Flying Tiger Line Pilots Association
Robert "Skee" Zalusky
by Steve Zalusky
How do you sum up a man's life in a few paragraphs? My father, Robert Zalusky, was one of those powerful men who knew what he wanted and who he was from an early age. His life could easily be the subject of one of those epic black and white movies of the 1940's and 50's about a man who would shape his own life and the lives of those around him.
My grandparents used to tell stories about my father as a young boy attaching two clothes pins together in the shape of an airplane, and pretending to be Charles Lindbergh flying the Spirit of St. Louis around the house. He haunted the local airfield in order to be around airplanes. He swept hangars and helped work on airplanes with whoever would let him. By high school, he had become a fixture at the Northwest Airways hangar and the pilots finally relented and let him fly with them on short hops between cities on Ford Tri-motors. After high school he attended the University of Minnesota for a degree in aeronautical engineering while flying part time for Northwest Airways. Like so many young men of his generation, his university education was cut short by the beginning of the second world war.
Robert attended Army Air Corps flight school in California, where he met my mother Lorraine Farnham while hitchhiking back to base from weekend leave. They were married before he left for active duty in China. He was posted to the 14th Army Air Force on a small airfield in Burma where he flew L-5s, small aircraft designed for their ability to land in small forest openings and to take off from hand cut runways. Early in the war he was the first pilot to fly the "Hump", a high, mountainous region between China and India.
He spent the last year of his service living deep behind enemy lines with the Lisou Tribe in the Jungles of Burma. He kept his plane on a hidden jungle landing strip and kept in radio contact with the American lines while also leading villagers into remote areas in search of downed aircrews, and reporting on Japanese activity. We have photos of my father standing outside of his thatched hut with the four wives he was given by the head man. My father had the title of "Second Headman". He always swore that his relationship with his four wives was "platonic". Eventually, his commanding officer believed that my father was "going native" and called him back to base for a meeting. Upon arrival, he was immediately put on a plane for Hawaii and then back to the U.S.; his active military service was over. One of our family treasures is the case of my father's war medals. These include two Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Air Medals, a Purple Heart, and the Republic of China's highest medal of the time, the "Order of the Yun-Hui", along with several other medals.
Following the war he lived in Thousand Oaks, California, with my mother and built and ran a small bar while endlessly applying for jobs as a airline pilot along with thousands of other former military pilots. He finally was given a job with Flying Tigers, founded by pilots of General Chenault's famous squadron. He had flown with many of these guys in the 14th Army Air Force.
Captain Zalusky, or "Skee" as he was known in the Company, is the father my brother and sisters and I grew up with. He was away "overseas" two weeks every month and I always think of him in his airline captain's uniform. We always thought of our father as this powerful and mysterious man who lived most of his life traveling out in the world involved in great deeds we could only guess at. When not flying, he was endlessly and tirelessly involved in some huge project. He built three airplanes: two from plans (not kits) and one, a seaplane, which he designed and built.
My father spent the last 15 years of his career as a 747 pilot. He took retirement hard, but quickly found other important projects and tasks to pursue. Like many airline pilots, he moved to Lake County because when flying over the state from across the Pacific, it was one of the few places where the air was never covered in haze when viewed from a cockpit window. Until moving to a care facility in Chico with my mother four years ago, my parents lived in their beautiful home on Clear Lake.
If I were to pick one thing that clearly defines my father's quality, it is that he was a great pilot to the end. When time and the infirmities of age finally made it difficult for him to be a responsible pilot, he gave up the one thing that had defined his life from early childhood. He landed at Lampson field one day, after having missed some items on his checklist, and never flew again. I remember the day he sold his last airplane and he did it without looking back.
When my father no longer had the strength and energy to be involved in great projects he began leaving us. He died on July 9, 2011 and joined our sister Ellen. He is survived by his wife, Lorraine, and four children: Mark, Steven, Pamela, and Michele. We will always love him.
For those of you who knew Captain Zalusky, and wish to do some small thing to remember him, you can make a contribution to PreserveKonocti.org, a group dedicated to the preservation and public acquisition of Mt. Konocti. This was one of my father's final great interests.Back To Memorials