Octogenarian Shuns Retirement
by Tom Wilson, writer/editor-PCToday.
Forget the "Who? What? Where? When? Why?" of Journalism 101; all you need to know to interview Eugene C. Breiner are "Show up, say 'hello,' shake hands, sit down and listen."
The holder of a Certificate of Attendance from the pre-degree days of the Williamsport Technical Institute's aviation program, Breiner keenly tells a tale 86 years in the making, a personal history that weaves like thread through that of his alma mater and its successors.
As Pennsylvania College of Technology counts down to its institutional centennial in 2014, he represents a parallel life, straddling the past and the future with the presence of mind to share his recollection during a visit to the Lumley Aviation Center.
Memories include a letter from Donald Parkes – "Uncle Don," he calls him – the brother of George H. Parkes, W.T.I.'s first director, whose road map for vocational education ultimately leads to Penn College.
"I would like to encourage you to stick with the aviation game and get your mechanic rating," Donald Parkes wrote in July 1944, luring Breiner back to Williamsport to finish his schooling. "I am sold on the prospect of aviation after the war, and a fellow with your education should be able to go places. If you can make the sacrifice, I would suggest that you come back and complete your work toward a license.
"I knew I had to get some training before I got drafted. I had no skills and was pretty much 'cannon fodder.' "
"This war won't last forever, and you want to be settled in a good job when it's over."
It was World War II that led Breiner to W.T.I. in the first place. Straight out of Tamaqua High School, he signed on with the National Youth Administration program in 1943 and spent a short time on campus learning the aircraft-maintenance trade.
"I had the war staring me in the face, and I knew I had to get some training before I got drafted," he recalls. "I had no skills and was pretty much 'cannon fodder.'" Breiner stayed only a month, however. When Congress declined to fund the NYA for 1944, he returned home and drove a coal truck. That spring, after being rejected for the draft due to double vision, he took advantage of Parkes' offer and enrolled in an apprenticeship program endorsed by the Civil Aviation Administration.
"I went to school four nights a week to learn to weld, run metal lathe, machine-shop practices," he says. On weekends, he worked in grocery stores and filling stations to pay expenses.
In December 1944, he was offered a job rebuilding surplus Army airplanes at the Sunbury Airport. Reluctant to leave W.T.I., he consulted instructor Frank Pannebaker.
"He told me, 'You learned what you need to learn here'," Breiner reminisces. "I'll sign off on you to take the CAA Engine Mechanic Test."
He worked in Sunbury from 1945-48, earning certification as a mechanic and a private pilot. When President Truman called all 4F draftees for re-evaluation, Breiner enlisted in the Army Air Corps for three years – adding to his familiarity with assorted aircraft. Upon honorable discharge, he moved with his wife, Ardella, back to central Pennsylvania, opening a repair facility at the Danville Airport.
He accepted a flight-standards position with the Federal Aviation Agency (now known as the Federal Aviation Administration) in 1963 in Richmond, Va., then moved to the Harrisburg district office in April 1969, an assignment that included work with the FAA-approved mechanic school at Williamsport Area Community College.
Despite the specialized language learned during that vocational variety, "idle" is not among the words with which he's familiar.
Breiner remains active in aviation circles, serving on the board of directors for the Sentimental Journey Fly-In in Lock Haven and attending FAA events to stay up-to-date – including one last fall at the college's Lumley Aviation Center in Montoursville. When the spirit and the tailwinds move him, he's been known to land his 1929 Fleet biplane (recently donated to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum) and dazzle an air-show crowd with a flying piece of history.
He also does some work with vintage planes for the Eagles Mere Air Museum and is enshrined at the college among recipients of the Charles E. Taylor Master Mechanic Award, named in honor of the Wright Brothers' aviation mechanic.
Professionally, he retains the title of "aircraft maintenance consultant" and, while retiring in 1989, contributes his career expertise to the certification of amateur-built and experimental aircraft.
"They always told me I got all the odd jobs," he says, and his résumé backs up that assertion. He has sent two planes to Argentina, a hot-air balloon to Peru, and has handled certification for all manner of amateur-built and other experimental aircraft.
"I enjoy my work," says Breiner, now living in a retirement community in Newville, just west of Carlisle. He adjusts his cap and grabs his cane, signaling it's time to move on to the hangar, perhaps, or a visit with faculty friends.
"I've been pretty lucky."
Take a Tour
Penn College's pre-World War II structure at the Williamsport Regional Airport was replaced in 1993 with the Lumley Aviation Center, which boasts 50,000 square feet of space – 11,000 square feet of which is used in the main hangar.
Two small structures sit to the west of the Aviation Center and serve as engine demonstration cells that students may use to safely start and operate recently overhauled engines.
The faculty and staff at the Aviation Center would like to share the facility with you. To arrange a tour, contact the Aviation Center.
'Last,' Perhaps, but Far From Least
For a man who has spent much of his adult life with his head – not to mention his body and soul – in the clouds, Eugene C. Breiner is a realist.
So when it came time to part with “Plane/Jane,” a lovingly maintained aviation artifact, he chose the public good over the private obstacles to holding onto a 33-year investment.
