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Manhattan nonagenarian has been flying 74 years

Manhattan man, at 91, has been flying 74 years

MANHATTAN – On July 31, after 49 years, 10 months and 3 days of teaching, Gene Gear instructed his last flight student.

Gear’s instructor’s license expired at midnight July 31, said Gear’s son, Tim Gear of Coal City. However, Gene Gear, 91, of Manhattan, is still a private and commercial pilot – he recently completed his biannual review – and has no intention of stopping anytime soon.

“The view from the air – it’s fresh up there,” Gene Gear said. “Every day brings something. Clouds are different. No two days are alike. The fun is being with people that are having fun; that makes it more fun.”

Bob Bentley of J.F. Aviation, a flight school inside the Joliet Regional Airport, has known Gear more than 25 years. Bentley called Gear an excellent pilot and one of the best flight instructors he has ever seen.

“He just had a way about him that made everyone comfortable,” Bentley said. “Every student here was a very good pilot when he got done with them. He was one of those people where every day was a good day. I never saw the man down, which helps when you’re dealing with people.”

At home in the sky

Gear prefers flying to driving – “No stoplights in the sky; no one in your way,” he said – and people who are afraid to fly don’t get in his plane. In addition to Gear’s skill and confidence, one precept was paramount to safety.

“If I didn’t like the weather, I wouldn’t go,” Gear said.

Tim Gear recalled an eight-hour round trip to Canada in weather so bad, he could only see the instruments. He was 12 when his dad taught him to fly – with Tim sitting on a pillow so he could see the instruments – and he likened that Canada trip to playing a life-or-death video game.

During that flight, Gear was beside Tim, reminding him not to be fooled by bounces or the feeling the plane was turning left or right. Gear said he heard about one pilot that didn’t realize he was upside down until his cigarettes fell out of his pocket.

“Some people get killed for not believing the instruments,” Tim said.

Gene Gear said he wasn’t nervous.

“I taught him how to fly,” Gear said.

Propagating a legacy

Gene Gear remembers being 5 and accompanying his father, Crawford, to the Joliet Regional Airport, watching his dad hand-prop an old biplane and sitting on the roof in the former observation deck.

At 17, Gear began flying with a flight instructor in a Piper J-3 Cub. A few weeks later, Gear said he took his first solo flight and landed in the grass because the Joliet Regional Airport did not yet have a surface runway.

Even then, flying was fun and exciting.

“It was a challenge,” Gear said. “Anything that’s a challenge is exciting.”

At 18, Gear said he quit the former Joliet Catholic High School to join the U.S. Navy, where he drew flight pay in his role as a meteorologist – a one-man aerological unit.

Gear said the high school’s principal promised him a diploma if he passed Navy school. Gear didn’t go back for it until many years later, when he was studying for a real estate license and needed his diploma.

“Sure enough, it was there waiting for me,” Gear said.

In 1962, Gear said he turned part of his New Lenox farm into an airport, so he could he teach there, which he did starting in 1965. Gear leased the remaining farm portion of his land to another farmer.

“We had a plane in our backyard,” said Gene’s daughter, Penny Egly of New Lenox. “To us, it was like having a car in the garage.”

Within two years of teaching, Gear said 52 pilots had their licenses. Gear estimated that over the years, he taught 500 people to fly. Gear said he closed his airport in the mid-1970s, around the time New Lenox had some discussion about starting an airstrip subdivision.

Without his own airport, Gear then began using other local airports in Frankfort and New Lenox and then finally returned to Joliet in 1988, where he has remained since.

“He’s slowing down a little bit,” Tim said, “but I don’t think he’ll ever quit flying.”

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