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Keeping his head up in the clouds

As a kid in Irondale, Terry Pankhurst had his head in the clouds and could not wait to be up there for real.

He knew he wanted to fly for the rest of his life and realized his dream with a career with the Navy as a jet pilot. On May 1, Pankhurst celebrated 20 years in that career with his last official flight in the Navy.

“As an officer in the Navy, you have to retire at 20 years unless you are above the rank of O-4,” said Pankhurst, who retired as a lieutenant commander. Comparable to a major in the U.S. Army, a Navy lieutenant commander is ranked at the Officer 4 level, he explained.

“I made the decision not to go over O-4 in 2002,” he added. “I wanted to keep flying. I have more flight time than anyone here on the base, including my commodore.”

During his retirement ceremony, the West County High School, Mineral Area College and Central Missouri State University graduate was honored for his flight time.

“He was given a couple of awards,” said his mother, Mary Ann Pankhurst. “He was given a meritorious service award and one for having the most flight hours in a T-45 Goshawk of anyone in the Navy. He also had more than 600 carrier landings — the most of anyone in the Goshawk.”

The Navy will put Pankhurst’s name on a Goshawk until someone breaks his record, she added.

Over the past 12 years in the Navy, Pankhurst has trained more than 2,000 pilots, some of whom will probably still be flying in 2040, the commodore told the family.

His total flight time in Navy jets is more than 5,100 hours with approximately 3,700 hours in the T-45. He has landed jets aboard aircraft carriers, or “trapped,” 636 times.

At the age of 41, Pankhurst looks forward to a new type of career in aviation. But it will probably lack the excitement of a jet fighter.

And it also could include singing.

Learning to fly

As a teenager, Pankhurst learned to fly from James Doyle at the Bismarck Airport.

“He was a real, real good student,” Doyle, 88, recalls. “He took instructions real well. He had good coordination.”

Doyle taught Pankhurst in a Cessna 172 four-seater, the type of plane Pankhurst currently owns. Doyle also taught Pankhurst’s parents, Carl and Mary Ann.

Terry’s interest in flying spurred Carl to learn to fly. He, in turn, urged his wife to get her pilot’s license as well. The couple thought it would be a great way to visit family in Texas. In reality, the seven-hour trip proved problematic with weather and restroom issues, especially when it only cut their trip time in half, Carl explained. Several years ago, the couple let their licenses go.

At first, the parents thought their son would grow out of his desire to fly. That never happened.

“He would sleep and breathe flying,” sister Christy Barnes said. “He is the only person I know who has aspired to do something from the time he could talk and did it. It was always planes. He can identify a plane by the sound of the engine.”

When teenage Terry asked for permission to get his pilot’s license, his parents said he would have to pay for it. He worked two jobs to earn the money. When the family looked at plane rental along with instructor fees, they found it was less expensive to buy their own plane They purchased a Skyhawk.

Terry earned his pilot’s license at age 17. Mary Ann was next, and Carl, who worked in St. Louis at the time, completed his third. Barnes chose not to learn to fly.

Family and career

After earning his bachelor’s degree in 1991 Terry Pankhurst was accepted to Aviation Officer Candidate School (AOCS). He was commissioned in the Navy on Aug. 28, 1992. Two weeks later, he married Charmin Weiler of Desloge. Soon after, they were stationed in Texas, where Pankhurst became a T-34 pilot.

Over the years, the couple had two daughters, Jessica and Abigail. Pankhurst learned to fly different jets and became a winged aviator. Among the jets he flew were the T-2C “Buckeye” T-45A “Goshawk and the S-3B “Viking.” The jet he flew most often was the orange and white Goshawk, small, single engine aircraft.

As part of his schooling, Pankhurst learned to do aerobatics, formation flying, instrument training, aileron rolls, barrel rolls and loops.

He participated in the Iraq and Kosovo theaters and received the Air Medal for combat operations over hostile territory in the summer of 1999.

The United States Navy has carriers stationed around the world at all times, Pankhurst said. In times of heightened hostilities more are deployed.

“We can be anywhere in the world within a couple of days,” he explained. “We are the first responders for the military.”

Aircraft carriers

The Navy jets can hit targets while the Air Force is setting up for battle. That is because the Air Force needs runways on land and jets can land on aircraft carriers. The carriers can hold up to 85 jets, Pankhurst added.

Jets come in swiftly, and stop on board the relatively short landing area with the help of a tail hook and wires that catch the jet and slow it down quickly.

Pilots practice their skills together in eight squadrons of planes and helicopters during war games in Nevada. Then they are placed with a ship and practice working together. Other ships are added and certified as a fleet. Then they head to sea to replace one of the fleets stationed around the globe. Typically, each tour or “cruise” is about six months, according to Pankhurst.

“The carrier is the most important ship in the fleet,” Pankhurst said. “The destroyers and cruisers protect the carrier.”

Unlike the spectacular demonstrations of extremely close groups of jets doing loop-de-loops in the sky — going about 450 mph while upside down, for example — battle formations place aircraft about a mile apart.

But the fast, tight formations jet pilots practice help them hone the skills they need to land on the carriers. A mistake can be lethal. In fact, the most danger Pankhurst faced during his four years in the fleet was on the deck of an aircraft carrier.

He had just landed his jet, when he turned to see the next jet come in behind him.

“The seas were very rough,” he said. I was lucky to get aboard and very happy to be there. As they were parking me, I looked back and saw an F-14 that was landing badly and was heading toward me. The tail grabbed arresting wire and straightened him out so he didn’t quite hit us. He was spewing fuel across the carrier.

“It was the closest I came to death.”

New beginnings

Pankhurst timed his last flight for the morning of his retirement ceremony. After a training flight with his student, Pankhurst gave the people below a brief show of aerial tricks.

When he landed, his 15-year-old daughter Abigail turned a fire hose on him. It is a tradition for those getting out of a jet for the last time, he explained.

Abigail and Jessica, 17, are Pankhurst’s children with his late wife, Charmin, who died in 2009. A year later, Pankhurst married a girl he had dated as a youth — the former Terri Gerstenschlager of Bonne Terre. Terri joined the Pankhurst family with daughters Ariel, 18, and Alaina, 15.

His family, including his parents, attended the retirement ceremony. During his speech, Pankhurst thanked them as well as his students and his fellow officers.

“I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you took time out of your day to be here for me on this big day of days,” he said.

Pankhurst looks forward to moving back to the Parkland when he finds a job here. For now, he also plans to start a new job in the private sector as a flight simulator instructor. He and Terri are refurbishing a three-story, 3,000-square-feet house and enjoying their mutual love of music. Terri is a jazz singer; Terry prefers to perform on stage. He also sings at military ceremonies, at ball games and at church. He was one of the choir who recorded “Singing Men of South Texas” albums.

He also sings in his jet as he flies through the skies.

“I like flying most of all, but I do enjoy singing,” he said. “Terri is teaching me jazz, but I’m more comfortable singing Phantom of the Opera. Jazz takes some work to develop that attitude in your voice.”

Pankhurst said he will miss the Navy, but is looking forward to flying commercially or as a company’s pilot.

“I will miss the camaraderie the most,” he said. “I worked with the finest people you’ll ever meet, and I will miss being around them a lot. But I want to move back to Missouri and I want to find something that keeps me in the cockpit.”

Paula Barr is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-431-2010, ext. 172 or at


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