When Dave Graben was only 4 years old, stuck in bed and suffering from a bout with Scarlet fever, his mother gave him a model airplane.
That toy changed his life. By age 17 he’d earned his pilot’s license.
“My dad was very much against the idea,” Graben said. “I was $20 short of the examiner’s fee to get my license.”
“Don’t tell your dad,” his mom told him, and she slipped him a twenty.
For the rest of his life, his passion for flying guided his life. He helped pay his way through college by teaching other people how to fly. After college, he joined the Air Force and became a fighter pilot. While doing a mission during the Vietnam War, he was shot down by enemy fire and forced to crash land his F-105. He served in the Air Force for more than 20 years. He spent another two decades-plus as a pilot for American Airlines. At 76 years old, Graben has spent almost 60 years of his life as a licensed pilot. He’s logged an astronomical 29,400 hours of flying time.
And he’s not done.
Graben’s backyard is an airport. In 1985, he purchased some land in New Fairview, just off Farm Road 407. He built his home there and started a subdivision. It might be the only subdivision where an airport running between the rows of houses is considered an amenity. It’s a neighborhood of frequent flyers. Almost every house has a hangar next to it with at least one aircraft inside.
But on Wednesday, Graben was saying goodbye and setting sail in one of his favorite planes at the airport.
A large, silver 1944 DC-3 cargo rested on the grass in Graben’s backyard. Grasshoppers zoomed beneath it, blurred wings propelling yellow and black cylindrical bodies like aerial squadrons.
Graben had been storing the old plane at his home for several years for a friend. But now it was time for the plane to fly to an airport in Indiana, where it will be completely restored.
Graben is the co-pilot on the trip.
“I’m sad to see it go,” he said. “It’s a much better yard ornament than a pink flamingo.”
The pilot is Trent Scarborough of Dallas. His job is specifically to ferry old DC-3s. He said flying the old planes is not quite as smooth as what most people are used to.
“It’s rough and tough,” Scarborough said. “It’s like wrestling a bear in slow motion.”
After sitting for years, and going through hundreds of hours of repair, it was time for the old Goliath to take off from the grass runway in New Fairview for its flight to Indiana.
“It’s fun landing in an airport in one of these,” Scarborough said. “It’s like pulling up in a ’57 Chevy.”
As each engine fired up, a cloud of blue-gray smoke covered the plane temporarily as if it was moving from a cloud of fog. With what seemed like little runway for such a large plane, it took off smooth, rising only 40 feet above FM 407, headed north. Just one more trip, one more ride through the air, for Graben.
All those years ago, when Graben was only 4 years old, burning up with fever, you know what type of model airplane his mother gave him?
“Curious enough,” he said, “it was a DC-3.”
Editor’s note: The plane never reached its destination Wednesday. Shortly after takeoff one of its engines blew, and it had to land and park in Gainesville, Texas.