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Billy David Welch
(Major, USAF Retired)
March 11, 1921 – October 16, 2020
Billy David Welch of Hendersonville, NC, passed peacefully on Oct. 16, 2020 from the infirmities of old age. A member of what has been called “The Greatest Generation,” he was 5 months shy of his 100th birthday.
Born in Albany, Georgia, Billy grew up during the Great Depression and enlisted in the U.S. Armed Forces shortly after graduating from Leesburg High School (Leesburg, FL). The U.S. had just entered World War II, and like millions of other young Americans, Billy heeded his nation’s call. He had dreamed his whole young life of being a military pilot and so was ecstatic when he was accepted into the Aviation Cadet Program of the Army Air Corps (the U.S. Air Force had not yet been established as a separate branch of the military). He received his cherished “Silver Wings” after graduating from Advanced Flight Training and was commissioned into the officer corps as a fighter pilot. Assigned to the 361st Fighter Group of the 8th Air Force, Billy saw combat duty in Europe, flying 83 combat missions in P-47 Thunderbolts and P-51 Mustangs. In seven months, he logged just over 300 combat hours--more hours than any other U.S. fighter pilot at that time. He had participated in three major air battles, including flying three separate missions on D-Day alone. He flew on the first and second of the legendary “one thousand plane” raids, and on three of the raids to Berlin (7-8 hours of flying in a small cockpit at high altitude, on oxygen, and under continuous stress). In recognition of his service, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross two times and the Air Medal three times along with various other medals. Seventy-one years later, the French government inducted him into the French Legion of Honor in recognition of his role helping to free France from Nazi domination.
After the war, Billy tried his hand at civilian life but he soon realized that he was born to be an aviator so he re-enlisted in the Army Air Corps and transitioned to the Air Force when it was formed in September 1947. He spent the next 17-odd years in the Air Force—he was a noted instructor in instrument flying as well as in flying in all kinds of weather conditions, and was one of the Air Force’s first jet instructors. Additionally, he flew atomic-capable jets in the Far East during the Korean conflict and along the U.S.-Canadian border during the Cold War, and later served as an operations officer on the DEW line, watching for Soviet bombers that may try to attack the U.S. by coming in over Canada.
Upon his retirement from the Air Force, Billy settled in his former home town of Leesburg, Florida, where he worked for a while as a salesman for The Silver Sands Company. He was instrumental in obtaining the contract with the fledgling NASA to provide construction sand used in concrete during the early development of the Kennedy Space Center. In recognition of his contribution, NASA inscribed his name in an I-beam at the top of the KSC Vertical Assembly Building.
Billy also ran his own flight training business at Leesburg Airport, over the years teaching more than 400 students how to fly. He was the only person at the airport that could get in any airplane and fly it, even with no prior experience in that type of plane. He was known as “Mr. Airport” and was recognized throughout Florida as one of the best flight instructors in the state. He was also active in Flying Farmers of America, who awarded him for having flown 50 continuous years with no infractions. Billy’s later years were spent in western North Carolina, where he continued flying and instructing as much as possible. He was still flying at age 95, albeit with another pilot along “just in case.”
Billy is survived by his wife Mary Jean, his children, David Welch, Christa Welch-Hutchings, Tim Welch, and Marsha Napier, five grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren. He is also survived by three brothers and a sister: Larry Welch, Carl Welch, Mike Welch, and Dawn Welch Hendrix.
A graveside service will be held on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020 at 11:00 AM, at Lone Oak Cemetery in Leesburg, FL. Military honors will be rendered by MacDill Air Force Base.
Funeral arrangements are being handled by Beyers Funeral Home in Leesburg. The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Hendersonville Rescue Mission (Hendersonville, NC), the Leesburg Food Bank (Leesburg, FL), or the Mighty 8th Air Force Museum (Pooler, GA).