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Friday, Oct 24, 2014
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Pilot lived his life on a wing and a prayer

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Published:   |   Updated: January 19, 2014 at 08:12 AM

Walter Mitty dreamed. Forrest Gump ran. And Ed Flemister, well, he flew.

“It was my magic carpet ride,” he says of the planes that were the centerpiece of an improbable adventure-packed life. “Maybe more than 30,000 hours in all.”

His passion for aviation gave him a ticket to see the world, but so did his other professions. He was an inventor, a mining engineer, a shrimper, a crop duster, a fisherman, a portrait painter and a photographer.

Spend a few hours with Flemister, and he’ll spin tales of harrowing experiences: two plane crashes, a shipwreck and a factory accident that cost him three fingers.

Then he changes gears and slows the pace. He tenderly reveals how he was grounded in true love. He married his high-school sweetheart and they were together 68 years, until she took her last breath in his arms.

Now he lives alone, missing his beloved Wanda but moving forward.

The Plant City man shares a snippet of his life through Jan. 31 in an exhibit called “The Last Alaskan Bush Pilot” at the John F. Germany Public Library in downtown Tampa, where a few dozen of his vintage paintings and old photographs are on display.

He says there just aren’t enough hours in the day to finish all of his projects.

Most of the time, he’s hunkered down at one of his two computers. Three times a week, he works out at the gym. He can’t fly anymore, but he gets around town in his 1974 Volkswagen Beetle. When he finishes restoring the 1961 Porsche he’s owned since it came off the factory line, he’ll drive that.

A meticulous man, Flemister doesn’t appear to be in any rush. At 97, he’s thoroughly convinced he still has plenty of time left. He pulls out his driver’s license as proof: it doesn’t expire until 2018.

“He’s always thinking five years out,” says his son, Jim, a retired advertising production manager. “And you know what? He’ll get there. Because this is a man who doesn’t give up.”

v v v

Ed Flemister was born on Aug. 24, 1916, on the Blackfoot Indian Reservation in Idaho, exact location undetermined. His birth certificate states only: “Down between the two rivers.”

His father was a farming contractor. “We didn’t have much,” Flemister says. However, he did have a pet coyote. After six years, his mother, who had grown weary of the wind blowing through their two-room house, announced she was moving to Spokane.

Life got better in the big city. His father got a job for $2.50 an hour in the big sawmill, then worked his way up to machinist at a dairy plant.

And Flemister discovered his love for the big flying machines in the sky. He would leave home early in the morning, dashing through fields, scaling fences and climbing over an apricot tree to get to the airport five miles away.

He would sprawl out on the grass, stare up at the planes coming and going, and dream of the day he would pilot his own.

Though the young Flemister was a voracious reader — he says he read the entire World Book encyclopedia set in two years — his grades were just so-so. He, too, became a machinist after graduation, earning 11 cents an hour. Eventually, he became a millwright, working his way up to 35 cents. He was settling in.

But fate had other plans. One early morning, a co-worker switched on the machine Flemister was oiling.

“There’s this head with four knives I’m working on,” he recalls. “Then the machine clicks on and pow! I pull out my hand and it looks like spaghetti.” Only the pinkie and the thumb survived on his right hand.

The company awarded him $900. He knew what he wanted to do with it. He put down $600 and bought his very first plane, a J2 Taylor Cub.

With his missing fingers, Flemister was told the Federal Aviation Administration would never grant him a pilot’s license. That didn’t deter him. He talked a flight instructor into taking him up for a few short rides. After that, he took the controls and taught himself.

“I got the hang of it after a few forced landings,” he says, chuckling.

A stubborn man, he kept badgering the FAA to give him the official test. Finally, he got his transport license, which allowed him to start a passenger and freight service.

And so, the magic carpet ride began. Flemister would own five planes and a myriad of aviation jobs.

