Ray Dwayne Rolfson and his wife Julia, both members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often mistakenly referred to as the “Mormon” Church) are dear and personal friends of this author. Dwayne (as he is called by family and friends) has long been an aviation enthusiast, and always aspired to become a licensed pilot. He has said, “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated with the idea of flying. I envied birds, especially soaring seagulls.”
Dwayne was born in 1927, the same year that Charles Lindbergh flew solo from New York to Paris, introducing the possibilities of aviation to the world. This would later in life turn out to be more than just a coincidence. Perhaps the spark that ignited his interest in flying airplanes occurred when, as a child, he discovered a picture book titled Board the Mainliner in the school library. The book detailed United Airlines’ new Douglas DC3 Mainliner. The plane flew 180 mph, carried 21 passengers, as well as, mail and cargo, and even served meals in flight. It was at that moment that Dwayne decided that he wanted to be a United Airlines pilot when he grew up.
Aviation became his passion and he read anything that he could find about the adventures of flying – air races, record attempts, distance, altitudes, and endurance. He even read about the great aviators such as James “Jimmy” Harold Doolittle, Frank Hawks, Roscoe Turner, Amelia Mary Earhart, Howard Hughes, and Douglas Corrigan (nicknamed Wrong-way Corrigan). When he had a few extra nickels he bought and assembled model airplane kits, and when he did not have the money, he built models from scrap wood, using a pocket knife and wood rasp. He recalls, “All the time I dreamt of someday going up in a real airplane and viewing the earth from above.”
In fourth grade, he came across a magazine article, “West Point of the Air,” which outlined how a person could graduate high school, join the Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet, go to college and get primary flight training, free room and board, uniforms, and earn $75 per month – which in those days, was considered to be a small fortune. Interested candidates would attend basic and advanced flight training and graduate to become a pursuit or bomber pilot, with a few years of obligated service in the Air Corps. Dwayne aspired to make all this a reality in his young life. He said, “With that training and experience, I could go on to become an airline co-pilot and spend work days exploring and viewing the world from above. I now had a very specific and doable goal.”
When Dwayne was a high school freshman, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the country immediately turned its attention and focus on the war effort. Every male student knew that it was inevitable that they would be in the military by the time they graduated. Dwayne became a Civil Air Patrol Cadet and received his first airplane ride in a Piper L4 Grasshopper. He recalls, “The view of earth below was even more magical than I had imagined. Later, on a field trip to the nearest Army Air Field, I was able to sit in the pilot’s seat of a B24 bomber–wow! I thought, I could be in this seat for real in a couple of years!”
At that time, the Vought F4U Corsair was rapidly emerging as the best and most advanced American fighter aircraft. The fighter plane would see service primarily in service primarily in World War II and the Korean War. Dwayne decided that if he had to go to war to pursue his dream of being a pilot, he wanted to be in the best airplane. So, he applied to the compressed one-year Navy V5 Pilot Training Program and was activated upon submission of his high school diploma.
In the summer of his senior year, he lived in Tacoma, Washington, with his grandparents and work his first full-time job alongside his grandfather who was a pipefitter foreman at Todd Pacific Shipyards at Tacoma where the CVE Escort aircraft carriers were built. It could not have been a better suited job as it was right in line with his career path. He started as a pipefitter helper. Later he became a burner, cutting steel plate with an oxy acetylene torch. He earned a whopping $1 per hour less deductions. All the while, he fantasized about one day flying his F4U Corsair off one of the ships he worked on.
In his last semester of high school, he needed one more class to graduate but was required to attend school for at least half day. So, to fill the time, he chose a new class, Science of Pre-Flight Aeronautics. Being an astute student, he purchased and read the textbook during the summer, and with a freshly filled mind with new learned theory, he became the A+ student in the small class.
Soon after, he found a “Learn to Fly” coupon in a newspaper and mailed it. A few days later, a Northern Aircraft Company representative arrived at the front door with info. He recalls:
At the beginning of the war, the government had established a Coastal No Fly Zone (except for Military, Commercial, and CAP), and the flight school had relocated east of the mountains. But, the No-Fly Zone had shrunk to just East of the big cities – Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, etc. and Northern Aircraft had moved back to a 2,000-foot strip of cow pasture southeast of Tacoma, near the small farm town of Puyallup, Washington. While they were building the office and hangar Quonsets, they were starting a private pilot ground school in downtown Tacoma as soon as they had enough interested students. All you needed was a second-class airman medical certificate, student pilot license, airman ID card, and $85 for the course.
