The final day of AirVenture is always a little melancholic. You have had so much fun and excitement that part of you does not want to leave. The other part yearns to see family, sleep in your own bed and use a bathroom that has vitreous china. As you wake up on getaway day, you have a little panic about the tasks left undone, the products that you have not examined closely enough, the forums you have not seen and the people you have not thanked enough.
This morning was different. I knew I had to leave the show at noon to be in MKE in time to join my Airbus crew back to ATL. I had one scheduled event left to attend at AirVenture and one additional mission.
Every year, on the last Sunday of the show, Jack Pelton, the President of EAA, hosts a memorial service in which plaques honoring EAA members who passed away that year are inducted onto the Memorial Wall. The Wall is nestled in the Northeast corner of Pioneer Field, at the end of the grass runway and next to the peaceful heights of Compass Hill. Fergus Chapel, the only church I have ever seen with a wooden propellor on the wall stained glass windows depicting famous aviators, stands guard.
I had to go to the memorial service this year because one of those plaques on the Memorial Wall contained the name of Duane Huff, a dear friend, a once-in-a-generation leader of our local EAA 690 chapter, a fellow lover of aviation and a beautiful human being. Duane passed away of natural causes last April. Our chapter ordered a plaque for the Memorial Wall, but it was difficult for us to decide what to say on it. Duane’s achievements were so numerous that selecting words to describe his life on an 11”x2” rectangle of bronze was almost impossible.
Born in 1931, Duane had the good sense to marry Tess, the love of his life, in 1950. Together they raised four kids (who are now incredible adults) on teachers’ salaries. Although certainly not rich, Duane filled his family’s life with love and adventure, embarking on epic camping trips getting everyone through college. Besides his family, and his profession of choral music teacher, Duane’s passion was aviation. He loved everything about it. He learned to fly, somehow acquired a basket case Aeronca Chief and then completely restored it over a six year period. That plane won the Classic Grand Champion Award at Sun ‘n Fun in 1996, an Outstanding Classic Aircraft Award at AirVenture in 1997 and even graced the front cover of Plane and Pilot magazine.
When the Young Eagles program was initiated by EAA, Duane undertook the program on our chapter level. And boy did we shine. With Duane at the helm, we set an unofficial record for the most Young Eagles flown in one day (over 600). Duane singlehandedly flew 816 Young Eagles, one at a time, in his award winning Chief. When he retired, Duane became an ambassador for the Gwinnett County Airport, giving airport tours to over 9,000 students and adults. As a direct result, LZU has a great relationship with the community. After 50 years as a pilot, the FAA awarded Duane the Wright Brothers Master Pilot award. In 2020, Duane was inducted into the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame.
All of this from an unassuming school teacher with a friendly smile, an infectious laugh and giving spirit. For me, the best part of Duane is that he got older, but he never lost the kid-like wonder of learning and adventure. That’s probably why so many kids loved him. I guess I did too.
The ceremony was really nice. The host read a beautiful pilot’s poem (not High Flight), Jack Pelton read each of the names, and the families and friends of he departed sat wistfully, in white fold up chairs, with the sound of aircraft in flight and the cool Wisconsin breeze caressing them. It was just as hard to suppress tears as it was smiles.
Afterward, a few chapter and family members walked out to the middle of Pioneer Field’s grass runway. We did not ask for permission or any pre-clearance. When we reached the middle of the runway, at the approximate spot Duane once landed his treasured Aeronca Chief, I took a little bottle of Duane’s ashes, knelt in the soft grass and poured them on top. I tasseled the tops of the grass to accept the ashes and incorporate them into that little patch of aviation heaven.