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The Journal Gazette

  • Many people listen as Wearley tells them stories of his youth and aviation career, including a stint as a pilot for Howard Hughes, at Smith Field, 902 W. Ludwig Road, on Saturday.

  • Photos by Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Ground instructor for Sweet Aviation Daniel Leonard, left, talks with local pilot and businessman Bob Wearley during a signing for his book, “The Prodigal Pilot, The End of the Hughes Empire.”

Tuesday, December 01, 2015 8:39 pm

Hughes pilot recalls his career

Paul Wyche The Journal Gazette

The 19-year-old assistant scoutmaster knew it wasn’t a good idea.

But with a carload of Boy Scouts egging him on, Bob Wearley took on a drag race challenge from a car that pulled alongside him at a stoplight.

"We were on Maumee Avenue and I was driving a 1950 Chevrolet club coupe â ¦ a real cream puff," Wearley said. "Some guy was next to me revving his engine, so we took off. Probably not the smartest thing with a bunch of kids with me."

The race didn’t last long as a policeman stopped the contest before the drivers could reach the finish.

"I don’t even remember what kind of car the other guy was driving, but I remember I didn’t get a ticket."

Wearley’s need for speed would continue as he eventually joined the U.S. Air Force and spent 33 years in aviation – including nearly a decade as a pilot for Howard Hughes.

Wearley, 81, shared some of his experiences Saturday during the promotion of his book, "The Prodigal Pilot" at Smith Field Airport, 902 W. Ludwig Road.

Growing up in Woodburn, Wearley didn’t give much thought about aviation as a youngster. He viewed himself as a scrawny kid who’d probably end up taking a job not too far from home.

"I was from a town of less than 500 people," Wearley said.

During the Korean War, he was draft age and was faced with the decision of how to serve his country.

"I didn’t want to go to the Army, so I joined the Air Force," he said. "They were looking to bolster their cadet program."

The veteran didn’t see combat as he served in the staff office at Air Force’s training base in Oklahoma City. Still, he made aviation a career in the Armed Forces.

In 1969, Wearley was serving as chief of training when he got a call from a former superior gauging interest in a civilian job. Eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes was looking for pilots for his flight service.

"When he told me about the job, it was flying VIPs around and things like that," Wearley said. "I had other plans, like finishing college, but I took the job."

For the next nine years, Wearley worked for a man he never met. But Hughes was renowned for being a recluse, so that didn’t bother Wearley.

Some of his assignments, however, did.

"I remember once there was an envelope (Hughes) wanted flown from Los Angeles to the Bahamas," Wearley said.

Since some of Hughes’ employees were traveling on a commercial flight to the Bahamas, Wearley suggested it would make sense for a staff member to carry the envelope instead of wasting money on a separate plane flight.

"I was told to do as I was told," Wearley said. "After that, I didn’t question anything."

There were memorable excursions with various celebrities, including entertainers Bob Hope, Dean Martin and Dinah Shore.

"I passed Dinah in a hotel lobby and she said, ‘Hi, Bob,’ " Wearley recalled. "I wanted my sister to meet her and without thinking I snapped my fingers at Dinah to come back. She said, ‘Bob, don’t you ever snap your fingers at me.’ I never did that again."

Wearley said those experiences and others gave him a glimpse into the world of the ultra-rich.

"They don’t live like everybody else," he said. "I never saw Mr. Hughes. During those days, the only ones that ever saw him were his personal assistant, nurses and people like that."

Was Hughes a genius?

"Well, yes and no," Wearley said. "When you’re that rich, you have access to a lot of smart people and I think he picked their minds."

Wearley doesn’t deny that Hughes was responsible for several aviation innovations, including flush-mounted rivets that resulted in less wind resistance.

"They were flat," Wearley said. "He had some very good ideas."

After his time with Hughes, Wearley flew commercially for several years before coming back to the Fort Wayne area. He served as a board member on the Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority. In 1996, Wearley became the travel hub’s marketing manager, a job he held for five years.

Today, he owns a commercial heating and cooling filter business. Wearley’s clients include Kroger, Meijer, and the BFGoodrich plant in his hometown of Woodburn.

"I didn’t open a charter plane service because I know too much about the business," he joked.

pwyche@jg.net