NEW SMYRNA BEACH -- George Baker's love affair with military aircraft began as a teenager in New Jersey.
"It was 1946 and B-25 (bombers) would fly over my school," Baker recalled while sitting in his home office in his hangar at the New Smyrna Beach Municipal Airport. "I would jump up from my seat and run to the windows. The teacher would ask, what was I doing and I would say, sharpening my pencil."
For the past 64 years, Baker, 81, has flown, worked on, or restored hundreds of types of aircraft. For that achievement, this week he received the Federal Aviation Administration's Charles Taylor Master Mechanic award and Wright Brothers Master Pilot award.
While the primary criteria for these awards is 50 or more years in aviation, Baker did much more, said award presenter Mark Laughridge of the FAA.
"This is the highest awards the FAA bestows on airmen," he said. "Mr. Baker exemplifies the professionalism that these awards revolve around."
Aviation has evolved over the years since the Wright Brothers, Laughridge said, and senior airmen like Baker helped bring that about, especially in the area of restoring aircraft that helped win World War II.
"We have a lot to thank Mr. Baker for," he said.
After getting his pilot's license as an 11th grader in high school with dreams of flying B-25s, Baker said he went to the recruiting office to sign up after the war ended and he was unceremoniously shown the door.
"They were trying to get rid of people," he said.
He tried again when the Korean conflict ignited, but was rejected because he was married and didn't have any experience he said.
"They said they couldn't use me," Baker said.
But having a self-admitted "soft spot in his head for military aircraft," Baker became an expert at rebuilding and restoring "warbirds" as well as other aircraft. It was a career he said began by washing airplanes in return for another half-hour of flight time at his New Jersey flight school.
"I had to support my habit," Baker said.
That habit started with a Culver Cadet, a single-engine airplane, Baker said, that was put together from parts of five non-airworthy planes. Over the next six decades, he has worked on everything from T-28 trainers, B-17, B-25 and B-26 bombers, a DC-6 cargo plane, Japanese Fujis and a T-33 jet trainer.
"I flew (the T-33) at air shows for 20 years," he said.
Amid that work, Baker was the first pilot for NASCAR and the Daytona International Speedway in the early 1960s. He also holds an airline transport pilot certificate with ratings for airplane single engine land and sea, airplane multi-engine land; rotorcraft-helicopter, DC-B26, N-B25 and G-TBM.
Looking back on his career, Baker said his favorite plane is the British Sea Fury he restored.
"That was challenging and fun," he said of the three-and-a-half-year project. "That was the best plane I ever built."
Those who have worked with Baker over the years said he has played a major role in the restoration of "warbirds" and through his contributions to the "warbird community."
"He is a unique individual who has done a lot of things," said Nelson Ezell of Texas-based Ezell Aviation, which also restores "warbirds."
Ezell said he has known Baker for about 20 years and over that time they have shared their knowledge and expertise.
Gary Norville of New Smyrna Beach-based American Aero Services said he learned his craft working for Baker on T-34s.
"The opportunities he have me when I first starting work for him, he opened doors for me and I will be forever grateful," Norville said.
In terms of a pilot, Norville said he was always impressed with Baker ability to know move on from an aircraft that "was faster than he is."
"That is very rare in aviation," he said.