Airport Journals featured Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame enshrinee Ed Mehlin and his wife Katie in 2000, and bid a fond farewell to Kati after her death in 2001. We’ve updated Di Freeze’s article to pay a final tribute to Ed, who flew west on April 17.
On an overcast afternoon in 2000, Kati Mehlin sat in the kitchen of her Aurora home, flipping through a yellowed scrapbook, plump with pictures and newspaper clippings. It told the story of Kati and her husband of 50 years; weaved into it was much Colorado aviation history.
Not all of her tale was neatly tucked into the book. She filled in some of it from memory, while Shamrock, a cute and curious Chihuahua, played at her feet. She stops at a letter written to her years earlier, when she worked for an aviation company, and she laughs. “Do you know Eddie Mehlin, the famous Royal Gull pilot who made a sales tour through here about five years ago?” it asked.
Yes, she certainly did know Ed Mehlin.
Little Eddie Mehlin
Eddie Mehlin needed money, because he needed to fly, and it wasn’t cheap! When he had scraped together $3, he took his first plane ride. After that, he needed $9 for each lesson he’d take at Denver Municipal Airport on Quebec Street. He diligently delivered newspapers on his bicycle and earned more money singing in the church choir.
Born on Aug. 6, 1924, Edward “Eddie” Joseph Mehlin’s passion captured him a little too early. The official age to solo was 16, but at 13, he had so intently learned his lessons that his instructor allowed him to fly alone in an open cockpit Waco UPF.
When he was 15, he couldn’t wait any longer to get his pilot’s license, so he added a year to his birth date on the needed paperwork, triumphantly soloing in 1939 in a 65-horse-power Luscombe, a few months shy of the required 16-year age requirement.
When the United States officially entered World War II in 1941, Eddie tried to obtain an airman’s ID card. To do so, he supplied his birth certificate and pilot license to the Civil Aviation Association. When the CAA noticed the difference between the date on his birth certificate and on his license, it grounded him for a year. His private pilot license was reissued in 1942, and he obtained his commercial pilot and flight instructor ratings in 1943.
Eddie worked for a short period at Dupont Aviation at Rutledge Field, in Dupont, Colo., as a flight instructor. At the age of 18, he became the youngest flight instructor in the Civilian Pilot’s Training program. He taught primary students in Army Air Corps and Navy contract schools in Denver and Boulder.
He enlisted in the Army Reserves the following year, also working as a mechanic for Continental Airlines in its B-29 bomber modification center. Although he wanted to enter the Army, in 1945, his assignment was to the U.S. Naval Air Corps Aircraft Delivery Unit at Jacksonville Naval Air Station in Florida.
While he was in the Navy, his mother kept him informed of aviation happenings in Denver through clippings cut from the local newspapers. One day, an article arrived in the mail telling of the adventure of two young aviatrixes who had ferried Piper Cubs from Lock Haven to Denver. She included a picture of the two women. His life would soon intertwine with one of the pilots.
Kati from Tucumcari
Born Feb. 1, 1928, Kathleen “Kati” Kelly grew up in the country in Tucumcari, N.M., with her Irish family. When she turned 16, in 1944, she set out for the Colorado Women’s College at 1800 Poplar Street in northeast Denver.
She soon became involved in several programs at the school, including the Bit and Spur horse-riding club. Her first year in the two-year program, she placed in the annual horse show, but in her second year, she won several awards including a silver plaque for Champion Rider and High Ranking Horse Woman and first place in novice jump and Senior Bit and Spur best form.
Used to flying across land on the back of a horse, Kati soon became president and one of six charter members in the Stick and Rudder, a flight program that had just begun at the college. As a member of the club, she participated in ground school on campus, where she learned navigation, meteorology, civil air regulations and general aircraft servicing and operation. She obtained her private pilot’s license at Mountain States Aviation, a fixed based operation owned by Lou Hayden and Harry Combs (located at Hayden/Combs Field at 3800 Dahlia).
When she was 17, Mountain States Aviation selected Kati and 19-year-old Margaret Scribner to participate in a program delivering Piper aircraft from their factory in Lock Haven to Denver. On Nov. 19, 1945, they flew to Lock Haven on a commercial airline to pick up two single-engine, two-seat Piper J-3 Cubs, and began their 1,540-mile trip back to Denver the following day.
The trip, which was to take four days, took eight. After making a couple of uneventful stops along the way for fuel, the girls ran into trouble two days later, on Thanksgiving Day. They attempted to land at an airport in West Virginia, where snowplows were clearing the runways. Running short of fuel, the girls landed their planes on a hillside in farm country in Clarington, W. Va.
“People were just coming out of the woods,” Kati said. “It was unusual for them to see two planes land there. One of the families invited us to have dinner.”
Afterward, Kati called the nearest airport, in Wheeling, which soon sent over an airport representative to check out the planes and fill them with gas.
Disaster struck again on Saturday, Nov. 24, in New Philadelphia, Ohio. The girls were flying through a snowstorm when Kati’s engine quit. Unaware of her problems, Margaret kept flying. Kati made a forced landing on a snow-covered field, which turned out to be a frozen lake. When the ice broke, she made a hasty escape into knee-deep water. A helpful passerby gave the stranded aviator a lift into the nearest town, where she picked up a propeller to replace hers, which had suffered damage in the landing. After repairs to the carburetor as well, Kati took off again, with the damaged propeller stowed in the backseat as a memento.
