Larry Perkins Sr. thanks those who honored his late brother, Donn E. Perkins. -Photo by Connie Prater

The Atkinson County community honored Donn E. Perkins, Willacoochee’s first black pilot, in Aug. 28, memorial service at Willacoochee Elementary School.

Final Flight For Town’s First Black Pilot

Willacoochee Says Goodbye To ‘Hero’
Flying airplanes was a lifelong pursuit for Perkins. Being a pilot wasn’t work, for him, said his cousin Otis Johnson of Atlanta. “The things that he got paid for were things that he truly enjoyed doing and he would have done it for nothing. He would have flown that plane for nothing everyday but he was fortunate enough to get paid for something he enjoyed.”
As a child growing up in rural Willacoochee, Ga., Donn Perkins looked to the skies above his wooden schoolhouse and saw jets flying through the clouds.
“One day,” the youthful Perkins told his friends, “That will be me.”
He made good on that promise and more.
The bright young man who spoke with a booming voice and excelled at everything he attempted got his pilot’s wings in the U.S. Navy in 1977 at age 23.
“He was first the black pilot out of Willacoochee, Ga.,” the town’s mayor, Samuel Newson, said. “We are very, very proud of him.”
On Aug. 28, the Atkinson County community paid tribute to their “Hometown Hero” in a memorial service at the Willacoochee Elementary School gymnasium. Perkins, 62, died Aug. 18 after a battle with cancer. Following the memorial service, he was laid to rest not far from his childhood home.
That mayor said it was important for Willacoochee to honor Perkins because he represented hope for other young people that if he could do it, they could also.
Flying airplanes was a lifelong pursuit for Perkins. Being a pilot wasn’t work, for him, said his cousin Otis Johnson of Atlanta. “The things that he got paid for were things that he truly enjoyed doing and he would have done it for nothing. He would have flown that plane for nothing everyday but he was fortunate enough to get paid for something he enjoyed.” 
He added: “That’s something that we all should strive to do. Find something that you truly enjoy doing and then go out and do it.”
Perkins was a friend to his hometown people, said Martha Carswell, a childhood schoolmate who teaches at Willacoochee public schools. Perkins believed in giving back to help others. Over the years, he has sponsored graduates, funded scholarships, paid for weddings and provided financial assistance to those in need. He was a frequent guest speaker for school children, urging them to reach for the sky just as he had.
Willacoochee friends described how they would look skyward and see a plane flying low above the city. One Sunday morning, a plane circled all of the churches. Strangers might have wondered about it, but, as Carswell said, “We knew when we saw that plane it was Donn.”
Perkins was inspired by another Willacoochee aviator: Maj. General John Robert Paulk, a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot who flew over the city from Moody Air Force Base when Perkins was a youth. “He was always the guy that Donn wanted to pattern himself after because Donn wanted to fly,” said Perkins’ cousin Otis Johnson of Atlanta. He said Perkins told him he got a chance to meet his boyhood idol years later at an air show.
Johnson said Perkins debated whether to join the Air Force or the Navy, but finally settled on the Navy. He was a Navy bomber pilot from 1976 to 1983, flying missions that required him to take off and land jets on the USS Eisenhower, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Perkins went by the call sign of “Black Duck”—a reference to nicknamed he picked up in school because, as friends say, he walked like a duck.
When his Navy stint ended, Perkins continued to soar, becoming a commercial airline pilot for US Airways. While there he flew DC-9, Boeing 737, Airbus 320/321 and Boeing 757/767 jets. He eventually made his home in Charlotte, NC. 
“He flew high, but he never looked down on me,” the Rev. Harvey Williams, pastor of House of Deliverance Church in Willacoochee, said in the eulogy. “This guy was always humble and kind, never forgetting where he came from.”
Born in Coffee County in 1954, Perkins spent his boyhood in Willacoochee. He moved to Atlanta with his mother while still in school and graduated from  Atlanta’s Southwest High School in 1971. He was an ROTC battalion commander, the highest ranking ROTC person at the school, said Charles Prince, one of about a dozen Atlanta area classmates who attended the memorial. “Donn became a very accomplished man,” Prince said. “But one thing about him, Donn never changed. He was the same lovable guy from Willacoochee, Ga.”
Perkins went on to Fort Valley State University, where he received his bachelor’s degree in education. He was a member of the Epsilon Sigma Chapter of Omega Psi Phi fraternity.
The aviation community paid tribute to Perkins during an Aug. 26 funeral service in Charlotte. Afterward, his casket was flown from Charlotte to Jacksonville in preparation for burial at Oak Grove Church cemetery in Pearson.
aid his brother Larry Perkins Sr.: “Donn wanted to come home…. He had one more flight to take.”
 
See the Wednesday, August 31, 2016

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