Ron Sutphin was born in the Blue Ridge region of Virginia. In 1947, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. In his spare time, he took college correspondence courses as well as flying lessons. When he was transferred from Camp Pendleton, California, to Quantico, Virginia in 1950, he flew himself across the country in his own Piper Cub. By the time he started in the naval aviation cadet program in 1951, he already had a multi-engine rating and was a flight instructor on weekends.
Ron's initial tour of duty was in Tsingtao (Qingdao), China as one of the very last of the China Marines. There he was assigned guard duty at an airbase including Civil Air Transport (CAT) pilots and their aircraft. CAT was originally a Nationalist Chinese airline created to airlift food and other supplies into war-torn China. CAT was founded by two Americans, General Claire Chennault (Ret.) and Whiting Willauer, a diplomat. Both men had long histories of service to the U.S. government and CAT was soon used to aid the Chinese nationalists in their civil war with the communists under Mao Tse‑tung. CAT was sold to the US government in 1950 and was managed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It supported United States covert operations throughout Southeast Asia. Ron hoped that he would someday fly with CAT. Becoming a commercial pilot was his goal, but the military offered the training he needed through Naval Cadets at NAS Pensacola. Becoming a Marine pilot also offered aerial combat experience, not required for commercial flying but it provided adventure that Ron craved.
Ron flew combat missions in the Korean War and learned to speak basic Korean. Later he would speak basic Lao and would become fluent in Japanese. While he continued to fly in the naval reserve, the G.I. Bill paid for his commercial pilot training. He was hired as a navigator for Pan American but then met Seaboard Chief Pilot Paul Mlinar who hired Ron as a pilot. He flew for Seaboard in 1955 and 1956 on DC‑4s and Super Constellations. He also flew the C‑46 when it was wet‑leased to Luxembourg Airlines.
Ron, however, had a desire for adventure and then got the job he really wanted, flying for CAT which changed its name to Air America in 1959. Later, Ron flew Helio Courier STOL aircraft for Air America. He was Air America's test pilot for several years in the early 1960s and wrote the Helio Courier operating manual for Air America and for the U.S. Air Force before returning to commercial aviation. Eventually, he became a B‑747 instructor pilot for Japan Airlines (JAL).
Ron taught his wife, Kat (Katariina), to fly. She became an instructor pilot in STOL planes, such as Super Cubs, in Alaska where the couple spent much of their time. After retiring from JAL, he had a sideline business repairing crashed STOL planes in the Alaskan bush and then flying them out to proper repair facilities where they would be fully refurbished. Both in Alaska and when he bought his ranch in Oregon, he bought and sold STOL planes. He raised cattle on his ranch in the remote sagebrush country of eastern Oregon, and used his planes to spot and even help herd cattle for the annual roundup. He died in the crash of his Piper Super Cub. He was 76 years old and had flown more than 35,000 hours in aircraft from light planes, to F‑86s and F‑100s, to Boeing 747s.
Ron wrote a memoir, Covert Skies, covering the years from 1947 when he joined the Marine Corps to 1962 when he was in Laos. He never published it . After he died, his sister CS Norwood acquired the manuscript and spent several years doing exhaustive research and meticulous editing.
Ron is survived by his wife, Kat; and his sisters Bobbie Kay Trimmer, Patricia Goodyear, Kathleen Sutphin, Carolan Norwood, Loraine Kingston, and Sylvia Lynne Malvoso. He was predeceased by his brother, A.B. Sutphin, Jr.; and sisters Velva I. Hudson, Ellen Fay Mack, and Elaine Edelblute.