Through the first 14 years of my life, I grew up as the daughter of an Air Force navigator, moving frequently and sacrificing time with my father as he served our country. He retired and didn’t wish to fly anymore, but many of the pilots he flew with became commercial airline pilots. Often when I’m flying, I wonder about the men and women who are in the cockpit and the rich history of their lives. One such man is a dear friend of ours and I’m pleased to introduce him as the next honoree in The People of The Ville series.
Neale Bennett was born in Louisville and grew up here until he left for college at LSU and later returned to complete his BA in history from U of L. After finishing school, he joined the Air Force, where he trained to be a pilot. In 1992, he came back to Louisville and has lived here and raised his family since that time. Describing his time in the military, he told me this:
“My eight years on active duty were the best professional years of my life. I served with outstanding people who were very committed to the defense of this great country.”
During his career in the Air Force, he trained to be a pilot and underwent several other types of education, such as POW and water survival training. He flew the F-16 both as an operational flight lead/mission commander/FCF pilot and as an RTU instructor pilot at different bases throughout the west. He left active duty to join the Indiana National Guard, where he continued to fly the “Viper”, otherwise knows as the F-16 Fighting Falcon and Neale describes it as “the hottest, most maneuverable fighter in the world.” The missions were intense, often leaving him exhausted after just a short 1-2 hour flight.
Neale was hired by Delta shortly after leaving the service of our country and has been working for them since that time, except for a brief time as a UPS pilot. In our interview, he described his job as a commercial pilot as being “highly technical” and “highly regulated” and continued to describe it to me like this:
“The responsibility is tremendous considering the number of lives and the value of the equipment for which you are responsible. But you are the first to see the sunrise and the thrill is still there after all these years. The size of the team which is involved in getting every flight off the ground is extraordinary. It is also a very interesting career where you can live wherever you desire as long as you are willing to commute to work. You can live in your base or you can live on a mountaintop in Switzerland if you don’t mind the long commute to work.”
With those parameters on living, he has made his home in both Dallas and Louisville at different times and has flown to most all major cities and many small ones as well. His flying credentials also include all states except Hawaii as well as most all of Western Europe, South America, and Central America. For the past 11 years, he has been a Captain for Delta, getting the coveted left seat in the cockpit.
Neale met his wife, Karen, in 1987 when Karen was visiting a college friend in Las Vegas who was married to a pilot who worked with Neale in the same squadron. Even though Karen wasn’t interested in trying to date a pilot via a long-distance relationship, within a year they were married. Karen is a very interesting person herself and comes from a family with three other sisters. She was a talented flute player and dancer, procuring a scholarship in choreography and performance on the Weber State Dance Team at Weber State College (now a university).
When I asked Neale who the most influential person in his life was he named his own father, W. Neale Bennett III MD. He describes his father as a “good athlete, a great doctor, consummate gentleman”. Neale also says about his father that “he admired and respected talent not position” and his father often said, “there is honor in digging ditches if you give your best effort”. These words stayed with Neale throughout his life and according to Neale, his father was caring and patient and was “a life-long learner”. With those types of credentials, Neale also described his father as “the kind of man that [he] wants to become”. Without hesitation, though, Neale also credits his mother, both sets of grandparents, and an aunt and uncle as other people who influenced and supported him throughout his life. He states that “all these great people instilled in me a desire to succeed and not let them down. They were all well-educated, strong people who were also very kind and generous.” One other influence was his dad’s dad, who was a US Air Service pilot in WWI and although Neale never knew him, his choice of career was greatly affected by his grandfather’s history. In a final twist, Neale states that he is now being influenced by his own two sons saying, “I like what they are doing, how they lead their lives and how they approach their professions.”
Choosing to become a pilot like his grandfather was a process. Originally, Neale thought he would pursue a medical career like his father and uncle but was drawn to planes as a child and through adolescence and eventually acquiesced to his dream of becoming a pilot. Interestingly, not only the strong connection to the medical profession through his own father and uncle but also the strong connection to the military and pilot profession has been continued by his own two sons. His son, Beau, was drawn more to the medical world and his son, Chase, was drawn more to the pilot profession and both are now pursuing those dreams. Both also followed in their father’s and grandfather’s and great grandfather’s footsteps and have joined the military, and more specifically the Air Force. Neale describes their personalities as perfectly designed for what they chose to do and he finds it easy to relate to them both. He states, “I feel happiness that the Lord has blessed them with the opportunity to chase their dreams and that they have the determination to be successful.” Knowing both young men as I do, there is no doubt about that success. Beau is now in residency and Chase is in pilot training and I personally feel better knowing another great doctor is in training and that another great pilot is in the service of our country.
A few other questions I asked Neale:
If you could change one thing in your life, what would it be?
Neale answered with two things:
Speaking of his mother’s dad, whom he was very close to through the years, he stated,
“I wish I had written more to my Grandfather. He was a great man and I loved him tremendously. We were close. As he got older and more infirm, he wanted to receive and read letters or postcards from me telling him about my experiences in the Air Force. We talked on the phone a great deal, but he really wanted letters to read. I wish I had written to him more often.”
Another small regret Neale has concerns his time at LSU.
“Selfishly, I wish I had continued to play football at LSU past spring ball of my freshman year. It was a rash, emotional decision to give it up, but I found out later that my position (LB) coach was very impressed with my play and potential. While the decision allowed me to follow the dream of flying in the Air Force with few bad injuries, my football story never really had an ending. I would like to know whether I would have played in Tiger Stadium on a Saturday night or not.”
What do you like most about Louisville?
“The people and the size. I don’t think we will ever move because of the tremendous people we have met over the years. When you know people who have influenced you and your children the way Coach Green has; well, I cannot imagine moving somewhere else just because the mercury stays a little higher in the thermometer. Louisville, as a small city has a great deal to offer without the traffic. And it comes back to the people, you are about one person away from knowing everyone. We went to a UL basketball game recently and I saw four people whom I have not seen in a while and it was like I saw them yesterday. Super people from all walks of life. We are blessed to know them and would not like to see that change.”
Tell me something you want us to know about you that we haven’t already discussed.
“Long answers have pretty much covered everything. However, I do want you to know this. I have been extremely blessed to have had an exciting, fulfilling life. Whatever success I have attained in life I can directly attribute to the great influences from the people who came before me, the support and strength of my wife, the inspiration I get from our two very fine sons and the camaraderie of outstanding friends. I firmly believe in the Constitution of the USA. I believe that this country like no other offers the opportunity to succeed if one is willing to dream, work hard and sometimes take a chance. Freedom is not free and the liberty to succeed or fail in the attempt is precious. “Hanta Yo – Clear the Way.” (favorite book).
Neale and his wife and boys are a great addition to our city and I was glad to be able to honor him as the next addition to The People of The Ville. Maybe the next time you fly Delta you will be lucky enough to have him in the front of your plane. If you do, you will be in great hands.