By Joe Earle
Pat Epps knew airplanes early.
One of his first encounters with an airplane, he said, came when his father had one of his older brothers hold him, squealing, while the two boys sat on the back of an airplane, sort of as human weights. They held down the plane while his dad rebuilt it.
The first flight he recalls was when he was about 3, he said, and he sat in his mother’s lap for the trip. He even remembers the airplane: a Ford Tri-Motor.
And he remembers a day, when he was 12 or so, that he ran from downtown Athens, Ga., to the little airport on the edge of town just for a chance to ride along with his brother on a quick flight to Gainesville or some other nearby town.
“The clouds were like they are right there, except that they were pink with the sunset,” Epps said, pointing at the bright blue sky and high clouds outside his Epps Aviation office at DeKalb Peachtree Airport one recent afternoon. “My 17-year-old brother was doing loops flying in and out of those clouds. You could do that then.”
And now? “You can do that now. You just don’t tell anybody,” Epps said. “Some things you just don’t tell.”
Still, when PDK hosts its annual open house June 5, one of the pilots flying rolls and loops to draw oohs and ahhs from the crowd will be Pat Epps. At age 76, the white-haired pilot is still flying aerobatics in his 1975 Beech Bonanza.
He jokes he performs “old man’s aerobatics.”
“It’s the same old show, very basic,” he said. “An aerial ballet – and I can’t even dance. My wife is a great dancer, but I can’t. I’ve got two left feet. I’m the warm-up band.”
But Mike Van Wie, interim director at PDK, says Epps’ aerobatic flying stands out in a time when younger air-show pilots often simply show off with speed and jaw-dropping stunts.
“Mr. Epps performance is exceptionally smooth,” Van Wie said. “He’s one of the best at what he does in an airplane that just about anybody can buy and fly.”
So why does he do it? “I don’t know,” he said. “Why do people enjoy playing the piano? Why do they enjoy that?”
The main reason, he said, is to promote flying. He’s just giving the public a look at what airplanes can do. “Promoting the airplane business, that’s all,” he said.
Epps comes by flying honestly. He’s the youngest of Georgia aviation pioneer Ben T. Epps’ children. Ben Epps built airplanes in his shop in Athens just a few years after the Wright Brothers took the first controlled powered flight. Ben Epps was one of the first people inducted into the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame and a replica of his first airplane is displayed in the aviation museum in Warner Robins. The Epps family has been involved in Georgia aviation for three generations.
With a wry grin, Pat Epps half jokes he was something of a slow starter for an Epps. “I was 18 before I soloed,” he said.
But he took to flying like his siblings. After his father was killed in a crash in 1937, his mother, Omie Williams Epps, encouraged her children to keep flying, Epps said. “All the boys fly,” he said. His sisters flew, too. “Mama encouraged us,” he said.
Two of his brothers were airline pilots, Epps said, but he moved into general aviation. In 1965, he started Epps Aviation at PDK. His company operates one of the airport’s fixed-base operations, an aviation service business that includes a sort of gas station and garage for the private planes that use the airport, now Georgia’s second-busiest, after Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
“Epps Aviation is one of the largest privately owned FBOs in the country,” Van Wie said. “His competitors are all multinational corporations and he’s standing there proudly and doing as well as anybody and better than most.”
Epps also is different in another way, Van Wie said. “His handshake is more valuable to him than anything put on a piece of paper. There aren’t many of those (kind of businessmen) left. I jokingly say that he reminds me at least once a month how fortunate I am to be managing his airport.”
The halls outside Epps’ office offer visitors a museum of Georgia aviation. There’s a model of an Epps Light Monoplane, one of the planes his father built. There are signed photographs of fliers he’s known, from stunt pilots to astronauts. And there’s a copy of an aerial photo taken from one of his dad’s planes of the first University of Georgia game in the school’s stadium. The photograph is framed with a pair of tickets from the game and the score: UGA 15, Yale 0.
Sitting in his office wearing a bright yellow tie with just a hint of tiny airplanes in the design, his white hair clipped short, Epps looks more like a businessman than a pilot. But he has no intention of giving up flying.
“Every flight is still a learning experience,” he said. “The wind changes. Something changes. Somebody puts something in front of you that you weren’t anticipating. Something is there to surprise you.”
When he turned 60, he said, his insurance company suggested he might want to give up flying acrobatics. “Everybody tells me to quit – too old,” he said.
But he went to an air show in Texas and watched a pilot named Left Gordon put on a show. “When he landed, I said, ‘Lefty, how old are you?’ He said, ‘73.’ And here I am, only 60.”
That was 16 years ago. And Epps is still flying.
DeKalb Peachtree Airport hosts its annual Good Neighbor Day open house and air show June 5. The show lasts from noon until 5 p.m. Admission is free; parking costs $5 per vehicle.