“It wasn’t an easy decision, but I’m getting on in years. I’m 86, and I can’t stay after it like I used to,” says Breiner, whose passion for aircraft maintenance began at the Williamsport Technical Institute. “It’s getting harder to maintain these older planes. Old engines don’t like ethanol; low-lead fuel ruins them, and I’d be looking at a major overhaul in a few years.”
Breiner hoped to hold onto the plane long enough for his two grandsons to solo in it, but practical considerations intervened. He decided then to give his 1929 Fleet Model 2, one of only six remaining, to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
On June 18, with a little help from his friends – and with only a brief window to land the plane at Dulles International Airport by 9 that morning – Breiner delivered during “Become a Pilot Day.” In goggles and a scarf befitting the double-winger’s heyday, and sitting by the left wing, Breiner and crewmate John Machamer landed “Plane/Jane” among the scores of other historic aircraft that were on the ground.
“It was an interesting day, kind of emotional,” said Breiner, who was joined in the donation by his daughter, Joyce. A fitting day, too, as the Breiners’ plane had provided hundreds of people with an important takeoff point on their way to a pilot’s license.
“It’s a people’s airplane,” he says. “It was built strictly with the student pilot in mind, and I’m proud that the museum now has a plane to which people can point and say, ‘I flew that’ or ‘I rode in that.’”
“I knew the plane from back in the 1940s, when it was brought over from Roosevelt School of Aviation,” he says. The aircraft was made for civilian flight instruction and spent years in that role at the Long Island, N.Y., training facility.
When Breiner opened a repair shop in Danville, his goal was to rebuild three planes a year to keep himself occupied during the winter. He asked in 1952 about buying the Fleet, the engine and frame of which, by that time, were in a hangar in Sayre.
“We’re gonna rebuild that,” he was told then. A change in employment took him to Richmond, Va., in 1963, but he moved back within the decade and, in 1971, returned to the hangar.
“Lo and behold, there the old bird sat, just like in the 1950s,” he said. Alas, he again went home empty-handed – “We’re gonna rebuild that,” the disappointment echoed – so he bided his time … waiting … and waiting … and waiting for any news that the plane was up for sale.
“The estate wants to sell it,” he finally and suddenly was told in the summer of ’78, and thus began the painstaking reconstruction of “it” from piecemeal cartons in scattered locations.
“All I’d ever seen was the fuselage,” Breiner recalls. Numerous other pilots had parts in their garages, and “the wings were in a barn in Wyalusing,” he said.
“A neighbor and I drove up there – went around to every place, in fact – and took photographs of all the pieces,” he said. “I studied those pictures and determined that 90 percent of the plane was there. So I made an offer.”
Restoration work took until 1985, but the plane finally was airworthy – and a consistent hit at every fly-in and air show along the East Coast. Breiner piloted it for 26 years, 650 hours in all, until the final flight of that “good little airplane” to its eventual showplace on the national stage.
“You can feel every little movement of the plane, just like you were strapping it on,” he says, with the utmost of respect for Fleet’s ingenuity and foresight of design. Still, the transition from its grassy comfort zone to the paved landing strip at Dulles took every bit of Machamer’s prowess and experienced reflexes.
“It was a dual effort to get it down,” Breiner says. “That plane wants to go everywhere but straight, but John put it down without busting it up!” (John’s 16-year-old son, Chet, who also logged flying time in “Plane/Jane” that morning, was the youngest pilot present for the landing.)
The Fleet was accompanied by a fleet of its own on the trip from Maryland to the nation’s capital: a Cessna 120, a Citabria and a 1930 Waco RNF.
“It was designed specifically as a civilian trainer to encourage the average person to fly during the aviation boom of 1929,” noted Dorothy S. Cochrane, curator for general aviation in the museum’s aeronautics division. “This particular Fleet has a rich history in the Roosevelt Field Aviation School and Civilian Pilot Training Program, so it complements our Piper J-3 Cub … and our several military trainers.
“Gene Breiner has had a lifelong passion for aviation, as evidenced by his emotional words at the donation ceremony at our ‘Become a Pilot Day.’ He hopes the aircraft will continue to inspire new pilots, and he couldn’t have been happier than when his co-pilot’s son soloed ‘Plane/Jane’ that morning, just before it left Pennsylvania for the last time.”
The plane won’t be on display until spring, at the earliest, remaining at Dulles for some final preparations and reinstallation of authentic parts before it is moved to its ultimate destination.
“There’s a set of original wheels that I want to put on for them, a pair of tires, too – 70 years old and they still hold air – that I keep treated with a rubber preservative,” Breiner explains. “And there’s a metal propeller to replace the wooden one.”
He has become somewhat of a celebrity, with a reluctance that occasionally gives way to understandable pride in his family’s legacy. The donation has received a fair amount of media attention; trade publications readily took notice, and even Google alerted readers to its newsworthiness.
“One thing I didn’t like, though, is all this talk of the ‘last flight,’” Breiner says. ”It sounded like I was dying, ‘the last flight.’ I have a lot of work to do yet!”