During the World War II years, when personal air service was grounded for security reasons, he found ways to keep flying. He worked for the Army Corps of Engineers, flying workers between Canada and Alaska as they surveyed and carved the 1,390-mile Alaska Highway out of the wilderness. He piloted float planes for Star Airlines (now Alaska Airlines), dealing with “unforgiving rivers” and the threat of grizzly bears. And he flew a mail plane that bore an unfortunate resemblance to the Japanese Zero, which caused a bit of a dust-up in Anchorage, given the wartime tension.

“People on the ground saw me 12,000 feet up, going 300 miles an hour. When I set down at Merrill Field, I was greeted by a whole squadron in Jeeps with machine guns,” he says.

He’s accustomed to close calls. There was that crash in the Alaskan wild that damaged his plane’s wings, knocked off the exhaust and bent the propeller. He fixed it himself with heavy-duty tape and 5-quart oil cans, though the return flight was pretty shaky.

Years later, when he moved to South America to work for a Bethlehem Steel mining operation in Venezuela, he had a fiery crash in the Amazon where his plane got caught in the towering canopy of a Saba tree. He managed to slide painfully down the massive trunk, then spent five days trying to find his way out of the jungle. He got his water from the morning condensation on the thick foliage and ate grubs for protein. After walking in circles for a few days, he finally put his engineer’s mind to a plan that would get him out.

“I didn’t want to survive a plane crash just to die in there,” he says.

He had another brush with death on a solo winter fishing trip in Prince William Sound. A fierce wind picked up, sending his wooden vessel into a rocky passageway where he beached it. Then the pounding surf broke the boat to pieces, leaving only an engine.

A Coast Guard cutter happened to be passing by at the moment he was flashing his mirror at the setting sun. A crew member caught a glimpse of the light. They got as close as they could and tossed a life jacket.

“Going into that water was like getting hit in the chest with a sledgehammer,” he says, shuddering.

v v v

Wanda never cared much for flying. Still, she proved to be a great partner for his peripatetic life. She was 15 when she fell for the lanky 18-year-old Flemister, whose destiny as a world traveler was yet to be determined. She had to accept the reality of her husband’s risky career, often standing in airfields counting the planes as they arrived.

Only when she saw his aircraft coming from the distance did she feel at peace.

“She would integrate herself into whatever came next,” he says of his longtime bride. “She was a poet, and she was good with people. And she handled things. I handed her every check I earned, and I could trust her.”

In 2000, while living in Idaho where Flemister worked for a garnet mining company, the couple built a recovery machine he designed that separates black sand from precious metals. To this day, he is convinced that machine could turn a mining venture “into the biggest operation in the world in just two years.” It now sits in a warehouse in Oregon, as he considers ways to market it from his Plant City home.

Jim, their only child, moved his father here when Wanda died nearly three years ago. He says he didn’t realize just how unusual their life was until he was older. “My dad was just a guy making a living, that’s all,” he says. In fact, he didn’t realize how many places they lived until he joined the Navy and needed a list of all his previous addresses.

“My mom put it together, and it came to 33,” he says.

Now his father lives nearby — close enough to keep an eye on him, but far enough to give him his independence. These days, Flemister concentrates on assembling a lifetime of photos he took on his far-flung adventures with an extensive collection of vintage film cameras. His favorite subject is women, close up and personal: a waitress in Peru, a Denver model and a young Guatemalan girl are among the subjects in his display at the library. For current projects, he grudgingly uses a digital camera.

“You have to move with the times,” he says. His ever-present iPad and iPod prove he’s not just giving lip service to progress.

The downside to living so long is “you outlive everyone,” Flemister says. And from a physical standpoint, growing old can be bothersome. He uses a hearing aid and sometimes depends on a cane for support when he walks. He shuns red meat, never smoked a cigarette in his life and rarely drinks.

But on the positive side, he says, these are the greatest years of all.

“I really started to learn things after 85,” he says. “And I’m still learning every day. You’ve gathered all this knowledge and you can put it to work.”

He stops for a moment to collect his thoughts. Then Flemister goes back to what he loves best.

“Let me tell you another story,” he says.

mbearden@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7613

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