COOS BAY — Elgen Long can trace his long and wildly successful aviation career back to a high school crush. Or, more accurately, several high school crushes.
“When I was 15 years old, I was very precocious,” Long said. “I was interested in girls, and guess where you find girls in high school? Typing class.”
The 85-year-old grinned. He took a Marshfield High School typing class in 1941, and the next year when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy to fight the Japanese he was the only man in his company who could type. That made him the default company yeoman, or secretary.
“Let me tell you, being the company yeoman — except for being company commander — is the best job in the Navy,” Long said.
As the yeoman, Long had free reign to write his own passes, and his own orders. The Coos Bay native had always been interested in flying. He saved up money to take short flying lessons out of the Eastside Airport before enlisting. So, he wrote himself a pass to school to become a plane’s radioman.
Seventy years later, Long is a world-renowned radioman, navigator and pilot.
“If you want to really excel at something, you have to have a passion for it,” Long told students in Marshfield High School’s aviation class Thursday afternoon.
“Hey, the world is yours,” he said. “You can do anything you want to do.”
And Long knows. He’s done everything he wanted to.
He trained first as a Navy radioman, then as a navigator during World War II.
When the war ended, his skills were in high demand, he said. The U.S. government needed private airlines to fly supplies and people around the world.
Long took a position at Flying Tiger Line.
He unknowingly fulfilled a biblical promise to return Jews to their homeland in the late 1940s by flying thousands of Yemeni Jewish refugees to Israel. He was the first person to fly solo around the world passing both poles. He helped build the DEW Line system in the arctic in the 1950s, which used radar to detect an enemy nuclear invasion across the North Pole.
In the 1970s, Long discovered a new passion: Amelia Earhart.
“My wife said, ‘Aviation has been good to us. What can we do for aviation?’”
Long was already an aircraft accident investigator, so he decided to research the greatest aviation mystery of all time.
Long is now considered one of the world’s foremost experts on Earhart’s disappearance. And he thinks he’s close to finding her.
That determination is what makes dreams come true, Long told the students.
“Henry Ford said it best, ‘If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re probably right.’ ”
Reporter Jessie Higgins can be reached at 541-269-1222, ext. 240, or firstname.lastname@example.org.