At 63, pilot still wings it with charity work flights

Date: January 26, 1985
Location: Belleville, IL
By: Linda Stewart
Newspaper: The Belleville News-Democrat
Page: 1A & 3A

BELLEVILLE – When Bob Mihalik of Belleville says he loves Cairo, he’s not talking about the city in Southern Illinois.

Like most Air Force retirees who have flown around the world, Mihalik has exciting stories to tell about far away people and places. But, at 63, he isn’t ready to clip his wings.

“I love to fly,” Mihalik said at the Flying Dutchman Airfield off Illinois 15 near Belleville. “During the summer, when things are green, the ground looks like a patch-work quilt. The rivers are clear. The clouds are billowy. Everything is clean, nice-looking and beautiful from the sky.”

So, he makes it a point to fly as often as he can. After Mihalik logged 7,000 hours of flight time, he stopped keeping track.

For the past seven years he has been a volunteer pilot for Wings of Hope, a non-profit organization that makes airplanes available for humanitarian purposes. Mihalik flies food and medical supplies to destitute and remote areas of the world and serves on the organization’s advisory board.

“I was interested in flying and helping people out,” Mihalik said of his involvement with the St. Louis-based group. “We go where there are no tourists.”

With donated airplanes, Wings of Hope has provided free air transportation and radio communication services to the Red Cross, Peace Corps and other relief organizations since 1963.

Between trips for Wings of Hope, Mihalik trains missionaries to fly. “These people have to get around,” he said. “I’ve got a commercial and single-engine license, everything except jet. Those jets are a little too fast for me.”

In 1939, when he was 17, Mihalik joined the Army Air Corps to get flying experience. As a navigator and airborne radio operator, Mihalik was stationed in the Caribbean, Japan, Korea, Iceland, Oklahoma and Illinois. He has traveled to a number of foreign lands, including Egypt and its capital, Cairo.

“Name where I wasn’t,” he says, jokingly. In 1944, while at Scott Air Force Base, Mihalik met and married a Belleville native, Bernice Fritzinger. When he was stationed again at Scott Air Force base from 1954-58, he moonlighted as a flight instructor for Walston Aviation at Bi-State Airport in Cahokia.

At 37, he retired from the military and went to work for the Defense Mapping Agency Aerospace Center in St. Louis. In his spare time he taught College and gave private flying lessons.

“I taught almost everybody in Belleville to fly years ago. Now I’ve got their kids flying. When I get their grandchildren, they’re going to have to lift me into the cockpit,” Mihalik said.

“They’re kicking airline captains out when they’re 60 years old,” he noted. ‘That’s the maximum age, but I say it should be up to your physical abilities. If you keep yourself going, you’re young in mind.”

When he’s home, Mihalik works out and swims three times a week at the downtown Belleville YMCA.

His work for Wings of Hope could disrupt that routine at any time.

Wings of Hope is helping Central and South American nations and famine-stricken parts of Africa. Mihalik’s latest trip in November was to Belize, formerly the British Honduras in Central America.

In addition to transporting supplies, Wings of Hope flies people in need of immediate medical attention to hospitals they could not otherwise reach. Snake bites and difficult child births are the most common emergencies for those who live in the jungles, Mihalik said.

Although Wings of Hope has no political or religious affiliations, some foreign governments are unappreciative.

Mihalik said Guatemala, which forced the organization to leave two years ago, is one of them.

“They give you a week or two warning that the death squad is after you. It’s not like here (the U.S.). They don’t ask questions, they shoot first … The irony of it is we’re down there to help them, and they don’t care. The only people who care are the Christian people. But if their government doesn’t want us there, we stay out.”

Although many of the lands Mihalik visits are primitive, he said they’re also among the most beautiful.

“If you go to Florida this time of year, you’re crazy. if you fly an hour and a half longer you could be on the coast of Costa Rica. It’s reasonably priced and there aren’t a lot of other people. The exotic birds, fishing, beautiful beaches and thatched huts make you think you’re on Tahiti … But Americans want to be pampered.”

Mihalik considered working for Wings of Hope a blessing: “I love to travel, and I’m doing the Lord’s work. What more can you ask for?”

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