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One Month After Final Flight, WWII Pilot Dies at 101

In this Oct. 17, 2016 photo, seated in the co-pilot seat, World War II pilot Frank Royal, 101, gets ready to take off on his "final flight" in Colorado Springs, Colo. (Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette via AP)
In this Oct. 17, 2016 photo, seated in the co-pilot seat, World War II pilot Frank Royal, 101, gets ready to take off on his "final flight" in Colorado Springs, Colo. (Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette via AP)

World War II veteran Air Force Col. Frank Royal died Saturday, a month after he took a final flight in Colorado Springs alongside the P-38 he flew in the Pacific.

In his final months, the 101-year-old aviator got a reunion with his World War II plane after a visit to the National Museum of World War II Aviation in Colorado Springs, where workers labored for more than year to rebuild it from wreckage pulled from the jungles of New Guinea.

"We are so proud of him, all he did for us as a family and what he did for our country as a veteran. His legacy is huge and we will forever be proud of him," his son Randy Royal wrote on Facebook. "We know how blessed we are as a family for having him with us for close to 102 years, and that we had the opportunity to hear his stories and see his sense of humor as he traveled through life! He is a wonderful man, husband to Renee, father, friend, leader and example to all."

Services for Royal are pending.

Born in Colorado and raised on a ranch outside Rocky Ford, Royal told The Gazette in a 2015 interview that he had an idyllic rural childhood before it was disrupted by the Great Depression.

"The '29 crash nearly wiped out my parents," Royal said. "Then came the Dust Bowl and the Depression."

After leaving home at age 16, Royal worked odd jobs around the country and picked up a private flying experience after working with a barnstormer. He returned to Colorado and started college at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

"If I didn't sleep very much and if I didn't eat very much I could stay in college," Royal said.

To make ends meet, he joined an Army program for would-be fliers in 1940. When World War II erupted, Royal was sent to the southwest Pacific flying the Bell P-39. Royal loathed the weird fighter with its carlike doors that made bailing out nearly impossible. While the P-39 was well-armed with a 37 mm cannon, it was sluggish at high altitude and not much of a match for the nimble Japanese Zero, which dominated the skies over New Guinea,

Royal's unit was re-equipped with the twin-engined Lockheed P-38 Lightning. Royal said he fell in love with his, a plane dubbed White-33.

"The first time I took off, everything worked perfectly," Royal said.

With a deadly combination of machine guns and cannon centered in the nose, the P-38 was a match for anything the Japanese flew. Royal was credited with one kill and two probables in the P-38 before he was sent to the Pentagon to plan air campaigns. His plane stayed in New Guinea and was scrapped after battle damage.

"You could get into scoring position and often did," Royal said. "In the first year we had them, we destroyed 100 enemy planes and only lost four pilots."

After the war, Royal married and raised five children. He settled in Colorado Springs after 30 years in uniform.

Randy Royal said his father left his children with simple, yet powerful life lessons.

"Put other people first, do everything you can to serve other people and fight hard to do the right thing," Randy Royal said Monday.

Seven decades after the war, Royal was reunited with his old plane.

Bill Klaers and his crew at Westpac Restorations loved having the World War II pilot in their shop as they painstakingly rebuilt every part of the P-38. Workers called Royal Superman and referred to the fighter as Superman's cape.

Last month, with White-33 restored to flying status, Royal made a last visit to the aviation museum. The crew from Westpac loaded Royal in a Cessna and took him for a ride flying alongside his plane from World War II. Family members said Royal, who entered hospice care in October, put off his death for weeks while awaiting a last look at the P-38.

On the ground after the brief return to the sky, Royal had a wide grin.

"Mentally, I was flying it," he said.

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