Bill Thornberry Selected as Indiana Aviator of the Year for 2011
Earlier this year, the Executive Board of The Indianapolis Air Show unanimously selected Bill Thornberry as 2011 Aviator of the Year. Rod Taylor, Chairman of the Miracle Ride Foundation II, Inc. and founder of The Indianapolis Air Show was thrilled to make the announcement to Bill’s fellow volunteers at a committee meeting. “Bill’s lifetime love of aviation and dedication to his community made him an easy choice for this award. Fifteen years ago, a small group of friends and I had a dream of creating an air show to benefit children’s charities. Bill, an experienced air show performer himself, was one of the first volunteers to step up and make it happen and he’s been with us ever since.”
Bill responded to receiving the award by saying “This is truly an honor. I was in the U.S. Navy and this is especially meaningful since this year we are also celebrating the Centennial of Naval Aviation.” In 1998 at a meeting at Riley Children’s Hospital, Bill was very honored when he was awarded a trophy for “Outstanding Dedication to the Children of Riley Hospital”.
However, he quickly points out to everyone that this is a passion he shares with his wife of twenty-four years, Margie. In fact, in 2005 they both received a plaque that read “Special Award to Margie and Bill Thornberry in appreciation of your many years of dedicated service to the Indianapolis Air Show.” Bill and Margie’s Warbird Hospitality Tent was one of the first tents at the Air Show in the early days. Bill and Margie staffed the tent with friends like Allyn & Jane Beaver, the Finneys, the Marions, the Robbins, Mike Comado, Maurice Hobson and many more. Margie says, “In those days, we didn’t have sponsors to pay for the food. Bill and I believed strongly in showing the performers hospitality, even if we had to pay for it ourselves. In doing so, we built quite a tradition at the Air Show and formed friendships that have lasted a lifetime.”
Bill’s interest in aviation started at an early age when he lived by an airport in Seymour, Indiana. He built and flew model, gas planes and eventually he took flying lessons. Back then it cost only $5 an hour which included the price of the airplane, instructor and fuel. After high school graduation he went to Logansport and worked for Denim Flying Services as a line boy. Bill soloed in a J3CUB on June 25, 1946, and he remembers it like it was yesterday. He would do anything to be surrounded by planes.
After enrolling at Butler University he joined the Navy because he thought he it would be easier to ride a boat around the world rather than walk around the world with the Army. “My Navy was a little different than most imagine – we were called ‘Gaters’. They always say the Marines are the first ones to get sent in to the action during an invasion and I know that to be true…. because the “gaters” hauled the Marines to shore. We were attached to an attack cargo ship named the USS Oglethorpe AKA 100.”
After being released from the Navy in 1954 Bill worked for Olinger Distributing Co, a wholesale liquor dealer. He started in the warehouse, moved up to taking orders and ended up being Vice President and General Manager until the company sold in 1980.
Bill’s knowledge of airplanes is quite impressive but one of the things his friends love about him most is his story-telling. Bill tells a story about an experience at an air show in Clarksville, Indiana years ago. It was a gathering of P51’s and he and Margie were having lunch. Two men were sitting across from them and one of the men kept stealing Margie’s french fries. Several people at the table were staring at Margie and she wondered why. After humoring the man for a few moments she leaned over to Bill and said “Who is that? I wish he would keep his fingers out of my fries.” Bill finally told her that the man stealing the fries was Chuck Yeager and the man sitting next to him was General Patterson. He explained that people were staring because they were impressed that she was sitting with such prominent pilots. Bill teases Margie about that to this day since she didn’t know who Chuck Yeager nor General Patterson were.
In 1970, he bought a cornfield in Westfield, Indiana where he built a home and an airport. Bill named his newly purchased corn field WILDERNESS FIELD because it was so far out you could see no civilization. This airstrip soon became the gathering place for pilots throughout the mid-west. Every weekend there would be pilots flying in for lunch, or a picnic and several times a year a big cookout. That same year, Bill restored a 1943 Military Stinson L5. This plane became very well known in the air show circuits. Bill flew in the first Air Show at Mt. Comfort and has also flown in air shows at OshKosh, Keokuk, Sun and Fun in Florida, at Wright Patterson and many more.
Bill has been restoring and flying aircraft for over 60 years. His 1949 L-17B, a military plane, was used primarily for transporting high ranking officers in World War II. "I bought his plane in Nashville, Tenn. in 1987, and flew it out of there," he says. "It was rough but over the years, I rebuilt it, restored and did all the mechanics.” Thornberry has flown the little World War II plane over more than 40 states, logging more than 7,000 hours in the sky. One of Bill’s proudest moments was in May of 1988 when he flew the groundbreaking ceremony at Indianapolis International Airport for Runway R4/22L.
Bill and Allyn Beaver started the World Wars Aircraft Museum at Mount Comfort Airport (now known as Indianapolis Regional Airport) in 2005. They recently restored a 1939 Piper Vagabond, a small-range plane with a fabric shell. The plane was found in a barn in Kentucky nearly 25 years ago. Although restoring, flying and maintaining a plane can be expensive, Thornberry scoffs at the suggestion that flying is a "rich man’s game.”
"What I like about flying is the feeling of being up in the air by yourself," Bill says. "You’re up there by yourself and no one is bothering you. It’s like you’re on your own, it’s just you and you’re responsible for yourself – your life is in your own hands, and it’s just you. That’s what I like."
One of Bill’s friends, Kevin Lollar who is a long-time Air Show volunteer who works at Fed Ex, can speak personally to Bill’s “life is in your own hands” statement. A few years ago, Kevin was invited by Jeff McGuire and Bill Klungle to participate in an “air parade”. Four of Thornberry’s warbird pilot friends would fly in formation the Friday before the air show from Mt. Comfort Airport to downtown Indy and back to promote the event. “It was my first ride in the air parade and I was so excited that Jeff got us hooked up. I was snapping pictures and enjoying the view when oil started to show up on the canopy. Our pilot first thought it was coming from Thornberry’s plane as he was right above us. As we kept flying it kept getting worse and the pilot let Bill know what was going on. Thornberry quickly sprang into action by clearing the radio and alerting the airport to potential trouble.
As our canopy got more oil on it and it was harder to see Bill moved his plane to our left and we flew in formation. There was just a small area on each side of the plane, like the old vent windows on old cars. That small space is all that our pilot could see through to follow Bill’s plane to get us down safely. I can tell you I was scared to death as I am not a pilot and I had no idea if we could get back to Mt Comfort before the engine locked up. The last few minutes in the air seemed like hours to me. I had put my camera back in the bag and stuffed it way under the seat and I kept looking at my feet waiting to touch down or hit the ground. The landing was very smooth and you would not have known there was an issue until you saw all the oil on the plane. Along with our pilot’s skill, I credit Thornberry with saving our lives.
Bill’s quiet calmness on the radio helped keep us calm in the plane. He just did what comes natural to a true leader. He took control of the situation and followed his instincts to bring us back alive. I consider myself very lucky to know Bill & Margie as they are a great team and love this show we put on each year. I work hard to be like them every year as they never slow down from what I can see. They both make people feel special and loved no matter what you bring to the table. On behalf of all your friends at the Air Show and in the community, Congratulations Bill.”
For more information contact:
Kerrie Henderson, Media Relations, 317-813-0180
Beth Vahle, Operations Manager, 317-335-7252
Bob Duncan, 2010 Air Show Chairman, 317-487-5004