Category: Archive

90-year-old’s spirit soars with a return to cockpit

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Ray O’Hanlon

As the saying goes, he’s doing 90. But Pat Sullivan’s doing it at 90. And he’s doing it in the air, with a twist and a turn and, hey, is this picture right? A 90-year-old man flying at right angles to the ground — with goggles on?

Bet your joystick it is. Pat Sullivan got a cake for his 90th birthday alright, but his kids, mature in age and thinking that they are, realized that the old man wouldn’t be overly excited by a bit of icing topped with a squadron of candles.

So they put him in a plane and sent him soaring into the blue. Everybody should do it at 90. Well….

Sullivan, it has to be said, is better equipped for a bit of loop-the-loop than the average 90-year-old.

Back at the outset of World War II, Sullivan, who now lives in Shrewsbury, Mass., was a flying instructor for the U.S. Navy. He was an expert at throwing a Stearman training aircraft, nicknamed the Yellow Pearl, all over the sky in the interests of his country, not to mention the lives of the young pilots he was training for future combat.

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Sullivan notched up hundreds of hours flying time in Yellow Pearls and remained in the navy at the end of the war, at which point he was put in charge of Floyd Bennett Field in New York.

"That gave me the opportunity to fly every piece of equipment the navy had," Sullivan told the Echo a few days after his birthday ‘rial sortie.

Sullivan left the Navy in 1949, but was recalled for what he called "the Korean unpleasantness."

Sullivan was rarely lost for a word, so the navy turned him into a press officer and based him in its Church Street recruiting center in downtown Manhattan.

"That was to be my launch into public relations. After the navy I went to work for the Electric Boat Company in Connecticut, where I spent 20 years," Sullivan said.

The Electric Boat Company built submarines. Eventually, it was to change its name to General Dynamics, one of the best-known company names in the defense industry. Sullivan, who knows all about general dynamics, literally, from his flying days, became a vice president of the company.

After retiring from General Dynamics, Sullivan was sought out by Ireland’s Industrial Development Authority, which was, by the early 1970s, beginning to make inroads into the U.S. corporate world in an effort to woo badly needed investment into Ireland.

"The ignorance about Ireland at the time was colossal," Sullivan said. "I once sat down with the business editor of the New York Times and he asked me if they had trains in Ireland."

Sullivan traveled all over the U.S. making the pitch for the IDA. He was the instigator of an IDA newsletter and a film about Ireland that was shown at investment conferences coast to coast.

"The high point of my eight years with the IDA was taking Jack Lynch to Pittsburgh to meet with the heads of some very big companies. I like to think that I helped a little in laying the foundation for the Celtic Tiger," Sullivan said.

In a lifetime of high points, often with some green-faced rookie in the rear seat, Pat Sullivan kept his eye on the true horizon. He married and raised a family.

Present at his recent birthday flight was his wife, Lillian, and their four kids: Dennis, Bob, Pat and Kathleen.

"I remember Paddy as a toddler," Sullivan said. "Every day I would come home and the greeting was the same, ‘Hello, Daddy, did you crash today?’ "

As it turned out, all three sons reckoned that if their old man could survive throwing a plane all over the sky for the navy, they could at least survive the navy itself.

Dennis, Pat and Bob all ended up in navy whites at one point or another. Dennis even flew. He was a navigator in an F-4 Phantom during the Vietnam War; Pat, "Paddy," worked in naval intelligence, while Bob started off in the naval reserve only to end up covering the conflict at ground level for UPI.

Again, as with Dad, the Sullivans’ post-military careers mixed public relations, journalism and business. Kathleen is a business consultant, Bob still writes, Dennis is retired from IBM while Pat is a network television producer.

Getting the old man into a cockpit at 90 required a bit of business and public-relations savvy, but everything eventually fell into place. Pat Sullivan boarded a Stearman a few days ago at Hanscom Field outside Boston. It was the first time he had sat in the cockpit of a Yellow Pearl for 50 years.

Pat flew for over an hour with the owner/pilot allowing him to take the controls for a few tight turns. His wife and family watched from the ground.

"He allowed me to throw it around," Sullivan said of his flight.

"It was a surprise and felt just wonderful. At the risk of sounding corny, it touched my heart," Sullivan said of his surprise birthday gift.

The Yellow Pearl has long wings and is designed to take off and land at slow speeds. Its top speed isn’t high by contemporary standards, even for a trainer. But it was entirely appropriate for 90-year-old Sullivan. It’s 90 mph.

"It’s built to take a beating," Sullivan said of the aircraft that has been a part of his life for more than 60 years.

He might of been talking about himself.

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