Doug Hale is 50. Jace Koonce is 3. So what could they possibly have in common?
Not much, but enough for a deep, mutual appreciation. The two are fascinated by flight and were certainly in their element Friday at Pine Bluff Grider Field Airport, which was hosting the Black Pilots Association’s 17th annual national Operation Skyhook fly-in.
“It’s an airplane!” squealed young Jace as one of the visiting aviators took part in a flour bomb target-drop competition, enriched with sound effects. As the bomb struck and its white contents powdered upward and then scattered onto the ground, the boy was almost unable to contain himself.
“Ba-boom! Ba-boom! Ba-boom!” he bellowed as he raised a foot and stomped it in unison with his verbal bursts.
Hale, the airport’s manager for the past eight years, was naturally more reserved, but he had an eye on the contest as he scanned and walked through a crowd outside the airport terminal. Jace wasn’t hard to notice, and Hale soon made his way toward the boy, who was in the company of his grandparents, Mark and Cindy Koonce of Pine Bluff.
Hale was grinning as he approached. He understood the boy’s excitement. He was familiar with the enthusiasm.
The pair began to converse. Jace, the son of Dustin and Jenay Koonce, proudly showed his new friend his favorite toy — a miniature metal helicopter. Hale noted that there weren’t any whirlybirds present, but a military helicopter had been at Grider Field just the day before.
As the flour bombardment continued, Jace shrilled as other, non-competing planes flew past. Asked which aircraft might be his favorite, the boy suddenly grew quiet and suggested it would be one painted “John Deere green.”
That reference to tractors prompted Hale to think about his late father, Billy Hale, an “ag pilot” for nearly three decades.
“He crashed three times,” Hale said of his father, who died a couple of years ago. “Crop dusting is a dangerous profession now, but it was even more dangerous back then. Dad started in 1968.”
As Hale’s memories began to flow, he motioned toward Jace, who was hugging tightly to his grandfather as the elder Koonce held him in an effort to give the boy a better view of the rupturing flour bombs.
“I like seeing a kid enjoying planes like this,” said Hale. “It reminds me of when I was about his age out here.”
As a child, Hale resided on property adjacent to Grider Field, which dates back to World War II when it was the site of an aviation school. But while the Hales’ house was on other ground, he’s fast to note, “I grew up at the airport,” from where his father worked.
“Grider Field has yielded lots of airport brats over the years,” he said as he nodded toward his childhood home site.
Hale said his father gave “no telling how many” area kids their first plane rides.
“Over the years, I don’t know how many people would come up to him in a restaurant or store and say, ‘Mr. Hale, you probably don’t remember me, but you took me on my first airplane ride,’” said the proud son. “That means something to me and each one of them and it meant something to my dad.”
Hale said his history with his father is among the reasons he especially appreciates the BPA and its “Young Eagle” program in which member pilots give free plane rides to children attending Operation Skyhook.
“They’ve been doing that here for 17 years now,” Hale said. “Can you imagine how many kids they’ve given that treat to over that time? That’s amazing to me. Every one of those kids will remember that moment for a lifetime.”
Hale laughed when he said he had his first flight when his mother was pregnant with him.
“But the first one I remember,” he said as he glanced toward Jace, “was when I was 3 — his age.”
Jace isn’t quite ready for that adventure yet, his grandmother said, but that doesn’t mean he and Hale won’t someday have more in common.
Could Jace grow up to be an airport manager?
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” said Hale. “I wouldn’t be surprised.”