By Nancy Anderson
In 1945 Roy Neal joined the U.S. Army Air Corps 4th Ferry Group flying 48 missions in the China-Burma-India theatre from April 15, 1945, to July 18, 1945. Roy had been chasing his dreams of aviation and now he was flying on a daily basis in an aircraft that was not built to fly the missions he was carrying out, flying supplies at an altitude unheard of for a C-47.
The pilots since the days when Neal was flying his aircraft in WWII, were pushed to the limits of their capabilities. This continued until the 1960s and early 1970’s when Leland Snow (Air Tractor founder) decided to build a purpose-built airplane for agricultural purposes and later for firefighting.
The earliest known attempt at aerial firefighting happened in 1930 when the U.S. Forest Service used a Ford Tri-Motor airplane to drop a wooden beer keg filled with water over a fire. But in the years before World War II there really were not many firefighters who could fight fires in rugged, woodland areas.
After the war, however, the U.S. had a huge surplus of military planes. Specifically, Boeing-Stearman Model 75s, biplanes built in the 30s and 40s.
People at the time immediately thought to use them as crop dusters, but Joe Ely, who in 1955 was working for the U.S. Forest Service in California, thought the planes could be rigged up with water for suppressing fires. He soon found an ally in Floyd Nolta, an experimental agricultural pilot in 1940 and called it “one of the West’s leading dusters.”
To modify these World War II fighters, Nolta cut a hole in the bottom of a Stearman biplane and added a gate with hinges and a snag and pull-rope, and filled the thing with water. When they discovered that water would just evaporate during its free-fall journey, Ely and Nolta created a concoction of water and sodium-calcium borate that wouldn’t evaporate so quickly. The duo quickly replaced the slurry with an even better mixture.
In, 1990 Snow while working with the California Department of Forestry (CDF) developed the first mission-ready S.E.A.T. for firefighting. At that time the Grumman S2 was what the CDF was currently using for firefighting.
Neal Aircraft has proudly been serving the aviation industry for 75 years. They have a long history of working as partners with aerial firefighting and ag operators. Family patriarch, Roy Neal began working in aviation on January 1, 1946, in the city of Lubbock, Texas as a Piper dealer for the West Texas region – Wes-Tex Aircraft.
The Formative Years
Roy Neal was born in Philadelphia on March 1917, as a young child, his family moved to Plainview, Texas. He was a young man who was always seeking adventure and was curious by nature. At a young age, he began building his legacy. Rumor has it that when he graduated from Plainview High in 1923 the sheriff was kindly awaiting him for a personal escort; as he walked across the stage from receiving his diploma and officially graduating from Plainview High, the sheriff escorted him out of town, telling him “now that you have completed your education it would be best if you left town.” To this day, the family keeps that secret tucked away in a vault.
Heeding that advice, Roy and his good friend decided to head for the sun and fun of Florida. His friend, having family in Florida, hitchhiked across the southern part of the U.S. with a log of bologna to eat on the trip. They decided to grab a bus the last few miles to Miami. After all, they didn’t want to look like a bunch of vagabonds. It would look much better if they called his friend’s aunt to pick them up from the bus stop. They were fortunate enough to quickly find work on a banana boat. Always an adventure seeker, this job fulfilled their desire to travel and provided them with money for their daily needs. The boat disembarked from Miami and sailed to Cuba, there they loaded the boat with bananas and brought them to Miami. Roy was able to make three, of these two week-long trips before he decided he was homesick and it was time to come back to Texas.
Realizing the importance of furthering his education, he enrolled at Texas Tech University, where he met his lovely bride Emma Nell Thatcher. They married in 1936, she continued her work at the Texas Tech bookstore while he attended school. World War II had begun; but, the U.S. was not yet engaged in the fight. Soon after they were married, the U.S. entered the War joining forces with its allies against the Nazis. Roy felt the urge to join having just completed his private pilot’s license. In 1942 he became a pilot in the U.S. Army. His first job was as a civilian flight instructor, flying almost daily from 1942-1943.
