WHEELING, W.Va. — A lifetime of work on the tarmac and in the clouds earned a Wheeling man the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award in recognition of decades of smooth flying.
Al Depto, an Elm Grove native, was presented with the award at a pilots’ picnic at the Wheeling-Ohio County Airport on June 25. The award recognizes certified pilots with more than 50 years of piloting and operations experience who have maintained their good standing. Depto’s partner, Mary C. Davis, submitted his application to the Federal Aviation Administration in secret, catching him completely by surprise when the award was presented at the picnic.
“The FAA gentleman started by explaining what the Wilbur and Orville Wright Award is and what qualifications were needed, and then my name came up,” he said. “They asked if I had anything to say, I opened my mouth, and nothing came out.”
Depto said he dreamed of flying ever since he was a young kid, imagining running down the sidewalk and flying, like Superman, around Elm Grove. Depto said he’d loved aircraft and regularly went to look at commuter aircraft at the local airport, but growing up, he had no aspirations of becoming a pilot.
His career began as an aircraft mechanic shortly after high school. He enlisted for the Marine Corps, fully expecting to become an infantryman, but his recruiter steered Depto toward aviation, where there was a critical need for engineers and mechanics.
“I could not, for the life of me, … figure out how these huge, metallic machines could suspend in the air and transport people,” he said. “I was born in 1945, and it was common for people, men especially, to feel obligated to serve their country in the military. … Long story short, I was accepted, I took the test, went into the aviation program in Memphis, took various classes to become a mechanic.
“I was sent to a squadron headquarters, originally stationed at Santa Anna, California, and there were three jets waiting for me, still 18 years old. They told me, ‘Those are yours!’ so I had complete and utter responsibility for those jets straight out of school.”
Depto said he eventually made the same qualifications that the pilots did in his time there, obtaining ejection seat training, high-pressure altitude training, physiological training, and his own G-suit and oxygen equipment. Depto began to fly in the rear when openings presented themselves. After four years, he was transferred to another outfit, where he served as captain until his discharge in 1967.
Depto earned his civilian certification while enlisted at the age of 19 in 1965 at Wheeler Air Force Base in Hawaii. When he returned home, Depto graduated from West Liberty State College in 1972 with a degree in education and a minor in geography, pursuing a career in adult education.
Since leaving the Marines, Depto has been a member of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a large, international organization for aviators. Depto is also a member of the Experimental Aircraft Association, where he participates in the Young Eagles program, which promotes interest in aviation in local youth.
“We fly these kids and introduce them to the world of aviation, hoping they’ll find a career in it,” he said of the Young Eagles. “When they board our aircraft, they have a look on their face as if they were staring at a Tyrannosaurus rex. No fear, just awe. We fly around, and I let them take the controls.
“One young lady, around 13 or 14, landed, ran up to her parents, jumped on her father, and started yelling, ‘I got to fly the airplane!’” he added.
In a less official capacity, Depto also participates in the “Come Fly With Me” fundraiser, where private flights with Depto and other pilots are offered as raffle prizes and other fundraising efforts for local causes. These flights, he said, typically involve flying the passenger over the location of their choice, such as their neighborhoods.
Depto holds his memories of the Marine Corps dear to his heart, as the only enlisted non-pilot authorized to fly in the jets he serviced.
“I’m with these pilots in the back seat of this jet, we’re doing barrel rolls and simulated attacks on barges in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, doing all these things you’d see in ‘Top Gun,’” Depto said. “That is an experience that I wouldn’t sell for $25 million.”