Neil Armstrong: Knowing the Kid From Wapakoneta
Now, Joe wasn’t a pilot, but he raced cars, loved anything that went fast and knew a lot about aviation; he owned a great restaurant in Derby and often catered affairs for the nearby Rolls-Royce. And he always “flew Concorde,” as the Brits would say, on trips to the States. From what little I could hear, it sounded like they were discussing SST technologies and the recent U.S. decision to abandon a supersonic airline project. I almost choked when I heard Joe say, in his classic British accent, “Obviously, you’re some sort of engineer,” to which the man replied that he taught aerospace engineering at a local university.
Lunch finished, the group teed off on the back nine, and Joe commented about what an interesting conversation he’d had. I just kept quiet and waited until they were far down the fairway.
“So, Joe, that ‘interesting man,’ did you get his name?”
“No, I have to confess that in all the noise I missed it.”
When I told him who he’d been chatting with, Joe got up from his chair, and I thought I was going to have to tackle him before he took off down the number 10 fairway. To this day, in Christmas cards to Joe, I slip in the comment, “Obviously, you’re some sort of engineer … ”
My life changed — as did this man’s I’m telling you about — and for some years I was away with the FAA in Chicago and Indianapolis. When I came back home, we’d talk occasionally, usually something about a flight school or the airport or somebody’s airplane, and occasionally he’d agree to speak at one of my FAA “dos.” But it was always about some other aspect of aviation history or technology; he simply didn’t talk about himself or his exploits. I respected that he was an intensely private man, so I fended off demands from people who (wrongly) thought I had an inside “pipeline.”
He did agree to serve on the board of a local warbird museum — yeah, the place where I’m persona non grata for my smart-ass comments about warbirds and warbirdians. But Paul Redlich, the museum president, chief pilot and mechanic, is still a good friend (I hope this doesn’t get him in trouble with the chairman and the board), and Paul shared this story, which I think says it all:
I was working by myself on the P-40 at the museum on a cold, gray, rainy Sunday afternoon last winter, with all the doors locked so I wouldn’t be disturbed. I’d been putting in 100-hour weeks for several months and was pretty burned out by the long hours and pressure to get the airplane back together after the accident. I’d lost the engine on a test flight and dead-sticked it into Clermont County Airport and, while I was able to get it on the ground, I ran off the end of the runway. The damage was considerable. So I wasn’t in the best of moods when I heard a tentative knock on the hangar door. Finally, I climbed down from the cockpit, muttering darkly about some armchair airplane nut looking for a tour of the museum. I stomped across the hangar and snatched the door open, ready to blast whoever it was with, “We’re closed. Read the sign.”
He was standing outside with a grandson who was maybe 5 or 6 years old, and although I tried to compose myself, he surely caught the pissed-off look on my face. Sheepishly, he asked if it would be OK if they came inside for a while. Apparently the family was visiting and — well, you know how it is — he needed an “escape.”
They wandered around while I went back to work, and, after about 45 minutes, I climbed down to get a tool. He was at the aft fuselage of the P-51, bending over his grandson, and I slowed and listened. This was a college-level dissertation on the Meredith Effect and how the converging ducting of the Mustang radiator scoop produced thermodynamic energy in the form of jet thrust that offset the scoop’s parasite drag — complete with sidebars on water cooling versus air cooling, lots of hand gestures, statistics on other WWII airplanes and how the Mustang turned the tide of war over Germany. This kid’s eyes were rolling back in his head — and, yeah, I was amused. But I also hoped that years from now he’d remember some of the information described so passionately and eloquently by his grandfather.
He was the consummate engineer, always keeping any feelings about his accomplishments to himself, and that made him, somehow, larger than life. He scared the hell out of me; just being around him made me tongue-tied. But he was always interested in our projects at the museum, and, after my P-40 engine failure, he put his arm around me and wouldn’t let go until I told him the whole story of the accident.
Well, like Paul, I was honored to have known him and call him friend. As the family suggested after his death, I think this is what he would want:
“Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down ... think of Neil Armstrong, and give him a wink.”