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Chester County Press

Landenberg native receives prestigious aviation honor

01/05/2021 03:26PM ● By Richard Gaw

By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer

Often, the start of a lifetime journey owes itself to the most humble beginnings, and for William E. “Bill” Stuefer, the life that he would lead as a pilot began on the grassy strip of a makeshift flight runway in Oxford, Pennsylvania.

The story of Stuefer’s life in aviation – which recently culminated in his being awarded one of the most prestigious awards in the industry – began in Landenberg. Born in 1944, Stuefer grew up in a stone house built in 1817 along Strickersville Road near the Big Elk Creek. While he would often spend his childhood summers swimming in the creek, his love affair with the sky above had already begun to manifest itself.

“I attended kindergarten in Wilmington, and one day, someone brought a big pile of wood to the class, and I decided that I would make a toy airplane from the wood that was given to me,” Stuefer recalled. “Soon after, I began to build and fly those little ethanol-powered toy planes that I would make from kits. It really started me on a journey that I’m still on.”

Stuefer’s fascination with flying machines continued to develop, but in order to know the full experience of flight, he would have to find a way to somehow get off the ground. He graduated from Avon Grove High School in 1962, and when he was 21, he took his first flight lessons with a registered pilot in Oxford and after absorbing every kernel of knowledge he could while sitting in the passenger seat, his teacher let his student loose on the skies. 

“After about seven hours of flight instruction, he parks the plane,” Stuefer said. “He gets out and turns back to me, and says, ‘You’re on your own now. Take off.’ I did my first solo flight in a Piper Colt high-wing aircraft, and the entire runway was just a dirt strip with one hangar and a few sheds around it.

“It was a feeling of exhilaration when I got to fly the plane for the first time. Everything I dreamed of when I was a kid was suddenly and finally coming to fruition.”

What began humbly in Chester County led to a 55-year career in aviation. In November, Stuefer received the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Instituted in 2003, the award is given annually to a select group of pilots who have practiced safe flight operations continuously for 50 or more years during the course of their aviation careers.

Nominations are submitted by a formal application that must be accompanied by three letters of recommendation from other FAA-certified pilots, attesting to the nominee's record. To date, about 2,500 pilots have received the award.

“It’s a very great honor to pilot for that many years without ever having a violation or aircraft accident, and aviation has been a big part of my life for 55 years, so this recognition means a lot to me,” Stuefer said.

While his initiation to flying may have started on a dusty runway in Oxford, Stuefer’s interest in aviation later took him to Oklahoma and Texas, where he received his commercial pilot’s license to fly fixed-winged aircraft. In the mid-1960s, he enlisted as a pilot in the U.S. Army, and after receiving advanced helicopter training at Fort Rucker in Alabama, he flew a gas-turbine helicopter in the Vietnam War as a member of the 11th Armored Cavalry.

During his tour of duty in Vietnam, Stuefer performed medical evacuations, long-range reconnaissance patrols and ammunition re-supply missions. After spending an additional two years flying helicopters for the U.S. Army in Germany and fulfilling his four-year term of service, Stuefer returned to the U.S. and went into a career in banking. In 1970, he met and married his wife – with whom he recently celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary – and became the father of two girls.

While Stuefer managed to fly planes on his own during this time, the pilot, however, was restless. Eventually, he began training to become an airship pilot, and flew the Seaworld airship “Shamu” for four and-a-half years. The blimp was seen at major sporting events around the country – over the World Series, the Super Bowl and the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament.

“Shamu was two-thirds the length of a football field, and 67 feet high at the tail fin, and we flew it all over the United States,” he said. “Our bases were in Kissimmee, Florida and Stockton, California, which involved a three-week trip between bases.

“Take-offs were pretty routine, but no two landings are ever the same on an airship. It becomes seat-of-the-pants landing, and my helicopter training proved very valuable in landing the airship because an airship tends to land very similar to a helicopter. Normally, there would be up to a dozen people on the ground helping me land it.”

Now retired, Stuefer is the owner and operator of a 1,500-acre pine tree farm in Eufaula, Ala., and still manages to fly a Cessna out of his local airport, and does his best to keep up with his former classmates back in Chester County.

“It’s pretty exciting even now to get up in an airplane and fly,” he said. “It’s a feeling of excitement, especially in the smaller planes where you have to be in control of the plane.

I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to fly that many aircraft, to have enjoyed all of it, and be able to do something I had always wanted to do, from the time I was kindergarten.”

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].