By DANIELLE S. TEPPER
Most teenage boys are eager to drive their first car when they hit 16; not Roger “Corky” Sell. Instead, he had his mother drive him to the Slatington Airport so he could take his first solo flight. Why bother with Driver’s Ed when you can fly a plane instead?
The current owner and operator of Slatington Airport grew up with flying in his blood. “My father had an airplane my whole life,” said Sell. “If I had a tractor toy or something as a kid, I wouldn’t be driving it along the ground, I would fly it.”
Sell was born in Okla. in 1942. The nickname was given to him at a very young age. “Well, my father is also Roger, but I’m not a Jr.,” he explained. “When my dad was in the Navy back in the ‘40s and I was just a little squirt running around, they’d say, ‘what a little corker.’ So they started calling me Corky—or at least that’s what they told me,” he laughed.
His parents were locals and they soon returned to Pa. where Sell graduated from Slatington High School in 1960. He spent his youth learning about aviation from his father, which he says was the start of his passion. His father was an aircraft mechanic who eventually wound up working for major airlines and retired as a captain from Eastern Airlines with over 20,000 flying hours under his belt in 1976.
In the mid-‘50s, Sell Sr. and two other gentlemen co-founded the Slatington Airport. One owned the land, one had the bulldozer, and Sell said his father had the knowledge. What had previously been farmland became a small operation with three bays, one for each of them. “And it evolved into what you see today,” said Sell. In the early ‘60s, Sell Sr. bought the airport and made it his own.
Sell’s interest was to follow in his father’s footsteps, but in the process of going to school to become an aircraft mechanic, he decided to continue his education instead of finding an airline job and eventually obtained a degree in air engineering from St. Louis University. It was an accelerated program; Sell graduated college at just 20 years old and got a job with the Air Force afterward as a civilian aerospace engineer. The job took him to Long Island and Florida for short periods of time, before he decided to join the Navy, like his father had during WWII.
“I became a Naval Flight Officer,” said Sell. “I flew an F4 Phantom for Fighter Squadron 11, the Red Rippers.” He was in the military for a total of four and a half years during the Vietnam time period. He was also on the USS Forrestal during the chain-reaction explosions and fire of 1967.
When he left the Navy, he completed his pilot certifications and became a flight instructor. “I was involved in trying to obtain a job as an airline pilot then,” Sell said. “But that time frame wasn’t conducive to low-experience people getting jobs—they were laying off people with experience at the time.”
Instead, he moved to Calif. where he worked for Northrop Grumman as an aircraft accident investigator. He also spent time as the system safety engineer and was part of the design team for the B2 stealth bomber.
“I guess you could say due to the peace dividend, with the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, the need for them [stealth bombers] was minimized,” said Sell. “They had more people than they needed, so I ended up with a chance for early retirement.” He moved back to Pa. to take over operation of his father’s airport. “As my father got older, he’d asked me if I wanted it,” he said. “I said sure.”
Sell says the small operation makes a “good retirement job.” He’s there at least six days a week, mostly for maintenance purposes: snow plowing, cutting grass, etc. “I try to keep it in good condition,” he said. “I take pride in people saying, ‘what a nice place you have.’ I wish it got used more.”
He has two major tenants; a flight school and a maintenance shop. When the Kutztown Airport closed and they no longer had a home, he also generously welcomed the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) chapter 855. “They provide nice services,” said Sell. “They built the bicycle shed so that anyone who flies in can borrow a bike and do the Rails to Trails. And now there’s a little campground in the woods too.”
Slatington Airport is a “privately owned airport for public use.” Sell explained, “Anyone can fly in, I don’t charge them. Theoretically, I guess I could, but I don’t see any reason for it.” He also rents hangars and tie-down spaces.
He and his wife Linda had two sons, who, although they grew up around aviation just as he did, didn’t show an interest to quite the same extent. Although, he says, his grandkids do get a kick out of when he flies over their house.
What’s to blame for the lack of aviation interest in today’s young people? Lack of exposure, Sell thinks. “WWII folks were exposed to it; when they came out of the service, they wanted to fly like crazy,” he said. “Next generation, some of that spilled over, and so on. It was a gradual thing, but it’s probably close to flattening out now.”
Sell also blames technology and the economy. “It’s more expensive to fly these days,” he explained. “That slowed it down some. And the demographic of the pilots has changed. Young folks now can ‘fly’ on a computer. We might not get pilots anymore, just a bunch of computer geeks.”
He believes exposure is the key to appreciation, something the EAA is trying to help with. “This has its rewards,” he said. “You have a sense of accomplishment when you learn how to fly.”
Sell owns two planes himself, but he doesn’t fly as often as he’d like anymore. He aims for once a week. “I can fly whenever I want, that’s what’s nice about it,” he said. “I’ll take a plane out and fly around for 20-30 minutes over the Poconos. I call them mental health flights, because you come back and life’s great.”
For more information on the Slatington Airport and EAA 85, visit www.855.eaachapter.org.