Printed in the Pittsburgh (PA) Post-Gazette, March 9, 2017

Castle Shannon man honored for 50-year aviation safety record.

A 78-year-old Castle Shannon man who once held the Guinness World Record for the youngest person to fly solo now holds a top honor awarded by the Federal Aviation Administration to pilots with an exemplary 50-year safety record.

Alfred Bennett Jr. received the FAA’s Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award on Feb. 17 during the Pittsburgh Soaring Association’s annual banquet in Bridgeville. Mr. Bennett also was recognized as the Most Active Soaring Instructor in the region, as well as the third-most active in the United States.

“It is the most prestigious award the FAA gives to pilots,” said Wendy Grimm, manager of FAA’s Allegheny Flight Standards District Office in Pittsburgh, who presented the award to Mr. Bennett. “It’s such an honor to do this and to celebrate the history that goes along with it.”

Mark Wilson, a fellow member of the Pittsburgh Soaring Association, said Mr. Bennett deserved the recognition.

“I’ve flown with Al for about 10 years. I have known him to be the epitome of a good aviator, and outstanding flight instructor. Above all, he stresses safety,” said Mr. Wilson.

You could say flying is in Mr. Bennett’s blood. Both of his parents were pilots. His father’s love for aviation began with a conversation in 1928, at the University of Pennsylvania, with the aviator Amelia Earhart.

“My grandfather didn’t support my dad’s desire to fly, so my dad invited her to speak to his fraternity. She suggested he join the Air Corps to learn to fly for free. He did,” said Mr. Bennett.

Mr. Bennett’s love for aviation involved an encounter with the father of aviation. In 1947, he met Orville Wright at the Wings Club in New York, where his father was a member. Mr. Bennett was 9 years old at the time.

“Mr. Wright was at the end of the speakers table and kind of being ignored,” said Mr. Bennett. American boxer Gene Tunney — also a pilot — was the main speaker. Mr. Bennett saw the heavyweight champion was getting all the attention.

“At the end of the event, my dad and I went over to Mr. Wright, and I shook his hand,” said Mr. Bennett. “I remember my dad making it very clear to me that this was a special opportunity to meet Mr. Wright. I was thrilled. After all, I heard about him all of my life.”

Wright died a year later.

Two years after that meeting, Mr. Bennett would make history of his own. His father came up with the idea for 11-year-old Alfred’s 1951 record-setting flight. But they would have to go to Mexico to do it, because it wasn’t permitted in America.

“We flew in a two-seater and arrived at a fishing camp along the Gulf called La Pesca in Mexico — I remember sitting in that little airplane looking out over the water and thinking, ‘Boy, this is something!’ It was a terrifying thing to do, but once I got in the air, it was such a satisfying experience that it set the tone for adventure from then on.”

His record stood for one year. The next year, his sister, Betty, broke the record a year later in Cuba. She held the title for 30 years until Mr. Bennett’s son broke her record.

“Guinness doesn’t have that record any longer. I think that is good,” said Mr. Bennett. “I had the courage to fly because I wanted to please my father, but I wasn’t really equipped to make decisions.”

Mr. Bennett lived in five places before his parents settled in Beaver County in 1952, when he was 12. By the time he turned 18, he was a certified pilot.

He graduated with a degree in political science from Northwestern University and traveled to Hawaii for graduate school. While there, he purchased his first airplane, a Cessna, from Pacific Flight Service. He leased it back to them and piloted charter flights around the islands to pay for it.

As a doctoral candidate in anthropology, he obtained a grant from the Office of Naval Research, exploring management in the Philippines and the study of change. Although he did not complete his thesis, he published papers to justify funding. He spent another year in the region, sailing around the Philippines in an oceangoing sloop.

Mr. Bennett returned to Beaver County in 1973 and worked with local library systems to launch volunteer literacy programs. In 1978, he earned his FAA Flight Instructor certificate. In 1983, he moved to the West Coast to work for the State of California Library system.

“I’d fly to urban areas to work with libraries,” said Mr. Bennett, who was the Director the Adult Literacy Project.

He retired in 2001, returning to the Pittsburgh area.

“My wife is from Pittsburgh. When you marry a woman from Pittsburgh, you can be guaranteed you will be retiring in Pittsburgh,” he said.

Mr. Bennett still works as an instructor for the Pittsburgh Soaring Association located in Glyde, near Eighty-Four, Pa.

For more information on soaring and sailplanes, go to  www.PGHsoar.org.

Amy Philips-Haller, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.