Before he could fully pronounce the word ‘airplane,’ a 2-year-old Leroy Eley would stand on the docks near his boyhood home of Harlem and look up at the sky.
“They said he’d point and say ‘air-pwane,’ ” said his daughter, Wendy Eley, of Atlanta. “He always knew he wanted to fly.”
Mr. Eley wanted to be a commercial airline pilot, but he came along during a time when the color of his skin kept him from achieving his dream. So he did the next best thing: He taught others to fly.
“And it was a shame, because he would have been a fantastic airline pilot,” said friend Don Chapman, a retired Delta pilot and Naval captain who lives in Newnan. “But he’s one of the guys who paved the way for the rest of us.”
Leroy Edward Eley Sr., of Atlanta, died Aug. 30 at home from complications of pancreatic cancer. He was 85. A funeral is scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday at Jackson Memorial Baptist Church, Atlanta. Murray Brothers Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.
As a flight instructor for more than 50 years, Mr. Eley received his initial training from the Army Air Corps, when he was assigned to the Tuskegee Army Airfield. He volunteered for the Corps when he was 17, and was accepted after he passed a college equivalency test for military flight training, as a high school junior. He was placed in Alabama by the time he was 18, but World War II ended not long after his arrival, so he continued his training as a civilian in Long Island, N.Y.
Mr. Eley worked as an aviation inspector for the Apollo space program in the ’60s, his daughter said, and helped build the Lunar Excursion Module, which was part of the spacecraft. He later worked as a flight instructor at what was the Suffolk County Air Force Base, and then for the Federal Aviation Administration, where he not only worked with commercial pilots but also investigated plane accidents.
“He had a tremendous amount of knowledge,” said friend and former student Jim Pittarelli, of Queens, N.Y. “He was a wonderful instructor because of that, and he had patience and he could transmit confidence to a student. That’s what he did for me.”
One of Mr. Eley’s most impressive accomplishments was his diversity of flight experience, considering he never worked as a pilot, Mr. Chapman said. Ms. Eley said her father held every flight certification available, on land and sea.
“He flew more types of aircraft than I ever did,” Mr. Chapman said. “I mean, he even went and got his float plane rating when he was 79 years old, so that says a lot about his dedication to aviation.”
In addition to his daughter, Mr. Eley is survived by his son LeRoy E. Eley Jr. of Long Island, N.Y.; brothers, Charles Eley of Tampa, and Melvin Eley of Newark, N.J.; four grandchildren; and one great-grandson.