In the meantime, Margaret had landed at the Port Columbus Naval Field. Since it was off limits to civilian aviation during the war years, she spent time clearing up red tape before meeting up again with Kati in Columbus, Ohio. The girls arrived back in Denver on Dec. 2, without any more problems.
Kati returned to Tucumcari in the spring of 1946, after graduation, where she stayed until receiving a call late that summer from Mountain States Aviation. She would be one of eight pilots to fly more Pipers back from Lock Haven. This time the trip went smoothly; so did several other ferry trips she made, flying Super Cruisers and other models.
After her return from her last ferry trip, Harry Combs hired her as his private secretary. Ed Mehlin was also working for Combs.
Kati and Ed’s paths merged after Ed, discharged in Sept. 1946, returned to Denver and went to work at Mountain States Aviation as a flight instructor.
In 1947, Dorothy Thompson, a fellow flight instructor and friend of Ed’s since his CPT days, decided to do some matchmaking. She soon introduced him to Kati, who had become a good friend since they met when Kati was learning to fly.
Ed recalled that when he met the vivacious brunette on the ramp, he knew she was the one. “She was smart, funny, witty, educated and good-looking,” he said. “She took my breath away.”
Kati was also happy with Dorothy’s matchmaking. She was impressed that he was such a good pilot. More importantly, he was a “very nice guy” that was well liked by everyone. “He was good-natured and he made me laugh,” she said. “And he was handsome.”
Ed initially didn’t know why Kati looked familiar. He figured it out later when he and Dorothy were talking about Kati, and she brought up her ferrying history.
Ed and Kati soon began dating. When she returned to New Mexico for several months, Ed flew there to visit her several times.
In the meantime, he worked as a fixed based operation manager at Thompson Flying Service and as a corporate pilot for a local Hudson distributorship. In 1948, he became chief pilot for Vest Aircraft, which was heavily involved in pre-war and military WWII surplus aircraft sales. The company, based at Vest Field (Sky Ranch Airport) at 48th and Dahlia, also sold Beechcraft, Piper and Cessna models.
Once back in Colorado, Kati went to work for Lou Clinton at Clinton Aviation, a fixed based operation at Stapleton Airport. In 1949, she joined Ed at Vest Aircraft, becoming Don Vest’s private secretary. She used her fluent Spanish as an interpreter on their yearly trips to Mexico to visit dealers.
On June 16, 1950, Ed and Kati married. In 1951, they celebrated Ed’s promotion to vice president of Vest Aircraft, as well as the birth of their first daughter, Lark Marie, which led Kati to resign her position. Shawn Marie arrived three and a half years later.
The famous Royal Gull pilot
At Vest Aircraft, Ed attained many records, including flying into every state of the Union (except Hawaii) as well as Mexico and Canada, and met many interesting people. One was Vernon Pick, a uranium prospector he encountered in the mid-1950s while demonstrating the Piaggio Royal Gull, a large, twin-engine amphibious aircraft, to potential buyers.
“There were no airports back then,” he recalled. “We taxied up to a buoy, and a guy came out in a canoe. There were three of us in the plane. We tied it to the buoy, got in the canoe and paddled back to the dock. I was wearing a new wool suit. Just as we got to the dock, a 28-ft. boat wake filled the canoe, and we were chest high in water. My wool suit shrunk several inches.”
Another was Howard Hughes, who secured a hangar at Long Beach Airport, where he could look at the plane. Arriving on a rainy day, the reclusive millionaire sat in the car and asked Ed performance questions via his car phone, while he observed the plane through open hangar doors. Ed could see him through the window in an office. Although Hughes didn’t buy the plane, he paid for the time that it was tied up while he made his decision.
Vest Aircraft was also a distributor for the Aero Commander. In the late 1950s, at a distributorship meeting at Aero Commander headquarters in Oklahoma City. Ed met Robert Young, an actor known for his roles in “Father Knows Best” and “Marcus Welby.” “He had just finished a one-day class for buyers and was there to pick up a plane which was high-performance and had a new, super-charged engine,” Ed recalled. “He was a good pilot.”
In 1958, shortly before the birth of the couple’s third daughter, Erin Marie, Kati got back into the cockpit to deliver an Ercoupe to her brother, Mike Kelly, in Tucumcari, who had purchased it from Vest Aircraft. After that, she left most of the flying in the family to her husband (until years later, when Lark became a pilot.)
Tragedy struck in the fall of 1962 when Don Vest died in a plane crash.
He was flying as a passenger in a modified twin-engine aircraft that a pilot was demonstrating. Vest Aircraft shut down a year later. “Those were the most fun years of my career, mainly because I sold, delivered and demonstrated such a wide variety of planes and traveled all over,” Ed said.
