Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat

Ron Sawyer's journeys often ended differently than they started.

He went to school to be a farmer but eventually become a mechanic. He went into the military to go to Korea, only to be sent to Alaska. While there, he was trained to be a firefighter and left a pilot.

"I told my dad when I got drafted, 'I'm going to make the best of this,'" said Sawyer, 79, who lives in Columbia. "I had no idea how lucky I was going to be."

A retired jack-of-all-trades and lifelong pilot, Sawyer still flies his 1946 Taylorcraft plane regularly from Columbia Airport. He's an active community member who can be seen helping out in the rose garden and nursery of his wife, Rosemary, who is known locally for her roses.

He's worked as an airline mechanic, on a newspaper press, at a chocolate plant and for many other agriculture and food businesses in Northern California over the years.

But his love of aviation has burned throughout, even as a child, collecting model airplanes while growing up on the family farm in Hughson.

"There was no time for any of that foolishness," said Sawyer, describing his father's view of his interest. "I was supposed to pay attention and be a farmer."

Sawyer graduated from high school in 1952 and briefly studied agriculture at Fresno State. But he struggled in school and was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1954 after leaving.

He entered the service near the end of the Korean War, and after training was sent to Fort Richardson in Alaska for duty.

Sawyer, who was separated from the rest of his training unit, expected he would be assigned to protect nuclear missile sites from the Soviet military as a machine gunner.

Instead, he learned he would be trained to work as a firefighter on the expansive Alaskan military base during his two years of service.

"I was thrilled," said Sawyer. "I liked to hunt and fish … and I didn't want to kill anyone anyway. I lucked out in not having to be in the combat zone."

What he did want to do was learn to fly, and luckily there was a civilian airport and flight school near his duty location. Sawyer recalled working at a bowling alley putting up pins on his time off to pay for flight classes.

Though beautiful and exciting, Alaska wasn't an easy place to work or live, he said. Sawyer recalled winter being the busy season for the fire team due to residential heating with up to 20 fire calls a week, and he worked as the engine driver in the challenging weather.

And it's no picnic for pilots, either. Sawyer says he talked to "an old bush pilot" before taking his first solo flight over the wilds of Alaska. His gear included a "survival pack" with a .357 magnum pistol, and the pilot offered some advice if he went down in the wilderness.

"After the third day kid, just use that gun on your head. They're never gonna find you," Sawyer recalled. "That's serious stuff."

But he also remembers the place as a great location for learning to fly.

"Landing on skis in six or eight inches of brand new snow, it's just one of the greatest things you ever dreamed of," he said.

After leaving the military, Sawyer moved back to California and took advantage of the GI Bill to get licensed for working on airplanes. He worked for United Airlines in San Francisco, maintaining piston-driven aircraft during what he described as the airline industry's "golden years."

That was followed by myriad jobs in agriculture and the food industry working with and maintaining various types of equipment.

He eventually retired from the Modesto Bee, where he worked on the press, 14 years ago before moving to Columbia.

During those working years, before reaching the Bee, Sawyer bought his first plane - a Piper Cub designed by the same engineer as his Taylorcraft.

He kept the plane in a small hangar he built right on the property.

"It was airplane heaven. It really kept my sanity" during tough times at work, he said.

Today, he regularly participates in fly-in events for antique aircraft enthusiasts. He and Rosemary have even flown across the country together in the small aircraft, something he says everyone should experience.

"To fly a little airplane low and slow the entire width of the nation … you really grasp what a nation we have," Sawyer said. "You cannot get that picture from the road."