Storied aviator Arnie Clarke battling late-stage cancer
Friday, November 26, 2010
WENATCHEE — Looking back on a lifetime filled with larger-than-life achievements, which anecdote or story or milestone would be the most lingering?
Would it be piloting the Miss Veedol replica, or the three-story treehouse you built for your grandchildren?
The medals won for valor in Vietnam or your comportment as a patient in a seven-year battle with cancer?
Arnie Clarke can take his pick.
Now in a late-stage battle with prostate cancer, the 75-year-old veteran aviator, test pilot, husband, father, community-builder and general cheater of death continues to inspire.
“We crossed the U.S. three times on trips together, once on an airplane he built,” says friend and fellow pilot David Stadler. “We had some great adventures.”
Stadler recalls “skimming” over the Florida countryside as Clarke piloted beneath low clouds in an effort to spot an alligator — something Stadler had never seen in the flesh.
“Arnie, the great character he is, did his best to show me an alligator,” he said. “That is one story of hundreds.”
Another close friend and fellow pilot, David Sonn, agrees. “There are people who fly airplanes and people who live to fly. Arnie lives to fly,” said the Wenatchee attorney.
Born in Seattle, Clarke was a student at the University of Washington in Bothell in the mid-1950s when he met Sandra Blain, a 16-year-old high schooler. A year and a half later, they were engaged.
“I kind of doubted my judgment, but everyone thought we were a perfect match,” said Sandra, 70, by phone Wednesday from the couple’s Wenatchee home.
They married in 1957. He joined the Air Force after stints at Boeing and other companies, and ended up serving four tours in Vietnam, while Sandra, who has retired from a career as a registered nurse, raised their son and two daughters.
According to the Air Force Association website, Clark earned the Silver Star during his third tour for leading a flight of two F-100 aircraft in air support of a grounded column of soldiers under ambush in 1968. His repeated fly overs and firing on opposition shooters is credited for saving the soldiers’ lives.
During his fourth tour, in 1972, Clarke directed a unit of “Sandys” — a group of elite, tactical fighter pilots trained for rescue missions. Despite adverse weather, mountainous terrain and intense hostile fire, Clarke piloted the fighter that successfully guided a rescue helicopter to the location of two downed airmen in North Vietnam.
His actions earned him the Air Force Cross, the country’s second-highest military honor.
Over his military career, he flew 385 combat missions in Southeast Asia and was shot down and rescued twice.
Friends say Clarke shared stories of his wartime experiences, but tended to downplay his achievements.
Sonn, who owns a cabin a few doors away from the Clarkes’ at Lake Wenatchee, said he learned of the incidents by accident, while reading a book on the history of the air war in Vietnam.
“I went over and said to him, ‘I didn’t know you were a hero,’ ” Sonn recalled.
He said Clarke looked puzzled, but then, after examining Sonn’s book, commented, “That’s fairly close to what happened.”
The family moved to Wenatchee after Clarke retired from the Air Force in 1981. He wanted to live in a small city and got the job managing Pangborn Memorial Airport.
He’s been called by some the “engine” behind an effort to build a replica of the Miss Veedol, the plane flown across the Pacific by legendary pilots Clyde Pangborn and Hugh Herndon.
The non-profit “Spirit of Wenatchee,” created to steer the project, succeeded in getting the plane built. Clarke piloted it to exhibitions around the U.S. and Canada.
But they never managed to raise enough cash to recreate the cross-Pacific trip to Japan.
The Miss Veedol was recently shipped to Japan for a series of planned exhibitions there.
Stadler, who would have been Clarke’s copilot in a cross-Pacific flight, will travel to Japan to Monday. He said Arnie would have gone with him, health permitting.
Locally, Clarke has also led a host of civic groups, including the local chapters of Rotary International and the Experimental Aircraft Association. He as also active with the Glider Club, based at Pangborn.
He built his own plane and often offered to test the experimental planes that others had built.
Friends say his skills enabled him to walk away from a host of emergency landings, including a time the propeller came loose from a plane he piloted, with Sandra aboard.
When his cancer was diagnosed seven years ago, Clarke closely followed doctors’ advice to stay in shape.
George Wilson, a close friend whose home neighbors the Clarkes’ cabin at Lake Wenatchee, recalls how until “not that long ago,” Clarke was running five miles a day to stay in shape.
“He’s wonderful. The most energetic man I’ve ever met,” said Wilson, who’s accompanied Clarke on flights in the Miss Veedol and over the Glacier Peak Wilderness area. “He is just so much at home up there. Totally in his element. He’s someone who could fly with complete confidence.”
The aviation gene also became part of the biology of the Clarkes’ children.
Their son, also named Arnie, followed his father into the Air Force. He was killed as reservist in 1991 during an air accident at Hill Air Force Base in Utah.
Their oldest daughter, Andriette Timblin, 52, received flight training, but never became a pilot. She lives in Sammamish.
Their youngest daughter, Alison Jenné, 47, lives with her Navy husband in Seoul, South Korea.
“He’s been such an amazing husband, father and grandfather,” says Sandra. “He’s a brave, patient and courageous man.”
Christine Pratt: 665-1173
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