“They have this saying: There are old pilots and there are bold pilots. There are no old, bold pilots because if they’re too cocky, they wind up dead.” – Herschel Crump
Not long after they married, Herschel and Linda Crump visited the scenic Rio Grande Gorge near Taos, N.M. The newlyweds started to walk out on the 1,280 foot steel bridge that runs across the gulch, but Herschel stopped.
“My knees were just shaking,” he said. “I held onto the rail, and every time a truck went by I just knew we were going to fall into the chasm.”
Crump, who turns 73 today, has played on his fear of heights for more than 50 years to help him hone a profession few who are afflicted with this fear would seem to choose.
“I’ve never had any problem flying airplanes – but I’ve had a real problem with heights,” he said. “Maybe that’s why I’ve been careful.”
Next Saturday, officials from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will present Crump with the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award to honor 50 years of flying without any safety violations.
Applicants for the award are subject to a thorough audit by the FAA and must have written recommendations from three fellow pilots.
“This award is something that not everyone who lives long enough qualifies for,” he said.
The secret to flying so well for so long is knowing one’s limitations, Herschel said, and always having a backup plan.
“You don’t get old by taking chances,” he said. “You have to have a plan B, and a plan C and a plan D. I think that’s the whole thing to staying safe all these years. It’s a healthy respect for the risk involved.”
Crump entered into the United States Air Force in 1960 and began training as a navigator. He started taking flying lessons soon afterward.
In 1962, still early in his career, he found himself deep in the clouds in the middle of the Smoky Mountains one night without crucial navigation instruments – a difficult situation, even for the most experienced pilots.
“I panicked. But then I realized that if I stayed panicked, I would die. But if you just calm down and fly the airplane maybe you won’t die.”
A steady head led to steady hands. Crump and his aircraft emerged unscathed.
“I calmed down and flew the airplane and it was fine,” he said.
Herschel’s wife, Linda, has accompanied him on many trips, including flights to California for a wedding, Galveston for a cruise, Port O’Connor for a fishing trip, as well as picking up grandkids for weeklong visits and even aerial tours of South Africa.
During one visit, Linda’s mother brought up a question.
“My mother said, ‘Do y’all think it’s safe flying here in that little old airplane? Y’all could get killed,'” she said. “I said ‘Well, you know what, mother? If we crash and we don’t survive, at least we’re doing something that we like to do together.'”
In 1997, Crump opened his own airport at his home, just off of Farm Road 51 north of Springtown. A hangar and airfield with two runways sit practically in his backyard.
The airport, named Eugene’s Dream, pays homage to Crump’s father.
Rationing of materials and fuel during World War II interrupted Eugene Crump’s early efforts to become a pilot. After the war, he prioritized caring for his four young children over pursuing his passion.
Though he wasn’t flying, Eugene took his two sons to every nearby airshow, inspiring brothers Herschel and Jimmy to pursue aviation.
“Dad didn’t get to fly,” Crump said, “but his passion for aviation was always there.”
After retiring, Eugene bought 40 acres outside of Birmingham, Ala.
“He had always had this dream of building an airport behind his house,” Crump said.
After building a house and a hangar, Eugene was told by the state of Alabama that his land was needed to build a highway corridor.
“He never got his airport built,” Crump said. “So when we built this one, we named it Eugene’s Dream because his dream was always to have an airport behind the house.”
Jimmy flew his father and a few other family members in to dedicate the new airfield in September of 1997.
“It went on the FAA database that year,” Crump said. “It’s been an official airport ever since.”
The runways of Eugene’s Dream are used to teach the next generation of pilots, Crump said.
“Instructing has never been a full-time job for me,” he said. “It’s something that I’ve just done on the side because I enjoyed it. If you took all the money I ever made instructing, it wouldn’t even pay for one airplane.”
Linda Crump said the students are in good hands.
“I’m always happy,” she said. “I always feel safe with him flying the airplane.”
For the award-winning pilot, safety isn’t just a concern. It’s a way of life for the rest of his life.
“I’m going to keep going as long as I keep passing my physicals,” he said. “I’ll keep doing it as long as I feel like I’m safe to fly.”