At the age when most teenagers are learning to drive, Ron Alexander was already winging his way into the wild blue yonder.
Alexander took his first flight in a military C-119 when he was 14, flew solo at 16 and had his private pilot’s license by 17.
“It was his destiny,” his wife, Regina Alexander, said. “It was something he had a passion for from the very beginning.”
Ronald Ray “Ron” Alexander, pilot, aviation entrepreneur and founder of the Candler Field Museum, died Nov. 17, still following his lifelong passion for flight.
Alexander, 74, of Griffin was killed when the Curtiss JN-4 he was piloting crashed near the museum’s landing strip in rural Pike County, near Macon. Witnesses reported that the vintage aircraft, burst into flames after take-off and crashed, killing Alexander and friend and passenger Larry Enlow.
Flying was one constant in Alexander’s fast-paced life, whether it was in his service to the country in the Vietnam War, in his many business ventures or in his efforts to mentor young aviation enthusiasts.
A native of Bloomington, Ind., Alexander enlisted in the Air Force after college. He spent a year flying the C-7 Caribou over Vietnam in support of the Marine Corps and Army Special Forces, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and two Air Medals.
After his stint in the Air Force, he went to work for Delta Airlines, where he retired in 2002 as a chief pilot after 34 years.
Alexander also launched several aviation-related businesses, starting in 1979.
“He never had a shortage of ideas,” Regina Alexander said. “And once he started something, it would lead to something else.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, he restored a vintage biplane, and, as an offshoot of that, formed Alexander Aeroplane Co., an aviation supply company that made restorations easier for other enthusiasts.
In the 1990s, he launched a popular series of traveling workshops, in which experts would give hands-on training in restoring skills such as welding, stitching and fabric application. The workshops were later sold to the Experimental Aircraft Association and today remain big draws.
In March 2004, Alexander bought Peachtree State Airport in Pike County and began work on Candler Field Museum, which was designed to look like the original Atlanta airport of the 1920s and 1930s.
The place became a popular spot for aviators, with an adjoining residential development, aircraft restorations and a popular restaurant, the Barnstormer’s Grill.
The museum’s board of directors developed a youth mentor program, with the intent of advancing Alexander’s decades-long efforts to keep aviation alive for the next generation.
“I personally think it (the mentor program) was his largest accomplishment,” said Brian Karli, a member of the museum board and a corporate pilot.
Boys and girls in the program have the chance to work on airplanes, and, for every 10 hours they put in, are given one free hour of flying, Karli said.
He said the program “lit a spark in one boy,” who went from struggling in school to being a straight-A student.
“There were several kids like that,” Karli said. “I think that made Ron very proud.”
A visitation service for Alexander was held last weekend, drawing more than 600 people, including Alaska Airline pilot Steve Fulton from the Seattle area.
Alexander had taken Fulton under his wing years ago, when Fulton was attending high school with Alexander’s oldest daughter, Julie.
Fulton remembers visiting the Alexander home one day and spending most of the time washing and waxing a biplane Alexander had immaculately restored.
In exchange for his labors, Alexander gave him a ride in that plane.
“I’d never been in an open cockpit biplane, and I just thought I’d entered into a wonderful world,” he said.
Fulton started working for Alexander in high school and continued while attending Georgia Tech and beyond.
“Ron was always just very giving to me,” said Fulton, who also is vice president of sales and marketing for Sandel Avionics. ”The investment he made in my life allowed me to have a great career.”
Mentoring “became almost a lifelong calling and in some ways a patriotic activity” for Alexander, Fulton said.
Alexander’s vintage airplanes were featured in several movies.
In 2013, he was inducted into the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame.
He is survived by his wife, Regina Alexander, daughters Julia Alexander and Jane Smith, son-in-laws Eric Lund and Rod Smith, and three grandchildren.
A celebration of his life will be held at a later date.