Kevin Purtee and “The Hat of Power”

Builders:

Last week I wrote a story about the biggest character in the world of Corvairs: Ken “Adonis” Pavlou advises aviators: “Life is short, Live Large” . Today’s chapter in ‘Corvair personalities’ will get a look at the biggest badass in the Corvair movement, Kevin Purtee.

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Using the term ‘badass’ makes people think of a guy walking around with a lot of bravado, but that isn’t what I am speaking of. Kevin doesn’t look like a badass, he is one. In public he has a clean cut look, he has language your mother would approve of, and he has a collection of ‘Hello Kitty’ tee shirts. Under the thin veneer of polite public decorum is a warrior with 26 years of experience flying combat helicopters such as the AH-64 Apache. He finds obscure forms of martial arts entertaining, not to watch, but to participate in. While he places great value on sportsmanship, his super competitive nature as an ‘alpha dog’ shows up when anyone proposes a contest of any sort, but turns this off when inappropriate. The thread connecting many accomplishments in his life is seeking out difficult things and doing them in with great intensity. This includes building his own airframe and engine and flying them hundreds of hours.  He is a great friend to have,,,,and may God have mercy on his enemies.

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All of this makes it very funny when Kevin wears my sock monkey hat, Aka “The Hat of Power.”  It is a great visual twist that subtly says “I can wear this silly hat, or even a pink tutu if I wanted, and I would still be the biggest badass in the room.”

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When you’re a badass like Kevin, any hat you wear is “The Hat of Power.” Read this to get a better look at his aviation professionalism: Thought for the Day: Two paths in managing risk

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Kevin’s nature likes some things to be turned into contests, and this can be very memorable entertainment, if you are a spectator. At Corvair College #32, he got the idea was that he and Mark Chouinard should stand shirtless in the prop blast and see who could take it longer. Mark bowed out, as shown in the photo above taken by Grace in the rain, snow and sleet, but Kevin wanted everyone to know that 36F and raining isn’t really that cold. Note the rain drops  on the lens. Someone figured out that the wind chill in the prop blast was 90 below, even without the water cooling effect. He next time anyone asks if a Corvair college is a typical technical seminar, with power point presentations in the Holiday Inn banquet room, I will pull out this picture, it should cover the difference pretty well.  This photo was part of the story about Kevin’s plane: Current Corvair Installation in a Pietenpol, Part 2

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Kevin was in the first 100 people who bought a conversion manual from me, but I didn’t meet him in person for 13 more years, the day he flew his Pietenpol to Brodhead. This is exactly how I found him. On that day, Kevin had the left main gear on his Piet give out on a touch and go on a muddy spot on the field. With incredible cool and skill, he made a well planned landing on one wheel, after selecting the runway that allowed landing right into the wind. It was about 10 a.m. He was assisted by many members of the local Brodhead Gang, and the plane was back flying by the end of the day. A lot of people were very impressed by the chain of events. Kevin told me that he was moved beyond words by people he had never met before working diligently on his plane with him for eight solid hours.  He was impressively positive, as if nothing were out of the ordinary. It was just the kind of attitude you would expect from a guy whose day job is flying combat helicopters.

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Several years after the above photo, Kevin has a severe accident at the same airport, stemming from having water in the fuel. It was July, the week of Oshkosh. Grace and I went to see him and Shelley in his hospital room. He has a grocery list of damage that would have killed most people, including a smashed femur, collapsed lung, and needing his intestines resected. The doctor came in and said that with a years rehab, Kevin could walk again. Kevin responded by saying “I am going to f—ing run a 5K by November” The doctor smiled and turned to us and politely said “that is the morphine speaking” Shelley said, no, that is who he is everyday.  True to his word, Kevin returned to flight status with the Military and ran the 5K by November.  This story is my primary understanding of Kevin as a badass.

