Oldest living military pilot honored

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DAYTON, Ohio – One of the reasons William R. “Bill” Crooks visited Wright-Patterson Air Force Base recently was his induction as a founder in the Frank P. Lahm Flight 9 Order of Daedalians.

Crooks was honored because, at 108, he is the oldest living military pilot.

Return visit. Another reason for coming here was to pay a return visit. Crooks had been here before, back in 1917. After joining the Army Signal Corps as a mechanic, he and 100 others were sent to the Fairfield Air Depot (later Patterson Field) here and enticed to become pilots.

But Crooks’ story began a few years before. Born in 1893, Crooks grew up in Missouri.

“I was raised on a farm about 75 miles from Kansas City,” Crooks said. “Life on the farm was hard. We had ‘two horsepower,’ meaning we had two horses. We also had manpower. We sawed wood, carried water, fed the animals and so forth.

Wrights’ invention. “Every evening after supper, we gathered in the living room and my father would read the paper,” he said. “One day my father had the St. Louis “Globe-Democrat” and read an article about Wilbur and Orville Wright – that they’d built a contraption that flew.

“That’s when I decided what I wanted to do, and 15 years later my dream was fulfilled.”

In the years preceding United States’ entry into World War I, there were rumors of war, he said.

“Wilson got elected because he said he’d keep us out of the war,” Crooks said. “But the Germans sank every ship going to Europe so no supplies could go there. They sank the Lusitania that had 1,000 Americans on board. In three days we declared war.

Couldn’t wait. “I was to be drafted in three weeks, but I didn’t want to wait,” he said. “So I looked around and thought, ‘where could I serve best?’ The [Army] Signal Corps needed mechanics, and they were the basis for building the [Army] Air Corps, so I joined.”

Crooks soon found out that the military needed pilots.

“I made out an application in 1918, and went to ground school in Austin, Texas,” he said. “Each class was 10 weeks, then you’d go to the next.

“The commandant of the school said, ‘These are war times, this is a war school, and we’re training war pilots. You need to take instruction rapidly.’ Twenty percent got sent away.”

Knew he could. “I thought I could fly one of these things,” Crooks said, describing his first time in an airplane. “The instructor did all kinds of stunts, (landed) and then took me to the starting place.

“He told me to take off. I was sick, but I put my teeth together and started bouncing across the field. I saw the high-tension wires on the other side of the base getting closer and closer, and I kept bouncing, but I thought I could take off, so I did.

“The instructor took over after we were airborne, but he had me land the airplane,” he said. “After a week, you’d get into a groove. You’d come down and hit the center of the field.”

Proud moment. Crooks earned his pilot’s silver wings in October 1918. “I’ve never been more proud of anything than to wear those wings,” he said.

After primary training, Crooks had to decide what type of aircraft he wanted to fly.

“I selected bombers,” he said. “I wanted big airplanes, the Capronis and DeHavillands.”

He said the bombers had four terra cotta practice bombs attached to their wings, and that they were equipped with shotgun shell mechanisms to make it easier to track exactly where the bombs hit.

The war ended with the signing of the armistice on Nov. 11, 1918. Crooks never got overseas. After learning of the war’s end he said he “took two days off to celebrate.”

After the war. Discharged in January 1919, Crooks said he had to decide what he wanted to do. He wanted to fly, but he also wanted to design. He chose designing and four years later earned a degree in mechanical engineering.

He went to work for Fairbanks-Morse in Wisconsin, designing diesel engines.

In 1936, he joined Cooper Bessmer in Grove City, Pa., as chief inspector and later as chief engineer after the company moved to Mount Vernon, Ohio.

He obtained 30 patents for the company and remained there until compulsory retirement in 1961. He continued as a consulting engineer there for three years.

Serving his country. In 1964, he moved to Washington and served as an engineer for the National Science Foundation, where he helped develop guidance systems for anti-ballistic missile systems.

“We developed missiles with a range of about 30 miles,” Crooks said. “Several were to be fired like a shotgun to destroy incoming missiles. They couldn’t help but hit something.”

After three years, he returned to his home in Ohio.

He approves. Although Crooks said he is not always able to keep up with the news today, he said that he was “proud that the civilized world is going after the terrorists. It reminds me of history (in which) pirates would capture vessels, and the United States would have to put the pirates out of business. That’s what we’ll have to do today.”

Asked about how he achieved such a long life, Crooks said, “When something gets broken, get it repaired. Don’t wait.”

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