Honors flock to Chandler pilot - East Valley Tribune: News

Honors flock to Chandler pilot

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Posted: Sunday, April 13, 2008 10:23 pm | Updated: 10:37 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Laurence Gesell isn't sure what compelled him to be a pilot. "I think everybody wants to fly," he said. "We have dreams about flying, flapping our arms. I think everybody does."

But now, after four decades of piloting, managing airports and teaching on the subject, he knows what it takes to stay in aviation for so long.

"You have to have a love for it," he said.

Gesell, who lives in Chandler, was one of four men inducted into the Arizona Aviation Hall of Fame earlier this month.

He joined flight instructor and Air Force pilot Graham Edwards, aviation advocate and publisher Arvin Schultz and World War II pilot and Lt. General Hewitt Wheless.

The Arizona Aviation Hall of Fame was started in 1985 to recognize noteworthy Arizona aviators and is housed in the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson.

Gesell will join other Arizona notables in the Hall of Fame, including Sen. John McCain, Sen. Barry Goldwater and Col. Frank Borman, who was raised in Tucson and went on to lead American astronauts on trips to the moon.

Gesell said he has wanted to be a pilot since high school.

"It was either be a doctor or an airline pilot," he said. After years of schooling to be a doctor, he got frustrated and joined the U.S. Army to learn how to fly.

At the time, soldiers had to have a bachelor's degree to join the Air Force.

Gesell said he didn't take to flying right away - he had to get over being airsick, for one.

"That's kind of an irony," he said. "A lot of pilots get airsick if they're not the ones flying. A lot of pilots are also afraid of heights."

Gesell joined the Army in 1957. His military achievements include the Distinguished Flying Cross for service in the Vietnam War, the Bronze Star, 39 air medals and the Army Commendation Medal.

He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross after he assisted on a rescue mission in Vietnam.

Two soldiers had been separated from their unit and were stranded in the jungle. Gesell, an aero scout, was sent out to search for the two, who were likely under artillery fire from both sides.

"By luck, skill or providence, we found them, huddled together in jungle so thick you could only catch an occasional glimpse of the ground down through the triple canopy of foliage," Gesell wrote in his acceptance speech.

He said he gets emotional whenever he thinks about the two soldiers, even though he never met them.

"Being lost in the jungle, not knowing whether you were going to live or die but probably thinking the latter, and seeing those two helicopters must have been pretty glorious," he said.

But Gesell said he didn't feel like a hero, only that he was doing his job.

"For me, it was just another day of being shot at, another day of being scared, and another day closer to going home," he wrote in his speech.

Over the past 20-plus years, Gesell has also managed and designed airports, worked as a consultant for airports across the country and published 21 books on aviation law, airport administration and air transportation.

Gesell describes himself as a "sleeper" candidate for the hall of fame, as much of his contribution to Arizona aviation has been on the academic side.

He has been teaching at Arizona State University since 1984, covering subjects such as aeronautical management technology, aeronautical engineering technology, transportation and, lately, sociology.

"Most students come in to learn how to fly," he said. "But then they learn it's expensive and that there are other things they can do. They can run airports, work for the government or be air traffic controllers."

Gesell has also been described by his peers as a "prolific writer" on aviation, after publishing more than 20 books, numerous journal articles, consultant reports and other professional papers.

He is currently working on updating his book, "Air Transportation: Foundations for the 21st Century," for 2009 and said one of his books about airport management is being translated into the Afghan language.

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