A lot of things have changed in the 63 years since Raymond Helminiak trained to be a pilot — some of his memories have escaped him but not his recall of flying over Picacho Peak.

Later in life, retired Lt. Col. Helminiak, 82, began telling his family stories about his time as a cadet in Marana. He and his son, Jon Helminiak, 50, recently flew back over the notable mountain area together.

"I come back out of curiosity and maybe to relive some emotions," the elder Helminiak said.

As a boy, he read World War I literature about pilots and airplanes and began dreaming about becoming a pilot.

He learned to be a pilot at Pinal Air Park. Back then it was known as Marana Air Force Base, and there, at 19, he trained for three months in 1944.

"It was a pleasant experience," said Helminiak.

Despite the unpalatable food and the foul-mouthed instructors, Helminiak said, he looks back fondly at his time as a cadet.

"I didn't do any hell-raising," he said. "On weekends I would catch up on sleep or write letters."

He said he is proud of the fact that he was the first in his squad to fly solo during the day and night.

As a lieutenant he went on to co-pilot B-17s in the 8th Air Force in England and was awarded the Purple Heart, but his memories come back to the ridges of Picacho Peak.

"They were a huge landmark, and I wanted to see them again," he said. "They played a prominent role during my training flights."

Helminiak didn't always love the desert landscape. For a native of Wisconsin, it took some getting used to.

"At first I hated the mountains; I saw them as threatening, sinister," he said. "Post-war, I fell in love with them."

The desert is now Helminiak's backyard, and he splits his time between living in Oro Valley and Mequon, Wis., with his wife, Marilyn, 81.

He says the recent flight was special because his son, who is also a pilot, got to experience it with him.

"A good part of the excitement was having my son at the controls," he said. "He was doing something I did over 60 years ago."

The trip was not so much for nostalgia's sake, Jon Helminiak said, but for the feeling of pride that years later he was able to fly his father over the peak.

"It's the closest thing I could do with my dad in terms of sharing a part of his life," he said. "It was a very connective moment."

His father agreed.

"It's a pretty intimate feeling to share part of your youth with your son," he said.

During the flight Helminiak said he was surprised to see how Marana and the surrounding areas have changed. He recalls flying over a vast desert and was shocked to see the number of cultivated fields, highway, trailer parks and development that have sprung up.

"Civilization has arrived," he said.

While flying, Helminiak said, he let the landscape do the talking.

"We didn't say much until we flew near the peak and Jon said, 'Look Dad, there it is,' " Helminiak said.

Helminiak said his time in Marana marks his formative years, because it's there that he realized his goal to become a pilot. He had always wanted to re-visit and feels privileged to be able to see the sight again.

"There's not many guys coming back," he said. "It didn't make me feel 19, but it was fun."


● Meghan Martin is a University of Arizona student apprenticing with the Arizona Daily Star this semester. Contact her at 390-4870 or starapprentice@azstarnet.com.