Pilots return from bucket list flight

Pilots Nevin Showman and John Billings fly over Texas on the second day of their Wings Around America journey out of Luray Caverns Airport to raise awareness of charitable flying. Courtesy Nevin Showman

WOODSTOCK — After a landmark two-week flight around the country, pilots John Billings and Nevin Showman are taking some time to record their stories and memories before returning to flying volunteer Angel Flight missions.

Billings’ Cessna Cutlass RG-II touched down at Luray Caverns Airport at 2 p.m. Monday to a welcoming crew of friends and family waving American flags. They had come straight out of Niagara Falls to finish the last leg of their 16-day “Wings Around America” trip.

With only one minor technical difficulty and no weather delays, they chose to take an extra three days on top of their planned 13 spending time with family and catching up on cataloguing their trip. Billings said areas around their flight path have seen less favorable conditions since they’ve returned.

“The weather held off for us to get our mission done and now it’s catching up,” Showman said.

Another goal on the bucket list trip for Billings, a 92-year-old World War II veteran and 10-year volunteer pilot for Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic, was to visit some memorable flying spots.

When stopping at the Southern California Logistics Airport — once the Victorville Army Airfield — the two received a royal welcome from airport representatives and a tour of the defunct and desolate fenced-off area where Billings had taken off in B-24 bombers more than 70 years ago.

“It was sad, but flying at any altitude over the field you could see the original patterns of the runways,” he said.

Not only did they see the air base and the Davis-Monthan Air Force Boneyard in Tucson, Arizona, they got a glimpse of the B-24’s birthplace as well. At Willow Run Airport in Michigan, Billings got permission to fly into restricted airspace to photograph the concrete footprint of Henry Ford’s factory, which cranked out one plane every 57 minutes.

“The nostalgia juice was running right out of my ears,” he said.

Billings shared stories with a few other fellow WWII pilots while at the volunteer-run Florence Municipal Airport in Oregon — the only airport with a runway smaller than his base at Luray Caverns Airport. Both he and Newman appreciated the warm, personal atmosphere at small airports that is rare today.

“I really was bowled over by the friendliness of the people there in the littlest airport, Florence,” Billings said.

Showman had given their destination airports a prelude to their arrival, so all but three or four airports waived their landing fees. They also received refueling discounts, a couple free meals and plenty of warm welcomes along their journey.

“I think we can honestly say we did not get denied any request,” Showman said.

Although they spent many a late night regrouping and recording their journey, the promise of exhilarating flights and breathtaking views reenergized them like no other. Showman said he found himself more exhausted once they returned than he had ever been while on the trip.

Billings will meet with Mercy Medical Angels CEO Robb Alpaugh in Norfolk later this month to reflect on the flight that had spent years on his bucket list.

“When we took off here on the start of it…I looked over at him [Showman] and I said, ‘We’re really doing this, aren’t we?'” he said.

Billings and Showman spread business cards and flyers about their mission to promote area chapters of Angel Flight and charitable flying throughout the country.

The Wings Around America trip website attracted a national following as well. Showman said that more than 400 followers are subscribed to the site and he’s seen more than 11,000 pageviews. Of the 30 flags for donors that they toted with them, Showman estimates that 15 are destined for homes already.

Showman is working on compiling the photos and stories for a journal he’s hoping to publish in the fall. In addition, he’s started editing their clips for a video scrapbook project and said he’ll be posting teasers on the website.

“We spread a lot of cards around, and I do believe strongly that we planted a lot of seeds about charitable flying and a lot of them may sprout,” he said.

See details and photos from the flight at http://wingsaroundamerica.com/.

Contact staff writer Rachel Mahoney at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rmahoney@nvdaily.com