Glendive pilot has been flying for more than 60 years

Sunday, September 1, 2019
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Bill Stebbins was honored with the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award on Monday night. The award is reserved for pilots who have had a license for 50 years or more.

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Chad Knudson photo

Jeff Vercoe from the Federal Aviation Administration presented Bill Stebbins with the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award on Tuesday.

Moving from person to person and table to table the question was repeated several times: “Does anyone know why I’m here?”

Bill Stebbins kept asking as he wandered around the county hangar at the Dawson Community Airport Tuesday evening, but no one was answering.

He wasn’t lost or suffering a senior moment, and all of the other thirty or so people, – mostly family and fellow pilots – knew exactly why Bill was there.

In part he was there because it is the most natural place to find a man who has been flying for more than 60 years. But more importantly he was there to receive the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award.

The award is reserved for those few pilots who have had a license in good standing for 50 or more years. With 13,000 hours in the air since he started flying in the army in 1955, Stebbins is if anything over qualified for the award.

After a hearty meal, cake and ice cream and lots of handshakes and smiles, Jeff Vercoe from the Federal Aviation Administration finally shared the secret with a stunned Stebbins.

“This is unbelievable. I can’t imagine this,” Stebbins said.

If that were true, he was the only one in the hanger who couldn’t.

Stebbins entered active duty in the Army in 1955 after earning a mechanical engineering degree from the South Dakota School of Mining and Technology.

He trained in fixed wing aircraft at Gary Air Force Base in San Marcos, Texas and later completed advanced fixedwing and helicopter training at Fort Rucker in Alabama.

Recalling a favorite flying story from his time in the service, Stebbins described a snafu the likes of which are legendary in the U.S. Army.

A brigadier general needed to get from Ft. Carson to the University of Denver. Stebbins would use his helicopter to transport the general’s aide and a fellow pilot would take the general on the short trip from south of Colorado Springs to Lowry Air Force Base east of Denver.

It was a snowy day and Stebbins worried about flight conditions, but the other pilot was confident.

With the general’s helicopter taking the lead, Stebbins reluctantly took to the cloudy winter skies.

“I’d already lost him a mile out of Ft. Carson. The weather was that bad,” Stebbins recalled.

He repeatedly radioed ahead asking about conditions.

“I wanted to turn around,” he said.

Time and again came the reply “it’s okay.”

Despite the assurances Stebbins thought he should abort the trip.

“I said ‘if you see a place to land, we’re parking this sucker,’” he said. “I felt we were building ice.”

Eventually Stebbins and his fellow lieutenant broke through to clearer weather and made it safely to Lowry. But where was the general?

It turns out as Stebbins and the aide sipped coffee in the warm confines of the base, the general’s helicopter had crashed and the general was busy trudging through knee deep snow trying to find someplace to call for help.

Stebbins’ instincts had been correct, it was too dangerous to fly that day. That didn’t do much to lighten the general’s mood, but those instincts have gotten Stebbins safely back on the ground for six decades now.

Stebbins left the army in 1958, but his flying career was just getting started. From 1959 until 1993 he worked for Montana-Dakota Utilities and then Williston Basin Interstate Pipeline, where he flew thousands of miles of pipeline in a variety of fixed wing and rotary aircraft to help inspect and maintain the pipeline’s cathodic protection.

With so much time in the air, it is perhaps not surprising that Stebbins was airborne during some major historic events.

One November day while piloting a Cessna from Glendive to Riverton, Wyo.he noticed very unusual radio transmissions. When he finally contacted the flight service station in Worland, Wyo. he discovered that President Kennedy had been assassinated.

On Sept. 11, 2001, as the world watched in horror and planes were grounded across the country, Stebbins was flying between Bowman, N.D. and Glendive, oblivious to the fact that all national airspace was completely shut down.

Over the years Stebbins has contributed to search and rescue operations and countless other flights to help those in need.

In the 1980s he and his helicopter airlifted food and supplies into Makoshika to sustain a youth group stranded at the Lion’s camp by heavy rains and washed out roads.

Stebbins has spent 50 years based at the Dawson Community Airport – he was the last pilot to fly out of the old airport and the first to use the current one when it was finished in 1969 – and since 2015 has served as the assistant airport manager there.

“It’s been a privilege and a pleasure working with you and I hope you can stick around for a lot more years,” Airport Manager Craig Hostetler said.

Stebbins continues to fly his Cessna 172 on a regular basis, but does so somewhat reluctantly.

“I like the helicopter,” he said. “If Craig and I had a helicopter you could have the airplane!” he said waving dismissively at his nearby Cessna. “I’d rather fly helicopters.”

As Stebbins humbly accepted his award, the respect and admiration for the man and his endurance was clear on the faces of the people gathered to honor him.

“I’ve always said when I get too old to fly, I’m giving my plane to Bill,” said one fellow pilot more than 20 years Stebbins’ junior.

If only it were a helicopter Stebbins might accept it.

Reach Chad C. Knudson