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104-year-old Air Force veteran reflects on his life and career

April 15, 2017 (Photo Credit: Mark Reis/The Gazette via AP)
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Oliver Cellini is a slight, sinewy man and genuine flirt who considers it remiss of a gentleman not to walk a lady to her car — even if that journey, for him, requires careful steps and a cane.

The decorated former fighter pilot who pushed some of the military's celebrated wartime aircraft to their limits - and speeds in excess of Mach 1 - celebrated his 104th birthday in February. His life moves more slowly these days. The jet black pencil mustache he sported as a younger man is silver now and thicker; the hair on top thinning out. The last time he flew a fighter plane was in 1968, the day before he retired after a 32-year career that spanned three continents and two wars.

As the saying goes, "There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots."

If boldness is measured not in blind moxie but devotion to duty and an intimate knowledge of one's flying machine, Ollie's legacy begs to differ.

"A fighter pilot, if he wants to live, should be able to fly an airplane in any direction you can think of. Up, down, left, right, spin. Otherwise you're not going to survive in combat," Ollie says. "Every fighter airplane I flew, I did everything in the book with it to learn its capabilities and its bad parts and good parts."


Retired Air Force Col. Oliver "Ollie" Cellini 1
Retired Air Force Col. Oliver "Ollie" Cellini, 104. poses Wednesday, April 5, 2017, in his Colorado Springs, Colo., home with a model an F-80 Shooting Star that was named Lin-Do-Bee after his wife and daughters. Cellini flew 87 missions in the plane.
Photo Credit: Mark Reis/The Gazette via AP

The "most chronologically advanced" member of the Order of Daedalians, the century-old fraternal organization of American military pilots, attributes his longevity in part to a healthy diet, exercise and regular, moderate doses of red wine.

Ollie is Italian, after all.

"Nobody has ever seen me drunk," he says, from the kitchen table of the house he and his late wife, Bernice, built in 1969 in northeast Colorado Springs.

Seated across from him, middle daughter Linda reminds her dad that statement might not be entirely true: "My mother has seen you drunk."

"She saw me half-drunk," Ollie clarifies, his words tapering into a drawn-out chuckle. "It's a good idea to have daughters around to remind you of stuff."

Love of flying had early roots

Ollie was born in Chicago on Feb. 10, 1913, the second child of an Italian-immigrant father who'd worked four years to save the money to bring his wife and infant son - Ollie's late older brother, Laurino - from Florence to America.

Ollie's interest in guns came from his dad, a former member of the Bersaglieri, Italy's elite light infantry military unit, and an expert marksman whose skill with a rifle earned him a job supplying wild game for the work crews laying the Great Northern Railroad.

"In Chicago, we had a coal and building material yard and he would take me out there with a .22 pistol and shoot into the coal piles," says Ollie, who went on to become a distinguished shot himself. "I had two brothers and a sister and none of them knew the muzzle of a gun from the stock. I was interested so I knew it backwards and forwards: gunnery, ammunition, pistols and automatic guns and rifles."

Ollie's love of flying had early roots, as well, and may have been influenced by the view from the windows of his elementary school, beside an airfield that later was expanded into Chicago's Midway International Airport.

A champion wrestler in high school and at Indiana University, which he attended on an athletic scholarship, Ollie was a member of the university's 1932 NCAA Division I championship team and took second in his weight class, an honor that qualified him to compete in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin - an invitation he had to turn down.

"They wouldn't give us a god-darned thing. We had to furnish everything for ourselves at that time. Now, I guess they pay for everything," he says, and laughs.

After college and ROTC, Ollie spent 13 months serving in active duty with the Army before entering flying school with the Army Air Corps​.

His first station was at Selfridge Field, now Selfridge Air National Guard Base, near Detroit, where he was tapped as one of two test pilots for the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, a twin engine fighter plane.

The other pilot, Lt. Dale D. Brannon "and his pal Lieutenant Ollie Cellini flew the birds in every conceivable way, and liked what they found. Nothing in the skies could touch them," writes Donald D. Davis, in his book "Lightning Strike: The Secret Mission to Kill Admiral Yamamoto and Avenge Pearl Harbor."

Davis goes on to describe one of Ollie's adventures flying the then-experimental "YP-38," at a public air show at Selfridge attended by an Argentine military dignitary and his host, Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold.

"As an excited announcer(sic) introduced 'The Thunderbirds,' Brannon and Cellini highballed down from the sky and screamed right across the airfield at almost four hundred miles per hour, only a few feet above the ground," Davis writes. "The crowd, punished by the propeller wash and roaring engines, went wild with applause and cheers."

