Honored as a Wright Brothers Master Pilot, Middlebrook credits his family and friends for helping him have a successful aviation career.

There’s nothing Paul Middlebrook likes more than looking in the mirror above his head as he’s flying the bright yellow 1943 Boeing Stearman to see a broad grin on his passenger’s face.

“You have no idea how rewarding it is to look in that mirror and see them smiling,” he told a crowd of about 150 family and friends Saturday evening at the former Seneca Flight Operations hangar at Penn Yan Airport.

The crowd was gathered to honor Middlebrook as he was presented the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award at an event punctuated with heart-felt testaments to the man who has circled the earth as a pilot, instilled a love of aviation in scores of others, managed corporate flight operations, and advocated for valuable improvements at the Yates County Airport.

He may be retired, but he’s still in the air as often as he can be, because as much as he loves flying, he loves the people who have come into his life because of general aviation.

While the award recognizes his contributions to aviation in safety and efficiency, Middlebrook says the rewards from his lifelong career are rooted in the scores of personal relationships he’s developed over the years.

“I appreciate the honor, but the honor belongs to the people who helped me get where I am,” he said after accepting the award from FAA officials. He also credited his wife, Nancy, with supporting him through a career that often kept him away from home.

The Stearman biplane is just one of the dozens of aircraft Middlebrook has piloted in his lifetime, but it’s the one he first flew in at age 4, with his father, Harold “Eagle” Middlebrook.

Just 12 years later, on his 16th birthday — March 6, 1962 — he made his first solo flight in a Taylor E2 Cub from the frozen surface of Keuka Lake. Before he started his senior year at Penn Yan Academy, he had earned his private pilot license flying a Cessna 140.

Later, that Cessna went with him to Plattsburgh, where he attended Clarkson University and enlisted in the Army ROTC program, being commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant. He flew helicopters and fixed wing aircraft in Vietnam from 1968 to 1971, and then served at Seneca Army Depot before joining the corporate aviation world.

Piling up ratings and citations over the years, he logged more than 20,000 hours of flight time.

In his 42-year career with Seneca Flight Operations and then Constellation Brands, he helped the corporations expand their aviation divisions, mentored dozens of pilots and mechanics, and advocated for multiple improvements at the Yates County Airport.

“Paul comes highly recommended for this award by his aviation community peers and is considered to be the model of safety, wisdom and diligence to show total dedication to the aviation profession,” said FAASTeam Program Manager Bill Abbott of the Rochester FAA office.

Family, friends and former co-workers talked about his influence on their careers.

His brother, Daryl, shared memories of early flying experiences, in particular the day Paul took his first solo flight off the ice on Keuka Lake.

“There isn’t a person who deserves it more than you,” said Dick Bradley, calling Middlebrook, “The most trustworthy person I’ve ever met. I’m just honored that I had 40 years to fly with you.”

Aviation consultant Mickey Dalton called Middlebrook “principled” in his recognition of the responsibility of taking care of someone else’s property. “Paul Middlebrook is a guy who is always operating the right way.”

Named for the first U.S. pilots, Orville and Wilbur Wright, the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award is the most prestigious award the FAA issues to pilots certified under federal regulations.

The award recognizes individuals who have exhibited professionalism, skill, and aviation expertise for at least 50 years while piloting aircraft as “Master Pilots.”

To be eligible for the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, nominees must:

• Hold a U.S. Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) or Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) pilot certificate.

• Have 50 or more years of civil and military flying experience.

• Up to 20 years of the required 50 years may be U.S. military experience.

• Be a U.S. citizen.

Middlebrook’s nomination was initiated by his friend Dave Cleveland, whom he met when they were young boys at a local airfield.

In introducing the award presentation, FAA official Carl Cole, who credited Middlebrook with giving him a start in aviation, said the Rochester office was overwhelmed with contacts from people who wanted to write letters of support for the honor.