George Opel has always been fascinated by airplanes. He recalls the first time he looked up and saw a plane and wondered at the marvel of flight.
“The first time I saw an airplane, was when I was living on the reservation in Eastern [Washington],” he said. “I picked up a rock and threw it at it. Of course I didn’t hit anything, it was too high.”
He kept that fascination close, going on to learn as much as he could about the inner workings of airplanes —becoming a pilot.
His time flying planes ended, however, in 1994, when a stroke damaged his right side, which prevented him from renewing his pilot’s license.
These days the 87-year-old Opel can no longer walk, let alone fly.
“He’d love to be able to walk again. I think that’s his dream now,” said his wife Virginia.
Virginia encouraged him to tell his life story, especially now that he has recently been diagnosed with dementia.
The couple lives in a Seattle retirement community, not far from the Boeing airfield where George worked for a time.
George Opel was born in east Omak in 1928 to Max and Florence Opel.
Growing up, the family was very poor, living first at the old Mission and then on a small farm near Twisp.
“He’s told me stories about living in a small shack, where you could see daylight through cracks in the boards. There were many nights when he went to bed hungry,” said Virginia.
At some point, Opel’s parents decided he would have more opportunities living with an uncle who was in the military.
“One day my uncle and his wife came and visited, and I ended up leaving and living with them for about 14 years.”
Opel himself was drafted into the military in 1950. He never saw active duty but served two years in Europe during the Korean War. When he returned to the states, he began working for Boeing as a riveter, learning how to build and repair aircraft.
Although he completed an eighth grade education during the years living with his uncle at Fort Knox, Kentucky, Opel never formally studied aircraft and most of his experience was hands on at various companies.After Boeing, he went on to work for Washington Aircraft, then Collins Aviation and Flight Craft, where he worked until his first stroke in 1994. Flight Craft did send him to a weeklong school, and after passing his classes he was given a raise.
“He won an award from the Department of Transportation in 1987,”said Virginia.
“That was something one of his customers wrote to them about, because he never would have. He’s pretty quiet, very humble about his accomplishments,” she said. The award listed Opel as being Professional Aviation Mechanic of the Year for 1987.
Virginia met George sometime in 1964 through her sister who worked at an airplane parts store and often sold George parts he needed for plane repairs.
“He already had his pilot’s license and would fly down to court me while I was living south of Olympia.”
In June, the two celebrated their 49th anniversary. They have no children together, although after they married, George did adopt Virginia’s daughter, Debra, who passed away six years ago.
As a couple, the Opels used to take flights down to LaPush on the Quileute Indian Reservation to go salmon fishing.
George described one memorable trip: “One weekend no one was getting fish or going out except us. She hooked a fish. I told her to ‘play it real easy,’ and we boated it. She ended up getting her name on the radio because she got the biggest fish that day. The next day I said, ‘I’m going to get one,’ and so we went to the same spot, started fishing and I reeled one in. It turned out to be a little bit smaller than hers and I never lived it down.”
George has owned several planes: the first was a Cessna he bought and fixed himself, and the second was a Bonanza he built from scratch. Both planes were sold after his first stroke.
“I think the strokes have really broken his heart,” said Virginia.
The couple rarely goes out. Opel now spends his free time building model airplanes in a small room that the building’s staff has set aside for him to use.
Opel recalls having visited the reservation on hunting trips saying, “I was always pretty lucky at it.”
As to why he thinks he’s lived so long? Opel himself isn’t really sure.
Of the seven children in his family, there remain one sister, one brother and Opel himself.
Much like the planes he once saw such potential in rebuilding, Virginia says “George is still in good shape for his age despite all he’s been through.”