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"Pilot remembers who helped him reach the sky"

Wednesday, February 28, 2001

Pilot remembers who helped him reach the sky

   Bill Ramsey was a kid in trouble, hanging out with the wrong crowd until
his Davis High School counselor got him a job at Modesto Airport.

   He went to work for Bud Fountain, a crop duster who owned Hawke Flying

   Ramsey showed up at the hangar one day and his life took off.

   "He gave me a broom and a rag and he said, 'Start cleaning this place
up.' I loved it. I was in heaven; I was around airplanes," Ramsey said.

   Now a 50-year-old commercial pilot in Minnesota, Ramsey returned to
Modesto on Monday to fly a spank-fire new red biplane he bought last week.

   Minnesota cold would keep the plane grounded too much of the year. So
Ramsey is keeping the aerobatic stunt plane, a Pitts S2-C, near family and
friends at the airport where he learned to fly.

   He lives in Eagan, Minn., with his wife, a former flight attendant, and
their three children. He plans to take the plane out every chance he gets to
fly into Northern California.

   Ramsey was 16 when he learned to fly, and he's been flying straight ever
since. He credits Fountain and high school counselor Beverly Dahlgren.

   He described himself as a delinquent who was spending too much time in
Dahlgren's office during his sophomore year in 1966. One day she asked
Ramsey what he wanted to do with himself. He'd been interested in planes and
said he wanted to be a pilot.

   Her first reaction was to roll her eyes. But that week, she went to the
airport to ask about a job for him. Hawke Flying Service ran a flight school
and charter service and needed someone to help out.

   Ramsey still remembers the way Fountain agreed to take a chance on him,
sight unseen. He was hired for $1.25 an hour, though the first two hours
were free in exchange for work-experience credit. Ramsey told Fountain to
keep half of his paycheck for flying lessons.

   Ramsey started by cleaning out airplanes and hangars and loading the crop
duster at Fountain's private airstrip in Riverbank. Next he learned to taxi
airplanes so he could fuel and wash them. Soon he started flying lessons and
began running plane errands alone for Hawke Flying Service.

   "It was heaven for a 16-year old kid to do this kind of stuff. I didn't
even have a driver's license then," Ramsey said.

   He quit hanging around with friends who did drugs and got into trouble.
He finished school and put himself through Modesto Junior College and
California State University, Stanislaus, by working long hours.

   During college, Ramsey took Dahlgren on plane rides now and then. By that
time, she was an assistant principal.

   "She always told me I was her success story," he said. "It just made me
feel great." Dahlgren has since died.

   He influenced his mother, sister and brother to start flying. They all
became pilots soon after he did. He had 3,000 hours of flying time when he
graduated from college and left Hawke Flying Service.

   "When I started, I was their janitor; and when I left, I was their chief
pilot," he said.

   Ramsey decided against becoming a crop duster after seeing two good
pilots killed by hitting utility wires. He chose to become an airline pilot
instead. But he could only get a job as a flight attendant when he joined
Northwest Airlines in 1974.

   He was hired as a pilot in 1976.

   Fountain never saw Ramsey become an airline pilot. The crop duster was
killed in an air race in Mojave in 1973.

   In his memory, Ramsey had his biplane imprinted with the call sign number
Fountain used on his race plane, a World War II Grumman F8 Bearcat. Monday,
Ramsey circled his plane over Fountain's grave at Lakewood Memorial Park,

   Fountain and Dahlgren started him flying -- and kept him soaring. Their
belief in Ramsey helped him to never give up on himself.

   "They never gave up on me," he said.


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