With an earnest desire to ensure his acceptance into the Navy V5 Pilot training program, he felt that he had accumulated enough savings to cover the cost of ground school and flying time at $10 per hour dual and $7 per hour solo. He was barely 17 years of age at the time and says that he felt intimidated learning alongside a doctor, a dentist, a candy company owner, a lawyer, and a store manager. Nevertheless, with a brain filled with theoretical knowledge and clarification from his instructor, he remained in the A+ category and passed the private pilot written exams.
Dwayne also became the first student to fly out of the new Puyallup municipal cow pasture airport. He recalls, “After about nine hours of dual flight instruction, my instructor said, ‘Stop right here.’ He got out, and while buckling his seat belt on the cushion, he said: ‘It’s all yours. Shoot me a couple of landings before you park it.’ He successfully completed his solo flight.
In April 1945, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) required a person to have flown an aircraft solo to join. He joined almost immediately to display AOPA Wings, which certified that he had flown solo.
Dwayne had expected to be well into Navy Flight Training before his 18th birthday, which was the minimum age requirement for a private license at that time, but continued his dual and solo flight training, to be as far along in hours as possible to ensure acceptance by the Navy. While he was waiting for his Navy class assignment and reporting date, President Roosevelt died, Germany surrendered, and full attention was shifted to the Pacific War. Some European veterans were returning home, some went to occupation duty, others shifted to the Pacific.
One evening while working at the shipyard, the lunch whistle blew, followed by a loudspeaker announcement that the navy had cancelled the shipbuilding contract, which meant that only certain categories of workers would return to work the next day, and the rest were terminated. They would receive their final pay in alphabetical order and were told to listen to the radio or watch television to find out what day they would be paid. Without a job and no income, his grandparents decided to purchase a homemade utility trailer for $50, hook it up to their 1937 Pontiac, and drive to Salt Lake City, Utah, where they owned a home.
While he waited for the plans to be put in place for the move, he decided to use up the flying hours that he had left. When he arrived at the airport, his instructor informed him that he had passed the minimum hour requirements for becoming a private pilot and recent changes to the Civil Aviation Requirements (C.A.R.) lowered the minimum age to 17. He then informed him that the flight examiner was there and told him to go take his flight test. Dwayne recalled, “No warning, no time for check lists, nerves crept in as I realized sitting on a higher seat pack skewed my normal visual reference points slightly. I tried to follow the examiner’s maneuver orders: stall and spin recovery, forced landings, power off “spot” landings, power off go-arounds, etc. The examiner was quiet the whole time. Finally, he directed me to final landing.” He continues, “We parked and sat quiet in the airplane. He took my logbook and student license and wrote in the logbook comments, ‘Passed Private Pilot Exam’ along with his signature and number, then wrote on my student license, ‘Temporary Private Pilot License’ with the date/time, his signature and number. He handed them back to me and said, ‘You should receive your license in the mail in a week or so.’” He further commented, “Today, it brings back that old adage, ‘In every old man is a 17-year-old boy wondering what the heck happened.’”
When he and his grandparents finally arrived in Salt Lake City, Utah, he received the disappointing news in a letter from the Navy. The letter read in part, “The program has been suspended, we will keep your records on file. Thank you for your interest.” He then tried the Army with the same results – program suspended. He had taken Army ROTC – infantry type – in high school but was convinced that the only way to go to war was to go by air, not on foot. He had no real interest in the military, but he was willing to tolerate almost anything as long as he could fly.
He then came up with a new plan. He would find a good job, continue flying lessons, obtain a commercial license and flight instructor rating, so he could get paid for flying, and eventually have enough experience to achieve his goal of becoming an airline pilot. Part of that plan included majoring in Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah. But first, he needed a job. In time, he was able to land a job working for United Airlines as ramp/ground service.
No sooner than he had full-time employment, the Draft Board pounced. Dwayne joined the Army Air Force to avoid being drafted and United granted him military leave of absence. He supported aviation from the sidelines. He was often close to the cockpit and was often allowed to fly the “heavy iron” while the pilot observed. However, he was never able to transition to a steady job of being paid to fly.
Dwayne was in the Army Air Force for two years before the Air Force was formed in 1947, where he spent five more years. After Basic training at Shepard Field, Wichita Falls, Texas. and tech school at Scott Field, Illinois, he was ordered to report to the Intelligence Officer at 59th AACS (Airways and Air Communications Service) group headquarters at Elmendorf Field, Anchorage, Alaska. From Langley Field, Virginia, it was a seven-day train trip to Ft. Lawton, Seattle, Washington, five-day boat journey to Whittier, Alaska, and then a short train ride to Anchorage.
