Wes Hillman was 11 years old when his parents finally granted him permission to loiter around the hangars at the airport in Roanoke. He received such a warm welcome from the pilots that he said his “bicycle didn’t touch the ground” on his way home.
This moment marked Hillman’s love of being in the skies. Just a few years later he was flying, spending more than three and a half years of his life in the air and becoming a founding member of the Civil Air Patrol during World War II. Hillman died Friday at 94.
“I can’t remember a time when I was not in love with aviation,” Hillman told a Roanoke Times reporter in 1983. “It’s always been a part of my life.”
Before Hillman was old enough for an automobile driver’s permit, he had his pilot’s license. By 15, he had flown solo, and at 17 — while still a student at Jefferson High School — he became the youngest flight instructor in the country.
“He loved flying, and he loved teaching people to fly,” said Gary Stewart, Hillman’s son-in-law. “He always said he never had a student fail to fly.”
For a couple of years during World War II, he was a Navy flight instructor at Woodrum Airport (now Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport). After the war, he freelanced as a flight instructor, then worked as a pilot for France Flying Services in Roanoke. In his spare time, he served as squadron commander for the volunteer Civil Air Patrol. CAP volunteers carried out 86,000 missions during WWII, spotting submarines, escorting supply convoys, and aiding in search and rescue operations. The nonprofit continues today with some 60,000 members.
In 1951, he purchased France Flying Services and changed the name to Hillman Flying Services, which he owned and operated for 33 years. His wife, Edith Hillman, threatened everything from divorce to murder if he bought the business, because she knew if they opened it, it would consume their lives. It did, and she grew to love it.
“She’s been like a mother to the boys who fly,” Hillman said of his wife in 1983.
In the summer months, during peak flying season, their business resembled a block party. A charcoal fire was going for hot dogs, people took turns at a hand-cranked ice cream freezer and guests brought desserts.
He taught his daughter, Melinda Stewart, to fly in 1967. When she left for college, he said he lost his “best airplane washer.”
Hillman went into partial retirement in 1983. He kept an open cockpit biplane at the airport and would spend more time with the OX-5 Pioneers, a group who flew OX-5s before 1940.
“He never ever got over his love of flying,” Gary Stewart said. “He really gave his life to aviation.”
In 1978, Hillman became one of the first people to be enshrined in the Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame.
In 1999, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Eastern division presented the retired aviator with a Certificate of Appreciation for “pioneering and lifelong contributions to the development and growth of aviation in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
In 2012, the Virginia Museum of Transportation opened up its aviation gallery, with a corner dedicated to Hillman and his business.
In December 2014, Congress recognized the 200,000 war-time CAP volunteers with the Congressional Gold Medal. Hillman was unable to make the trip to Washington for the event, so in February 2015, Roanoke Valley Reps. Bob Goodlatte and Morgan Griffith brought the medal to him at a special ceremony at the Virginia Museum of Transportation.
Just a few days after the ceremony, Hillman’s wife died. He moved to Durham, North Carolina, to live with his daughter and son-and-law. Stewart said on many mornings, his father-in-law would wake up and put on his OX-5 Aviation Pioneer Cap. On the morning he died, he had his cap on, having woken up already and put it on.
Hillman used to say the Federal Aviation Administration’s rules took the fun away from flying. Later in life, Stewart said, Hillman would joke about when he would be able to say, “Curse you, FAA, I’m now flying beyond your reach.”
A memorial service celebrating Hillman’s life will be held 11 a.m. Wednesday at First Baptist Church, 515 Third St. S.W. Family will receive friends an hour before the service and also will receive friends 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Simpson Funeral Home, 5160 Peters Creek Road.