“In the good old days, you knew things were well made.”

I was told I just had to speak with Dot, and I loved meeting her.  She is a kind, thoughtful, strong woman who has made an incredible life for herself.  She founded the Midland Aviation Camp and began flying airplanes as a hobby before instruments became digital, before GPS, and has watched her students transition from analogue to tech aviation.

Dorothy “Dot” Hornsby was born August 27, 1934 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  She’s lived in Cincinnati, San Antonio, Charlotte, Wichita Falls, Casa Blanca, Geneva, Hong Kong, and Midland, Michigan.  She married her high school sweetheart and had three boys (two of them twins).  Much of their travel was a consequence of his enlistment in the Air Force during their younger years, but some came later in life through working for Dow Chemical.  Dot told me that when she was young she decided she wanted to travel and go around the world, which she eventually did.  From Hong Kong, she took her youngest son to many of the countries that weren’t accessible by normal travel from the United States.  She let him choose two places he wanted to go – climb the Eiffel Tower and see Lenin’s body – and they traveled the Far East with those detours.

When they were in Hong Kong, China was still closed to foreigners.  When the borders opened in the late 1970’s, Dot decided to return and enter China, completing a goal she set when she lived nearby.

“Even in high school my goal was to go around the world, which I got to do.”

Dot is a teacher.  She taught English in Hong Kong and math in Midland, and continues to teach flight classes today at the Barstow Airport in Midland.  She began teaching flight school after her husband died.  Really, flying was her way of coping with his death in 1992 only a short while after they retired.  In her words:

She told me, partway through our interview, that she wasn’t sure why she chose flying as a coping mechanism for her grief for loosing her husband.  My initial thought was that he was in the Air Force – perhaps that would create a closeness to his first occupation.  But as she talked about her youth and family, she thought of her father, and told me this anecdote:

Dot struck me as a very strong woman.  She did and continues to do so much that was before her time.  She supported her husband by teaching while he went through graduate school, traveled independently with her son because she felt it was important and wanted to see the world, got her own Masters Degree in Counseling and Guidance, and chose to go to flight school at a difficult time when most would never have considered it.

Of course, I had to ask her how technology has changed flying.  Obviously the GPS has been an influential tool, and I’d assumed that it had influenced her experience with flying, but I was sure to ask her and learned how very much it had changed.  In her words:

“What worries me is that kids have the attention span for cartoons on TV, but in the classroom we have to worry.”

I loved hearing about the first television Dot ever saw.  How strange it was, this thing in the room.  

“I don’t want the future my grand kids are going to have.”

At the end of our interview, Dot really thought hard about what technology has done, its benefits and losses.  She considered the phenomenal progress we made, that space travel is able to happen, but also the ‘throw away society’ we’ve become.  To wrap up, here are her musings:

“We got to New York nine days late, and there was a whole crowd of people on the pier.  And then I saw that Statue of Liberty… that really, really meant something.  I saluted her and she seemed to be saying to me, ‘Welcome home, soldier.  You won the war.  America is still free.'”

When one meets Virgil, the first thing s/he notices is his confidence.  His eyes sparkle, and if you look closely, there’s a bit of a kick behind them.  During the interview, Virgil and I decided to take a break to get a cup of coffee from his building’s concierge desk.  When we exited the elevator to the main floor, we encountered three women sitting on a bench.  We said hi, and the woman sitting in the middle responded to Virgil, “We like the way you walk.  You look like a teenager.”  She hit the mark.  Virgil has a swagger.

Virgil William Westdale was born January 8, 1918 on a farm in Millersburg, Indiana.  If that sounds familiar, I’ll tell you why – Virgil is Virginia Sears‘ younger brother.  Virgil, like his sister, is half Japanese, and was born with the name Nishimura, meaning “West Village”.  He grew up on the peppermint farm Virginia discussed during her interview, and learned to drive at age nine in order to be a help.  He confirmed that soon before the Depression, peppermint oil went sky high, which gave his father enough money to buy their own farm at the border of Michigan.  He said he used to stand on the border of Indiana and Michigan, which he thought was pretty good.

Virgil chose to got to College after working a couple years out of high school.  He moved to Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.  There, he discovered a flying program – $40 for lessons and private license.  He thought it’d be pretty great to be able to fly, but didn’t have $40 to spare.  A few weeks later, a friend, who was working, loaned him the money.  He took to flying like a duck to water.

At this time World War Two was well under way.  Virgil was sure the draft was coming, and chose instead to enlist.  He immediately shined.  He was the best in his class at acrobatic flying, and, a year later, took the instrument test and commercial test within 24 hours of each other – something he could hardly believe later in life when his daughter asked about the story.  He was moved up to instructor, and began training new recruits.  Unfortunately, the prestige didn’t last.  In his words.

Virgil faced more discrimination due to his heritage after that.  He was moved to the 442nd Infantry in the Army, an all Japanese company.  Most of his peers were second-generation, not part Japanese like him.  Due to his European roots on his mom’s side, he was one of the tallest in the company.  After a time, he was put in the 522nd Artillery of the same regimental combat team.

They were sent overseas, at first to Italy, and eventually France and Germany.  When they were first deployed, no European Commander wanted them, but they became one of the most successful and decorated regiment in the history of the military.  They were responsible for rescuing the Lost Battalion, of which Virgil describes mixed feelings due to the number of men lost versus those rescued.  They were among the first to reach and help liberate Dachau Camp, a Jewish Concentration Camp in Germany.  It was one of the men in his company that shot open the lock on the gate.  Virgil recalled seeing several men in striped clothing eating a dead horse.

When it was time for his company to return home in September of 1945, Virgil wasn’t allowed.  He believes it was due to some animosity from his Commander, but he’s not sure.  He had enough points to return to the United States, but was told to stay behind.  Instead, he was given papers for return in November.  It was cold.  Very cold.  They rode in an open air truck, and were told to sleep on a cement floor in a warehouse during the trip to the Atlantic Coast.  Virgil was strong headed, and wanted to sleep someplace warm, so he and a friend wandered into the night, and encountered a Nazi group.  He wanted so badly to get home in time for Christmas, but the ship encountered a massive storm in the crossing.  I’ll let Virgil tell the full story, because his account is amazing and the homecoming very emotional.

Virgil learned to tap dance at age 75, and still dances in recitals today.  When he retired from work, he grew antsy, and so joined the TSA to keep busy, from which he retired at age 91.  He holds 25 patents from his career.  In 2009, Virgil wrote a book about his life called “Blue Skies & Thunder“, which you can buy on Amazon to read more about his life.