The Mehlins then moved to San Antonio, Texas. There, Ed worked for Dee Howard, owner of Dee Howard Aero Inc., and with Bill Lear, a temporary partner who was working on the prototype of the Lear Jet. Dee worked with Lear to create the first threedimensional mock-up and Ed helped him formulate a marketing plan from a sales angle.
The Mehlins returned to Denver late in 1962. Ed went to work as multiengine sales manager for Clinton Aviation, where his quiet, friendly and easy-going manner earned him the nickname “Gentleman Ed.”
During his years with the company, he sold many makes of aircraft including Lear Jet (he made the first Lear Jet sale in Colorado in 1965), Aerostar, Swearingen and Mitsubishi. In 1973, he spent time traveling through Japan with other Mitsubishi dealers inspecting their facilities.
Through the Lear Jet sales, he met another actress. After she broke her leg in Aspen, Lucille Ball called Bill Lear, who in turn called Clinton Aviation. Ed arrived in Aspen with a jet that would return her to California.
Ed moved with Clinton Aviation to the Arapahoe County Airport and remained part of their staff until Lou Clinton’s retirement in 1976. He worked for the new owners for a short time before returning to Stapleton to work for Atlas Aircraft, a fixed base operation owned by the Domenico family. He stayed with the company through its name change to Aviation Sales Inc. and move to Centennial Airport, remaining a strong part of the sales force for the company, which was a Piper and Pilatus distributor.
By 2000, Ed had flown more than 350 different makes and models of aircraft as pilot-in-command as well as several unnamed, converted, experimental models. He’d logged more than 19,000 hours of flying time (eventually logging over 40,000), and had built a reputation for his honesty and integrity. For his significant contributions to the advancement of aviation in Colorado, the Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame enshrined him 15 years earlier, in 1985. Over the years, the avid aviation historian nominated other highly qualified aviators to the CAHF.
In 2000, as Ed and Kati looked back on their aviation careers and their 50 years together as a happily married couple, they acknowledged that life had truly blessed them. That included having each other, “three marvelous daughters,” and, at the time, “four marvelous grandchildren.”
That same year, Kati and Ed discovered that Kati had cancer. Over the next 18 months, Kati battled the disease, with the support of family and friends. “She tried so hard,” Ed said. “She stuck her chin out.”
On Nov. 20, 2001, Kati took her last breath in the home where she had lived for nearly 40 years. Gathered around her that day were her husband; daughters Lark Applehans, Shawn Coble and Erin Whelan; son-in-laws; grandchildren; and her brother, Mike.
Three days later, family members and friends gathered to honor Kati for a mass held at St. Pius X Catholic Church, where she was a pioneer member. Later, at the couple’s home, friends and family gathered for an Irish-style reception. Bagpipes played as those gathered sang Irish tunes and told their memories.
Good-bye to a beloved aviator
After Kati passed away, Eddie continued to be active in the many aviation organizations he enjoyed, including the Quiet Birdmen, the OX-5 Aviation Pioneers, Silver Wings and the Colorado Aviation Historical Society. He continued to work for Aviation Sales until Feb. 3, 2009, happily spending the last 33 years of his career there. Eddie thoroughly enjoyed his time with the Domenico family, as well as the camaraderie he established with customers and coworkers alike. He was a magnet for all the seasoned, as well as the up-and-coming aviators who walked through the doors of ASI during his tenure.
On Feb. 4, 2009, he had knee replacement surgery, which resulted in 10 weeks of rehab. During that time, he suffered what doctors first thought was a small stroke. He developed aspiration pneumonia toward the end of his rehab, and although antibiotics cleared up the pneumonia, doctors finally conceded that the damage from the stroke was irreversible. Ed was moved to Porter Hospice on April 10.
During his illness, friends and family were constantly at his side. He passed away in the early morning hours of April 17, surrounded by his daughters.
Family members, friends and business acquaintances from over six decades attended services for Ed on April 23, held at St. Pius X Catholic Church in Aurora, which Ed cofounded. On April 22, many of his friends attended a rosary service and shared memories of Ed afterward.
Mike Kelly wept as he talked about a man who was the best brother-in-law, husband, son and father.
“He was well liked by everyone who knew him,” said Laura Nichols, who, with her husband, Murlin “Nick” Nichols, shared a deep friendship with Ed for decades. “His interest in other people cemented many relationships over the years.”
Laura said that his kindness to his fellow man, as well as his sense of humor, were his trademarks in life. “He was such a friend to all of us,” she said. “He spent his spare time visiting ill friends and encouraging them with his presence and with his wonderful aviation stories. No one ever tired of hearing him tell about the times in his life.”
Perhaps that was because Ed’s stories always included mention after mention of good friends. Looking back at their friendship, Laura voices what those closest to Ed are now feeling. “Although it may have been decades of friendship, the time seems to have been so short,” she said. “His passing leaves all of us with an empty spot in our hearts.”
During Ed’s interment at Fairmount Cemetery, the United States Navy rendered military honors and the Quiet Birdmen paid their respect with a flyover. Friends and family gathered later that day at Ed’s home in Aurora to tell more stories about one of Colorado’s best-loved aviators.
Contributions may be made to the Colorado Civil Air Patrol, 19210 E. Breckenridge Ave., Aurora, CO 80011.