He teamed up with a radio technician he had met on the trip who had taken flying lessons and they rented an airplane to explore the beauty of the Alaskan wilderness during their first few days. They soon realized that renting an airplane was an expensive venture and decided to combine their resources to purchase the cheapest aircraft in the want ads – a Boeing-Stearman PT-17 (12 gallons per hour cruise, 25 gallons per hour aerobatics – 35 cents per gallon).
He became an Air Force cryptographer. He was assigned to one of several squadron sites scattered around Alaska and Western Canada. He was originally assigned to encode and decode encrypted secret message traffic, including reading the Commanding Officer’s mail before he did, but instead was put in charge of the entire group Crypto Operation from his private, restricted office in the group headquarters Intelligence Section.
His new boss, the group intelligence officer, was a wartime veteran of the CBI Theater flying a C47 on many “hump” flights, a rated pilot, and still on flight status. Dwayne was assigned as the group’s chief “check pilot” for the two C47s and one C54 assigned to headquarters for transportation needs in monitoring and maintaining the remote facilities. He was often invited to ride the jump seat.
Dwayne was released United States Air Force (USAF) Reserve in 1948 and went back to Salt Lake City and United Ground Service, where he worked the midnight shift, so I could have every day free. He spent each early morning pursuing commercial and higher ratings under the GI Bill. The rest of the day was spent pursuing a degree in Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Utah, which he paid for out of pocket. He says that any spare time he had was spent on the ski slopes of Alta, Utah, and sometimes, he even slept.
He met the girl of his dreams, Julia Rose Bennett of Magrath, Alberta, Canada, in 1950. They were engaged in July 1950, with wedding plans for the next year. However, in mid-August with the Korean War expanding by the day, he received a telegram signed by President Harry S. Truman, to report to Hamilton AFB, California no later than noon on 31 August 1950 for active duty. He and Julia decided to marry before he reported. They were married on 20 August 1950 in Canada. He also received his commercial and multi-engine ratings in July and August.
When he reported to Hamilton Air Force Base, he had hoped to make it into the Aviation Cadet program. He did not have the college requirements necessary to enter the program. Instead he was assigned as communication center shift supervisor for the 667th Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron. His assignment was to match radar blips to flight plans and refer any unidentified or nonresponsive radio calls to the fighter squadron who would scramble a pair of Sabrejets to investigate.
Shortly after Julia joined him in the states and they were able to enjoy an extended California honeymoon, he received orders to report to the newly forming Central Air Defense Headquarters in Kansas City, Missouri. There he met the famous high-scoring Marine pilot ace of the Pacific War, Colonel Joe Foss, who had also been recalled to a desk job. Dwayne was reinstated as a cryptographer, and read the General’s mail first, most of it dealing with Korea and French activities in “French Indo-China” (now Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, etc.).
Finally, in 1952, Dwayne was released from the Air Force and went back to United Airlines in Salt Lake City, Utah. In 1954, he passed the FCC Radio Examination and became an Air/Ground Radio Operator with United Airlines.
Dwayne further recalls:
Further away from my dream, but still in the aviation industry, by the mid-1960s, I had become the Salt Lake City communications Center Operations Chief. Periodically, I had to monitor our area radio networks from the air for the quality of radio signals and radio operator procedures. With United cockpit authority, I conducted the routine four-leg flight check from the jump seat, usually Salt Lake City to San Francisco, SFO to Denver, DEN to Seattle, SEA to SLC. It was a delightful view of the world from the cockpit in the new jet age. Then in 1969, Aeronautical Radio, Inc. (ARINC) started merging smaller communication centers into the adjacent larger centers and my choices were: “Stay in SLC and starve” or “Relocate to ARINC Headquarters in Annapolis, MD.”
Dwayne retired from ARINC in 1992 after 36 years. He still tries to read anything he sees a picture of an airplane on. In earlier days after retiring, he managed to nourish his passion for flying by belonging to two different flying clubs at different times. He says, “Although disappointing to not reach my original goal of “Captain in the left seat,” looking back now over 90 years of dwelling on earth, I can see that I have been very lucky.” He and Julia have been married for 68 years. They have four children, nine grandchildren, 14 great grandchildren and counting. His entire career was in the support side of aviation, however, he is still able to echo the words of most employed pilots, “An aviation career sure beats having to work for a living.”
On Saturday evening, 26 June 2021, the sun set on the mortal life of Ray Dwayne Rolfson. To all who came to know him, he was a kind, compassionate, and loving person. He was a devout member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who shared his faith and testimony both through spoken word and the Christ-like example that he set before others by the life that he lived. He lived an extraordinary fruitful life and he will be sincerely missed by all those, including this author, who knew and loved him. Fly high my friend! Until we meet again!