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Hangar dedication at air show marks 100th birthday of one of Hillsboro Airport's most influential developers

COURTESY PHOTO: MCCULLOUGH FAMILY - Swede Ralston died in 2007 after a lifetime in the aviation business. His company, Aero Air, is currently run by his grandson, Kevin McCullough.The Oregon International Air Show takes off this weekend, with three days of high-flying aerobatics over the Hillsboro Airport. But on the ground, one of the Hillsboro Airport’s earliest pilots is being remembered for the work he did to grow the airport and launch one of Washington County’s most popular annual attractions.

Norm “Swede” Ralston, a pilot and founder of Hillsboro’s Aero Air, fell in love with flight as a toddler. He spent a lifetime in the sky, working as a flight instructor, crop duster and pilot out of the Hillsboro Airport for most of his life. To commemorate the man, known as “Swede” to his family and friends, air show officials will dedicate a hangar in his honor on what would have been his 100th birthday.

Check it out

What: Oregon International Air Show

When: Aug. 5-7

Where: Hillsboro Airport, 3355 N.E. Cornell Road, in Hillsboro

Tickets: $25 Friday and Sunday, $30 Saturday.

During the air show, Hangar 13 at the Hillsboro Airport will be renamed “Swede’s Place,” with photos of Ralston and the Hillsboro Airport’s earliest days.

“The pilots wanted to something to recognize Dad,” Ralston’s daughter Dana McCullough told the Tribune on Tuesday. “Memories fade with time. Many of the pilots might not even know his name.”

COURTESY PHOTO: MCCULLOUGH FAMILY - Norman Swede Ralston flies in an early airplane in the 1920s. Ralston, from Forest Grove, went on to found Aero Air, helped establish the Hillsboro Airport and performed the first air show in Hillsboro in the 1940s.McCullough is currently working on a book about the history of the airport and is organizing the look back at her father, who died in 2007. Ralston’s career in aviation helped make the Hillsboro Airport — and the air show — into what they are today, she said.

Ralston fell in love with flying in 1919, when he saw his first airplane fly over his family’s Forest Grove home at the age of 3.

“In those days there wasn’t television, and radio only came about when he was a teenager,” McCullough said. “Flight was like science fiction. It was this endless potential. It fueled him.”

From then on, his son Norm Ralson Jr., said, Ralston was infatuated with flying.

“He got his pilots license before his driver’s license,” he said. “He’d go pick up girls in his airplane.”

COURTESY PHOTO: MCCULLOUGH FAMILY - Swede Ralston leans against an airplane at the Hillsboro Airport in the 1930s. Ralston went on to become an instructor in the Army Air Force and at the Hillsboro Airport.The first airshow

In the 1930s and 40s, Ralston worked to expand the then-fledgling Hillsboro Airport, working with nearby property owners to buy land and grow the facility. He built the first hangar on the property — which still stands today — and founded his business, Aero Air, which has been based at the airport for decades.

When World War II broke out, Ralston joined the Army Air Force and trained new pilots in California, teaching hundreds of Army pilot how to stay alive in the air. He’d spent his free time practicing his aerobatic maneuvers.

“He got pretty good at it,” she said. “His home really was in the sky,” McCullough said.

After returning to Hillsboro, Ralston started the county’s first air show at the Hillsboro Airport in 1947. The show attracted modest crowds, but it was enough for Ralston and the other pilots to take the show on tour across the west coast. Ralston’s most famous stunt involved flying his AT-6 Texan through a blimp hangar at the Naval Air Station in Tillamook.

Ralston returned to Hillsboro and returned to teaching. His company Aero Air, sold planes all over the world, but Ralston didn’t forget his air show days, McCullough said. In 1988, the Oregon International Air Show launched its first show as part of the Portland Rose Festival. McCullough said that her father’s history of performing in Hillsboro helped convince Portland Rose Festival officials to start the show in Washington County, where it has been held ever since.

“He was a catalyst,” McCullough said. Ralston was inducted into the International Council of Air Shows Hall of Fame in 2002.

Aero Air is still based at the Hillsboro Airport and is now in its third generation of family ownership, led by his grandson, Kevin McCullough.

Aviation has changed a lot since Ralston first started flying in the early 1920s, but McCullough said that her father left behind not only a legacy at the airport, but helped train and instruct a generation of pilots across the West Coast.

“He embodied such an infectious, contagious enthusiasm for flight that he was like a magnet,” she said. “It gave him a charisma. Even if he wasn’t saying something important, people hung on his words. There was something about him that was devoted to aviation from the very beginning.”

COURTESY PHOTO: MCCULLOUGH FAMILY - In this famous photo, Swede Ralston flies through a blimp hangar at the Tillamook Airport in 1950.

By Geoff Pursinger
Associate Editor, Hillsboro Tribune
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