Today is one of our favorite days of the year because it’s National Aviation Day – a day to celebrate aviation and those within the industry that make it so special. Whether you’re an aviation buff, an avid traveler, or just enjoy a good story, you’ll want to keep reading to learn the fascinating story of Joe Bowman Jr., who at ninety years old is still making great contributions to SHD as the longest-standing Airport Commission member. He celebrated thirty years of service on the Commission last year. We chose to celebrate National Aviation Day by sharing Joe’s story because it embodies the pioneering spirit and determination that are the cornerstones of the SHD mission. From a pivotal historical event that sparked his interest in flying as a child to making SHD what it is today, we know you’ll find Joe’s story as fascinating as we do.
I grew up in Bridgewater, Virginia, after we moved there in 1935. I have always been a curious person, and members of my family said from the time I was six years old, I would take apart every new toy I received. One toy that I played with a lot was a toy on a string that, when you pulled it, it went up in the air. I soon adjusted the blades so it would go up higher and higher. Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, when I was ten years old. That event got a lot of kids around town interested in model airplanes. We probably built around 100 model planes and crashed just as many. We also hung them from the ceiling and shot the “enemies” with our BB guns. My friends and I joined the Boy Scouts and helped the war effort by collecting 1,000 pounds of scrap paper to win a Virginia Freedom Medal. The celebration for the medal included lunch with Tex Ritter and a show at the new Virginia Theater. I also received a merit badge in aeronautics and kept building those model airplanes.
In June 1949, a disaster hit the town of Bridgewater. A cloudburst struck in the mountains around Stokesville, and the North River came rushing through the middle of town, washing away three people. One girl was rescued from a tree. In response, the Virginia State Police based a unit of their aircraft at Bridgewater Airport (VBW) for search and rescue. They were a bunch of hot rods – Aeronca Chiefs with 85hp! I was so fascinated with their antics that I rode my bicycle to the airport every day.
Soon the airport gave me a job, not working on airplanes, but cleaning the windows of the bus they ran to Waynesboro and Grottoes each day. Everyone smoked at that time so they had to be cleaned after every trip. I decided not to finish my last two classes of high school in 1949 and ended up working instead. The pay was great – $5/week and 2 hours of flying time! I had my first flying lesson on July 3, 1949, and my first solo flight a month later. By January 1950, I had completed all the requirements to get my private pilot’s license.
There were a lot of changes happening around small airports between 1949 and 1952. The GI bill was about over, flight schools were closing, and so did Hartman Airport in Harrisonburg. The land was sold for a housing development, and most of their planes were either sold or moved to Bridgewater Airport. At that time, the Harrisonburg Chevrolet Dealer needed an assistant parts manager, and they asked the right man. So I went to work in late 1952 selling parts and working at the airport on weekends. There were three part time employees at VBW then, and it was great for me to be able to do both.
I was working, happy as can be, when I got a call that Houff Transfer had leased Bridgewater Airport, so back to the airport I went. The same airport manager and flight instructor were still there. It was less pay, but I was happy because I got to do aircraft mechanical work and fly a lot. I got my Commercial Pilots License on August 25, 1954, meaning I could get paid to fly. At that point, I was in charge of airplane rides, staying really busy on the weekends. I built a lot of flight time doing this, but I started to think I should maybe finish high school. And then I discovered a short cut – I explained my issue to the Admissions Council Administrator at Bridgewater College, and he let me take the admissions test. After five years out of school, I was now a freshman pre-pharmacy major having a great time at college and still flying part-time.
A year later, the counselor at Bridgewater called me into his office and said, “Joe, how are you getting along with completing high school as promised?” I did not have a good answer. I went to talk to the Bridgewater High School principal and got a short reprieve, but I had to finish by schools’ end. The principal wanted me to walk across the stage with the rest of the 1955 graduates (five years younger than me), but I declined and told him I’d walk across the runway instead.
The year 1955 was a big one because that’s also when I returned to the car business when they needed some car parts expertise. I still kept flying and got my multiengine rating in October 1970, then my Instrument in 1974. I opened my own dealership in 1984, and 66 years later, I’m still in the car business and involved in aviation.
You have served on the Shenandoah Valley Airport Commission for 31 years. How did you end up on the Airport Commission?
In the mid-1950s, there were rumblings of a great new regional airport being planned with hard surface 4,000 ft. runways. I thought to myself; I hope I can fly out of there and be a part of that operation. The airport was built in 1958, and I got to fly a lot out of SHD. I still think it’s the easiest approach with the best scenery in the United States.
In the 70s through late 80s I often had visits from the airport manager and Harrisonburg Commissioner at the time, Roy Erickson. Their visits made me feel like I was part of the Airport. It was a big loss for the Airport when Roy passed away in 1990. I mentioned to Mayor Walter Green that I would like to serve the City of Harrisonburg, and I was appointed to fill the vacancy at the next council meeting and have served at the City of Harrisonburg representative ever since. This appointment was the greatest honor of my life and still is. I treat every meeting as important, and I don’t think I’ve missed more than five meetings in the past 31 years.
SHD has grown a lot since I first started on the Commission. The runway has been expanded a couple of times, first to 5,000 feet and then to current length of 6,002 feet. I keep saying we need a few more feet and a tunnel under Weyers Cave Road! Our General Aviation and Airline Terminals have both been built (and remodeled) during my time here. We’ve also had a lot of different airlines serving SHD. For years I’ve said we need to get SkyWest here because they are the best regional airline in the business. They serve SHD now, and I was right; they have been a GREAT addition here. One of the biggest expansions I’ve seen is actually just in the early stages of construction now – our Aviation Technology Park on the north end of the complex. Exciting things are on the way!
Are there any funny stories you would like to share about your time at SHD and/or on the Commission?
I learned the hard way not to be late when the Commission is electing officers, or you could end up being treasurer! Traffic was slow on 81 coming back from Raleigh, NC that day, and Chairman Gerald Garber nominated me before I could get there. Thanks, Gerald! I still serve as treasurer, but at least I no longer have to sign all the checks by hand – we have a stamp now.
My favorite airplane is a 1970 Piper Arrow 200. A dear friend, John Monger, and I bought this little jewel sight unseen from an ad in Trade a Plane magazine. A retired WW2 pilot with a crop dusting operation was selling it in the panhandle of Texas. He said he couldn’t bring it to Memphis, but his pilot would leave it there. He told us to look it over and take it if we liked it, but we could pay him later. John went to visit about five years later, and the whole family was excited to see their little plane again.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I cannot tell you all my years of flying have been without incident, but they all worked out.
– A crankshaft snapped at 350 feet on takeoff over the river at Bridgewater.
– A propeller broke off at 9000 feet flying with instruments. Talk about a lot of shaking going on! I was able to land at a small airport in West Virginia.
– Broke an oil ring between the Outer Banks and Elizabeth City. No indicated oil pressure. Thank God for altitude!
There have been a few other incidents, too, but nothing that duct tape couldn’t take care of!
We are so appreciative of the contributions Joe has made to make SHD the airport it is today. HIs dedication is not only impressive but has been invaluable for achieving our mission. On behalf of everyone at SHD, we wish you a wonderful National Aviation Day!