MAUD — As a child in the 1940s in Oklahoma City, Ken McDaniel pinched paper airplanes between his right thumb and index finger and let them fly across the classroom.
By the time McDaniel was in his 30s, he was an F-100 fighter pilot flying out of Phu Cat in South Vietnam. That was amid more than 20 years in the U.S. Air Force.
Today, he's 78 years old and has cattle on a farm about halfway between Maud and Saint Louis. But his imagination continues to soar in metal models of airplanes that are replicas of some of those he, family, or friends have flown.
“It's a labor of love, because I love the airplanes,” he said. “I love every one I ever flew.
“Flying is my life.”
Then, one day years ago, he found himself staring at a plastic silhouette of an F-100.
Prepare for takeoff
“I got to looking at that one day and I said, ‘That would look nice on the top of a mailbox, just a plain view of the fuselage,'” McDaniel said, thinking back about two decades. “And so I made that.”
Then when he got ready to put up a 35-foot-tall flagpole, thoughts turned to another silhouetted version of a plane that he'd mount atop it, flying right there above the Stars and Stripes.
“When I look at that plane and the flag below it, I think, ‘I worked for my country, the people of the United States,'” he said as a strong summer wind rippled through the flag.
McDaniel, who joined the Air Force in the 1950s, was in his 30s by the time he went to Vietnam. In his first combat tour, he flew a Cessna L-19 “as the Army called it,” known in the Air Force as an 0-1.
He was a forward air controller. In this case, from the air he directed the actions of combat aircraft engaged in close air support of land forces.
“I would spot the targets and direct the fighters to them,” he said.
His second combat tour was as a fighter pilot in an F-100.
Did you get hit?
“Not a scratch,” he said. “That's not skill and cunning, that's strictly luck and being in the right place at the right time instead of the wrong place. The Army used to call me all the time and say, ‘They're shooting at you.' They could hear them. But I couldn't hear it up there.”
Sparked the imagination
One day, a few years after making the airplane for the flagpole, McDaniel got to thinking, “I'm going to try a 3-D model.”
“I just found some pipe that I thought was about right for doing the fuselage and started working with it and adding pieces of pipe to it to get the size right,” he said. “I found that wasn't working, so I started cutting it and bending it and heating it and welding it together.
“I finally got that first one going, which is the heaviest one of the bunch. It's probably about 20 pounds.”
That sparked his imagination.
“I thought, ‘If I do a 3-D, I might as well put an afterburner in it,' ” he said, smiling. “While I was building it, I thought ‘That's open all the way down the center. Why don't I get a blow torch and put in there.'”
There were a few challenges with that, but eventually McDaniel found a way. To demonstrate, he held the propane bottle that is attached to the bottom of the plane. He turned it on. Using a lit cigarette lighter, a primarily blue flame quickly came shooting out.
Was that enough for McDaniel? Did he think he'd taken it far enough?
“After I built the first one, I thought, ‘You know, I need to put one of those up on top of the flagpole,'” he said of a plane with afterburners. “Getting the gas up there is no problem, just run a line up to the center of the flagpole.”
Even with remote ignitions, he has had trouble getting it to work. He'll keep working on that.
In the meantime, “My next airplane model is going to be a P-38.” That's because McDaniel knows some men who were World War II P-38 pilots.
Besides the planes on the mailbox and flagpole, McDaniel has others on poles in his backyard, including four situated in a square shape a few feet apart. The one on the southeast is an F-101, a plane he flew in Rome, N.Y.
On the northwest corner is an F-89 Scorpion, which he also flew in New York. On the northeast is an F-100D model, which he flew on his second trip to Vietnam. And on the southwest is another F-100, painted like the one he flew while assigned to the Air National Guard in Arizona.
Among the metal planes McDaniel has crafted and given away is a B-25 that is atop Bob Webster's flagpole in Seminole. Webster served on a B-25 crew during World War II.
It's not just a conversation starter, it's a reminder.
“I was in three other types of aircraft, but all of my combat was in B-25s,” Webster said. “When I look at it, I remember that it brought me through a bunch of missions against the enemy. It got me home safe and sound.”
Because of a health issue a few years ago, McDaniel no longer pilots a plane. But, he has painted airplanes, shaped them from iron and recently did a chain saw wood carving of himself in flight gear.
It all goes back to the love that started as a child. It's just that the child is now 78.
Do you still stop and watch planes as they fly over?
“Oh gosh yes,” McDaniel said. “It never goes away.”