Civil Air Patrol pilot, 80, still high on the miracle of flight

Col. Frederick G. Herbert, 80, of the Civil Air Patrol, has broken speed records for flights from Fishers Island to Portland, Maine, and Hartford to York, Pa.
Col. Frederick G. Herbert, 80, of the Civil Air Patrol, has broken speed records for flights from Fishers Island to Portland, Maine, and Hartford to York, Pa.

On a recent frigid morning, Frederick G. Herbert pulled the protective covering from a 1973 Cessna Cardinal parked at the Groton-New London Airport.

He removed protective blocks near the propellers and proceeded to tell guests about the width of the two doors: They are nearly the size of an automobile's to make entering and exiting the plane easier.

"It is a nice airplane, but it wasn't popular," he said, looking over the flying machine. "It may be an old airplane, but it gets its annual inspections and is in pretty good shape."

The same could be said for its pilot.

The 80-year-old Preston resident has been flying on and off for 49 years. He has logged more than 4,000 flight hours, and his passengers have included relatives, friends and the recently deceased.

"Now, some people are very uncomfortable flying in light aircraft, almost terrified, and others feel it's wonderful, miraculous," Herbert said.

"I feel flying light airplanes today, or jet aircraft, is a miracle. The system on the ground is broken, but the machine itself, with its speed, its safety and electronics, is accurate and reliable. I find it a wonder. I marvel at it more than the average person," he said.

His passion for maneuvering through the air has brought him two records for speed and various adventures, including joining a search for what he later found out was John F. Kennedy Jr.'s downed aircraft and flying the body of a woman from Hartford to Canada for her funeral.

Herbert has never been a career pilot, although he holds a commercial license.

After a stint in the U.S. Army at the end of World War II, Herbert, originally from Maryland, took a civilian job as an electronics engineer for the War Department and then with the Glenn L. Martin Co. missile test crew at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

"Nobody had heard of the place when I went there in '52," he said.

The father of three and grandfather of two said that in the 1970s it was time for the family, including his wife of more than 50 years, Marilyn, to "take root" somewhere after so many years of traveling.

He became a business manager at Southern Connecticut State University and eventually retired, in 1991, as an administrative dean at Eastern Connecticut State University.

It was during his tenure at ECSU that he became reacquainted with flying.

A local Civil Air Patrol squadron had received an aircraft, and members had to log a certain number of hours per month on it or they would lose the plane. They knew Herbert was a pilot and asked him to occasionally fly.

"I had stopped flying sometime in the '70s and thought I got it all out of my system," Herbert said.

He initially declined but was curious about whether he could still pass the required physical. He passed and started flying again.

Of all his accomplishments in aviation, Herbert is most proud of his continued membership in the Thames River Composite Squadron, a unit of the Connecticut Wing of the Civil Air Patrol, an auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force.

"He's been around for a long time. He was there in the old days. He's a living history book for the CAP and a wonderful person to have around," said Squadron Lt. Col. and Commander Lawrence Kinch.

Elizabeth Scannell, one of Herbert's daughters, remembers as a 4-year-old being in the plane with her father and sitting atop two pillows so she could see out the window.

"I think it's pretty amazing that a man who is pushing 81 still has the mental and physical capacity to fly. It's inspirational," she said.

Scannell's youngest son, Jonathan, 17, shares his grandfather's passion. He is a second lieutenant and the cadet commander of the Thames River Squadron. Jonathan took his first solo flight over the summer.

"Not everyone does it. It's something different. It's pretty impressive what he's done," Jonathan Scannell said of his grandfather.

As Herbert tells it, he's been flying so long he started with wooden propellers and 55 horsepower planes. He first took flight in 1947 at 18 years old, right around the time he joined the Maryland Air National Guard.

"All that time when I flew I expected that if I went down or if I was overdue the CAP would come search for me," Herbert said. "In the 1980s I thought, 'Gee, maybe I ought to do something for the CAP because of all those years I thought they could be looking for me.'"

He joined the Thames River Squadron in 1981. He has served the commander of the Connecticut Wing, overseeing 13 squadrons throughout the state, and is now the northeast region's CAP historian, with the rank of colonel.

In October 2008 Herbert was honored for his service to the patrol and recognized for a record-breaking flight from Hartford to York, Pa., which he did in two hours and three minutes, averaging slightly more than 202 kilometers per hour. He flew a Cessna 177B and the flight record represents the fastest speed of any piston- engine landplane weighing between 1,102 pounds and 2,205 pounds, according to a news release from the National Aeronautic Association distributed at that time.

The primary reason for the flight was not to break a record. It was to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the death of 2nd Lt. Andre E. Maye, a CAP pilot for the Courier Service stationed at Bradley Airport at the onset of World War II. Maye and mechanic George M. Menzel died when their plane crashed.

Currently, Herbert uses the Cessna Cardinal, which he has co-owned with other pilots since 2002, on many trips throughout the Northeast. He said he expects to continue serving and flying for many more years, so long as he passes his annual pilot's physical.

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