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Retired pilot fulfills dream for himself and kids

Dan Nelson is seen here next to his Czechian fighter plane at the Roswell Air Center. Nelson plans to use the plane to raise awareness for various charitable organizations benefiting sick children. (Christina Stock Photo)

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When Goddard High School graduate Dan Nelson decided to learn how to fly at age 16, he may not have guessed that his passion would lead to a life as an airline pilot — and to one day owning and flying a fighter jet.

Nelson is a native of Roswell. His late father, Delbert W. Nelson, a decorated Marine who served in World War II, supported his son and gave permission to pursue his flight license.

To afford it, Dan Nelson said he started working for local businesses, including on the ranch of G.W. Shanks for $1 an hour; for Raymond Pollard, a local dairyman; and for the owner of the local flight school, Richard D. “Dick” Callens, who operated Associated Callens Flying Service at the Roswell airport.

Standing in a Roswell hangar next to his recently purchased fighter jet, a Czechian fighter-trainer, Dan Nelson said, “Fifty years ago this December was when I started flying, same airport, same hangar complex, and that’s all what I’ve done.”

At the time, father and son did not tell Dan Nelson’s mother about the lessons. She had voiced her concerns and was against her young son doing something as dangerous as flying.

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“We didn’t tell my mom about my flying activities when I started out for quite some time,” Dan Nelson said. “She got wind of it and came out here and confronted Dick Callens. He told her I’d gone cross country, and he looked at his watch and said, ‘He’ll be home for supper. He’s about over Tokyo right now.’ And my mom went nuts. Tokyo? She thought Tokyo, Japan, not having any concept of time, speed and distance. It was actually Tokio, Texas, which is a little town over here near Lubbock.

“When I got back, it was pretty quiet down there at the office and Dick was just sitting there in his chair and he said, ‘Your mom was just out here this afternoon and your dad is on his way to pick you up.’ It was pretty quiet that night at the dinner table.”

His mother made peace with the idea of her son flying, and Dan Nelson, aviation major, graduated Goddard High School in 1972 to continue his education at Lubbock Christian School. Dan Nelson said that he flew charters and was a flight instructor, and for 33 years, he worked for American Airlines.

“When you work for the airlines, it’s mandatory,” Dan Nelson said. “When you reach 65, you have to retire. They throw you out. And so I made my mind up, I wouldn’t quit flying.”

Dan Nelson had always wanted to fly a fighter jet when Nathan Jones from Code 1 Aviation in Rockford, Illinois gave him the opportunity to buy one. The find was unique because the airplane type is still popular. “This airplane was built 1983, they built close to 3,000 of them and it is still used by air forces around the world — Syrian, Libyan and Thai air force are still using them for attack and bombers,” Dan Nelson said. “There are a lot of them around, but they got a lot of time on the airframe. This plane had 1,600 hours on the airframe when I got it. Usual airframe life is 16,000 hours. And then you can keep going as long as you are on a program and inspected.”

Before he was able to fly his jet, further licenses were required. After all, Dan Nelson’s airplane is capable of .80 mach, which is 613.815 mph. “You have to go to school for it, it requires special type rating,” he said. Type rating is required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and local aviation authorities for specific aircraft, on top of the initial license and aircraft class training.

Today, Dan Nelson’s home base is Phoenix, Arizona. A year ago, before the pandemic, the cost to rent a spot in a hangar in Phoenix was too high, so Dan Nelson decided to put up his plane at the Roswell Air Center. “The reason was that there was space, and my parents were alive at the time. My mother just passed away when I brought the airplane here. It was an opportunity for me to tend to my folks and then have the airplane here and fly it,” Dan Nelson said. Coincidentally, his plane was put in the same hangar where he started out almost 50 years ago.

Flying the airplane is not his only goal. Dan Nelson supports nonprofit organizations that specialize in helping sick children. Being retired and having time, Dan Nelson plans to participate with the airplane in airshows and at the same time, bring attention to these organizations. He found a Phoenix decal company that will provide the stick-on logos of the four organizations he chose. These will be displayed prominently on the tail of the airplane.

“We’ll get some exposure for them,” Dan Nelson said. “Invariably there are children at those airshows, and they’ll be able to come and sit in the front of the airplane and parents can take their picture. They don’t have to make a donation, but if they do, that’s great. It’s to create exposure for those charities on behalf of the kids.”

Dan Nelson took his time to investigate these organizations. His major criteria was that the organizations put their donations toward the children and not toward administration or the management hierarchy.

They are St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, where children with cancer find treatment; Make-A-Wish Foundation, where terminally ill children have their wishes fulfilled; the Phoenix Children’s Hospital; and Operation Smile.

Dan Nelson said he has a personal connection to the Phoenix Children’s Hospital. “I have a 13-year-old son, and he spent some time in Phoenix Children’s Hospital when he was born. When he was a month old he quit breathing and we found out that he had silent reflux. He spent some time there in intensive care. They were just great to us,” Dan Nelson said.

Operation Smile is one organization that gives a prime example of how a small donation can change the life of a child. “That’s a group of doctors, physicians, nurses, anesthesiologists and operating room techs that go around the world and fix children with cleft palate and cleft lip — with no charge for the families — at $243,” Dan Nelson said. “They (Operation Smile) help without any regard to the child’s race, sex, religion, any of that stuff. I love that. And a child that previously wouldn’t have a chance in life, does — once their mouth and lip is fixed. It’s all donated, time and resources.

“I’m not a spokesman, I’m just a person who loves the charity, contributes to the charity, and I want to do anything I can to make sure they are successful on a continuing basis,” he said.

Dan Nelson said that this is only the beginning, and that it was the kindness of the people who supported him that made this first step possible. “Thanks to Callens Flying Service, Larry Salganek from Jet Warbird Training Center in Santa Fe and Nathan Jones from Code 1, who put me and the plane together. I have other plans, but that’s down the road,” Dan Nelson said.

Christina Stock may be contacted at 622-7710, ext. 309, or at vision@rdrnews.com.

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