Celebrating 50 Years of Flight
Maj. Ladde Mayer (BS, ‘60) is honored twice by the FAA for his achievements as a pilot and a mechanic.
When Maj. Ladde Mayer was two years old, his mother brought him to a flight training school in Galesburg, Illinois. World War II had just broken out, and his father was teaching college students to fly before they joined the U.S. Army Air Corps, which preceded the U.S. Air Force.
This was Mayer’s first exposure to a profession that ultimately would define an illustrious career spanning more than five decades.
During his teenage years, the family moved to southeast Arkansas, where his parents launched a farming and crop-dusting business that would one day employ Mayer as an aircraft mechanic.
He attended two different colleges on music scholarships before deciding that flying and repairing planes would offer more rewarding career opportunities than playing the drums.
Mayer’s pursuit of an aviation school led him to Parks College in Cahokia, Illinois. Though he doesn’t recall how he found the school, he immediately felt like he had found his niche.
“I just loved it,” he said. “It was 600 guys living mostly in World War II dormitories, with no girls, no social life. I think we had to take a minimum of 19 hours in a trimester.”
Despite the heavy course load, Mayer spent his evenings playing drums in night clubs to help pay for his tuition.
“That didn’t work out so well,” he said. “I was working until two in the morning five nights a week and I started flunking my courses. After the Dean had a long talk with me, I got my act together.”
He completed Parks College’s Aircraft Maintenance Engineering program and earned his Bachelor of Science degree in 1960, the same year he married Jeanie, his wife of 52 years. Shortly after graduating, Mayer began taking formal flight lessons from the son of the man who, two decades earlier, had taught his dad to fly.
Since taking off on his first solo flight on July 6, 1961, Mayer has accumulated more than 3,000 flying hours and conducted more than 1,500 hours of flight instruction. His FAA ratings include ATP, MEI, CFII, AGI, IGI, SES and Comm. Glider.
Mayer’s professional resume includes serving as an aircraft maintenance engineer on the F-4 Phantom jet for McDonnell Aircraft, an aerospace engineer and electronics engineer for the Army Aviation Systems Command, and a pilot for the Civil Air Patrol.
He also served as a volunteer DC-3 and GS-1 co-pilot and mechanic for MissionAir, a Florida-based non-profit service organization that transports missionaries, medical supplies, food and clothing into disaster areas.
Mayer’s most daring journey took place in the summer of 1977, when he volunteered to deliver a single-engine fixed-gear airplane from Alton, Ill., to the island of Guam. The 60-hour voyage included 45 hours of flight over the Pacific Ocean, during which Mayer battled strong vertigo, a failed magnetic compass, the fact that he had no ferry tank fuel gauge and a sputtering engine that quit as the auxiliary fuel tank emptied.
“For several long, frightening seconds the engine would not restart,” Mayer remembered. “We were flying at about 3,000 feet, so at our weight we would have struck the ocean in about two minutes.”
As terrifying as that experience was, Mayer recalls many more times when he was inspired by the splendor of being airborne.
“I’ve seen some of the most beautiful sights when flying between cloud layers and it’s raining and there are all the different shades of white and gray and pink,” he said. “That is something you never forget.”
Mayer encountered a much less inspiring view when he served as a volunteer pilot for the Civil Air Patrol during the Gulf oil spill in 2010. Flying at an altitude of just 500 to 1,000 feet, Mayer needed to maneuver the plane so a cameraman could survey and photograph the oil booms deployed to contain the spill.
“It was very risky, because the summertime weather in that area changes quickly and can really get mean,” he said. “It was also unsettling because you couldn’t see the end of the oil – it extended beyond the horizon. A lot of it was as thick as peanut butter and you had no idea how deep it was.”
Lifetime Achievement x 2
In recognition of more than 50 years of service as both a pilot and a mechanic, the Federal Aviation Administration recently honored Mayer with two prestigious awards: the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award and the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award (named after the first aircraft mechanic).
Mayer and his wife currently reside in the Birmingham suburb of Pelham, Alabama, close to their three daughters and eight grandchildren, who make their homes in Florida, Georgia and Alabama.
He remains active in the Central Alabama Senior Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol, serving as a mentor and instructor.
Last year was the first time Mayer visited Parks’ current home on the main campus of Saint Louis University.
“I was just awestruck and never more proud,” he said. “I hadn’t known how magnificent Parks looked as part SLU’s campus.”