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Kevin’s immerses himself in experimental aviation, he and Shelley putting the finishing touches on their own engine upgrade at Barnwell CC #27.  Everyone who has met him understands him to be a very funny and friendly guy. Kevin is justifiably proud of his 31 years as a warrior, but in the setting of homebuilts, he likes to be thought of as another fellow builder. At the College he wore my sock monkey hat and Shelley had a shirt for him with the ‘hello kitty’ logo embroidered on it. Neither of these two touches worked to fully suppress Kevin’s tough guy nature, but the did very effective show that he has a good sense of humor. Man on the right is long time corvair movement builder Chris Pryce, USAF.

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Most people think of the words ‘narcissist’ or ‘selfish’ when the word badass is applied to someone. Kevin is the guy who proves they don’t have to be attached. At Corvair College #27, we presented Kevin and Shelley The Cherry Grove Trophy for their outstanding service to other builders in the Corvair movement. Although he is intense, Kevin channels this in the Corvair community to encourage others to operate with greater understanding and productivity.

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Here is an example of how the “The Hat of Power” doesn’t work for other people:  Above, fellow Piet builder, 6’5″ Mark Chouinard donned the hat right after his engine ran at Corvair College #30, to test the hat’s ‘magic.’ Although Mark is a tough guy (his Facebook page has testimonials from numerous friends about his outstanding skills with belt-fed weapons in the Army), the Hat of power didn’t have the same effect on him as it does with Kevin. Mark remained his friendly self. With Kevin, it is like meeting captain ‘Quint’ from the film Jaws.

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Another example of the Hat not working: In the case of Terry Hand, the Hat did more to bring out the wise-ass than the bad-ass. Terry has a wicked sense of humor, ‘refined’ by years in the Marine Corps. Above he is intentionally provoking an inter-service rivalry by wearing the “Hat of Power” normally reserved just for Kevin. This, like Mark trying it on, is a major protocol violation.  This is what led to the shirtless artic contest with Mark. In Terry’s case Kevin is still dreaming up the ‘contest.’

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The photo above is from late at night, Barnwell College #31. Terry and fellow Marine Andy Shorter were joking around saying things like “The Marines have been sent in Force…Two….why so many?” We expect this stuff on the day before the birthday of the Corps (Nov. 10).

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 Kevin lives two lives in aviation: His day job is piloting an Apache helicopter and his passion is his Pietenpol and his part in that community. Symbolic of his wearing two hats in aviation is the fact he’s wearing a sock monkey knit hat while making a serious point on his introduction speech at one of the four Corvair Colleges that He and Shelley Tumino have hosted.

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In a typical season of airshows, I meet thousands of people, and with them come a small handful of trolls, I am pretty good at dealing with them, but even after 27 years, some of them are still grating. Many years ago I unexpectedly found Kevin at the Brodhead Pietenpol fly in, he had just returned from a deployment and flown his plane up from Texas. It was about 7am, and we had just barely greeted each other, when a troll, an “professional homebuilder” came up and told Kevin that his airplane wasn’t right. Not a question of airworthy, the man who frequently criticized the planes of others on appearance,  told Kevin that the cosmetics of his plane were not original nor ‘correct.’

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Kevin’s response was to put a big smile on his face and explain to the ‘professional’, that homebuilding to Kevin was just fun, and he didn’t do it as a ‘professional’ like the troll did, and Kevin’s plane only had to look right to him.  Kevin looked they guy in the face and  said he liked to keep his fun flying separate from his work flying, because “At work I kill people for a living”.  Kevin gave him a friendly slap on the back and sent him along. I was impressed because it didn’t even raise Kevin’s blood pressure, he shrugged it off, explaining that tolerating that guy and trying to be nice to him would have been stressful, and sharing a different perspective was no problem at all.

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If I have made Kevin sound rough and without charm, let the photo above be a correction. Kevin and Shelley, having dinner at the White House. Above, they sit in front of a portrait of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the Vermeil Room. The event was to honor Iraq war veterans. Kevin was chosen to represent the State of Texas at the dinner. While his accomplishments in experimental aviation are a standout, it means a lot more when you consider that he spent most of his building years deployed.

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