Wild Blue Yonder: Holy Cross students once took to the skies, learning some valuable life lessons along the way

By James Dempsey

Michael L. Shoen ’68 had just returned to Holy Cross for his third year when he noticed news articles on campus billboards about 18-year-old T. Kernahan Buck ’70. Buck had garnered national attention that summer for flying with his 15-year-old brother, Rinker, from New Jersey to California and back (the youngest duo to complete a cross-country flight). Shoen was himself an enthusiastic pilot—and had spent much of the summer flying in Arizona. He looked up Buck and made the obvious proposition: “Why don’t we start a flying club?”

Shoen’s idea was simple in theory: Buy a used plane for about $2,000, sell shares for $100 or $200 to cover the cost, then off they’d go into the wild blue yonder.

The College administration, however, less than thrilled at the idea of a flying studentry, kiboshed the idea. But Shoen had a good relationship with College history professor Rev. Maurice F. Reidy, S.J., who took up the young pilots’ cause—and, on Nov. 16, 1966, the Holy Cross Flying Club logged its first flight.

Both founding members came from families immersed in a love of flying and speed. Shoen’s father, Leonard, who later started the U-Haul Corporation, was a flier. As a young man, Michael Shoen raced motorcycles and cars and wrote what racing devotees consider one of the best books on the sport, The Cobra-Ferrari Wars, 1963-1965, telling the story of Carroll Shelby’s quest for the World Championship. Buck’s father, Tom, had come of age during Lindbergh’s historic crossing of the Atlantic and took to the sky in his teens; he lost a leg in a plane accident at the age of 30 but continued flying with the help of a prosthetic limb. His sons’ cross-country flight in 1966 was a tribute to his daring spirit. Rinker later wrote a book about the brothers’ feat, titled Flight of Passage.

Shoen and Buck, who studied economics and political science respectively, found that certain club duties on the ground offered experiences that would help them in the working world (both men went on to practice law).

“I set the books up, we had officers elected, we needed insurance, there was marketing, and that was all as interesting to me as the flying,” Shoen says.

“Kern was interested in instructing people,” he continues. “Another member, Joe Hasulak (’69), was a very creative person, and he turned the basement of one of the dorms into the Flying Club lounge. It was a lot of fun and gave us real camaraderie.”

The club’s first plane was a 1946 Aeronca Champion 7AC, a common post-war small airplane that was a slight step up from a Piper Cub. After one landing on a particularly snowy day, “we kind of banged it up a little bit,” Buck recalls. “We secured the airplane to the ground using only two of the three tie-down ropes ordinarily used for that purpose.  Deep snow obscured the location of the third rope—we didn’t have a shovel—and we were freezing cold, so we drove back to Holy Cross.”

The next morning, when the pilots returned to their aircraft, they found that high winds had lifted the unsecured wing into the air and smashed the secured wing into the ground, damaging it.

“Mike and I had to rebuild that wing,” he says. The operation was performed in the basement of Alumni Hall.

Another time the pair had to put new fabric on both wings, so they flew the plane in from Windle Airport in Millbury, landed it on top of College Hill where the Hart Center stands today, wheeled it down to the maintenance building and performed the fix.

The students’ passion for the sky also inspired their faculty mentor.

“Fr. Reidy became so enamored of flying that he started taking lessons and got his pilot’s license,” Buck says. The aviation-minded priest, in turn, was active in helping the students obtain better airplanes. After they had flown “the feathers off” the first plane, Fr. Reidy assisted the club in acquiring a relatively new airplane in 1968; in 1969, it was able to afford a new Piper Cherokee.

The organization continued for a few more years after Shoen and Buck received their degrees, but the high cost of maintaining a plane, along with rising fuel costs and a diminished interest in recreational flying among students, led to the suspension of operations in 1975. Just a year shy of its decade anniversary, the one and only Holy Cross Flying Club was grounded, but the deep friendship forged between the club’s founders endures.

To read more about Fr. Reidy, the Flying Club's advocate, go to holycross.edu/magazine and click on "Web Exclusives."

James Dempsey was a columnist for The Evening Gazette and The Telegram & Gazette in Worcester, Mass., for 18 years. The winner of awards from the Associated Press and United Press International, he now teaches writing, journalism and literature at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Clark University.