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Cleland McBurney recalls 50 years of flying
Cleland McBurney has flown all over the world, but he has always called Kansas home. As a Navy pilot he logged more than 5,000 hours of flight time, and went from Antarctica to Alaska and many points in between.
Last week, during the Kingman Fly In he was given the prestigious Wright Brothers Master Pilot award, which is given to people with at least 50 years of experience in aviation with a good record.
The local airport advisory board nominated him, and he said he was not really aware of the award before then. He found out about it when the flight safety office in Wichita wanted to see his flight records - things like number of airs flown and those type statistics.
"I was pleasantly surprised when I found out I was being considered I was floored really," he said.
He joined the Navy in 1952, after graduating Newton High School, and spent 20 years flying or otherwise involved in aviation around the world while in the service. He has 5,000 hours of flying in the Navy and a grand total of 6,230 hours.
He has also been heavily involved with flight safety and he said he felt that was the main reason for his being given the award.
"It really is more or less a flight safety award," he said.
In all those years of flying he never had a crash landing, but he flew mostly multi-engine aircraft. More than once he has had one of the engines fail, but other engines kept running and he was able to land safely in those instances.
McBurney loves flying. He said it is a "wonderful feeling to be at the controls of an airplane."
Growing up in Newton he was not particularly interested in flying, but after he joined the Navy he applied for aviation school and was accepted.
After enlisting and completing boot camp in 1952 he was accepted to enter the flight training in Pensacola, Fla. It was not until he got through that program that he was hooked on flying. After about two years of that, he said he had found a career and he has never regretted that choice.
"From that point on it was pure joy. I knew then I had a career to pursue," he said.
In early 1953 he started training in single-engine airplanes called "warbirds" and these were the basic U.S. military flight training aircraft.
Later on his class split into two groups, one was for single engine planes like jet aircraft, and the other was multi-engine larger airplanes. He chose the latter and was set to Hutchinson to learn more about flying larger airplanes.
In 1954 he got his commission and his wings, officially becoming a pilot. He flew four-engine planes like the b24 bomber planes that had been used in World War II.
His first deployment in that type aircraft was to Guam, and was part of the early warning squadron. This was literally a hair raising experience, as they tracked typhoons, which is what hurricanes are called in the southern hemisphere. They would literally fly into a typhoon at about 500 feet above the ocean, and scout the inside of the storm. Inside the storm, in the eye, it is calm, he said.
They were flying into storms with 150 knot winds, and it would shake and rattle the airplane.
Pilots began as navigators, and that is what he was doing during these patrols into major storms in the south Pacific. He worked his way up to plane commander before leaving Guam.
From there he went to Widby Island in Washington at the Naval air station there, where he was involved in survival training for pilots. This was also a time of great advances in technology, and they were involved in radar detection and were involved in electronic counter measures. The big airplanes they flew were a type of electronic classroom, in addition to the survival training they did with pilots.
He became a flight instructor t hen and went to Corpus Christi, Texas to do flight training. They landed the multi engine planes on aircraft carriers in the late 1950s.
From there he went to the end of the earth. He took an assignment in the Antarctic as part of Operation Deep Freeze. It was there he got involved in air traffic control. He was part of the navy when they made the transition from landing aircraft by having someone in the control tower talk the pilot down, to using more fancy electronic equipment.
It was there he developed a specialization in air traffic control, and in 1960 he returend to Kansas to study methods of control tower operation in Olathe.
Before there were instrument landing systems, like those in use today, more radar was used to help pilots land planes.
When they were landing big cargo planes in Antarctica, the use of ground control was the only way to get a plane like that landed.
For a time McBurney was in charge of the runway there in Antarctica and about 2,200 miles from New Zealand. In Antarctica there is no sunshine for about three months. The sun returns in August, and in September planes could land again.
After that assignment he was transferred to Rhode Island where he again used airplanes to patrol large areas. In this case he was looking for submarines. It was part of the nation's defense to have an anti-submarine force, and patrolling the seas by air was a way to find them, just so the armed forces knew where submarines from other countries might be.
During these years of the early to mid 60s, they were on the cutting edge of the use of radar technology for things like hunting submarines, and keeping an eye out for Russian airplanes that might be snooping around.
He was assigned to the USS Essex, which was the first of the Essex Class carriers.
His career then turned to Phoenix Arizona, where he went to work at a Naval plane storage area. At the time there was one for the Navy in Phoenix and one in Tucson as well. At that time the powers that be combined them and moved the operation to Tucson.
During these years he flew the DC-3 type aircraft, which is his favorite plane to have flown. It carried 36 passengers, or a good bit of cargo, and was a long range plane. McBurney said that aircraft could fly from Phoenix to Florida and still had plenty of fuel left to fly to Washington, D.C., but they still topped off the tanks just to be safe.
In the late 1960s he went to Vietnam for two tours of duty aboard another aircraft carrier, in this case it was the USS Intrepid. While there he was the company combat information officer, in charge of radios that controlled flights onto and off of the ship. Today the USS Intrepid is a museum in New York.
After being part of a war effort, he closed out his career with a nice sting in Naples, Italy. He was again flying the DC-3, and flew cargo and passengers all around the Mediterranean area.
In 1972 he left the Navy with 20 years in the service and moved to a small town of Waterloo in Kingman County. He went to work as a fuel representative for Production Credit Association.
He got an itch to fly again, and to have some adventure again, a few years later. He got interested in salmon fishing in Alaska, and in 1977 got his commercial fishing license. He used an older airplane, a 1948 Stinson, to "commute" from Kingman to Alaska. The trip would take for or five days. He liked that airplane because it was small and rugged, and could land almost anywhere. There are places in Alaska where there are no roads, so the only way to get there is to fly, and the Stinson was great for that type of flying.
He did that for five years or so, heading up to Alaska each year when the salmon were running or about six weeks each year. At first they used an old boat, but later got one built by a company in Seattle. That adventure went really well, but he decided to stick around Kingman more.
He and a partner started a flight service out of the Kingman airport, flying a six passenger Piper aircraft. Their main customers were funeral homes, and the transported bodies to various places. That adventure lasted into the early 1980s. He stopped doing that after they had an engine failure in Colorado. He was still able to land the plane, but that was the end of that operation, he said.
The Kingman airport had a paved runway in those days, and has expanded since then. McBurney called it one of the best small airports in Kansas.
His last official job in aviation was as a flight safety instructor in Wichita for business jets. He still flew some privately after that, but that was when he finished his career. He had a small Cessna airplane he flew for himself for several years after that.
He was born in Halstead in 1932, but grew up mostly in Newton. He said he always wanted to return to Kansas, and his wife had family in Kingman and that was the reason they settled there.
"I have been many places around the world, but always wanted to come back to Kansas," he said.
Now McBurney is retired, He has some farm investments and owns some other properties. He still enjoys traveling, but most of that is by car these days. He loved flying planes, but never was too fond of being a passenger on commercial airplanes.
Reflecting over his years in the air, and in Kansas, McBurney said he has enjoyed it all a lot.
"If I was 60 years younger I would do the same thing," he said.