From Youngest Navy Pilot to Oldest Meyers Pilot, Chuck Downey Makes a Lasting Impression

July 8th, 2015

Chuck Downey is an extraordinary man.  A month shy of 91, he has lived an amazing life, and continues to add memorable accomplishments to it almost daily.  It’s just unlikely you’ll hear much about them.  Certainly not from him. He almost got away with “sneaking” into  Augusta, Kansas for the annual Meyers Aircraft Fly-In on the last weekend of June and leaving without anyone noticing…until some of his friends among the other Meyers owners decided he deserved a little more attention.

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In 1960, he had purchased a Meyers OTW (#41), so when he flew into Augusta Airport in one at the age of 91, his colleagues convinced him to speak at a Pancake Breakfast as part of the Meyers Fly-In event.  Still a force to be reckoned with, Captain Downey can recount details of a  dramatic career in aviation and he actually loves to talk about it, and his military career and love for aviation which began age three when, he says, he remembers Lindbergh’s dramatic flight.

He was actually the youngest man ever to earn his Navy wings, but one of his contemporaries got more attention and, to this day, is credited with that distinction.  That’s  because he was the son of a US Senator, head of the CIA, and later, the 41st President of the United States–a fairly high profile job!  When he was shot down by the Japanese during World War II and fished out of the Pacific by a submarine George H. W. Bush made it into the headlines, but the enduring story, thanks to newsreel footage from the incident which showed the youthful son of the Senator being rescued, was that he was just a kid when he got his Navy wings.  In fact, the media reports said, he was the youngest pilot ever to be signed off to fly by the Navy, still 3 days shy of his 19th birthday, when he was commissioned.

But, Chuck S. Downey was 11 days younger than  the future president when he got his Navy wings at just about the same time.  He actually became the US Navy’s youngest pilot in World War II and later went on to become its youngest Captain, when he was promoted to that rank in 1963.  He was only 39 years old.  Unfortunately for Chuck, he didn’t have quite the same pedigree or PR machine, so his accomplishments went virtually unnoticed.

That is, until Mr. Bush, himself, became aware of them while Vice President.  When his staff was researching a project about his naval service they sought to verify the conventional wisdom that he was, in fact, the Navy’s youngest aviator.  Captain Downey, responded with a letter pointing out that he was, in fact, 11 days younger when he received his wings.  When the then VP found out, he sent him a congratulatory letter–on White House stationery–that said, “You’ve got me by 11 days!  Congrats and thanks for your service!”

When GlobalParts.aero bought the type certificates and manufacturing rights to the Meyers Aircraft last year, they invited the owners group to hold their annual Fly-in in Augusta this year so they could see GlobalParts.aero’s operations.  Captain Downey is the oldest member of the owners group.  He flew the Meyers OTW he bought  in 1960 until 2 years ago.  He decided he wanted to come to this year’s gathering so he hitched a ride with a fellow OTW owner and regaled the group with his exploits and memories  for 45 minutes on June 27, recounting how he recalled listening with his family at age 3 as Lindbergh’s landing in Paris was broadcast on the radio.  It began his fascination with flying which persisted throughout his youth and led to his enlistment in the Navy at 18.  He flew Helldiver Dive Bombers in the Pacific during the war and was stationed aboard the USS Ticonderoga when it was hit on two separate occasions by Japanese kamikaze planes.  He survived those experiences and his own close calls in combat before the end of the conflict, not to mention 5 forced landings during the course of a flying career that spans more than 70 years, in excess of  8,500 hours and logging time in nearly 50 different aircraft types from biplanes to jet airliners.

Refusing to be deterred, or even slowed down, seems to be the key to Captain Downey’s longevity and energetic approach to life.  These days he splits his time between his home in Poplar Grove, Illinois and Florida and though the old Naval aviator isn’t logging hours in his airplane these days, he’s staying true to his Naval heritage by joining a local Yacht Club in Florida where he puts his considerable knowledge of navigation and seamanship to good use.  Captain Downey remains an exceptional, vibrant example of the rapidly dwindling Greatest Generation.  He literally dropped out of the sky into the Augusta for the Meyers Fly-in weekend…and it proved to be a special treat for Meyers owners and the folks at GlobalParts.aero who got to spend some time with him!