Five Aviation Mechanics in Southern California Receive Rare FAA Award
By Mark Storer - Ventura County (CA) Star
Photos by Mike Greywitt
Gene O’Neal was standing next to a World War II-era training aircraft smiling broadly as he spoke to visitors and family members at the Southern California Wing of the Commemorative Air Force at the Camarillo Airport. “It is such an opportunity to be around these airplanes, and I’ve been around them nearly all my life in some form or another,” he said. “It holds a challenge every day.” O’Neal, who is a member of the CAF, was part of a unique ceremony at the wing’s headquarters where he and four others were given the rare Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award for demonstrating more than 50 years each of service in aviation mechanics.
The award was named for Taylor, who was the manager of the Wright brothers’ bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, and built the engine that powered their first airplane. He was the first aviation mechanic!
O’Neal, 83, and fellow honorees Joe Peppito, 91, Chuck Slezak, 72, Ron Reinert, 74 and Neil Houston, 83, represent more than 305 years of aircraft experience. All were in military and civilian aviation and received the award after being nominated by colleagues, friends, members of the CAF wing and crew members of the B-25 Mitchell Executive Sweet at the airport.
“This is a lifetime achievement award, and it’s relatively rare,” said Ross Gregory, a Federal Aviation Administration representative who gave the award to each of the men. “It’s the best part of my job. It’s an honor for me to recognize these folks.” The B-25’s chief pilot, Dana Dorsey, was the master of ceremonies at Thursday’s event, which was attended by more than 100 people. In addition, Slezak received a Purple Heart for a combat wound he received in Vietnam that he had neglected to report 49 years ago. Both O’Neal and Peppito are members of the CAF’s Southern California Wing, while Slezak, Reinert and Houston are crew members aboard the B-25 Executive Sweet. All five worked at one point in their careers for American Airlines. “I can’t think of any place I’d rather be than here,” said Col. Dave Bakos, wing commander of the 146th Air National Guard Airlift Wing at Point Mugu. “I met Chuck (Slezak) at a breakfast place in Manhattan Beach, and we got to talking and realized we both did military aviation and both worked for American Airlines. “I hear all the time about paying it forward,” he said. “Well, today it’s time to pay it back. It’s more than an honor. It’s very touching for me to be here."
Peppito, who still comes as often as he can to the CAF headquarters, started his aviation career in 1939. “I’ve been doing this a very long time, and it’s been a happy and successful career,” he said after receiving the award. Joe and his wife Marge live in Newbury Park.
“Can you imagine a world without airplanes?” Reinert said. “The world wouldn’t be what it is today. Most of us wouldn’t be here in California today if it weren’t for airplanes.” Neil Houston, who also is a member of the Executive Sweet team, lives in West Hills, Calif.
Joe Peppito was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. He graduated from the Manhattan High School of Aviation, and worked for the War Department at Wright-Patterson Field & Topeka AFB – 1941-1943. Joe joined the USAAF, and served from 1943-1946 at Eglin Field Proving Ground Command in Florida, where he worked on what was to become his favorite aircraft, the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. He also served at Maxwell Field, going to B-29 Flight Engineer School. After his stint in the Air Force, Joe went to the Roosevelt Aviation School and earned an A&E License. He worked for TWA – Chicago’s Midway Airport; John Wilson Cessna Dealer – Northbrook, Il.; American Airlines – Chicago Midway Airport & L.A. Airport; North American Rockwell (F-86, F-100) in logistics & documentation; Rocketdyne – rocket engine documentation for the Mercury, Atlas, Thor and Saturn Programs, and was Logistics Manager for the Saturn SII Stage, Apollo, and Shuttle Vehicle. Joe has been the Wing Leader of the SoCAWing (1999-2002) and was the Wing Maintenance Officer (1983-1998 and 2007-2010). He has been the Crew Chief of the SNJ-4 #N6411D and the Wing Stock Room Manager. Joe has been the Wing’s Training Officer, and has done great work with the cadre of SoCAl Wing Cadets for several years. All told, Joe has amassed seventy years of aircraft and aerospace experience on his resume. He has been invaluable to the Wing since almost its beginnings. He has been married to his wife Marge for 69 years. Together they have four children, ten grandchildren and fifteen great grandchildren.
Chuck Slezak was a member of 101st Airborne unit in Vietnam aboard a Huey helicopter, said that in addition to maintaining aircraft, he had something to prove. “I never got to parachute when I was with the 101st because I was a gunner, so when I turned 53, I started parachute jumping,” he said. Slezak has completed more than 3,400 jumps since he started. “I just had to earn those paratrooper wings somehow,” he said.
For Dorsey, the opportunity to interact with industry veterans has made his experience all the better. “When you work with these guys and hear their stories that are meaningful and funny, you just can’t help but love it,” Dorsey said. “It’s like working with my grandpa, and they have all the answers. They can fix anything and make anything work.”
Dana Dorsey was also maintenance squad commander for the 146th Airlift Wing and now flies for FedEx.
“I always tell young people who are looking for a career to think about aviation,” O’Neal said. “You meet the greatest people, and you get to see so much. I love coming out here every day and being a part of it still.” Gene and his wife Beulah live in Camarillo.
Gene O'Neal is currently serving on the Wing Staff as Safety Officer, He joined the CAF in 2001 and has worked on many projects, including several years now as Procurement Officer. Gene’s aviation career started in 1952 in the USAF as a jet mechanic. He was an honor grad with an A&P license in 1957. He worked for American Airlines – on DC-6s and DC-7s: engine run-up, taxi, and tow qualified. Gene was military aircraft lead mechanic at Pt Mugu and graduated from Ventura College. In 1965 he joined McDonnell Aircraft as Technical Rep/ Product Support Engineer on F4 Phantoms and F/A-18 Hornets - attached to US and Foreign Military for 34 years. He is not a pilot, but has flight experience: F4 back seat flights (Mach 2), carrier launch & recovery, bomb practice, etc. Gene has had altitude pressure chamber and ejection seat training. Years of pilot ready room experience, accident investigations and safety training. He worked and lived on six aircraft carriers. He also has flight crew experience on C-46 China Doll, C-131, and B-29 “FIFI.” Gene’s other volunteer job - with the Camarillo Citizen Patrol -is all about helping to keep our community safe.. Also, he is a member of CERT ( Community Emergency Response Team ) with First Aid and CPR training.