As a young boy, William Piechota would travel by bicycle from his home in Manhattan to Mitchel Field to watch the biplanes take off and land in what is now Garden City, but back then was a hotbed of the budding aviation industry.

Piechota's fascination with soaring through the clouds would become a lifelong passion, and profession.

He died in 1974, leaving behind his children, his wife, Edith, and a striking portrait she painted of her husband from an earlier time — in his uniform as a commercial airline pilot, set among the clouds — and now in storage at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., where it could eventually go on display.

Earlier this month, the portrait, which hung in the living room of the Piechota family home in Mineola for decades, was moved from the North Massapequa attic of Piechota's oldest son, Gary, to the museum.

Gary Piechota and his younger brother, Robert, engineered the portrait's move to one of the most visited museums in the world, which also houses, by coincidence, the exact Douglas DC-3 jet their dad flew as a commercial pilot for now-defunct Eastern Airlines.

"This is a powerful story about family and about Long Island as an innovative aviation center," said Robert Piechota of Northport.

Learning to fly

As a teen, William Piechota's mother took him to Roosevelt Field Airport, the site of many of aviation's most significant early moments.

On the same ground where Charles Lindbergh embarked on his 1927 solo trans-Atlantic flight, and where a pioneering aviator named Amelia Earhart honed her craft, William Piechota would take his first airplane ride at a cost of $5.

The young boy from Hells Kitchen was immediately hooked.

As he got older, Piechota, the only son of Polish immigrants and raised by a single mother, would take a position as a mechanic with a flight training school, where the aspiring pilot earned his wings.

Piechota became a flight instructor during the late-1930s, working under contract with the Army Air Corps during World War II, teaching basic flight instruction to pilots before they shipped out. In 1942, he went to work for Eastern Airlines, where he would remain until his retirement in 1974.

He eventually would settle in Mineola with Edith Powell Piechota, the daughter of English immigrants, who was raised in the Nassau village. The couple would have four children.

A budding artist, Edith Piechota, who died seven years after her husband, had decided to paint the portrait from a photograph taken at a Baldwin studio. She painted his dad "among the clouds in the heavens" to provide him with an extra degree of protection for his remaining years in flight, Robert Piechota said.

Gary Piechota, of North Massapequa, left, and his brother, Robert Piechota,...

Gary Piechota, of North Massapequa, left, and his brother, Robert Piechota, of Northport, hold a photograph of a portrait depicting their father, William Piechota, and painted by their mother, Edith. Credit: Barry Sloan

"In those days, pilots did not always come back," he said. "In her mind, she was never sure that the next phone call was him saying when he'd be home or someone from the airline saying when his remains would be coming home."

Gary Piechota, who worked in Eastern Airline's maintenance department for 17 years, recalled the era as a scary time for his family.

"These guys were flying by the seat of their pants," he said. "They'd be flying in an airplane that would not go over 10,000 feet, in the dark and in all sorts of weather. In the rain, snow, sleet and making four to five takeoffs or landings per day."

After the sale of his parents' home, Gary Piechota took possession of the portrait, storing it in his attic for the next several decades, before deciding to have it professionally restored several years ago.

At the time, he discovered his father's "log book" for tracking flight miles. He also made another discovery: The same Douglas DC-3 airliner his father flew night after night was part of the Air and Space Museum's collection.

An idea was born and a question asked: What if the pilot's portrait could hang in the museum alongside the aircraft he once commanded?

The notion intrigued Air and Space Museum curator Carolyn Russo, she said, because of both the painting's connection with the DC-3, and it's unique origins as a source of comfort for children missing their father and a wife missing her husband.

"For me this portrait is personal. It tells a family story," Russo said. "I think it could have served as a proxy in the home while the father was away. Let's just imagine your dad is flying all over the place. He's not at home but you have this portrait in the home. And it's like dad is right there on the wall."

For now, Russo said, the painting is in storage but could go in display in the future with an appropriate exhibit.

The portrait represents more than just strokes of paint on a blank canvas, according to Gary Piechota.

It's the story, he said, of a pair of second-generation immigrants who found love during a period of dynamic innovation — when reaching for the stars never felt so possible.

"It's the American story," he said, "but on steroids."

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