Don Lee: Mayes Jr. flew blind, but still got his pilot’s license in the end

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Editor’s note: Don Lee is taking a break from his column this week. This is representation of a piece from Jan. 5, 2019.

Howard Mayes Jr. was an amazing individual. He soloed in 1932, at age 14, from Wertz Field near Institute, West Virginia.

Nowadays, it is not possible to fly solo at that age.

In 1936, he established a record altitude of 19,997 feet in a light plane from Lawrence County Airport.

It was known as Mayes Field in those days since his father, Howard Mayes Sr., was the airport manager.

I came to know Howard Jr. in the last several years of his life. He told me many stories, some of which I have related in these columns.

Since I discussed Jimmy Dolittle and his barrier breaking blind flight using the three or four instruments that he helped develop, I thought appropriate to relate some of Howard Jr.’s experiences using those instruments.

He was determined to fly for the airlines much to the dismay of Howard Sr., or Pop, as Howard Jr. called him. Pop wanted Jr. to succeed him as an airport manager.

To apply for an airline job, Howard Jr. needed to have an instrument rating so he decided to teach himself to fly IFR (Instrument Flight Rules).

To do this, he had his girlfriend make a pull-down blind to use as a window blind.

He would pull it over his head so that he could only see the instruments. He would take someone along to watch outside to warn him if he was not flying normally.

This particular day, he just took a fellow that hung around the airport hoping someone would take him up. Howard taxied to the end of the runway and pulled the hood down over his head and proceeded to take off. His passenger said, “You better look out.”

In a few more seconds he shouted, “You better look out!”

That got Howard’s attention and he looked out to find that he was headed for a hangar.

He was just barely able to climb over it.

He landed and found that the Venturi horn, which provided the vacuum to power the instruments, was iced up.

It was wintertime and Howard had decided to mount the Venturi directly behind the exhaust to keep it warm.

Unfortunately, he did not take into consideration that the combustion gases coming from the exhaust contained a lot of water vapor, which condensed and froze on the Venturi.

He corrected this and went on to be an accomplished IFR pilot. The problem was, he needed an FAA inspector to take him on a check ride to get the rating.

He found an inspector and explained what he had been doing.

The guy was incredulous; he told Howard that he could not fly with him until he had a few hours with an instructor or in Link Trainer.

The Link Trainer was developed in 1929 by Ed Link and that is a story by itself.

Howard found a Link Trainer at the Lunken airport in Cincinnati.

He flew there and took the required hours he needed to satisfy the inspector.

Don Lee, a pilot flying out of Lawrence County Airport since 1970, has been in charge of equipment and grounds maintenance for the last several years. He can be reached at