Campbell remembers falling in love with flight

Published 11:30 pm Thursday, July 11, 2013

On a cloudy, sultry, July morning, the veil came down on N. Kenneth Campbell Field at the Troy Municipal Airport.

For Kenny Campbell, the ceremony was more emotional than he had expected and, perhaps, his heart beat a little too fast in appreciation of the honor and the recognition.

He had not expected the airfield to be named in his honor and his emotions won out.

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Later in the day, Campbell took time to reflect on the day and what it means to him.

“This is a tremendous honor for someone who loves and appreciates flight so much,” he said. “It’s the highest honor that I could ever have. And, it means a lot to my family and will for generations to come. I never expected anything like this.”

Campbell said he is much more comfortable behind the scenes.

“Anything I do, I like to do behind the scenes,” he said. “I never wanted or expected credit. That’s the way I am.”

Campbell was the son of a sharecropper and grew up on Highway 223 somewhere between Sandfield and Ebenezer in rural Pike County.

“We moved several times, from one tenant house to a little better one,” Campbell said. “Living way out in the country like that, when an airplane flew over, that was exciting. When we heard one coming, we’d run out in the field to watch it go over. I guess that was the beginning of my love of airplanes and flying.”

The Campbell brothers made and flew paper airplanes, but their adventurous spirits urged them to “take flight” themselves.

“We made an airplane out of scrap lumber and decided to fly it off the top of a dirt pit,” Campbell said with a laugh. “Huey got in the plane and we pushed him off and the plane went down like a rock. We thought we had killed him.”

Campbell said the first “close up look” that he got of an airplane was when a pilot put down in a peanut field.

“I had run out in the field with my brothers to see a plane come over,” he said. “One of my brothers had a hand mirror and he held it up and reflected the sunlight toward the plane.”

For whatever reason, the pilot landed the plane in the peanut field.

“It scared us to death because we thought we had caused the plane to land,” Campbell said. “When the pilot tried to take off, the wheels got tangled up in the peanut vines and it couldn’t get up.”

Campbell and his brothers helped the pilot push the plane out onto the road where he could taxi and take off.

The two-engine plane climbed into the sky. Campbell watched until it was out of sight. He said quietly to himself, “One day, that will be me.”

When Campbell was in the ninth grade at Banks, his family moved to North Three Notch Street in Troy.

“I finished out the year at Banks,” he said. “I would ride my bicycle out North Three Notch and catch the Sessions bus to school. The next year, I went to Charles Henderson High School.”

Living in town provided Campbell with opportunities for new adventures.

“On Sunday afternoons, some of us boys would hitch rides out to the airport in hopes of seeing planes land or take off,” he said. “One Sunday, a sign was posted that said, ‘Airplane rides $25.’ That was a lot of money back then but three of us saved up our money and pooled it and took a ride.”

The airplane ride was even more than Campbell had imagined.

“It was unbelievable,” he said. “The world looked so different from anything than I could have imagined it would be looking from the sky. At that young age, I was in awe of the beauty of God’s world.”

But tragedy has a way of changing things.

In the late 1960s, Campbell’s friend, who was a flight instructor at the Troy Airport, was killed in an air crash. That took the wind out of his sails. Then, a few years later, Campbell’s nephew, a student pilot, was killed in a crash near Brundidge.

“Those were big blows to me and I said that I would not fly anymore,” Campbell said. “But the love of flying overcame those feelings.”

About that time, Wiley Sanders was a young pilot and he took Campbell flying with him, first as tagalong and then as a student pilot. Before long, Sanders and Campbell became business partners and were their own corporate pilots.

As the business grew, professional pilots were hired and Campbell didn’t fly as much.

But he took notice of the conditions at the local airport.

“The airport was not being maintained and planes were being stranded,” Campbell said. “When planes landed, there was often no way to refuel; pilots couldn’t get help if they needed it. But it didn’t have to be that way.

Campbell knew that an airport could be a huge asset to a city and a community. Something had to be done. Somebody needed to get involved.

Just how much time and money Campbell contributed to the airport, he either doesn’t know or doesn’t want to brag. But with his contributions and public funding, the Troy Municipal Airport is now a tremendous recruiting aid for Troy and Pike County and a “good front door” to the city.

And, no one is could be prouder than N. Kenneth Campbell.

“I have a genuine love of flying,” Campbell said. “Flying is a privilege. To be up in the sky and look down on the Earth, there’s no way to explain it – the beauty of what has been created so naturally. On a clear day, you can see forever. And no matter how many times I fly, I’m always in awe of the beauty of God’s world.”