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Sky captain of Newton County
Local man brings historic airliner to his hometown
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About 40 miles from Covington, hundreds of commercial aircraft, painted in standard issue with overwhelming thrust capacity and computer-assisted flight controls, shuttle in and out of the world’s busiest airport. It’s a formula for ho-hum air travel, interrupted only by the ever-present Transportation Security Administration employees.

More than a half-century ago, there was no doubt that airlines took pride in both the beauty of their aircraft and the luxury their customers enjoyed.

This week, Newton County residents don’t have to travel back to the 1930s, or even to Hartsfield-Jackson, to see air travel at its best.

Gene Christian, a Covington resident since 1995 and a DC-3 pilot since the early 1970s, flies the Flagship Detroit, formerly of American Airlines and currently the oldest flying Douglas DC-3. Over 14,000 of the Douglas Aircraft Co. airplanes were produced, in both the commercial and military (the C-47, which flew in World War II, delivering airborne troops to France and Holland) versions. The airplane, built in 1920, is currently between tour stops, headed out to Gailsburg, Ill. Sept. 5, leading the hometown pilot to keep it parked nearby.

Christian flew the Flagship Detroit -- all commercial airplanes were named after cities or states in the early days of airline travel – into the Covington Municipal Airport recently, with a crew that then took flights home out of Atlanta’s airport. Christian chose to keep the iconic American airliner parked in Covington until it heads to its next destination for the Stearman Fly-in.

While the aircraft is parked near the airport’s entrance, other pilots have admired its shiny exterior and twin Wright Cyclone engines. This Saturday from 1 p.m.-3 p.m., the public will get its chance to look at this flying piece of American history.

Not only is the Flagship Detroit the first of its type to be used by American Airlines; it also was a means of transport for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and was piloted by aviation author Ernest K. Gann.

A Newton County resident is now part of that lineage. Christian is an instructor for the DC-3, teaching pilots how to fly the twin-propeller classic and has flown about 70 different aircraft in his almost 50 years of flying. He grew up around airlines, as his father worked for Delta and his mother worked for an insurance company that insured airline pilots.

As a freshman at Auburn University, Christian was offered a chance to learn to fly in exchange for helping to build an aircraft hangar. The young collegian went up in the evenings for about a half an hour before dark, and embarked on the path that would become his career.

He started flying the DC-3 in the early 1970s after the flight school he was working for in Griffin bought three of them from Ozark Airlines.

“I didn’t know then that was to be my lot in life,” Christian said.

He will enjoy his time at home in Newton County, while his neighbors will enjoy his historic-airborne office, until it’s time for him to fly out to another fundraising event for the non-profit company, also called the Flagship Detroit Organization. Along with the crew he will take about six passengers (not including the volunteers dressed as what were then known as “stewardesses”), who became members of the Flagship Detroit Foundation on a donation basis.

Information on how to become a member of the foundation, helping to keep the Flagship Detroit flying for a good cause, and getting yourself aboard, will be available at the Covington Municipal Airport Saturday.