Jim Allbright, of Bozeman, finished telling a crowd of several hundred of his colleagues a story about getting roped into flying thousands of extra pounds of supplies on a cargo flight between Mexico and Miami, Fla.
The tale, complete with punchlines and a little excitement and danger, took about five minutes to share and involved one of the plane’s engines blowing out, with another on the verge as the crew bailed a cargo of rice and beans midair.
“That’s just one of my stories and there are about 500 more of them,” he said.
Allbright’s 500 stories add up to more than five decades as a pilot. He and James Lewis of Lewistown were honored Friday with the Federal Aviation Administration’s Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, given to pilots with at least 50 years of safe and responsible flying experience.
The pair received the awards at the annual Montana Aviation Convention, held this week at the Holiday Inn Grand Montana Convention Center on the West End.
According to the FAA, the award “recognizes pilots who have demonstrated professionalism, skill and aviation expertise by maintaining safe operations for 50 or more years.”
Not counting Allbright and Lewis, 41 Montana men and one woman have received the award. About 2,700, or 0.4 percent, of an estimated 620,000 pilots nationwide have earned the honor.
Lewis said he has been fascinated with aviation since he was a boy growing up on his family’s farm northwest of Lewistown, directly in the flight path of B-17 bombers from a nearby base.
“They’d open the bomb bay doors over our house,” he said. “They’d scare the daylights out of my brother and I.”
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He received his private license in 1953. Years later, while teaching at Helena Vocational Center, he took over the family farm near Lewistown and realized he could make the drive in four hours or fly it in 45 minutes and promptly ramped up his time in the air.
Since, Lewis has joined the International Flying Farmers’ Montana chapter, attended 20 Montana Aviation Conferences and served on the Lewistown Airport Board.
He continues to fly a 1961 Cessna 182.
“It’s been an interesting life I’ve had and I’m not ready to quit yet,” he said. “I’m still going to keep flying. I’ve met so many people flying.”
Allbright started flying at age 17 in a Cessna 150, paying for lessons by mowing lawns. He went on to earn his private, commercial, instrument, multi-engine commercial helicopter, flight instructor airplane, flight instructor rotocraft helicopter and ATP licenses over the years.
After years of flying for private companies, he joined the Miami-Dade Police Department in Florida and spent 25 years flying planes and helicopters.
He now teaches flying in Bozeman and owns a Piper Tomahawk and Harmon Rocket II, regularly flying for pleasure as well as teaching.
“All of the young people that have an interest in aviation, I say keep that interest going, keep that enthusiasm going,” he said. “That’s how I’ve done it.”