Columbus businessman Buddy Nelms says for many years, Earnie Shelton was the "local ambassador of aviation."
"He is one of my heroes," said Nelms, who was one of more than 500 people who took flying lessons from Shelton. "When I am flying, I still hear his voice in the cockpit giving instructions."
Shelton died Monday at age 96 in Phenix City. Nelms said Shelton, who was living in Parkwood Health Care, had not felt well for a long time.
Shelton started giving flying lessons in 1978. He also gave tours of the Columbus Airport to children and senior citizens,
"He had a passion for flying and loved children," said his granddaughter, Teresa Bruce.
Shelton also served as the local Federal Aviation Administration accident prevention counselor.
On Nov. 1, 2002, an Earnie Shelton Day was held in Columbus. A street at the airport is called Earnie Shelton Drive.
Shelton, who taught flying lessons for about 25 years, was enshrined into the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame on Feb. 14, 2009.
In a news report, Shelton recalled making his first solo flight.
"It's the first time you are up there by yourself and you realize that you have to make a safe landing without any assistance," he said. "It's a day I'll never forget."
Shelton retired as a lieutenant colonel after 36 years in the Army that included tours in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. His military decorations include the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Legion of Merit and Meritorious Service Medal.
Shelton was born on Sept. 22, 1917, in Brashear, Mo. As a child, he watched airplanes delivering mail.
"I grew up in a farm adjacent to the Santa Fe Railroad," he said in a 1992 interview. "Those old mail pilots and the Army pilots followed that iron beam. This 9- or 10-year old farm boy could get pretty excited about those aircraft. I was interested from the time I could nail two boards together and call it an airplane."
Shelton told a reporter once that he first got into an airplane as a young boy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
"That was the first time I got the physical experience," he said. "There was one of those fellows you would call a barnstormer. He was taking folks up for rides. I had some money in my pocket and I went up to him. We flew close to Pikes Peak. Of course, we couldn't get that high, 14,000 feet. That old thing wouldn't get above 10,000 feet."
He compared sitting behind the pilot that day to being on a Ferris wheel or a merry-go-round.
As for his teaching of flying, he said, "You have to help every student prepare, to help them pass their test. You have to instill confidence and comfort."
Funeral services with military honors will be 11 a.m. Friday in the chapel of Striffler-Hamby in Phenix City with burial to follow in the Main Post Cemetery at Fort Benning. The family will receive friends Thursday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the funeral home.