Aviation career lands Lay award

Published 10:47 am Thursday, April 15, 2010

Lifestyles & Features Editor

WILMAR — As a flier, Bob Lay knows the importance of keeping an airplane in top-notch order.
That devotion to his work recently earned him the prestigious Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration. The award recognizes individuals for their dedicated service, technical expertise, professionalism and maintenance contributions to aviation safety.
The award is named for the mechanic and machinist who built the first aircraft engine used by Wilbur and Orville Wright, according to Lay.
“I consider it a high honor,” said the longtime Washington resident. “I accepted it as such, and I’m delighted to get it.”
Raised in eastern Tennessee — “In a little town called Oneida, close to Oak Ridge, which is not far from Knoxville,” he said — Lay has called Beaufort County home since 1958.
“I went to mechanics school in Ohio, and when a job opened up at Warren Field, I went to work there. Tom Stancil was running the field then,” he said.
After a few years, Lay secured the airport lease and he either managed the operation of the field or ran the maintenance shop over the ensuing decades. Only economics forced him to leave the airport that had been his second home for half a century.
“In 2008, the rent was raised,” Lay said. “They priced me out. It’s just as simple as that.”
So, Lay relocated his aviation mechanics shop to the small community of Wilmar, located on the border of Beaufort and Craven counties. He continues to work on planes in a building owned by Bill Key.
Lay and his wife, Donna, have a son, John, who often joins his father in the Wilmar shop, working quietly on his own projects.
As for Lay, he enjoys tinkering with his pet project, a 1956 Piper Super Cub he has rebuilt.
“It was a rusted-out basket case,” he said with a laugh. “It was really not worth rebuilding, but I couldn’t afford one so I had to rebuild one.”
And while he’s perfectly happy with a wrench in his hand, Lay likes taking to the wild, blue yonder himself. He’s literally involved in the aviation industry from the ground up.
“I started crop spraying in 1960, and I kept that up until I got poisoned by the stuff. One day, I had sprayed corn and then I dropped pellets in a lake near Roanoke Rapids for mosquito control. I got some of the chemicals on me,” he recalled. “That’s when I went to Tennessee for two years to recover.”
As a crop duster, Lay’s work carried him throughout eastern North Carolina.
“I flew from Hookerton to Engelhard to Roper,” he said. “I even sprayed blueberry fields in New Bern.”
Lay’s military service, between the Korean and Vietnam wars, took him from the aircraft into the air itself.
“I was a paratrooper in the military,” he said. “After that, I also enjoyed parachute jumping, but after a couple of malfunctions, two in a row, I gave that up.”
Lay taught flying lessons “for years and years,” sharing his love of aviation with others. And at the age of 72, he still enjoys the thrill of flying.
“I’m pushing 11,000 hours,” he said. “It’s been pretty uneventful. I’m always careful.”
Lay added he doesn’t plan to retire anytime soon.
“I still feel good,” he said. “That’s why I work.”