Is it possible the unexpected appearance of the Goodyear Blimp over Fort Madison in 1930 was some sort of cosmic sign from the above? Probably not. But it certainly gave Joe Nuebel’s father a good bragging point when explaining his son’s fascination with all things aviation.
“It was sort of a family story,” Nuebel explained. “On the day I was born, the family heard a strange noise and ran outside in time to see the Goodyear blimp float over the house. When I was older, I decided to check out the truth of that story and looked up some newspapers for that day in 1930.
“And sure enough, there it was. A blimp was at a Burlington air show and when it left, it flew to St. Louis. Right over our house.”
Aviation was an exotic beast in 1930s Iowa, but young Nuebel never gave up that early tie to flight. He had to wait until 1947, however, to realize his dream. In that year, Nuebel had just graduated from high school and, like many other 17-year-olds, he was searching for that first step into adulthood.
“I had just graduated from St. Josephs and was looking for something to do, but what a can a 17-year-old do? It was then I got the idea to enlist in the Air Force,” he said.
Nuebel got his parent’s consent, signed the papers and was off to basic training in Mississippi, then to Fort Sheridan, Illinois, as a member of the Army Air Force. From there, he traveled to additional schooling in Texas to become an aircraft mechanic.
Nuebel would have preferred flight training, but his lack of higher education stood against him. But in Texas, he became an expert in dealing with boredom.
“Everyone was homesick back then,” he remembers “and part of the problem was that there was nothing to do. When not on duty we went to the mess hall and then back to the barracks to watch old movies. Then sometimes, a buddy and myself took the bus into El Paso, where there really wasn’t anything much to do.”
Nuebel achieved the rank of Tech Sgt. and was biding his time until he returned to civilian life.
“I was in seven years, two months and 21 days. Not that I was counting or anything,” he laughed.
Nuebel returned to Burlington and a series of jobs followed. He drove a truck, found factory work and his fascination with flight remained. Later he found a way to gain a commercial pilot’s license at the Keokuk Airport.
Nuebel’s day job was at the Ortho Plant in Fort Madison until there was a slowdown and a layoff, and Nuebel decided to move into the aviation industry full time.
He applied with the Federal Aviation Administration and found himself in the flight center at the Cedar Rapids airport. There, his duties included pilot briefings and monitoring flight plans.
Nuebel then transferred to Burlington, where his job hours “were 365 days a year, 24 hours a day” and included the weather bureau station that had been a feature of the Burlington airport since the 1930s. He remained there until the flight service was closed in 1986.
He also was able to realize the long-held childhood dreams by picking up charter pilot gigs with one of the local charter services. There were trips to all corners of the U.S. and some of those trips also offered an unexpected dose of adventure.
“One of the flights I especially remember,” Nuebel said, “was when I flew three guys from Burlington up to North Dakota in a Cessna 210. That plane has a pretty small retractable landing gear, and it was a grass landing strip I was headed for.
“To make matters worse, when we got there, there were six to eight inches of snow on the ground. But I got the plane down OK. Then, while the passengers went into town, I stayed with the plane and it continued to snow.
“The guys came back, I loaded them into the plane and then we taxied out onto the strip. I revved the plane up and away we went, plowing through the snow. But the plane seemed really sluggish. I was having trouble getting it into the air, and I used every foot of that runway to get airborne.
“The passengers never seemed to notice and continued to talk to each other,“ Nuebel continued. “Then, as I got the plane into the air, I looked down and saw I had accidentally left the emergency brake on throughout the takeoff. Needless to say I didn’t mention that to the passengers,” he laughed.
Nuebel’s flying days are now behind him, but his commanding demeanor and quick mind leave the impression still would a good fit in the pilot’s seat. Volunteer activities now occupy a good deal of his time, and it might be suspected he occasionally eyes the sky to see if a Goodyear blimp is passing overhead.
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