It was the first time in three years he had his hands on the controls.
Or felt the roar of the engine; the headset over his ears.
But Alvin Marsh summed up the feelings and sensations of the flight simply: “unbelievable.”
The 26-year veteran naval aviator has been on the ground longer than he would like.
Though the last entry in his logbook was three years ago, he has logged thousands of hours in the sky since his father pinned the wings on his uniform 65 years ago.
And after spending two decades flying alongside aircraft carriers and into hurricanes in the Navy, being at the controls once more was — to oversimplify — like riding a bike.
“It was such a wonderful feeling,” Marsh said.
For his 90th birthday, Marsh flew a small, single-engine plane from Jacksonville to the farm where he grew up in Oxville, to the Illinois River and around the area before landing back in Jacksonville. He flew with a flight instructor because one of his medications precludes him from getting medical approval to fly.
Marsh didn’t miss a beat.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “You stop and think how long you’ve been flying and that. And came in for a straight in — why I’ve done it thousands of times, you know — you go down and go to level off. You still have the touch.”
Born Aug. 1, 1929, in Winchester, Marsh remembers the day he decided he wanted to be a Navy flyer. A pilot Marsh knew came into his high school in a crisp Navy uniform and cap.
“And I said, ‘Someday, that’s what I want to do,’” he said.
Marsh worked his way through Carthage College and enlisted in the Navy in August 1951, shortly before he would have been drafted into the Army. He was warned that he might not make it through the challenging program and its tough vision requirements, but he got into flight school and finished the 18-month program in 14 months.
Reaching his dream of becoming a Navy pilot was a feeling “beyond your imagination,” Marsh said.
After getting his wings in 1954, Marsh was sent to Hawaii. He flew B-17 Flying Fortress planes across the Pacific Ocean, acting as the radar eyes of the Pacific Fleet and patrolling as part of an early warning squadron.
Over his years in the Navy, Marsh was moved around the U.S. and the world, flying the B-17, Constellation and other aircraft. He patrolled, navigated, towed targets and flew into storms people on the ground were evacuated from.
Marsh joined the hurricane hunter squadron when he was stationed in Puerto Rico.
“When I first went to the hurricane hunters squadron in Puerto Rico, I went out on a flight and I came back from that completely horrified,” he said. “Because I didn’t understand what all transpired on a penetration into a hurricane and back.”
It didn’t scare him off, however, because he went on to fly so many hurricane missions that he can’t count them — more than 100 is his best guess.
The hurricane flights took 8-10 hours and a crew of close to 30 people. He said the pilot didn’t get out of his seat from takeoff to landing. Marsh once flew into three hurricanes on one mission, he said.
By flying and studying the massive storms, Marsh’s squadron discovered that hurricanes don’t have a straight trajectory — they “waddle.”
Marsh was recognized for his flights into hurricane Camille in 1963, which had wind speeds over 100 knots — 115 miles per hour — and an eye about 11-12 miles across. One of the challenges for a pilot — aside from the “rough riding” — comes from what the high winds do to the water below the plane.
“Once the wind gets above 30 knots, the waves will come and build up to about 30 feet. But then, the wind, as you get closer to the eye, is stronger and it comes and knocks the top off of this big wave,” he said. “And it becomes white — just solid white.”
The plane’s instruments help the pilot navigate the roughness of the storm, keeping the aircraft from going too high or too low in altitude.
“Then you break in to the wide open (of the eye). And of course the whole crew and that, they all yell and carry on and say ‘we made it,’” Marsh recalled with a laugh.
Inside the eye, it’s possible to see across to the other side of the hurricane.
“At night, being in there with the full moon shining down inside, it’s clear,” he said.
Marsh retired from the Navy in 1980 after more than 28 years of service.
He returned to his boyhood home to care for his mother and continued to farm in Oxville until a few years ago. He still owns the farm and helps with some farm maintenance, but resides in South Jacksonville.
Marsh’s 90th birthday was full of celebrations — in Illinois and in Georgia with family, and with a Quilt of Valor presentation — in addition to his flight. But he’s already looking forward to 91.
“I told the instructor,” Marsh said, “‘I’ll call you next year. We’re going again.’”
© 2019 the Jacksonville Journal-Courier
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