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Richard J. Notebaert Sr., WWII vet, retired chief pilot for National Gypsum execs

Jan. 28, 1920 - Dec. 20, 2017

Richard J. Notebaert, a retired pilot and longtime Clarence resident, aspired to take the friendly and not-so-friendly skies early in life.

Perhaps, inspired by a Depression-era comic strip about a youthful pilot adventurer called Tommy Tailspin Tompkins, Mr. Notebaert dreamed of one day flying his own airplane while growing up on a farm in Fairport outside of Rochester. Before graduating from Aquinas Institute in Rochester in 1939, Mr. Notebaert had already qualified for his pilot's license.

Four years later, during World War II, he piloted 50 combat missions in a B-17 bomber on raids over Morocco, Italy and Austria. After the war, he settled into a career ferrying executives for the National Gypsum Co. across the country as the company's chief pilot for the next 33 years.

Mr. Notebaert, who never lost his love of flying, died Dec. 20 in the Canterbury Woods Senior Living Community, Williamsville, after a brief illness. He was 97.

"He actually took pilot lessons when he was in high school in Rochester. So when he graduated from Aquinas Institute, he was already a certified flyer," said Mr. Notebaert's son, Dick Jr.

"When the war broke out, he went right into the Army Air Forces," the younger Notebaert added.

During the war, Mr. Notebaert served as captain based in North Africa and took part in bombing missions over Germany, Italy and Austria. About 70 years later, Mr. Notebaert, then in his early 90s, again boarded a B-17 when he caught a ride on the restored World War II-era aircraft Memphis Belle when it was brought to Buffalo in 2013. At that time, the aircraft, owned by the Liberty Foundation, was briefly made available for public, 15-minute flights circling downtown Buffalo and Lake Erie.

A 2013 Buffalo News article about the aircraft and Mr. Notebaert's time on as a passenger on the plane noted his seeming ease with being on board, despite the fact that B-17 was not built for comfort.

“It was very smooth,” Mr. Notebaert said. “They found a smooth layer up there, and there was no bumps whatsoever. The B-17 worked just beautiful.”

A large contingent of his family, including three of his five children, four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren had accompanied Mr. Notebaert to Prior Aviation in Cheektowaga to watch their patriarch board the historic bomber. Afterwards, he confided that he had liked flying the B-17 because of its “Davis wing,” thicker than on the B-24.

“The B-17 was such an easy airplane to fly,” he said. “When this thing stalls, it lets you know.”

After flying his combat missions out of North Africa during World War II, Mr. Notebaert finished his service as an instructor on B-17s for a year in Roswell, N.M. After the war, his new job as a pilot for National Gypsum brought him from his native Rochester to Buffalo, where he flew a DC-3 airliner and Gulfstream II for 33 years before retiring in 1978.

"After my dad got out of the service, he soon after went to work for National Gypsum. They started off with a small executive plane, a Beachcraft, then they had a DC-3. They had a whole series of planes. The last plane my father flew was a Grumman II jet. Frequently, they would have board of directors meetings and they would fly to various cities," Mr. Notebaert's son, Dick Jr. recalled.

After the war, Mr. Notebaert owned a 1948 Aeronca plane, a two-seater, which he rebuilt and flew over his home on Conesus Lake, just south of Rochester, where the family owned a cottage.

"My father would fly out of Buffalo in his Aeronca... and fly over our little camp and fly low enough that he could yell down and talk to us when we were on the dock," said Dick Jr.

"I remember one time I was at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., and my dad called and said, 'If you can be at the airport at such-and-such a time, I'll pick you up.'

"I didn't tell my roommates a plane was coming in for me. I said, 'Just drive me out to the airport and wait around a little bit.' Sure enough, my dad flies in, door opens with the engine running, I get on it and it takes off. They had a board of directors meeting in Chicago. This was during Thanksgiving vacation, so they made a little stop for me. I thought that was a pretty amazing thing," he added.

Also among family lore was the time when Mr. Notebaert ferried Vice President Hubert Humphrey to Washington, D.C., aboard the National Gypsum executive jet after Air Force II had experienced mechanical problems.

Mr. Notebaert's son, Dick Jr., said his father was likely influenced in his pursuit of flying by a comic book character named Tommy Tailspin Tomkins, who was introduced to popular culture just after Charles Lindbergh's Trans-Atlantic flight in 1927  and remained popular until about 1942.

"On one of his birthdays, I presented him with a book of  Tommy Tailspin. He opened it up and his mouth dropped. He couldn't believe it," said the younger Notebaert. "That was, apparently, what got him interested in flying."

Mr. Notebaert's wife of 62 years, the former Jean E. Andrews, died in 2004.

In addition to Dick Jr., he is survived by two other sons, John and James; two daughters, Mary Grabowski and Susan Havey; four grandchildren and six great grandchildren.

A memorial Mass will be held in the spring in Mendon, N.Y.

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