By Carol Vaughn —
Al Walker, who recently turned 90, loves airplanes.
That is evident by looking around his room at Commonwealth Senior Living in Onancock, where books about flying sit on a table and the walls are decorated with several photographs and a painting of different aircraft Walker piloted during two decades in the United States Air Force and, later, as an executive pilot.
There are also on display more than a dozen medals Walker was awarded during his military service, which included a year’s tour of duty in Vietnam.
Walker’s duties as chief pilot in Vietnam included giving check rides to pilots flying twin-engine turboprop aircraft.
Still, Walker’s thoughts during an interview Friday turned back to a time years before all that — to the serendipitous experience that started him on his career.
Walker was born in Montana. The family later moved to Canada and then to Michigan. It was in Scottville, Mich., that he took his first airplane ride.
“I was about 16, living in Michigan. A couple miles down the highway from where I lived, there was a friend of mine,” Walker said.
One day, Walker went to visit his friend, but the friend wasn’t home.
“He lived across the road from the airport. So I went over to the airport and watched. There was a little yellow airplane out there, parked. Pretty soon, a guy walked out to it and put a couple of bags in the airplane and…he got in it and he opened up the door and said, ‘Hey, kid! Do you want to go for a ride?’ And that was the first time I’d been in an airplane,” Walker said.
As they were flying in the two-seat aircraft, looking down at the ground below, “I said to myself, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” he said.
He never even learned the man’s name, but the experience stuck with Walker.
“He sure spiked my career,” he said.
There wasn’t money for flying lessons, but Walker after high school decided to enlist in the Air Force in 1951, figuring the likely alternative was to be drafted into the Army and sent to Korea.
“I said if I’m going to go fight a damn war, I’m going to do it in an airplane. So I took my chances and enlisted in the Air Force,” Walker said.
At the time, the requirement to become an Air Force pilot was to have two years of college and pass a series of tests.
Walker had not gone to college, but he was able to pass the academic equivalency tests and a physical and was accepted into the pilot training program.
“I got my wings and commission through the Air Force pilot training program,” Walker said. His ensuing military career took him around the world.
“I’ve been in every one of our states, every Canadian province, every South American state, every European country. The only Asian countries I missed were China and Russia — and that didn’t bother me at all,” he said.
It was while he was stationed at Dover Air Force Base that Walker moved his wife and children to a farmhouse on Occohannock Creek, near Exmore.
Walker has three children, a son and two daughters, along with several grandchildren.
“There was no base housing available for me at Dover, and any housing that was available was high priced. …So I came south. I got down to the tip of the Delmarva Peninsula, which is Virginia, and I found a farmhouse I could rent at a reasonable price,” Walker said.
His son now owns the same house.
After retiring from the Air Force, Walker kept flying for another two decades, this time as a pilot flying executives from two poultry companies, Showell Farms and Perdue Farms, out of Salisbury, Md.
“I joined the civilian pilots’ association and I even flew for a while with Frank Perdue,” he said.
He retired, again, after his 65th birthday.
“I said, well I’m 65; I haven’t hurt anybody, I haven’t busted anything, I’m going to quit while I’m ahead,” he said, adding, “I do kind of miss it, yes, but on the other hand, I know what can happen, so I got out of it before anything like that happened.”