The China-Burma Theatre
As the U.S. became more engaged in the War, Roy was selected to fly in the China-Burma-India Theatre, becoming what were known as “Hump Pilots”. Aircrews flew C-46s, C-47’s and other aircraft over “The Hump”, the nickname the pilots gave the airlift operation that crossed the Himalayan foothills into China. It was the Army Air Force’s most dangerous airlift route, it was the only way to supply Chinese forces fighting Japan. When the United States started running supplies to the Chinese forces fighting Japan, the Western part of the country was firmly controlled by the invading Japanese. The Japanese also controlled Burma, on India’s Eastern border, cutting off the last land route to the Chinese. Supplies would have to come by air and American planes would have to come from the West — over the “Roof of the World.” Flying the Hump was incredibly dangerous. More than 1,000 men and 600 planes were lost over the 530-mile stretch of rugged terrain. It was dubbed the “Skyway to Hell” and the “Aluminium Trail” for the number of planes that did not make it. The mountain ranges of the Himalayas caused jet stream – strength winds and dangerous weather at extreme altitudes. And when that does not kill you, a Japanese Zero will be there to try. Pilots traversing the route had to fly the Kali Gandaki River Gorge, a depression much wider and deeper than the Grand Canyon. The mountains surrounding the gorge were 10,000 feet higher than most of the planes could fly. The pass to escape the gorge was 15,000 feet high — but pilots could not often see it. The “Hump” initially contained few en-route navigational aids. En-route communications were poor and air traffic control, except for local control towers, did not exist. Aeronautical charts were very unreliable and weather reporting was very poor. Pilots were issued fleece-lined jackets, boots, and gloves to keep their extremities from freezing during the flight. Lack of oxygen could cause pilots to veer off-course and into an almost certain death. C-46 cargo planes did not glide, their heavy engines causing an almost immediate dive. Roy flew C-46’s daily for the next 2 years, “The Hump” never closed.
The war was over, Roy headed to Dallas to collect his wife and family. He brought them back to Lubbock to start their new lives. Roy and Emma Nell had three children. In Lubbock his passion for aviation continued and he set his sights on an aviation business. He pursued M.T. Dagley to buy his Piper dealership, they had an agreement that would allow Roy to buy him out. Roy lacked the funding to buy the dealership, he set out to find a bank that would lend him the money. He knocked on every banker’s door and was turned down. The bankers said, “there is no future in an aviation business”. This did not discourage him; it fueled his passion and determination that he would find a lender and be a success. Lubbock National Bank listened to his business plan and saw his vision; they agreed to lend him the money for the dealership.
Roy Neal began Wes-Tex Aircraft in 1946 at the Lubbock Municipal Airport. There he started what would become the Neal family legacy in aviation. He sold new and used Piper airplanes, parts and service. At the airport he was a flight instructor, he rented planes and there was only one piece of the puzzle missing – no one in the area knew how to insure an airplane. The insurance companies came to Roy and convinced him he needed to set up his own insurance company. Roy who never viewed things as challenges only as opportunities set out to become a licensed insurance agent. Thus began Roy Neal Insurance. Roy could teach you to fly, sell you a plane, annual it, rent you a hangar, and insure the plane – Roy may have coined the term one stop shopping.
Entering of a New Era
Larry Neal; the middle child of Roy and Emma Nell, enjoyed his time working at the airport. At the young age of 10, he worked at the airport driving the fuel truck, cleaning the aircraft and learning all of the odds and ends at the airport. He would ride his bike from his home to the airport to fuel the jets flying into the Lubbock Municipal Airport. One day while he was standing on the wing of a plane fueling it, an individual called the FAA to advise them of a kid who was fueling the aircraft. The FAA quickly ended his career of fueling airplanes.
