Texan celebrates 90th birthday from sky, as nation's oldest U.S. Air Force Academy graduate

GEORGETOWN, Texas (Nexstar) — Retired Major Paul Lasen has been soaring through the skies for longer than most people have been alive.

“I wanted to fly. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since,” he said.

Starting in 1960, Lasen is still flying even as he enters his 90th year.

“When you get up and pull the gear up, and start climbing, the world looks so much better, so much better,” he said.

As if turning 90 wasn’t a milestone enough, his Wednesday birthday encapsulates a lifetime of excellence. In 2017, Lasen flew with the Thunderbirds – even though regulations stipulate that no one over the age of 55 can fly with the renowned air squadron. The Thunderbirds told their family that the only person older than Paul to ever fly with them was Buzz Aldrin.

Lasen chuckles, “I was a little bit over the age.”

Additionally, he received the prestigious Wright Brothers “Master Pilot” award – a U.S. Federal Aviation Administration award given to pilots who have practiced safe flight operations continuously for at least 50 years over the course of their aviation career.

But when asked about what the accolades meant to him, he laughed saying “not much.”

Retired Maj. Paul Lasen's yearbook photo from the U.S. Air Force Academy before graduating in 1959. Lasen was part of the first class to ever graduate from the academy. (Photo: U.S. Air Force Academy)

Lasen holds a unique place in history as part of the first class to graduate from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1959. After graduating, he went on to serve in Thailand during the Vietnam War — flying more than 100 combat missions in F-105 fighter bombers.

Even decades later, the scars from war remain. Lasen describes the war as “a big waste” in retrospect. He lost at least 44 friends, many of whom he taught how to fly.

“At that time, we didn’t question it. It was our job,” he said. “Those names and those people and those faces come back to see you.”

A face that revisits him daily is his co-pilot in life, Barbara. Married for 52 years until her passing in 2011, Lasen fondly recalls the love and warmth they shared at home.

These days, his son Michael accompanies him on adventures by plane. Michael’s pride in his father far surpasses the elevations they’ve climbed to together.

“He once said that he’s only done two things well in life, and though I may argue with that, he put ‘loving your mom and flying aircraft’ as his two major accomplishments in life. And I can say that I think he got it right,” Michael said. “There’s a good reason to share his story – he’s a valiant warrior, he’s a passionate husband and father, and he’s extraordinarily good at flying an aircraft.”

He describes his father as reserved and humble. The sky is where his father will open up to him more, sharing stories that Michael will cherish forever.

“When you have that three and a half hours in transit flight, where you’re not too busy in flyover America. There’s not a lot to do, but we do talk. And the conversations sometimes go to war, sometimes go to friendships and survival. A lot of different things come up that wouldn’t come up in any other situation…and they’re wonderful,” Michael said.

As Paul celebrated his 90th birthday on Wednesday, he and Michael embarked on another adventure, flying to Florida to celebrate the holidays and milestones together.

With his birthday, Lasen says he feels that he’s reaching the “absolute ceiling” of his aviation career and plans to retire soon. His legacy, however, will undoubtedly continue to soar through the stories and memories shared by his family.

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