With more than 11,000 hours of flying under his belt and more than 400 pupils he’s helped at some stage in their flying career, many Lynchburg-area pilots consider Bob Walker to be a fixture in the local aviation community.
“He’s a very gracious man, he’s very calm in the cockpit … he’s very knowledgeable and he has a great, friendly but firm way of not only instructing but correcting,” Dave Young, retired dean of Liberty University’s School of Aeronautics said.
It was with those qualities and Walker’s legacy as an instructor in mind that Young and others organized a flyover in his honor late last month. They set it up as a surprise: Walker said a friend and former pupil was in need of a flight instrument check for insurance purposes and called him out to Lynchburg Regional Airport on Jan. 30 to help.
But Walker was diverted en route to Falwell Airport instead, starting to think something was up. Friends gathered there explained that in lieu of a cookout-style gathering that’d be risky during the pandemic, they’d organized a flyover as a tribute just for him.
Rather than watch from the comfort of his car in the parking lot, Walker said he insisted on stepping out with the help of his cane.
“I just couldn’t handle it,” he said. “It was just the most awesome thing that ever happened to me in my life and something I knew I would never forget.”
Overcome with emotion, Walker said he could only listen on a specially tuned headset as 15 pilots recalled how he’d helped them and trained them over the years while they flew overhead.
“I tried to talk back to them and I couldn’t; I couldn’t even talk,” he recalled. “I felt so bad.”
For some of those who took part in the flyover, Walker helped them train to get additional certifications and ratings as already seasoned pilots. For others, Walker helped them earn their wings as new flight students.
When Walker, now 86, was awarded the Federal Aviation Administration’s Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award in 2016 — which requires 50 or more years of experience and a safe flight record — he documented training more than 380 pilots and logging around 11,000 hours of flight time.
His love of flying started as a child living near Beckley, West Virginia, watching planes pass overhead on their way to the local airport. He joined a flying club while in the U.S. Air Force and obtained his private pilot’s license in 1956, just before going to college.
Walker started training pilots out of Falwell Airport in March 1976, having used G.I. Bill benefits to rack up additional certificates and licenses after he moved to Lynchburg in 1961.
Most of his pupils got their licenses to move on to bigger and better things, and Walker said many flight instructors, too, were mainly looking to build up flying hours so they could move on in aviation and “fly the heavy metal.” Some old pupils still keep in touch with him, occasionally calling from some other part of the world.
“The aviation community is the best group of people you will ever, ever know,” he said.
Dick Hiner, who helped organize the flyover in Walker’s honor, called him a “real icon” in the local aviation community.
“We wanted to give him the appreciation of all of us who learned to fly with him,” he said.
Young said Walker was instrumental in getting LU’s aviation program set up out of Falwell Airport in 2002. The airport had its own flight school certification that Walker operated under, and Walker helped Young and others obtain that certification for LU.
Through a contract with the airport, Walker and the other instructors under him taught the first few handfuls of students in that program, which Young grew into the School of Aeronautics as a founding dean in 2008. Now, Young said the school teaches more than 250 students, with 80 affiliated flight school locations.
Walker said he’s enjoyed seeing a flight student start from scratch — not even knowing how to taxi on the ground — and then grow to where they can take off and land a flight independently. That journey is one that takes dedication and drive.
“I find that rewarding over and over and over again, from those that started with nothing,” he said.
Though he doesn’t plan on any further “heavy” flight instruction because of his age, health and self-proclaimed laziness, Walker said there’s plenty of roles he can fill and is working to renew his instructor certificate.