May 12, 2017

Looking back, flying forward

Eugene Downey, a U.S. Navy Korean War veteran smiles while watching the 2017 Gulf Coast Salute on the Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., flightline April 23, 2017. Downey enlisted in the Navy in 1948 and received the rank of ensign in 1951, enabling him to become a pilot.

As a young boy he broke through the clouds in the backseat of a Stinson 105 for the first time. His pilot showed him the dream he came to love.

Eugene Downey never truly came back down after that and set his sights on becoming a flyer and joined the military.

“I was in the service from 1948 to 1952 and was sent to Great Lakes, Illinois,” said Eugene Downey, U.S. Navy Korean War Veteran. “I enlisted because I wanted to be a flyer. We were all gunning for that after boot camp. After boot camp we were sent to Corpus Christi, Texas for preflight indoctrination.”

As Downey moved forward with his new career, he looked to pursue a dream he had since he was a young man.

“I’ve been a flying nut ever since I was a little kid,” he said.

As he drew close to achieving his childhood dreams, it was pushed outside of his grasps by U.S. government budgetary constraints. But an event of violence would put him back on his path.

“Well during that period, Congress cut appropriations for the Navy so our whole group was washed out. But they told us we could take any school we wanted,” Downey said. “So, I took weather school. After training there, I went to Memphis, Tenn., I stayed there for a while, and when the North Koreans invaded the South in 1950, I was told I could go to flight school. They sent me down to Pensacola for training.”

A Mitsubishi A6M Zero flies over the Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., flightline during the 2017 Gulf Coast Salute April 21, 2017. The Zero was part of the Tora! Tora! Tora! aerial demonstration that entertained the airshow patrons while the narrator of the event explained the importance of previous U.S. conflicts.

“After I got my wings in ’51, I was given the ensign rank. We were then sent to Barbers Point, Hawaii, for some advanced training,” he added.

Downey, now an older gentleman, came to Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., with his family to reminisce and see some of the Navy aircraft on display from his time in service and some of the military’s newest aircraft during the 2017 Gulf Coast Salute.

“The F-22 [Raptor], the F-35 [Lightning II], I am crazy about almost all of ‘em. After the Navy, I worked in an air museum, and I’ve flown some of the old P-38s, P-40s, P-51s, even in a B-17,” he said. “But with what they have today – I mean God.”

Although the technology of the day has changed, one thing Downey noted as the same was the relationships between the service members he saw as he visited the base. Downey recalled the comradery he was familiar with in the Navy while watching Airmen of this era working together to make the event successful. It was something Downey would never forget.

A group of patrons of the 2017 Gulf Coast Salute walk toward the B-1 Lancer static display at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., April 23, 2017. The B-1 was among many static display attractions during the air show paying homage to and informing visitors of aviation history.

“I miss the guys that I used to fly with,” Downey paused, looked to the sky and recalled memories of old friends. “Our ship was going to be put in mothballs and eventually it was scrapped. I never saw any of those guys again.”

As Downey reflected on his time in the service, he could be seen mentally reliving his time in the military and the fond memories of those he served with.

“We were all very close, we did just about everything together,” Downey said. “Most of the guys I knew were from all over the states, all a bunch of great guys. That’s the one thing I loved about the service was the closeness you have with your people. You don’t have that outside of the service.”

“You live and breathe these guys,” he concluded.

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