- Associated Press - Monday, October 19, 2015

MUSKOGEE, Okla. (AP) - Muskogee native Dan Dunlap has seen his life take flight in a variety of ways.

Dunlap, 46, has flown as a mission pilot with Muskogee Nighthawks Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol. The squadron does search and rescue missions as well as shoot pictures for emergency management agencies.

“If someone needs to be found or an airplane missing, I want to be able to help,” he told the Muskogee Phoenix (https://bit.ly/1NKk0Sf ). “That’s my way of volunteering and helping the community.”

He said he first became interested in aviation after a few airline trips at age 19.

But Dunlap also has other interests. He has fulfilled a lifelong interest in cars by restoring one Firebird and turning another into a “super car.”

He also has owned and operated Tender Touch Auto Wash since 1997. He said several family members work there.

“It became a really good place for us to teach our kids business,” he said.

Dunlap also has toured with Muskogee Christian singer/composer Dennis Jernigan, doing computer work for concerts.

“We became friends, and I’ve actually flown him in a rented Cessna to different places,” Dunlap said.

A chance meeting in Bowling Green, Kentucky, turned Dan Dunlap’s career plans around.

Dunlap was teaching flying and working in an auto dealership in Bowling Green, where his wife’s parents lived.

“I met a man at the airport there who had a car wash. I was just intrigued by it,” Dunlap said. “I thought it would be easy, and it was in high demand.”

Dunlap built the business on a lot that had been in the family for generations.

“This lot first belonged to my grandfather. They had Dunlap Upholstery,” he said. “My dad took the building over and did Dunlap Accounting.”

The old buildings were demolished and the car wash went up and opened in August 1997. Dunlap’s brother later became a partner.

Over the years, Dunlap discovered the business was in high demand, but far from easy.

“It is very stressful. It’s a lot of work, a whole lot of work,” he said, adding that he often works six days a week.

“Luckily, my dad is a public accountant, and he was real instrumental in the loans and the building process,” Dunlap said. “And he does all our payroll and all our taxes.”

Dunlap said the business handles about 29,000 cars in a year.

“I had a Friday in March, we had 321 in one day,” he said.

As a mission pilot, Dunlap took several interesting flights for the Civil Air Patrol.

“I never pay for any of these flights. They’re missions paid by the U.S. Air Force,” he said.

Some flights involved searches and rescues.

“We had a report of a girl driving from Hot Springs, Arkansas, to somewhere here in Oklahoma, and she never checked in,” he said. “We never did find her from the air, but our ground team found her. She went off the bridge and into the water.”

Other flights involved taking pictures of flooding or tornado damage for emergency management agencies. He recalled taking aerial pictures of tornado damage around Durant last spring.

“We saw a swath where the tornado went through and laid down a bunch of trees, and they had all turned brown,” he said. “There were all the houses, mobile homes flipped over, homes with no roofs. We just took an hour or so shooting photos.”

He said a photo shoot of last summer’s Lake Eufaula flooding took longer than he expected.

“Lake Eufaula extends from Checotah to McAlester,” he said. “It took me two and a half hours flying around that thing, going 90 miles an hour.

He recalled one mission that called him out of bed at 2 a.m.

“And I was in the air by 3 a.m.,” he said. “Someone had reported an E.L.T., which is an emergency locator transmitter, on the radio and said it was found around Tulsa. We did find it that night, by the time the sun came up and it turned out to be an aircraft in maintenance at Tulsa International. No one knew the transmitter was going off.”

Dunlap recently has found time to create and restore some fine Pontiac Firebirds.

In 2012, Dunlap converted a 1986 Firebird into KITT, the superhero automobile from the series “Knight Rider.” The NBC series ran from 1982 to 1986 and featured a souped-up car with artificial intelligence and ability to speak.

“I watched every episode of that show and I started researching and found that on eBay, there are people who made parts where you can make your own,” he said. “I got it to where it could talk. All the KITT sayings were on the phone and I Bluetoothed it to the stereo in there with a speaker out in front.”

That project took about two years and cost about $15,000, he said.

“And when I got it all done, I sold it,” he said.

Dunlap kept another Firebird, which he found in a field near Oktaha. He said the car had been sitting in the field for five years and was in bad shape, with paint peeling off.

“I thought, ‘that’s a convertible, that needs to be fixed up,’” he said. “It didn’t run. The convertible top was rotten. The back window was torn. The carpet had holes in it. Windows were all shot up with BBs. It had dents in it.”

He said it took two months to “make the car pretty.”

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Information from: Muskogee Phoenix, https://www.muskogeephoenix.com

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