In 1954, 10-year-old George Galo took his first ride in an airplane. His father had been stationed in the Panama Canal Zone with the Navy for two years, and on their way back to Norfolk, they flew in a Lockheed Constellation. The pilot took notice of George sitting with his mother and invited him into the cockpit.
George sat in the left seat and gazed at the instruments the pilot used to maneuver the propeller-driven plane. He watched as clouds up ahead cast circular shadows on the ocean below. The pilot pushed a button. They zoomed through the clouds with ease.
George knew then: That's what he wanted to do.
Sunday, he'll receive the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award for fulfilling a boyhood dream. In the place where his career began, Hampton Roads Executive Airport, he'll join a list of fewer than 3,000 pilots who have flown without violations or crashes for 50 years or more.
He calls it the achievement of a lifetime. It's also the story of a generation.
While attending Old Dominion University after graduating from Deep Creek High School in 1962, George worked as a meat cutter at a grocery store. One of his frequent customers was a naval aviator; the gold wings on the officer's jacket caught his eye. George boasted that his father was in the Navy and he, too, was going to be a pilot.
The man offered to introduce George to Curtis Eads, a local flight instructor, and they met a week later on June 15, 1963.
They went up in an Aeronca 7AC Champ, and Eads encouraged George to handle the controls. Once again he was free of the ground, soaring with the birds. When they landed, Eads took out his logbook and wrote George's name on a line.
"That was your first flying lesson," he said.
Eads didn't charge for the initial one, but subsequent hourlong lessons cost more than five times the $1.25 George earned per hour at the grocery store. It took him six months to earn enough flying time for his first solo flight, which he completed on Dec. 8 at Hampton Roads Executive Airport.
George didn't become a licensed student pilot until September 1965, but the hours spent with Eads in the meantime forged a deep friendship, and George began to view him as a second father.
During one particularly trying lesson on landings, Eads put his hand on George's shoulder.
"George, you need to find you a blonde," he joked.
George knew he would need a wide array of experience if he wanted to do a life's work in aviation. He joined the Army in June 1966 and became a helicopter pilot. A year earlier, President Lyndon Johnson had ordered 100,000 American combat troops to Vietnam, and another 100,000 were on their way.
After completing flight school, George transitioned to the Boeing CH-47 Chinook cargo helicopter and was assigned to the Geronimos - the 205th Assault Support Helicopter Company.
He was granted a month of leave before deploying, so he went up to Vermont to visit his grandmother. There, he became reacquainted with a 21-year-old he had met at his sister's wedding two years before. He ended up spending more time with her than his grandmother. Two weeks before leaving for Vietnam in September 1967, he proposed to his blonde - Shirley.
She said she would wait for him, and he promised to write to her.
Being a patriot came easy to George; any sense of assurance that he would come home alive did not.
The conflict he found himself a part of wasn't the type of war his father had fought in the Pacific more than 20 years before.
He rarely flew his helicopter higher than 1,500 feet. He was in danger even outside enemy territory. The terrified 21-year-old lived day to day.
"I woke up every morning knowing it would be my last," he said.
Twice during the year-long tour, his helicopter was forced down by hostile fire. Each time, he was protected by other helicopters. He made it back with 1,400 combat flight hours in his book.
Ten days after he returned, he and Shirley married. With George at the controls of a Piper Cherokee PA-28-140, they flew to Florida for their honeymoon.
When the time came for a second tour in 1970, the couple had a child. He decided to pursue civilian aviation instead of risking his life again.
After teaching flight school at two colleges in upstate New York and flying with the Virginia State Police, George joined the Federal Aviation Administration in 1986 as an inspector. He worked his way up the ladder to supervisor and, eventually, manager of the FAA's Washington Flight Standards District Office at Dulles Airport.
On Sept. 11, 2001, George was leading a staff meeting when he was interrupted by a phone call from an inspector. He told his assistant he would call the man back later. The inspector called again.
A plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.
His team crowded around the radio and listened as a plane smashed into the South Tower. He thought a war had begun. It was another type of warfare he wasn't prepared for. He wondered what would happen next.
At 9:43 a.m., the Pentagon was hit.
By 10 a.m., George had a team on their way to the scene to begin the investigation. They were the first ones from the FAA there.
For 18 days straight, the team rotated shifts as they sifted through debris. The 53 employees under George's leadership were in charge of recovering and identifying all parts of the Boeing 757 wreckage.
"They did a great job. They all worked so hard," he said.
In 2004, George retired from the FAA but his love for aviation persists.
Now 69, he flies recreationally. He has no list of places he wants to see or milestones he'd like to hit. He just likes being airborne.
"I'll fly as long as they let me."
Mary Beth Cleavelin, 757-222-5561, firstname.lastname@example.org