Joe Bacon was born to be a pilot. His fascination with airplanes began when he stood in the yard of his northeast Texas home and watched planes fly over and his father handed him his old World War II binoculars for a closer look.
The father and son spent many Sundays afternoon at the Tyler, Texas, airport watching planes land and taxi to the fence. In 1952, his father walked to the fence and shortly Little Joe was taking his first plane ride.
“I gave up wanting to be a cowboy and was hooked on air shows,” he said.
“While some kids were playing school, I taught aviation ground school in my parents’ garage.”
It’s no wonder he has spent most of his adult career in aviation and no wonder he is fascinated with Wiley Post and Will Rogers, two of aviation’s biggest supporters at the time of their death in a 1935 Alaskan plane crash.
Bacon is no newcomer to the Will Rogers & Wiley Post Fly-In at the Will Rogers Birthplace Ranch. But on August 14, when he drops in on the ranch grass strip, he and a Will Rogers look-alike will be coming as Wiley and Will.
Bacon is also no newcomer to character dressing. He dresses the role of Sam Houston in a group of Pryor area Coowahya (Huckleberry) Players. Ivan Pace, Coowahya ramrod, who is a marshal/sometimes Clem Rogers, introduced Bacon to Will Rogers Ropers (docents).
Since finishing the last class in 2010, Bacon has logged 64 volunteer hours. He graduated with Jean McCreery, who flew with the WASPs ferrying World War II planes.
The Fly-In is an annual event held on the Sunday closest to Aug. 15, the date of the fatal plane crash. Pilots from a four-five state area land on the grass strip to showcase their planes and celebrate the lives of Will and Wiley. On the ground, spectators can meet pilots, get a close-up look at planes, see antique and classic cars and tour the Will Rogers Birthplace.
There will be a Cherokee storyteller, music, special activities for children, and concessions.
This year, Bacon and Les Lurk, who bears a great resemblance to Will Rogers, will fly in as Will and Wiley.
Bacon started coming to the Fly-In many years ago after meeting Joe Cunningham and Mary Kelley at Tenkiller, prominent Oklahoma aviators and publishers of Oklahoma Aviator. He bought his Cessna 170, dubbed “Big Foot,” from the flying duo. It was their instructional trainer, formerly a bush plane in Alaska (with oversize tires).
Bacon’s father was an extension service advisor and probably thought flying was a passing fancy for his only child. When the elder Bacon spent 10 years working in India, Joe went to a Mission School before returning to the states to finish high school in Tyler. Imagine the pleasure from flying to India at a time when the pilot allowed him to sit with him in the cockpit.
He went to college at Tarleton State University, only because he knew he would have to have a degree to be an Air Force pilot. With his degree in business administration, he went into the Air Force, qualifying for Officer Candidate School and after Lackland Air Force Base, went for pilot training in Laredo, Texas in 1966.
His first assignment was in a B-52 bomber, the 79th Bomb Wing in North Carolina. The crew of six was on a cold war mission, practicing, practicing and more practicing.
“Looking back we probably made a difference to deter Soviet intentions,” he said.
He volunteered for Vietnam and flew a C-47, twin-engine transport. His crew was involved in psychological warfare, dropping several thousand pieces of literature to selected targets offering surrender without being entered in POW camps.
He returned to the states to again fly B-52s in Michigan before leaving the Air Force in 1970. Like a lot of military pilots he planned to work for an airlines. It didn’t happen, but he spent the rest of his career in the air.
One was a charter in Michigan, ferrying Dillard’s buyers to department stores in the midwest and south.
“There were no GPSs, no radios, no co-pilot, no auto pilot. the Good Lord looked out for us,” he said.
He spent times in the air as a Saudi aviation photo pilot, with Southwest Airlines, McDonald Douglas and several Tulsa area aviation companies.
When he and his wife, Becky, a nurse, ended up in Pryor, he decided to try something else and earned a degree in Native American Studies from Northeastern State University. After an internship at Ft. Gibson with the Oklahoma Historical Society, he realized where his heart was and was back in aviation.
Being the Wiley Post fan he is, his most memorable Birthplace Ranch Fly-In was in 2004. Pearl Carter Scott, then 89, who learned to fly with Wiley earned her wings at 13, accepted his offer of a ride. They circled the ranch several times.
“She looked down for the longest time,” he said. “I offered her the controls. She looked at her hands before saying she didn’t think the old hands could do it.”