As we’ve previously touched on, in the Fast Jet Business, death is a constant companion. As the saying goes, “there are old pilots and bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.”
I am proud to say that I have met a few of the exceptions to that particular article of faith, but one that stands out in my memory more than others is a guy they called “Smilin’ Jack.”
I had the honor and privilege of meeting United States Air Force Colonel (Retired) Jack Wilhite on several occasions while attending various flying events in the Denver, Colorado area. Quick-witted with an easy smile and a keen intellect, he was a pleasure to be around. A humble man through and through, one who always showed an appreciation for those who picked up the torch for freedom long after he passed it off.
I always called him “Colonel” or “sir,” and he always gave me a good-natured ribbing for it. I will miss that.
I learned today that earlier this year, on 26 January, Colonel Wilhite passed away unexpectedly at the age of 86. He was still flying airplanes, especially his beloved two-seat MiG-17. He was a dedicated pilot and adventurer, a man who in more than 32 years of flying amassed more than forty thousand flight hours.
Of all those hours, 5,000 were accrued in the cockpit of high-performance fighter aircraft. He flew many, many different types, but most noteworthy are the P-80, F-86, F-100, F-104, and F-5. He is actually one of the only pilots who ejected out of an F-100C Super Sabre and lived to tell the tale.
Wilhite was born in the tiny community of Deep River, Iowa. He began his flying career in the United States Army Air Corps during World War II. He served with distinction during that conflict, in Korea, and during the Vietnam War as well. He joined the Colorado Air National Guard and was hired as a United Airlines pilot in 1956.
While serving in Vietnam he was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses, a total of thirteen Air Medals, a Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, and more than twenty other awards and decorations. He was president of the Colorado Aviation Historical Society and one of his favorite activities was educating and inspiring future pilots.
The last time I saw Jack, he was giving a young man a tour of his MiG, smiling as he always did, and talking about the freedom that being a pilot afforded. Truly one of the greats, and always eager to pay it forward.
Godspeed, Jack. Thank you for your service and inspiration.