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92-year-old Air Force veteran still finds time to soar

Dodson Graybeal has had an eventful life in the air. In World War II, he and his B-24 crew flew 30 missions over Germany. In the 1950s, he flew into typhoons and hurricanes on a regular basis, which is another tough way to make a living.

More than 60 years later, Graybeal’s time in the air is not over.

The Bath resident, who will turn 93 on July 28, is still a pilot. On his 90th birthday, he did three takeoffs and landings. Six months ago, he flew with Aberdeen opthamologist Dr. John Bormes. On the day Graybeal turns 93, he plans to make a couple of landings with another pilot.

Graybeal, who retired from the Air Force as a colonel, obviously loves flying. 

“You have to accept, first of all, discipline,” said Graybeal, describing what makes a good pilot. “You have to stay calm, cool and collected at all times. You have to be willing to take instruction. That’s important. And I think you have to love flying.”

Nuclear test

Graybeal stayed calm in 1956 when he was flying close to an explosion as part of the Operation Redwing nuclear test project. Piloting a B-50 38,000 feet in the air, he was gathering readings about the detonation when the plane’s hydraulic system blew out.

If he hadn’t survived, of course, you wouldn’t be reading about Graybeal, who has lived in Bath since 2007.

He’s been coming to this area to hunt and fish for 10 or 15 years. While living in Arizona, Graybeal met a few folks from South Dakota — Harley, Arvin and Norman Taylor and Dr. Jerome Eckrich. They invited Graybeal to South Dakota to hunt and fish. 

“I enjoyed it so much I just moved up here,” said Graybeal, who grew up on what he describes as a “hardscrabble farm” in Taylor County, Ky.

He joined the Army Air Corps in September 1942, after two years in the Civilian Conservation Corps. He retired from the Air Force, the successor to the Army Air Corps, in 1973. While some of that time was spent in the Reserves, he did 26 years of active duty.

As a young pilot, he spent a year in England at an air base in Seething, which is near Norwich in Norfolk.

His experience in World War II was just average, he says. 

“I was never particularly scared. I was never in doubt of what our job or our mission was. And I always looked forward to the next day and the next mission,” he said.

His crew totaled nine, in addition to him. Yes, their B-24 was shot at.

“I never had a man wounded, and I brought them all back alive,” he said.

Chasing storms

Later, Graybeal was one of the early pilots selected for a group known as hurricane hunters and typhoon chasers. The outfit was the Air Force’s 514th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron. He spent much of that time living in Guam. In a 1951 story he penned for a magazine called Blue Book, Graybeal wrote that he had flown into the eye of more than a dozen typhoons.

The pilot’s job was to gather information about the high-powered storms, including their direction, temperature, pressure and velocity.

Graybeal didn’t have any serious trouble. But the 10 members of his crew perished in a B-29 flight piloted by his best friend in the Philippines. No sign of that plane was ever found.

He was also based in Sacramento, Calif., for weather reconnaissance work.

The list of aircraft Graybeal has flown is long, including the B-29, B-32, C-119, C-46, C-130 and C-97. The plane he enjoyed most was the C-97, which was smooth, comfortable and easy to fly, he said.

In the air

Graybeal didn’t want a reporter to make a fuss over him. 

“I’m just a regular guy, I hope,” said Graybeal, whose friends call him Dod.

We have to report a few highlights, though:

• During the first two years of the Korean War, he instructed B-29 pilots at Randolph Air Force Base at San Antonio, Texas.

• He graduated from Air War College in Montgomery, Ala.

• From 1959 to 1965, he was commander of Wold-Chamberlain Air Force Base in Minnesota.

• He also served as commander of the 305th Air Rescue Squadron at Selfridge Air Force Base near Mount Clemens, Mich. 

• During the Vietnam War, he worked three and a half years at the Pentagon as adviser to the deputy commander for personnel for Reserve and Air National Guard Affairs.

• From 1954 to 1956, Graybeal was the personal pilot for Gen. John D. Howe, who was later commander of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. They traveled in a C-54, which civilians know as a DC-4.

“The military was good to me, and I think I was good for the military,” said Graybeal, whose daughter, Midge, lives in Lake Oswego, Ore.

On the ground

Every summer, Graybeal goes on a fishing trip to Ontario with Eckrich, a retired urologist, and another Aberdeen resident, Ka Squire.

“He’s a remarkable individual,” said Eckrich, noting that Graybeal came from humble beginnings and retired as a “full-bird colonel.”

Eckrich describes Graybeal as a man with great intellect and a strong desire for learning. “He’s probably one of the most intrinsically smartest people I’ve ever met.”

Graybeal is a master woodworker and a vegetable gardener, “growing any kind of vegetable you could think of,” Squire said. He’s “fed about half of Aberdeen with the vegetables.”

He also loves to can. Those who visit him often “walk out of there with a jar of something or other,” Squire said.

Graybeal is also a very good cook. “And he liked to cook exotic dishes, not just hamburger and beans,” Squire said.

“He’s such a neat guy. He’s such a kind person, and he would do anything. He’d give you the shirt off his back,” Squire said.

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