by Lynn Colburn
John Oakes took an 18-month Lincoln Land Community College (LLCC) Airplane Mechanic class to help his son, Charley. That led to even more family adventures.
Charley Oakes says, “When we graduated, I got an award for being the youngest student to ever start at 16 and my dad was the oldest one to go through the program.”
John Oakes replies, “I started at 71.”
The story actually started years ago. John Oakes grew up in Bluffs and left for Ecuador more than 50 years ago as a Jehovah’s Witnesses missionary. “For a long time, I lived on my savings because everything was so cheap,” explains Oakes. “Then Ecuador started exporting petroleum in 1973 and prices went up.”
Oakes then began a business as a U.S. auto and truck parts representative, selling to importers in Ecuador and Panama — a business he still has today.
“I hired Betty [John Oakes’ now wife] back in 1987. She was the best secretary I’d ever had. When she got an offer from my competitor,” Oakes laughs and continues, “Well, I said, ‘We can’t have that! Let’s go ahead and get married.’”
Betty Oakes replies, laughing, “So, I used to work for him. Now he works for me!”
John Oakes used a Cessna 414, an American light, pressurized, twin-engine transport for work. “The Andes mountains go up to 23,000 feet and we could go right over the top with that plane. It’s hard to travel in Ecuador. In a plane, it took one hour to go what took 12 hours in a car.”
In 1995, about the time John and Betty Oakes got married, there was a war between Ecuador and Peru. Ecuador began commandeering cars and trucks. He remembers, “I had a customer who had three new trucks in customs which they commandeered. An air force colonel called me and wanted my airplane. And since no one was qualified to fly it except me, he said I had to go with the airplane and fight in the war! I said, ‘Well, colonel, right now my airplane is in maintenance, and it needs a new turbo charger, and the mechanic doesn’t have one.’”
He laughs, “It was sitting right next to me on my desk.” Oakes continues, “And he said, ‘Well, as soon as the mechanic gets that new turbo charger, you let me know.’ And I said, ‘Okay, I will do that.’” He did not tell them until after the war.
It was then that Oakes decided to sell the plane. He and his wife jumped in the plane and brought it back to Jacksonville to sell. “That became our honeymoon trip,” says Oakes.
“I told my mother a few years back that Betty and I went through Hell that first year,” Oakes says as he and his wife were both laughing. “We stopped in Grand
Cayman to refuel and literally went through the little town of Hell there.”
However, the trip became even more eventful. Oakes says, “Somewhere around Jackson, Mississippi, Betty was sitting in the co-pilot seat reading the book, ‘Clear and Present Danger. She had just finished the part about the plane accident when she looked out the window and our engine is all covered with black oil.
“The engine had lost all of its oil, so I had to shut it down … and I told air traffic control that I had to make an emergency landing. It was amazing, all of the sudden, all of these airline pilots were checking in to help me … calling in asking, ‘What can we do?’ … telling me where the nearest airport was. We were up at about 25,000 feet at the time, and it took us over a half hour to get down and we ended up landing in Farmersville, Missouri. Betty got out of the plane and was stomping mad at me saying, ‘I’m never getting in another plane in my whole life.’ Well, we got it cleaned up and found out that a little hose had just slipped off and the mechanic put the hose back on and tightened up the clamp. We managed to get Betty back in the plane and got her home.”
Betty Oakes recalls, “It was scary. But then Klem [Klem’s Aero Repair] checked our airplane when we got here and he said it was a miracle that we landed here at all because there was a leak in the fuel tank.”
They sold the plane and returned to Ecuador and had their son, Charley. A very close family, she says, “The three of us did a lot of traveling together all over.”
“We signed Charley up for home schooling at a school out of Maryland called Calvert. So, Charley could study all the time no matter where we went. He’s been to Europe, to China, and used to go with us to Panama, which I went to every month. So, he’s had his geography lessons in person,” John Oakes declares.
“My mom was my tutor,” says Charley Oakes. John, Betty and Charley Oakes all speak fluent English, Spanish and Quichua, an Incan Empire language spoken by Ecuador’s indigenous people. They also picked up some other languages during their travels.
The family came back to the Jacksonville area to settle down so Charley Oakes could follow his dream of getting his pilot’s license.
Charley Oakes says, “I wanted to get my mechanic’s license first so that when I become a pilot, I would actually understand how the plane works. I also found out it’s a lot easier to get a job if you have both your pilot’s and mechanic’s license. Dad also found out that he could get an enormous discount as a senior. He’s already a commercial pilot and instructor, but he decided to take the mechanics course with me.
“We started August 2018, but I got sick and missed some classes. Dad graduated January 2020. But with the pandemic, I had to wait and graduated in March 2021,” explains Charley Oakes. “But I got it done and passed all nine exams.”
John Oakes says, “That Lincoln Land Airplane Mechanics course is outstanding. The teachers are all older people who have lifetime experience in aviation.”
The story doesn’t stop with the class. Charley Oakes plans to work on his practical exam. A private license requires pilots to have 40 hours in the air, and his dad will be his instructor. Charley Oakes’ dreams are torn between being a commercial airline pilot, an airplane mechanic or other options.
For those flying hours, the Oakeses needed a plane, so even as they were taking a LLCC course, they were building a plane!
The fuselage (the central tube-shaped part) was already assembled, but they made the tail and assembled the engine themselves at the Jacksonville Municipal Airport’s hanger. “When the wings are done, we will put them on, put the engine in and away we go,” says John Oakes.
In addition, the family is restoring another plane built in 1946. “The opportunity came up in April,” explains John Oakes. “Alex Cole, who used to work for the county water department, had stored the airplane in his barn since he last flew it in 2000.
He says, “We didn’t want to take the wings off, so tried to pull it by car. We got about two miles from the barn and there were trees on both sides that we couldn’t get by.”
They turned around and took the wings off. Later at the airport, Charley Oakes found that the cables were rubbing on each other and says, “They will wear through, then you wouldn’t have elevator control … which means you can’t control up or down.” The plane’s compass was mounted with steel bolts, which also made it inaccurate.
Betty Oakes stripped all the paint off that cowl that goes around the fuel tank and when she cleaned up the airplane, they discovered it was white and not yellow.
The family thought the 1946 plane would be restored and ready before the end of August, but there have been delays on getting parts.
After a lifetime of adventures, John and Betty Oakes now plan to stay in the Jacksonville area. “I’m 75 years old,” says John Oakes. “Two years ago, I had a heart valve replaced and they could not have done that in Ecuador, so I’d like to stay close.” They will, however, go back to Ecuador to visit family and see their son’s dog, which stayed with his cousin.
Charley Oakes, now 20, says, “My parents will be here. I might go back to Ecuador, or I might go up to Alaska. I’ve always dreamed of being a bush pilot. And, as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I also want to go and share the faith up there.”
Whatever Charley Oakes decides to do, his close-knit family will obviously be behind him 100 percent.