In 1965, Larry entered college at Texas Tech University to pursue a degree in Engineering. He continued his studies while the Vietnam war was raging in the Asia Pacific region of the world. One day he was sitting in his very last exam that he was taking to complete his graduation from Texas Tech. He decided that his exam and his diploma were inconsequential to what was going on in the world. He got up from his test and walked out of the classroom. He headed straight to the Army recruiter’s office across the street and enlisted in the summer of 1968. Once he completed the Army paperwork, he drove to the airport to tell his father the news of joining the Army. As Larry entered his father’s office, Roy was holding up his newspaper and reading the latest news. While Larry explained to his dad what he did, Roy never put down the paper and his only words to his son were, “are you going to tell your mom, or do you want me to?” Soon after, Larry was off to Vietnam where he worked in Air Traffic Control for the U.S. Army. He was stationed along the Cambodian border in the Tay Ninh province where for 13 months, they took incoming fire almost daily to the point that he usually slept under his cot more often than on it.
After Vietnam, Larry enrolled in night classes at Troy state university while stationed at Ft. Rucker as the air traffic control supervisor. Once he was discharged from the Army, Larry reenrolled at Texas Tech in 1972 and returned to work for his father at WesTex Aircraft. While he was there he met a beautiful, tall, leggy Texas girl full of moxie named Melanie. He was quite smitten by her and they married in 1975, shortly after he had graduated from TTU in Spring 1974. While working at WesTex in accounting, he also spent time flying new planes from Lockhaven, Pennsylvania, Vero Beach, Florida and delivering planes all over the US, Mexico and even to Iceland. Piper soon merged with Textron. The corporate decision was made to eliminate dealers and sell directly to the customers. During that time one of Larry’s customers told him about Leland Snow, who needed dealers in the northern Texas area. The customer arranged for a meeting between Leland and Larry; there was born the relationship between the Neals and the Snow family.
Slaton Airport Seeks New FBO Manager
Neal Aircraft began selling Air Tractors in 1986, and that same year the city manager and mayor asked Larry to move to Slaton. The Lubbock FAA tower was preparing to take the ability to clear non comm aircraft. At that time there were many ag planes that did not have radios. After some thought Larry came back with a two-page list of things the City of Slaton needed to get done before he would move. The Slaton Municipal Airport worked better for flying agricultural aircraft where the airspace was not as restricted as the Lubbock International Airport; which had grown dramatically with the addition of airlines and many cargo carriers. As Larry managed the airport, also an Air Tractor dealer; he was also raising a family and growing the airport.
The Slaton airport has a unique dynamic not seen at other municipal airports. It currently has an aviation museum that has aircraft from WWI to current military aircraft, G-B Aerial (SEAT firefighting operation), Pro-Agri (ag aviation operators), Raider Aviation (aviation school/GA mechanic) and The FatTire Cowboys who fly the YAK-110 to air shows and let’s not forget Neal Aircraft (Air Tractor dealer), Sekon Aviation (aircraft turbine mechanic).
In June 2019 the city of Slaton memorialized Larry T. Neal by renaming the airport after him, becoming the Larry T. Neal Memorial Airport (F49). The airport sign is now the very recognizable Air Tractor aircraft with the new renamed airport.
Robert Neal now carries on the family legacy of aviation; you can find Robert stepping into the big shoes that his father and grandfather have left him. He has grown into them quite well. Robert and his wife Cory are busy parents of 4 beautiful children ages 4-13. Cory is a true Texas woman, full of energy, fierceness and cuteness. She has the family running in precision – on schedule, on time and while she works for a real estate team of 5 agents in Lubbock.
After graduating from Texas A&M and from the prestigious Texas A&M Corp of Cadets, Larry spoke to Robert about the family business and decided to not push it, to just let things fall into place. Robert chose to not enter the family business and make his mark in the pharmaceutical industry. He and Cory were living in San Antonio and Boerne pursuing their careers. As he climbed the corporate ladder and traveled more for work, they were starting their family. They decided it was time to be near family, so the children could enjoy their grandparents. Robert decided it would be nice to have the time to learn and work alongside his father. Now you can find Robert behind an aircraft talking business with customers.
The Neal family has continued their passion for aviation and share that passion with their family. In the summers you can find the Neal kids working at the airport, continuing the family’s aviation passion. No matter where you are flying from, the FBO is truly Texas…Texas hospitality. Come visit us at the Larry T. Neal Memorial Airport, where you will find a family with a rich 75-year Texas aviation history.