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After flying through three wars, Bartow native, 86, still gets off the ground

Art North remembers when his love affair with flight began. It was 1943, aboard a PBY Catalina flying with a submarine patrol crew.

For the young Bartow native, the thrill of his first airplane ride would last the rest of his life.

"When you take that first flight, you're hooked," North said.

Now 86, North has earned his sport pilot's license and fuses his passion with support for those who can no longer fly an aircraft. For him, Memorial Day will serve as a time to honor those who died in the line of duty and to reflect on his own role as a veteran.

"If you go by my house now, you will see an American flag flying," North said.

His military service spanned three wars. He first joined the Coast Guard at 17 with a signed parent permission. He would later join the Merchant Marines, then serve with the aviation division of the Army during the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Through each war he braved the threat of enemy attacks. In the Coast Guard, he witnessed the awful realities of war for the first time, serving as a convoy escort that protected military supply transports between New York and England.

"It was so bad when you saw ships being blown up, sometimes every night," North said. "If a ship in the convoy was sunk, no one could stop to pick them up because you'd be a perfect target — dead in the water."

He notes the stark difference between what his young eyes saw then and what his grandson sees today.

"I look at my 19-year-old grandson and I see a kid. At 17 I was a man."

After a stint with the Merchant Marines, he joined the Army and officials assigned him to aircraft maintenance. He worked to keep the aircraft flying even if it meant working on engines in subzero temperatures in Korea that nearly froze his hands.

His technical savvy moved him into a maintenance supervisor position and later elevated him to an instructor, teaching how to work on the Army's newest flying machines.

He remembers going into Saigon with the first Huey helicopters, and testing Harriers along with anything else that went up vertically.

In Vietnam, helicopters would swoop in on "dust offs" to quickly pick up wounded soldiers, occasionally returning with more than 50 bullet holes. There were no armor plates and the soldiers used flak jackets in their seats for protection from enemy fire.

"They'd wait until you were sitting on the ground to blow you up," North said.

Through it all his love of country and flying remained.

He later married Caridad, whom he proposed to several times before giving in to his requests. The story of his unyielding love for Caridad reflects his persistence.

The couple raised a son and daughter. After he retired from the military, he worked at the University of South Florida with campus police. Through the years, the Temple Terrace resident became a grandfather to four.

After 50 years of marriage, Caridad passed away. After her death, he decided he wanted to get back into the sky again.

This time there would be no enemy firing at him.

He enrolled in flight school and got certified with a sport pilot rating. Different from a standard pilot's license, it does not require instrument training but restricts its pilots to daytime flying with only one passenger. The plane must also weigh less than 1,300 pounds.

Mike Zidziunas, a flight instructor at the Plant City Airport, said North holds the record for being his oldest student. North co-owns a 1946 Ercoupe plane named the Silver Lady. He also has a thing for motorcycles. He owns four of them.

"He's quite a character," Zidziunas said. "I remember the day he rode in on his motorcycle. He was very enthusiastic about getting his license."

Zidziunas noted that North, like many men who enter into retirement years, realized a dream by getting his flying license.

"I think he represented many of the guys who walk through my doors," Zidziunas said. "As soon as they get married the flying dream takes a second priority to their families' needs and expenses.

"I really believe flying is their unrealized dream realized. They're in the cockpit and it's something they always wanted. With Art I think it was always his secret dream."

While some might scoff at the thought of an 86-year-old pilot flying a plane, Zidziunas said North has logged more than 400 hours of flying time since his certification about four years ago. He notes that most recreational pilots log roughly 50 hours per year. He also gives his former student high marks in being a careful and responsible pilot.

"He's got a healthy respect for safety. He knows his limitations and he doesn't push it."

As a member of the Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 175, he is a regular at meetings in the Plant City and Tampa Executive airports. He delights in taking up first-time flying enthusiasts with the association's Young Eagles youth group.

North also gives flying experiences to individuals from a group called the Bald Eagles. It's a flying club he chartered to offer retired pilots who could no longer fly an opportunity to still get up in the air as a passenger.

North makes friends easily with a memory that doesn't forget names or details. He fits in well with the younger generation with a somewhat faded Coast Guard insignia tattoo on his left arm. He talks on a smartphone, and owns an iPad.

He swipes proudly through photos showing off family and friends, and of course those four motorcycles. Among his younger friends is Mick Webb, a 27-year-old mechanic apprentice who works at Tampa Executive and has taken many flights with North.

Each time he has felt complete confidence in the man behind the controls.

"There's a saying among pilots," Webb said. "There are old pilots and there are bold pilots. There are no old, bold pilots."

North walks briskly across the tarmac in his tall, straight stride. If you ask what his secret to youth is, he'll smile widely and tell you good beer.

As he climbs into his plane, leaving the window open so he can feel the wind on his face, you know the secret. It's the Silver Lady and the blue sky.

Belinda Kramer can be reached at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

After flying through three wars, Bartow native, 86, still gets off the ground 05/26/12 [Last modified: Saturday, May 26, 2012 5:30am]

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