PUNTA GORDA, Fla. - Few people really ever fulfill their childhood dreams of growing up and
becoming a full-time, professional pilot . . . but Jim Kaletta was one of them.
Not only did he become a pilot, he became, and remains, a major contributor to
aviation technology and leadership.
For Jim, his dream of flying began at the age of 11 at the Sky Harbor
Airport, near Buffalo, New York. His father had recently purchased a J-3
Cub, followed by a Cessna 140, and later a Piper 18. So you could say Jim
was nearly born into the world of aviation. Jim joined the Civil Air
Patrol at the age of 12 as a cadet. He soloed when he was 16 and received his
private pilot certificate exactly one year later on this 17th
birthday. When he turned 18, he qualified on multi-engine, commercial aircraft
and instrument flying.
Jim had to attain hours of flight instruction by working around the
airport. In this case, it was Steffan Field (now Clarence
Aerodrome). He quickly received his Commercial, Instrument, multi-engine and
After graduating from Burgard Vocational High School in 1955 with airframe
and power plant ratings, Jim wrote letters to all of the major airlines seeking
employment as a pilot. Turned down because he was under 21 years old, Jim
was not willing to wait. He managed to secure a night-shift desk job with
Capital Airlines, which later merged with and became United Airlines. His
duties included doing weight and balances and crew
It was not long before United Airlines management recognized Jim's talent
and zeal for aviation, so they sent him to Washington, DC for flight training,
followed by assignment as one of the company's only two pilots who were still
under the age of 20. Over the next several years, Jim quickly accrued
lots of hours flying the line for United.
"The experience was great,” says Kaletta, “but the pay was
miserable." Jim solved the low pay problem by
securing a job flying freight for Airlift International for twice his former
pay. He transferred to Miami and began making daily runs throughout the
Caribbean and the eastern seaboard.
Life was becoming quite good for Jim until, sadly, his father past
away. He returned to Buffalo to settle family matters. It was
during this time that Jim was invited to join Scott Aviation, a Buffalo-based
aviation supply company. His piloting skill and experience, coupled with
an engaging personality, was just what Scott Aviation needed to boost their
sales. He quickly became their number one salesman, flying around the
country taking orders in a Piper Comanche 250 and later a PA-30 Twin
Comanche. His remarkable sales accomplishments ultimately led to his
promotion to vice president and general manager, and eventually company president.
During Jim's tenure, Scott Aviation saw its sales skyrocket from $3 million
to more than $125 million annually. Soon, the business employed more than 1,000
employees. While running Scott Aviation,
Jim provided piloting services for the nearby Carborundum Company as well.
In this capacity, he flew Beech E-18s, Lear jets, and eventually the HS-125,
averaging over 30 hours each month in the air. Still not
getting enough flying time in to suit his needs, Jim purchased a Piper
Arrow, which was later lost in a hangar fire at the Buffalo Airfield. He then
owned a Piper Twin Comanche, a Navion Range Master and a Piper Twin Geronimo.
Jim was running a major corporation, doing a corporate work with a
neighboring corporation, serving in the National Guard, and buying and
maintaining his own series of airplanes. During all this activity, he
managed to secure ratings in helicopters, Lear jets, a British 125-400 and 700
aircraft, along with logging over 10,000 pilot-in-command hours. While
these would have been regarded as significant accomplishments, Jim went on to
secure a U.S. Coast Guard Commercial Captains license for ships up to 200 tons.
He also managed to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in business, followed by
graduate studies in marketing, antitrust trade, specialized training in counter
intelligence, labor relations, and leadership skills development.
Jim is the consummate over-achiever. Not only did he become an
accomplished pilot, educated professional, and a local captain of industry,
he went on to hold leadership posts as president of the Aviation Distributors
and Manufactures Association, the Air Force Association, and the Buffalo Aero
Club. He also served on the boards of directors of the Niagara Falls Air show
and the Buffalo Launch Club. If all this were not enough, Jim volunteered
his time as an Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Young Eagles pilot, Commander
in the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) and as a Federal Aviation Administration Lead Safety
Team (FAAST) member in both Buffalo and Florida. In August 2005, the FAA
Presented Jim the government's highest award, The Wright Brothers “Master
Pilot” Award.” To earn this honor, a pilot must have 50 years of flying with no
safety violations. To date, less than 3,000 pilots have been named to the honor
Jim is a member of the Quiet Birdman (QBs), the Aircraft Owners and Pilots
Association (AOPA), the Aerospace Medical Association, National Business
Aircraft Association and the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA). In
1991, Jim was inducted into the Niagara Frontier Aviation Hall of Fame.
As for Jim's hobbies, it is no surprise that flying is listed as number one.
From October 2005 until November 2012, Jim was the commander
of Charlotte County Composite Squadron FL-051. Under the guidance of Jim and
his staff, the unit has garnished numerous awards and accolades making it the
premier squadron in Southwest Florida.
With its headquarters at the Punta Gorda Airport Group 5
currently is composed of 240 cadets and 327 senior members. Since its inception
in 1949, as a civilian auxiliary component of the U.S. Air Force, FL-051 has
not only prepared itself but has performed numerous duties in the wake of a
In November 2012, Jim was chosen as the deputy commander of
Group 5 which encompasses 10 squadrons from Charlotte, Collier, De Soto,
Glades, Hardee, Hendry, Highlands, Lee, Manatee, and Sarasota Counties. With
their four aircraft, three vans, and communications equipment, the Group can
literally become the eyes and ears of Charlotte County in the wake of a hurricane.
“Before a hurricane we
will take photos through special windows from one of our planes,” Jim said. “We have certified photographers that will
also take photos after a storm, so we can assess the damage.”
Recently, the squadron was joined by Naples, Sarasota and
Marco, and federal and state agencies, to participate in a three-day mock drill
to train emergency managers for the upcoming hurricane season. It was a worst
case scenario involving two fictitious storms, “Hurricane Lay” and “Hurricane
Kirk,” that were supposed to make landfall somewhere in Florida.
Jim, who coordinated Group 5 during the training, said that
the state CAPs racked up some very impressive numbers. They had nearly 79 hours
of flight time, 103 personnel had more than 2,700 man hours of time, and 13
aircraft had 51 sorties that took more than 1,700 photographs.
“About 150 out of the
328 senior members of Group 5 are pilots,” he said. “The rest play equally important roles as radio operators, observers,
scanners, and administrators.”
In addition to coordinating the disaster preparedness schedule,
Jim has encouraged many of the squadron’s cadets to attend as many of the CAP
schools as possible to better prepare themselves for the future.
One such is the Florida Wing Cadet Honor Society. Since its
inception in 1997, 30,000 cadets have tried to gain admittance into the prestigious
group. However, only 377 have been successful – and 5 of those are members of
FL-051. Cadets have successfully graduated from the arduous two-week Ground
Search and Rescue School at Camp Atterbury in Edinburg, Indiana as well. The
school is part of the CAP National Emergency Services Academy.
New York and Florida are proud to have men like Jim Kaletta
who not only served as pioneers in aviation, but who continues to be role
models for a whole new generation of pilots. He remains active in numerous
aviation organizations, particularly with the Civil Air Patrol, where he takes
delight in introducing young people to aviation and encouraging them as they
endeavor to follow in his remarkable footsteps.
This article first appeared as a Pilot Profile in "Wonderful World of Flight".