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Murray pilot, veteran retires after decades of flying, teaching

Mason Galemore

A popular Calloway County pilot recently retired after more than two decades of teaching, repairing planes and flying.

Ernie Jirak has taught hundreds of pilots how to take to the skies since founding Cardinal Aviation in Murray in 1999. His retirement comes at a low point in the aviation industry as the U.S. struggles with a pilot shortage.

After more than two decades, Jirak shut the business down in September and sold much of his inventory.

Jirak grew up on a dairy farm in western New York and joined the United States Air Force in 1962. When he left the military, Jirak had trouble finding a position as a pilot because of the amount of veteran pilots returning from the Vietnam War. His job hunt brought him to Murray, where he worked for the Fisher Price and Mattel plant as a tool and die maker for nearly 30 years.

Jirak says he will never forget his first flight.

“It was wonderful to leave the ground and climb out up into the air like that,” Jirak said. “You look down on all the houses and every hill looks so miniature. It's just amazing.”

Nearly 800 students got their wings by learning from Jirak at Cardinal Aviation and at the seaplane center in Kuttawa. He says every student he taught had something special about them and each of them had their own reason to take to the skies.

“If you are going into the flying part of aviation you need to start early,” Jirak said. “You need time to build up experience so you can work for the airlines. Get at it and keep at it.”

John Hewlett is one several instructors who worked at Cardinal Aviation. Hewlett said in an interview with the Murray Ledger & Times he started flying after meeting “teacher and dear friend” Jirak and his flight partner Johnny Parker.

“I took a lesson with him, and it turned into quite an addiction. I got my private and instrument ratings with him and then progressed on up through commercial and multi-engine and seaplanes and flight instructor and all of that stuff,” Hewlett said. “I’ve had a 21-year relationship with Ernie at this point, and I will tell you right now, this was a time that we all dreaded, but we all knew it was going to happen (at some point). The airport will literally never be the same, and we are all very much going to miss him.”

Many pilots in the region say Jirak’s retirement means the loss of a well-respected aviation figure. Even though Jirak says he’ll miss being more involved in the aviation business, he’s confident the next generation of pilots will step up to the plate.

“There’s never a big hole [for long],” Jirak said. “There is always someone who will fill it.”

Mason Galemore is a Murray State student studying journalism. He was the editor-in-chief of his high school newspaper. Since then has explored different publication avenues such as broadcasting. He hopes to travel as a journalist documenting conflict zones and different cultures. He remembers watching the Arab Spring in 2011 via the news when he was a kid, which dawned in a new age of journalism grounded in social media. His favorite hobbies are hiking, photography, reading, writing and playing with his Australian Shepard, Izzy. He is originally from Charleston, Missouri.
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