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PostPosted: Sun Feb 21, 2016 9:13 pm 
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Chuck Downey, youngest WWII naval pilot and Poplar Grove resident, dies

By Adam Poulisse
Staff writer

Posted Feb. 21, 2016 at 12:01 AM

POPLAR GROVE — Charles "Chuck" Downey, the youngest pilot ever to earn Navy wings and a resident of the Poplar Grove Airport, died in DeLand, Florida, on Friday. He was 91.

Family and friends remembered him Saturday as an inspiration who loved a good time and taking his Meyers OTW biplane out for a ride.

"He was really a party guy," said Karen Lunceford, 61, his second daughter. "Not like a playboy; he was always one to enjoy the good times. People gathered around him, young and old."

As Downey got older and his health and sight deteriorated, he spent more time — winters especially — in Florida. While in Poplar Grove he lived at the airport, mingling with other pilots. Downey also was an adviser to the Poplar Grove Vintage Wings and Wheels Museum.

Steve Thomas, who co-owns the airport with his wife Tina, said Downey was "an inspiration to the neighborhood."

"He was everybody's grandpa," Thomas said.

Downey's wife of 45 years, Lorna, died in 1997.

His life was devoted to aviation. He enlisted in the Navy in 1942 when he was 18 years old and became a dive bomber pilot in World War II.

Former President George H.W. Bush long touted himself as the youngest Navy pilot in the war, earning his wings five days before he turned 19. But Downey later responded to a military magazine trying to determine whether anyone younger than Bush deserved the distinction. Downey, in fact, earned his wings 17 days before his 19th birthday. He eventually earned the rank of captain.

In February 2014, Downey met with Bush and his wife Barbara in their Texas home, according to a report by the Daytona Beach News-Journal.

A letter from Bush hangs in his airport home, Thomas said.

Downey was honored at the 2011 Rockford AirFest, media partner WREX reported.

He sold his Meyers OTW last year, Lunceford said. In 2009, he made an emergency landing in an Arizona cotton farm field when flying to California.

"God was looking after me,” Downey told the Register Star in 2009. “I know he’s leaving me here because he wants me to continue doing something. I’m in better health than I was; I meet the medical requirements to be a pilot and have a great passion to fly.”

Downey also worked at Midway and O'Hare airports, Lunceford said.

"He just had this amazing commitment to aviation," she said. "He really made a contribution to the aviation industry in the Chicago region."

Downey will be missed around Poplar Grove Airport, Thomas said.

"He was quite a personality," Thomas said. "He was dynamic, funny; he was very talkative. Some of the World War II vets, they don't talk about things. He was more than willing to share his experiences."

Adam Poulisse: 815-987-1344; apoulisse@rrstar.com; @adampoulisse


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