Darrell Downing moved back to Davis County in 1999 to live on the family farm after retiring from St. Louis University as an instructor of aerospace engineering.
Unlike most Davis County farms, Downing’s farmstead includes two hangars — one for his Cessna N9821H and one for his helicopter.
However, it is not surprising that Downing would have aircraft on his farm. His father, Lowell, was a pilot and had a plane in the 1950s. His brother, Dennis, has degrees in physics and nuclear physics and was a pilot for Delta Airlines.
“My father was an inspiration,” Downing said. “He became interested in flying when he saw a Barnstormer Show at the Davis County Fair and bought a plane.”
Downing was seven or eight at the time and remembers his father’s plane being kept at the airport by Lake Fisher, along with 10-15 other planes.
“I remember the gas pump there and the Coke machine — you could get a Coke for five cents then. Everyone would jump in their planes and fly to Kirksville or wherever they wanted to go. Back then, you could buy a plane for $400 to $500,” he said.
Downing graduated from Davis County High School in 1962 and went on to Kirksville State Teachers College where he received his Bachelor’s Degree in Education in 1966 and his master’s degree in 1970.
Shortly after, he purchased his own plane, a Cessna 172 — one of the most popular general aviation planes in history.
“The pilot’s manual then was only 10-15 pages long. Now pilots’ manuals are several inches thick,” he said.
During his years on the faculty of St. Louis University, Downing taught several courses, but his expertise was in composite materials that are used in plane construction — high-strength, low-weight, corrosion-resistant materials.
Downing shared fond memories of one of his students in composite lab, a shy, introverted young man who frequently showed up in his office to talk. “We just seemed to connect,” Downing said.
That young man, Sean Melody, learned the Russian language and was later hired by NASA to work with the Russians on pneumatic and hydraulic systems for the International Space Station.
Melody has since visited Downing at his farm near Drakesville.
Aviation has been more than a vocation for Downing; it was — and is — also a hobby.
“I did aerobatic stunt flying for awhile — just for fun. I entered some contests in Missouri, Arkansas, and Ohio,” he said.
Downing kept his stunt plane at the Centerville Airport because it needed a longer runway. When he decided to sell the plane, he was contacted by Ehab Nagla, an Egyptian pilot who flies in the Emirates and lives in Germany. He is a pilot for Etihad Airways and flies a 380 Airbus that carries nearly 1,000 passengers on two levels.
Nagla wanted to bring his wife and try out the stunt plane with the intent of purchasing.
“A year ago last summer he came with his wife and stayed a week with me,” Downing said. “He started outlining how he would like to make the purchase. He wanted to do half cash and wire the rest. I alerted Angie Shipley (at C1st Credit Union) that he would be walking in with cash and wondered where it came from. I think it must have been in his jumpsuit — he was trying to escape taxes in Germany.
“When he came downstairs in the morning, I learned the money was in Euros and thought, ‘Angie can’t deal with this.’
“We went to the Ottumwa banks — at that point I’m beginning to sweat bullets — then headed to Des Moines. Eventually we went to US Bank where they said it would be difficult (to exchange the Euros) because we were not customers, but it would be doable. They only allowed us to exchange so much per customer per day. We had to exchange in smaller increments over a three-day period with several people,” Downing said.
The other half of the payment was simple — it was by direct wire to the Credit Union.
While at Downing’s home, Nagla said he wanted to meet Benny Davis of Corydon, who is an expert on this type of stunt plane. Downing graciously complied and took his guest to Davis’ airstrip behind the metal sculpted dinosaur on Highway 2 near Corydon.
When Downing moved back to Davis County with his late wife, Carol, in 1999, he became administrator of the airport campus at Indian Hills Community College. In 2010, he retired from that position and now finds time to do occasional gratis flights.
He is a member of the Masonic Shrine and sometimes flies orthopedic and burn patients to St. Louis for checkups.
In August, he had the pleasure of taking Russell Martin’s great nephews, Austin and Zack Proctor, ages 14 and 11, on their first plane ride.
Downing considered this an honor since Martin received his pilot’s training at St. Louis University, and commented that when he (Downing) was teaching at the University there was still hope that Martin, who was missing in action in Vietnam, would still be found.
“The CH-47 was Martin’s plane,” Downing said. “There were only 50 of these that went to Vietnam. He had to be a talented pilot. This plane evolved into the C-130, which is still operational.”
Austin and Zack’s first plane ride was much more than just a ride. Downing’s expertise as a teacher turned the event into a real learning experience for the boys, sons of Greg and Marjorie Proctor.
“Whenever I do this, we start with an hour at the kitchen table,” Downing said. “I have them get their cell phones out and get weather observations. We talk about the length of the runway, crosswinds, and the fuel.”
“He called us his first officers,” Zack said proudly.
“We prepared for the flight by checking the weather, fuel tank, the altimeter, and the engine,” Austin stated.
The boys helped pull the plane out of the hangar with the lawn mower, start the engine, drive it down the runway, and assist Darrell with the flight.
“It was very interesting and fun,” Zack said. “We saw Lake Wapello, Drakesville, flew over our house and Bloomfield. We were about 3,000 feet up and were going about 150 mph.”
“The view was amazing,” said Austin. “But we landed fast and I felt like my stomach went right up into my throat.”
However, Austin said, “I hope he asks us again. I want to learn more about planes and how to fly. He (Darrell) is probably one of the smartest people I know.”
Asked if he would like to fly again, Zack quickly blurted out, “Yes!”
Downing made a book for the boys including officers’ duties, plane functions, and a checklist. He also gave them AC-47 Puff & Spooky Gunships Vietnam patches — the patch for the plane Martin flew in Vietnam.
Both boys were thankful for the opportunity, and their mom, Margie, commented, “He is such a thoughtful and caring man. Greg and I were so impressed with his interaction with the boys. His patience was remarkable.”
Downing maintains his 410’ grass runway by fertilizing it in the spring and the fall. He uses a roller to smooth the surface.
“I got the roller in Kansas,” he said, “and brought it back to Iowa on a trailer with a 3,000-lb. limit. Later I weighed it on John Bos’ scale at Crop Services and learned the roller weighed 10,000 lbs.!”
Three or four years ago, Downing also purchased a Hughes 269A helicopter, which is, he said, “like the ones (Vietnam veterans) Ken Gordy and Dan Burton got their training on.”
The helicopter is currently in St. Louis for repairs, but when it returns will be kept in Downing’s second hanger with a helipad in front.
“The physics of a helicopter fascinate me,” he said.
He is also intrigued by the small number of helicopter pilots in this country. “There are 350,000,000 people in the U.S.; 600,000 are pilots, but only 15,000 are helicopter pilots,” he said.
If Downing has the opportunity, he said he would be pleased to use his helicopter to assist with local search missions.