A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

People of NKY: Charlie Pyles’ sense of adventure and curiosity led him to aviation career and love of planes

By Ginger Dawson
NKyTribune reporter

The bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II, is long remembered and commemorated, but not many of us today realize how up-close and personal that war got to be. In addition to Dec. 7, 1941, there were also mainland bombings, military and civilian, on the West Coast and a discovered, and fowled, plan to distribute explosives via U-boat on the Atlantic coastline from Florida to New York. Everyone was on heightened alert.

Charlie Pyles (Photo by Ginger Dawson

As many people did in that can-do Greatest Generation, Mary and Charles Pyles were doing their duty for the war effort by joining the Civil Air Patrol, an organization developed to assist the American military on the home front. Specifically, they were a part of the Ground Observer Corps, whose duty it was to survey the skies and identify enemy aircraft through their shapes and then report them.

Mary and Charles were well located for this role. They lived in Elkins, West Virginia, about 200 miles from the Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. B36 Bombers, with the largest wingspan of any bomber ever built, would take off and fly right over Elkins. The energy and vibrations were so intense that it knocked the knick-knacks right off of Mary’s shelves.

These intermittent occurrences had another surprising effect. Marion Charles Pyles, their first son, born in 1944, grew up with these vibrations and was transfixed by what produced them. By the age of four, he was able to identify aircraft by silhouette, too. At this early age, he read anything he could get his hands on; a set of mail-order encyclopedias were particularly interesting, with sections devoted to aviation and disasters. The sky, and what was crossing in it overhead had an undeniable appeal for Charlie (who was spared the “fancy” name of Marion by this time).

Charlie and Dick, a little before their BIG ADVENTURE. (Photo provided by Charlie Pyles)

In fact, the allure of these airplanes and where they might be coming from before they thundered over his house was something he could not let go of. He had to find out.

So, at the grand old age of five, Charlie and his little brother, Dick (14 months younger!), decided to go on a journey to discover their origin. There was a smaller airport in Elkins. That must be where those amazing bombers were coming from, and there they headed. They got there! Six miles! We can only imagine what Mary and Charles went through before they were found. Lord.

To this day, Charlie has vivid memories of that early, life-changing journey.

Airplanes and aviation continued to dominate Charlie’s interests. When he got in high school, he signed up for a correspondence course with the National School of Aeronautics. He had a plan to attend business school, but that idea was pre-empted by resident training in Kansas City. This was a part of his coursework for the NSA.

He never had a chance to go to business school. Charlie was in demand! He was invited to interview for a position with Lake Central Airlines almost immediately after returning home. Lake Central was a smaller regional outfit that happened to serve that very airport in Elkins that Charlie and his brother had made their early expedition to.

A brochure from Charlie’s first airline. (Provided)

And thus began a thirty-five and a half year career in the airline business. The commercial airline industry had grown quite a bit after the war, but it was still not what it would become. Back then, as station agent, he was responsible for every facet of running the airline. He learned how to do everything to keep the planes in the air and on schedule except to fly one himself. Keeping cargo in balance as it was loaded, weather reporting for the national system, and working with customers are just a few of the responsibilities that he had.

As time went on, and every facet became more sophisticated, specialization became necessary. Charlie became an Operations/Load Control man. And, in 1978, he also became a licensed pilot for his own enjoyment.  

The airlines, themselves, also went through restructuring as far as location and ownership. In time, the smaller airports gave way to larger hubs. In fact, our very own Lunken Airport (Cincinnati) lost its primary footing when, in 1947, all business moved to the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) located in Hebron, Kentucky.

In 1964, Charles was in Portsmouth, Ohio, still with Lake Central. He wanted a better chance for advancement. This was not going to happen in a little town that was part of the nicknamed “Hillbilly Express” airmail circuit which jumped through several others from Washington D.C. to Cincinnati.

Lunken Airport Terminal — Home of the Cincinnati Aviation Heritage Museum, 262 Wilmer Ave. Rm 26. (Photo by Ginger Dawson)

He came to Northern Kentucky to work at CVG. As the airlines continued to shuffle ownership over the years through mergers, Lake Central became Allegheny Airlines, which in turn changed to U.S. Air, and when Charlie retired in 1999, it was with U.S. Airways. U.S. Airways ultimately became American Airlines.

Being detail-oriented and knowing his business, he knows the history of all of these mergers and the people involved like the back of his hand.

One thing to know about Charlie is that he gets stuff done. His experiences with the early airline business model, with his role as station agent, taught him how to lead and take care of business. The culture had not gone to special job descriptions then, and since everyone knew how to do everything and worked together for an important result, a strong sense of teamwork and camaraderie existed in a way that probably wouldn’t happen today.

And never mind, that at the age of five, Charlie took charge of his own curiosity!

A poster from one of the Cincinnati Lunken Airshows. (Photo by Ginger Dawson)

Shortly after he retired, at least from CVG, Charlie became the chairman of the newly created Cincinnati Lunken Air Show. This was a two-day event that featured performances by air teams and other aerial entertainers. Important airplanes like the B-17 Flying Fortress and a replica Japanese Zero were featured and notable people, such as Col. Robert Morgan, pilot of the fabled Memphis Belle were on hand.

This event went on for three years. But, everyone could see all of the flight performances without paying for a ticket! Everyone enjoyed the free show (it wasn’t supposed to be!) and it was a great event, but it wasn’t financially sustainable.

The love of airplanes, a sentimental attachment to an industry and way of life led Charlie and his former co-workers and friends, all members of the Cincinnati Aviation Heritage Society to establish a museum in 2004.

The Cincinnati Aviation Heritage Museum is located in the Lunken Airport Terminal, showcasing aviation and airline history. Charlie manages operations, securing artifacts of every description and, of course, is the resident expert and historian.

Charlie is a good raconteur with a good sense of humor. When I asked him for a quote that would define his modus operandi, he provided this: “When you’re the leader of the pack, sometimes you have to look back and see if everybody is still with you.”

Somehow, I think they always are.

Yes! The museum has this. One of their special artifacts. (Photo by Charlie Pyles)

Another fabulous artifact. Charity Newsies Air Show Trophy.(Photo by Ginger Dawson)

Seventies vintage flight attendant’s uniform — with BERET. (Photo by Ginger Dawson)

Just a sampling of the many photos on display. (Photo by Ginger Dawson)

Related Posts

Leave a Comment