Still Flying At 93, CAP Member is Hawaii's Oldest Pilot
Even though Civil Air Patrol Capt. John Gleeson retired as a business owner more than 20 years ago, the 93-year-old aviation veteran shows no signs of slowing down. The dedicated great-grandfather has a third-class medical certification from the Federal Aviation Administration and is the oldest active pilot in Hawaii.
Gleeson brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to the Honolulu Senior Squadron, where he serves as public information officer. Motivated by a love for flying and serving others, he continues to demonstrate an enduring patriotism that has not waned through the years.
Answering the Call
Gleeson developed his lifelong passion for flying while growing up in Long Beach, California. As a young adult, he and thousands of his peers were deeply moved by a historic event that spurred them to take immediate action.
“Dec. 7, 1941, was a day like no other. Patriotism was palpable, even reaching down to an 18-year-old laborer at a California shipyard,” Gleeson recalled. “I got up early Dec. 8, 1941, to enlist to protect our country at the Long Beach, California, main post office. I arrived there about 7 a.m., surprised to see a line of 20 or 30 other young men.
“Many, many young men across the United States of America felt the same,” he said.
As a member of the 8th Air Force Gleeson flew a B-24 Liberator and was involved in both combat and covert missions in Europe. He served as a flight engineer and later would see action again during the Korean War.
During World War II “we, 8th Air Force, flew a multitude of bombing missions into Germany, single-aircraft night missions. I remember the apprehension with an element of terror thrown into the mix. The adrenalin was piqued from the moment of full power at takeoff until seeing the English coastline at the completion of our mission.”
“The covert missions were completely different.“Civilian clothes, unmarked and unarmed aircraft, skeleton crew and a very long flight," he added. "The mission was hazardous, due to the lengthy time over the North Sea and the threat of Nazi night fighters as we crossed the most northern area of Norway. Once we were in Swedish airspace we were safe, as Sweden was a neutral nation.”
Gleeson is quick to dispel any romantic notions of secret wartime missions. “The mystique of combat and covert missions does not take into account the abject loss of millions of lives around the world during World War II. If the pundits around the world that initiate wars were required to participate in actual combat, there would be far, far fewer conflicts.”
After the end of hostilities, Gleeson declined a direct commission in the California National Guard, but his military service wasn’t yet finished.
He remembers the Korean War as a very different experience from the Second World War.
“I re-enlisted in early 1948, and I was assigned to the 452nd Bomb Group Flight Test Department. We were flying Douglas B-26 Invaders. We were an Air Force Reserve unit and were activated immediately on the call to arms for the Korean Conflict. I flew a lot and enjoyed every minute of it,” he said.
During that period, he attended flight school and received his private pilot’s certificate.
Once an Aviator …
After his wartime experiences, during the 1960s Gleeson briefly flew a Beechcraft T-34, a training craft, with Civil Air Patrol in Sparks, Nevada. He and his wife – they’ve now been married for 71 years – moved to Honolulu in 1972, and eight years later he decided to join CAP.
He went on to serve as commander of the glider squadron out of Mokuleia and proudly says, “Yes, I am still actively flying gliders.”
Upon retiring from his own business – John Gleeson Ltd., a mechanical contracting company that specialized in engineering and marine sales/consulting – in 1995, Gleeson remained active organizing aviation-related events in Hawaii.
Before and after his retirement, he organized aviation classes and meetings at schools, an Aviation Weekend for the YCMA (which included a speaker, a film, and an air tour of the island of Oahu) and other events aimed at getting young people interested in flying.
Gleeson is also founder of the Great Hawaiian Air Race, an event that involved aircraft from the U.S., United Kingdom, Spain, Canada, Japan and Australia. The race generated about $150,000 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation over a five-year span.
And he is one of the founding directors of the Pacific Aviation Museum on Ford Island in Oahu; he served at the museum’s director for three years.
Another memorable chapter in Gleeson’s life involved production of “Pearl Harbor,” the 2001 Michael Bay film based on the Japanese attack on the American naval base, the very attack that drove Gleeson to enlist at 18. He organized a charter flight for Disney executives, dubbed the First Attack Flight, that showed the route the attackers flew, radar sites and gun positions.
Given his outstanding record of more than 50 years of safe flight operations, Gleeson received the Master Pilot Award from the FAA in 2006. His undying spirit of service continues to make a positive impression on those who serve with him.
“Since I joined the Civil Air Patrol in August 2013 as a senior member, John was my mentor and I looked up to him for guidance,” said Capt. Roy Barden, commander of the Honolulu Senior Squadron since 2016. He credits Gleeson and Col. Patrick Collins, Hawaii Wing commander, for helping him achieve his current position.
Barden described Gleeson as “a great leader. There’s no such thing as a challenge too big to handle. He really did a great job setting up our squadron’s Facebook page. He is still very active in our unit. … I would love to be able to be his age and still be in the active flying community.”
Betty Friedan, one of the founders of the modern feminist movement, once said, “Aging is not lost youth, but a new stage of opportunity and strength.”
Gleeson is a perfect example of someone who draws on the strength of his experience in order to set the stage for new opportunities. He agrees his stories from both the military and civilian sectors are valuable. He is in the final stages of putting together a book intended for his family.
He continues to serve as an example to his fellow citizens as a patriot whose love of country has endured the test of time.
What does he have to say about the life he’s led? “What a journey!” he exclaimed.