For the duo's final pass, they went for ultimate drama.

"The big planes soared up and up, the pilots cut both engines on each plane, and they fell over in slow, silent rolls," writes Davis. "Totally without power, they toppled like rocks with wings, and the lack of sound in the sky was matched by silence among those watching from the ground until the pilots hit the switches, kicked the YP-38s back to life, and roared away safely."

Flying the P-38 Lightning for the first time "felt like you were the direct descendant of Jesus Christ," says Ollie, who went on to teach other fighter pilots how to fly the plane. Among his students was late Colorado Springs resident Col. Frank Royal, who died in 2016 at age 101. Royal's original fighter plane was recovered and restored and is on display at the National Museum of World War II Aviation in Colorado Springs.

Storied military career

Before heading to combat in World War II, Ollie commanded the 311th and then the 312th Jug Squadrons at Tallahassee, Fla., and his later role helping train Chinese gunnery pilots earned him a personal visit and medal from Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Republic of China.

"That second medal there was from Syngman Rhee, the head man in Korea, but he sent a colonel over to give me the medal. He didn't do it himself," Ollie says, gesturing to a shadow box full of hardware, including The Legion of Merit and The Distinguished Flying Cross. Around it on the wall are framed photographs - Ollie in front of his WWII P-47 fighter plane, nicknamed the "Donna-Bee" in honor of his wife and the oldest of their three daughters, Donna, and him striking a similar pose with the "Lin-Do-Bee," the jet fighter he flew after Linda's birth, during the Korean War, when he commanded the 51st Fighter Wing in Korea.


Retired Air Force Col. Oliver "Ollie" Cellini 2
Retired Air Force Col. Oliver "Ollie" Cellini, 104, is reflected April 5, 2017, in his Colorado Springs, Colo., home, in a display case of various medals and awards from his career as a pilot.
Photo Credit: Mark Reis/The Gazette via AP

In 1944, Ollie left Florida for China, where he served until the end of WWII under then-Maj. Gen. Claire Lee Chennault, commander of the 14th Air Force and leader of the famed "Flying Tigers."

"Chennault was a very good boss because you could call him an SOB if you told him why," says Ollie, who led the only group of P-47s under Chennault's command. "We could carry a tremendous load and take a lot of punishment and still come home."

After the start of the Korean War in June 1950, Ollie flew 87 missions during 18 months of service in Southeast Asia before an illness landed him in the hospital and set him on the path back to his family.

The Cellinis lived for about three years in Italy, where Ollie reconnected with long lost relatives and worked for NATO, and then returned to the States, where he served in a series of high-level jobs including inspector general of Air Force Command and vice commander of the 4th Air Force.

The third time his military career brought him to Colorado Springs, in 1966, for a posting at the former Ent Air Force Base - it stuck.

Reflecting on the course that took him from a boy in Chicago, around the world, and to Colorado Springs, where he sits a century down the line ... is something he doesn't really do. Ollie's never been one to dwell on the past or fret about the future.

"You've got a lot of writing there. You can throw most of it away," he says. "Sure you don't want some wine?"

Living in the moment

A positive attitude and unceasing momentum are what's kept her dad going, says Linda, her gaze drifting from the highlight wall of photos and medals to the seated Exerglider in the living room, a machine Ollie uses sometimes twice a day. A wrinkled helium balloon from his February birthday party is still tethered, loosely, to one handlebar.

"He lives very much in the moment," Linda says. "Somehow he got that Zen thing down before anyone had ever heard about it."

His good sense of humor - still very much intact - also has played a big part, says Linda, who began joining her father in the cockpit in the 1980s to help work the radios, a job that became more critical as Ollie's hearing started to fail. "He taught me how to fly. Dad, you taught me how to fly, right?"

"Not like I wanted to," Ollie says.

Aside from the fact that they "almost killed each other ... he did a good job. You did, Dad. When I took my flight test, the FAA examiner thought you had done a good job teaching me," Linda says.

Ollie accepts the compliment and conversation turns to one of his favorite memories from the time spent in the air with his daughter.

"We were flying along and doing certain maneuvers and I told her to give me a straight-edge stall. In other words, pull up and keep it straight 'til it stalls out," Ollie says.

The plane, as anticipated, went into a spin - and Linda, into a panic.

"I looked at him and he was laughing just like he is now. I thought 'It's the irony, because he's been in combat and we're going to crash in a Cessna. He thinks it's hilarious.'"

When he stopped laughing, Ollie took the controls and very calmly and smoothly corrected the problem.

"I thought she was going to have puppies," Ollie says. "You ready for that wine yet?"

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