 2008

I met Martin through my membership in the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences and work on a replica of John Montgomerys 1883 glider. My illustration of the glider is in one of Martins books.
I knew about the Cole Brothers Air Show (Martin was the only one not involved with Duane, Marion, Arnold and Lester) and that Duane had been our national Aerobatic Champion in 1962 and again in 1964. From his books I learned a lot about his family and his character, as well as how to fly aerobatics. I really did yearn to meet him personally.
When I learned that Duane was coming to Virginia to perform at Patrick Henry Field, I contacted the air show sponsors to learn where Duane was staying. When I called to invite him to lunch with me, I identified myself and he responded Martins friend, so I needed no further introduction. We had a lively discussion over lunch, and I was out at the airport early the next day to see him fly.
He was in the midst of his walk-around inspection of his clipped-wing Taylorcraft with his name painted inverted on each side. When he spotted me he came over to the rope and I introduced Fran. We learned that he would fly at Chesterfield Airport the next day (Sunday). He dutifully signed my program, and several others suddenly thrust upon him by the gathering admirers.
Soon an air show volunteer came to spin the propeller for him, and he taxied to the runway for takeoff as the P.A. system announced him. As he lifted off, he immediately rolled the airplane inverted, so his name was right-side up as he climbed in front of the line of spectators at the rope. Showmanship 101.
Concluding a series of maneuvers that had won him the championship, he shut off the engine, pulled the nose up to stop the prop from windmilling, then repeated all of the maneuvers with the obviously stationary propeller gleaming in the sun. The only sound was the whistling and rumbling of the airflow over the very quiet airplane. With no electric starter fitted, the plane could not be restarted in the air, as the high-speed dives never turned the propeller even slightly. Duane landed and rolled back to his parking spot before braking to a stop before a cheering crowd. Showmanship 102.
At breakfast next morning, I was still enjoying seeing Duane, and proposed that we drive up to Chesterfield for a repeat performance. Fran agreed, so off we went. Duane was surprised to see us, but readily allowed photos with us and his airplane.
The next time I saw him fly was some years later at Arlington, Washington, where he flew a rented airplane with a safety pilot aboard. He could no longer fly solo legally because a heart condition had cost him his medical certificate, but he was finishing out his show commitments the only way he could. And he was still at the top of his form.
The last time I saw him was at the big air show at Oshkosh put on annually by the Experimental Aircraft Association, of which Duane was a founding member. He and Judy (wife and former wing walker in his show) were selling his books and videos in a booth in a hangar. It was my privilege to introduce him to my cousins who had brought me there in their airplane.
Logbook magazine published this tribute I sent when Duane died in 2004 aged 89: Duane Cole was one of the bright lights of American aviation, with the fame and adulation that goes with that. Not only was he a consummately skilled pilot and a natural showman, he was also a solid citizen and family man. He shared his talents as a pilot with both trainees and the public, and his personal values shine through the several books he authored. Duane wore his laurels like well-worn slippers and stood for all that is right and good about America. We will not see his like again because we live in a different world now, but we are all better for having known Duane Cole. I am confident of his happy landing where CAVU* prevails, and that he will be well remembered by all who love airplanes and the art of flying them.
*Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited

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