With his salty California cool and 81 years under his belt, Commander Gene Kemp (USN, ret) is an easy man to notice. You wonder if the confidence he expresses comes from his days as a Navy pilot, or from his eagerness to get back behind the stick 50 years after hanging up his flight jacket.
“I’m not sure what it was that inspired me to become a pilot,” he says. “It could that my brother was an Army Air Corps pilot in World War II. Or it could be that my best friend and I both decided to do it for the simple challenge of it. Likely a combination of all of the above.”
Gene just always knew he wanted to be in the air, and he knows the date he got his wings as much as he knows his own birthday or wedding anniversary: June 6, 1956. He deployed twice, once to Japan and once to Alaska. After Korea, in those freezing first years of the Cold War, Kemp patrolled the skies between East and West with squadrons out of NAS Alameda. One highlight of his career was helping map the way for the submarine USS Nautilus’s historic transit to the North Pole under the ice.
As a JO, Kemp served as a patrol plane commander. In the years that followed, he deployed to Iceland, Argentina, and Newfoundland, pushing in more pins on the globe during his transient Naval career. He served aboard the aircraft carrier USS Kearsarge and deployed to the Gulf of Tonkin in 1968, ultimately rising to the position of staff commander for Naval Air Force Pacific Fleet, where he worked in charge of maintenance and support of flight simulators for West Coast squadrons until his retirement in 1975.
In 2008, over 50 years after climbing out of the cockpit, Commander Kemp got back behind the stick of a T-6 Texan. The last time Kemp flew in the Texan, he was a junior pilot learning the ropes at NAS Pensacola.
In the gleaming silver plane, beautifully restored by a Harley Davidson shop owner and treated to a slick flame-swept paint scheme, Kemp took off from Gillespie Field in El Cajon and over Interstate-8, the El Capitan Reservoir, and the granitic mountains of northeast San Diego County. At around 5,000 feet, Kemp took the bird for a spin, rolling, looping, and performed one Cuban Eight maneuver before finally zooming over the runway for a classic flyby. Circling around and landing, Kemp stepped down from the cockpit and met his family on the tarmac for a round of photos. It was a beautiful day for flying a beautiful plane.