Pilot started with hardscrabble life, flew high

Richard Thomas Stancil felt it didn’t matter how your life started, but how you finished it.

He grew up in a North Carolina orphanage, struck out on his own at age 16 and later achieved his dream of becoming a commercial airline pilot.

Along the way, Stancil subdued a hijacker, taught himself to play the guitar and hit a home run off of a Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry.

Most people didn’t realize that the hardworking teenager was on his own, said Frank Farlow of Raleigh, N.C., his best friend since high school.

“It’s a Cinderella story,” Farlow said. “Not too many people could accomplish what Tommy did living out on his own without family support, or money or political connections. He did it with determination and guts.”

Stancil died July 11 surrounded by family at his Cumming home. He was 76 and battling dementia. A private graveside service was July 15 at Green Lawn Cemetery in Roswell.

Born on Jan. 12, 1939, in Charlotte, Stancil was taken to an orphanage as an infant. He lived there until he moved out at age 15 to stay with his mother in Mississippi.

Unhappy with farming, and dreaming of flying, Stancil packed his guitar and a duffle bag and returned to North Carolina. The 16-year-old got a room at a boardinghouse and a job at a Raleigh radio station, working morning and evening shifts before and after high school.

He and Farlow met while playing on a local semi-professional baseball team. They both loved Western movies. Even as a teenager, the dapper and determined Stancil always dressed nice, like he had somewhere important to go.

“He wore dress clothes to the movies,” Farlow said. “He was a smart person. He had to be to go through what he did at an early age. He just had a lot of fortitude in him. ”

In 1958, he met flight attendant Faye Guthrie after he moved into the boardinghouse where she lived.

“I saw a guy coming down the street with a bag in his hand and a guitar on his back, and I wondered, Who is that?’ ” Faye said. They got married the next year.

He graduated with honors from flight school in 1966 and got a job as a pilot with Piedmont Airlines the following year. During his 27-year career, Stancil rose through the ranks to become a Boeing 767 captain at Piedmont and US Airways.

In 1978, with the help of his flight crew and a Marine on board, Stancil thwarted an attempted hijacking by a drunken passenger who barged into the cockpit with a gun and ordered him to divert the plane to Cuba.

During takeoff on another flight in the 1970s, an engine failed and Stancil had to land his 60-passenger YS-11 aircraft on a short airstrip in Charleston, West Virginia.

“He was an awesome pilot,” said Colleen Fields, retired US Airways customer service agent and volunteer with the Silver Eagles, a group for retired Piedmont pilots. “What he did saved lives because he took the plane down through the river valley to get enough altitude to come back up and land. This was an airport on a mountain with no room for error.”

In 1980, he became the first pilot to land a plane at the Atlanta airport after the new terminal opened.

Stancil was proud when their daughter followed in her mother’s footsteps and became a flight attendant, his wife said. He pinned on her wings when she finished flight attendant school in 1985.

In 1995, Stancil retired and focused on his golf game, once beating pro golfer Larry Mowry during a practice round in Roswell.

A self-taught musician who played the guitar and piano, friends said he was shy until he warmed up to the crowd. Then he quickly became the life of the party.

He would play his guitar and regale the group with jokes and spot-on impersonations of Elvis Presley, comedian Jackie Gleason and the Three Stooges.

“I called him Hollywood,” said retired Piedmont pilot Wayne Savage of Marietta. “He was a fun person to be around.”

Stancil also will be remembered for devotion to his family, and he inspired others without realizing it, his wife said.

“I was proud that he never covered up his humble beginnings,” Faye said. “He said he was not responsible for that part of his life, but he was responsible for what he did when he was older. It helped to make him what he was and made him feel for others who go through tough circumstances.”

In addition to his wife, Stancil is survived by his daughter Kimberly Martin of Suwanee and two grandchildren.