Aviation pioneer visits Minden-Tahoe Airport

After 60 years out of the cockpit, 93-year-old Joe Szep stepped into the pilot's seat of a glider at Minden-Tahoe Airport on Tuesday.

With copilot Mike Moore of Soar Minden sitting behind him, Szep was towed by a plane up into the Valley's wide, shimmering-blue sky.

"I've never been in a glider," he said before take-off. "I'm sure it will be a different experience all together."

It's hard to imagine Szep lacks any kind of experience when it comes to flying. The Morgan Hill, Calif., resident worked as an aeronautical engineer and designer for Lockheed in Southern California for 35 years. In the late 1930s, he became part of the original Skunk Works program, the secretive group of engineers who produced the P-38 Lightning fighter plane used in World War II, the XP-80 Shooting Star, America's first operational fighter jet, and later the U-2 spy plane used in the Cold War.

"My favorite was probably the XP-80, mainly because of the set up," Szep said. "There were 25 of us in one room with no air conditioning in the summertime in Burbank, and we had canvas walls around us. They called us into the room and said they just got back from Dayton, Ohio, and had a contract from the Army Air Corps to design and build the plane in 150 days. In 143 days, we had it from pencil and paper ready to fly. It was never in actual operations in World War II, but became the primary fighter in the Air Force after that."

The XP-80 prototype the engineers built, called "Lulu Belle," now sits in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Szep, still sharp as a propeller, now tours the country with family members giving lectures and introducing to the next generation the history of aeronautics.

"There's a real shortage of aeronautical engineers in America, and we're trying to direct interest to the industry," said Szep's son-in-law Rick Macauley, a Reno resident who helps run Pathways to Aviation.

Szep maintains that aviation industry is a great sector to work in, even in the recession.

"It did well for me," he said. "I was employed all the time, made a decent salary, and always got to work on interesting projects."

Retired since 1971, Szep said hiking and backpacking slowly took the place of solo flying.

"In those days, you had to fly a certain amount of time to keep your private pilot license," he said. "I recently found my log book. During the war, all private flights were shut down around Burbank, so you had to go out to the Mojave Desert on a dry lake bed - that was the only place you could fly, and you had to have a certain transponder."

Szep's long hiatus ended Tuesday with a glider ride above Lake Tahoe; but his reunion with the sky didn't stop there. After the glider ride, he planned to go back up in a Liberty Sport model A bi-plane with Minden pilot and plane-builder Ralph Belden.

"It's a great honor," Belden said.

Also at the airport Tuesday, though not flying, was World War II veteran Hod Taylor, who recently received a Caterpillar Club pin for parachuting out of a P-38 Lightning during the war, the same plane Szep had helped design.

"I was the first one to bail out of one of those successfully," said the 90-year-old Carson City resident. "We used to call them (Szep) gravel agitators, any of the ground people. But we quickly learned that without them, we couldn't even take off."

For more information about careers in the aeronautical industry, visit www.pathways-to-aviation.org.


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