Head in the Clouds
SVEC member still flying after 60 years
Clark Dechant’s first job out of high school was supposed to pay for college, but somehow the money never made it to his tuition fund.
He spent that summer in Alaska, driving trucks on construction sites throughout the state back to Anchorage. But it was the flights out to each site in small Piper and Cessna planes that really captured his imagination.
“When I got back home to Vancouver, Washington, I spent all the money I’d earned on flying lessons,” Dechant says. “So I had to get another job to pay for college tuition.”
While he did go on to attend Portland State, Dechant couldn’t shake the desire to get back in the air. He started out by ferrying planes for Piper Aircraft, taking them from Vero Beach, Florida, and Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, back to Vancouver.
After he built up enough flight hours, Dechant earned his instructor certification so he could teach others to fly. He earned certification as an instrument flight instructor, multiengine flight instructor, floatplane flight instructor and glider instructor.
“One thing I love about aviation is there’s always one more step to go,” he says. “There’s always something else to study or something else to accomplish.”
When he was trying to break into the aviation industry, Dechant says he often felt he was falling just short.
“When I first started, they wanted a college degree, which I didn’t have. Then they wanted pilots with perfect vision, but I wear glasses,” he says. “So I was always just a little bit behind. But I think I made it far in the field because I really did love it when I was flying.”
Dechant spent many years flying out of Cordova, Alaska, carrying everything from mail to frozen meat and fish eggs. The job allowed him to throw out the rule book and approach any situation he might run into on his own terms.
“I like being able to work things out myself instead of going to a certain page for a certain situation,” he says. “Flying in Alaska, you face each problem as it comes and do the best you can without having a rule book.”
Because Cordova didn’t have a Coast Guard helicopter, Dechant was also often called to assist state troopers with search and rescue operations. One night flight to rescue an injured fisherman still sticks out in his mind.
“Ordinarily, you don’t fly floatplanes at night because you can’t really see the surface of the water,” he says. “It was pitch black when I made the approach, so I had to make a real shallow descent because I really didn’t know when I was going to touch the water.”
Later in his career, Dechant spent 12 years in Saudi Arabia, first as a flight instructor for Saudia Airlines in the city of Jeddah and then as a pilot for the country’s National Commission of Wildlife Conservation and Development.
Dechant’s wife, Mary, shared in all of his airborne adventures, even designing the paint job on the 1942 Stearman biplane he restored in 1999. Perhaps her proudest touch was personalizing the plane’s registration number, N1177, in honor of their wedding date: Nov. 11, 1977.
Mary Dechant passed away five years ago, but her name still adorns the front seat of the plane. “She flew with me everywhere and gave me a lot of support in my aviation interests,” Dechant says. “Her name is still on our plane, and I won’t take it off. It will be that way until I sell it.”
Eye on the Sky
After a professional aviator career that lasted more than 50 years, Dechant mostly flies for fun these days. He still takes his Stearman to air shows and flyins and provides occasional instruction. But much of his time is spent at the local chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association in Live Oak.
enthusiasts as they build their own aircraft and discuss challenging piloting scenarios sent by the national EAA. But mostly, it’s just an excuse to meet other people with a passion for flight.
“It’s social as much as anything. It’s not all building, because after the planes are built there are places to go and things to do,” he says.
Even with a decades-long career behind him, Dechant doesn’t see himself tiring of the sky anytime soon. There are always new things to learn, new
journeys to enjoy and a freedom that can’t be replicated with his feet on the ground.
“When you’re flying you know if you’re doing a bad job or a good job,” he says. “You don’t have to have somebody tell you because you can tell if you’re holding altitude or a heading or making a good approach. The rewards are built right in.”