Tom Butler
Tom Butler
Tom Butler

Tom Butler

AFRH-G Veteran Highlight – Thomas William Butler
By Lori Kerns, AFRH-G Librarian

Thomas “Tom” William Butler was born in the farming community of Wheat, TN.  Tom, the oldest of ten children, and his family lived here when the government came through and took all surrounding land to build an atomic bomb.  The site was perfect because the town was surrounded by mountains and rivers.  His father worked where they were building the bomb.  The family left Wheat in 1942.  After the war, his father decided to open his own barber shop.

Tom has always had a love for airplanes.  One of his earliest memories is when he was about five years old.  His mother had bought him some little planes.  He found a piece of wood and enjoyed letting the planes roll down it.  Around the age of fifteen, he noticed a J-5 Cub sitting at the nearby airfield.  The pilot of the plane let him take a ride around the countryside in it.  The flight scared him so much he vowed that he’d never fly again.

At the age of eighteen, Tom thought “there had to be a better time somewhere” so he decided to join the Navy.  His first orders were to Naval Air Station North Island to work with VFA-11 Fighter Squadron, a.k.a. Red Rippers.  As part of this squadron he did maintenance work on the flightline for the F8F Bearcats.  The squadron was given orders to cruise the western Pacific.  Once it was time to return, they ended up cruising around the world instead of going straight back to California and were sent to the Brooklyn Naval Yard for decommissioning.  The sailors got off and were given orders to Florida for training.  Tom was then transferred out of the squadron and was sent to Jacksonville, FL.  While stationed here, his enlistment was up.  He agreed to reenlist if the Navy would send him to airframe B school in Millington, TN.  While on this duty, he met a girl named Shirley and fell in love.  The couple married in 1952.  Tom was then transferred to NAS Pensacola.  He knew there was a flight school in the area.  Going against his vow, he decided to take lessons to earn his pilot license.  Next, he decided to buy his first plane, an Aeronca Chief.  Tom kept this plane for a year until he got transferred back to San Diego.  After about three years of no flying, due to his duty station in Bermuda, he was sent back to Jacksonville.  While in Jacksonville, he purchased a Cessna 140 and earned his commercial license.  In 1966, he and his wife went to Rockford, IL to see an air show.  After seeing all the beautiful planes, he finally made the decision to build his own plane.  He bought the plans for EAA Biplane and built it between the cruises to which he was assigned. 

In 1968, Tom left the Navy.  This is when he became diligent about finishing the biplane.  He completed the project in 1970.  Later that year, he decided to go to aeronautical school in Daytona.  He was looking for a job in local aviation but realized that the pay wasn’t enough.  He found a good-paying job with a wholesale air conditioning supply house selling parts.  He did this for seventeen years.  In 1987, Tom decided to retire for good.  He bought an acre lot on a local grass strip airport called Haller Field and built a 40x50 hangar equipped with a full bathroom.  Understanding his love for planes, Shirley agreed to move out to the land.  Tom found plans for a house and contracted out the work.  The couple lived there for 24 years.  In those 24 years, Tom continued building planes.  He built a replica of a J-3 Cub, which was featured in the magazine Plane & Pilot.  He flew this plane many times making visits to friends.  He came by another kit plane when a Navy chief he knew received orders and couldn’t finish the project.  Tom bought the plane, an RV-4, and finished it in about five years.  Again, he flew this plane to visit friends and family, flying as far as South Carolina and Tennessee.  Around 2000, Tom got a call from the widow of one of his friends who had gotten tragically murdered.  The widow asked him to finish the plane her husband had been building.  Again, this took him about five years to complete.  This is the last plane Tom flew.  In total, he built four planes.  All four are owned by private individuals with three still flying today. 

Sadly, Shirley passed away in 2009.  This is when he made the decision to move to AFRH-G.  For a little while, he served as a tour volunteer for the Home.  Today, Tom enjoys spending his retirement by visiting the library, watching movies, reading flying magazines, and socializing with friends.  It’s always great to have such interesting residents, such as Tom, to share their great stories with us at AFRH-G.