DUNKIRK – He started flying airplanes when he won an essay contest for free flight lessons in Jamestown and through the years, the late John Nalbone Sr. taught thousands of pilots to fly, including many pilots during World War II. Sunday, the Chautauqua County/Dunkirk Airport was named in his honor.
A plaque honoring Nalbone, the founder of Dunkirk Aviation, was unveiled at the annual fly-in breakfast at the airport. His family now operates Dunkirk Aviation.
The event sponsored by the Dunkirk Rotary Club featured many aircraft, including vintage planes and a new Citation X jet, owned by Gerry Buhheirt. Chautauqua County Executive Vince Horrigan was the master of ceremonies for the event. A former U.S. Air Force pilot, Horrigan said, “The John Nalbone Field here in Chautauqua County is a vital part of the growth and maintenance of our economy.”
It was Nalbone’s idea to start the breakfast fly-in event in 1963 to encourage people to visit the airport and gain interest in flying. The tradition has continued and expanded ever since.
Dunkirk Aviation moved to the Dunkirk Municipal Airport site in 1961 after operating at the former Werle airfield, an airmail landing field in the town of Sheridan.
Nalbone was a U.S. Army Air Forces flight instructor during World War II. He got orders to report to Arcadia, Fla., where he completed his first training and started working as an instructor in 1942. After his basic training, he drove back to New York and gathered his wife, the late Susan, and infant son, John Jr., and moved the family to Florida. They stayed with him for all the years that he was an instructor. John Jr. was on hand Sunday to unveil the plaque and talk about fond memories of his father.
Nalbone grew up in Jamestown, the youngest of nine children. His older brother Jim was the one who suggested he try the essay contest to win the flight lessons.
He flew his first solo flight in 1938 in a J340 Cub. After the lessons in Jamestown, he went on to further schooling in Le Roy, where he completed the civilian pilot training program. The training made him a natural to transition to military lessons. His career also included teaching some British soldiers to fly.
When John Nalbone returned from the war in 1945 he had every intention of returning to Jamestown, but some family members offered an apartment to him and he and his wife and son moved to Dunkirk.
For a short time, he took a job flying for an airline in Buffalo but his heart was still in teaching other people to fly. He remembers approaching a local farmer, Albert Werle, about an airstrip on Werle Road.
With the help of some family and friends, he purchased a rear-wind Speedster and the flight lessons started. Soldiers returning with ideas of training got their lessons paid for with their GI Bill. Soon after, a Piper Cub was added and later, more and more planes.
Flight is a tradition for his family. Both of his sons, John Jr. and Louis, are pilots, and several grandchildren learned to fly from him.
Nalbone was also an expert mechanic and known for rebuilding and repairing aircraft. He was awarded an FAA Master Mechanic Award in 2003.