CAPT Pliny G. Holt, USN (ret)
Oldest Naval Aviator
After a very long and extraordinarily fruitful life, CAPT Pliny G. Holt, USN (ret) quietly passed away in his sleep early in the morning of 4 January 2010. Born in 1910, at over 99 years of age, Pliny was believed to be the oldest living naval aviator, and was a very active modeler up until the final six months of his life.
Coming from a talented family of engineers and inventors (his grandfather and father patented the “caterpillar tread” and started Caterpillar Tractor), Pliny (PLEE-NEE) entered flight school at Pensacola, Florida, in 1936 as a member of Class 85-C. He had already learned to fly as a civilian, and in fact the famous stunt pilot Paul Mantz gave him his final check ride before being awarded his pilot’s license.
Although Pliny and his fellow students, including his brother, were lowly Aviation Cadets at Pensacola, other famous members of his class were CAPT William “Bull” Halsey and CAPT John S. McCain (grandfather of the current US senator from Arizona), who were attending an accelerated pilot program for senior officers.
After winning his gold Naval Aviator’s (pilot) wings, Pliny was assigned to a patrol squadron in the Canal Zone, and soon picked up one of the first new PBY Catalina patrol planes from the Consolidated factory in San Diego.
During the war, Pliny served primarily as an engineering officer working on navigational devices. He was awarded several patents for his groundbreaking work, which also resulted in Britain’s King George VI awarding him the Order of the British Empire (OBE).
During and after the war he flew over 100 aircraft types, including every aircraft in the US Navy’s inventory and many foreign types, including most of the captured German aircraft. He always maintained that his favorite bird, by far, was the Mosquito. He treasured a large photo showing him at the controls of a Mossie high above US farmland, and it occupied the place of honor in his home for decades.
He served as the Air Officer of the USS Antietam in the Pacific near the end of the war.
In early 1947 Pliny was ordered by Admiral Dan Gallery (famous for his capture of the U-505) to plan and conduct the launch of a captured German V-2 rocket from the deck of the USS Midway, the Navy’s first steel-deck carrier. The launch on 6 Sep 47 was successful, although the ensuing flight of the V-2 rocket was not.
See a video of the launch by clicking this link
After that, he commanded a series of important naval aviation engineering activities until his retirement in 1968.
He was a scratch golfer from his college days. One day, while still an Aviation Cadet, Pliny was playing the NAS North Island course and heard loud cursing coming from a copse of trees just off one of the fairways. When he went to investigate, he found Admiral Ernest J. King, by himself, looking for his lost ball. He asked himself: “what does an Aviation Cadet do under these circumstances?” and answering, “he goes and helps the admiral!”
Thereafter Pliny gave Admiral King pointers on his golf game. He nearly caused his commanding officer, a Navy commander, a heart attack the first time Admiral King called Pliny to come play golf with him. It was uncommon, to say the least, for a full admiral to call an aviation cadet to invite him to, well . . . anything!
Pliny became a member of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, Scotland, as well as many other very famous and exclusive clubs around the world. He was a frequent golfing partner of Douglas Bader, the famous RAF ace, and Presidents Eisenhower and Ford. For many years Pliny told the story of how much he liked to hear Doug, who was somewhat nervous while on public display, give a speech because he could hear his wooden legs knocking together.
Although a Naval Aviator, Pliny’s modeling tastes ran to trains and wooden sailing ships. A master modeler and inventor of modeling tools, Pliny built a huge model railroad layout portraying the Southern Pacific Railroad in his basement. This layout was featured in every major model-railroading magazine around the world.
His collection of the wooden model ships he built amazed everyone who ever viewed them, especially master modelers from around the world, who could truly appreciate the fine detail and workmanship.
He built models right up to the final six months of his life, when he was confined to a hospital. You could drop by Pliny’s place any day and find him in his basement workshop, dressed in a cardigan and khakis, smoking his pipe, and working away on his latest creation. He loved to talk about aviation and naval history, modeling, and model tool design.
Perhaps one of Pliny’s most remarkable traits, especially for we military historians and modelers, was his total recall of every event in his life. He could recall, with total clarity, events in 1928 as well as two weeks ago. With his variety of talents and the people he knew, Pliny was always good for an “insider” story—and he had so many interesting experiences that you didn’t often hear the same story twice.
RIP, Pliny. With your passing, an era is gone. I’m honored to have known you.