How cool is this: an invitation to the 15th annual Living Legends of Aviation Awards ceremony in Beverly Hills, California, from a friend — himself a living legend — whose lovely wife finds all things airplane a crashing bore (whoops, wrong adjective). Then an offer to bunk with friends in Santa Monica (instead of $300-plus a night at the Beverly Hilton) and a budget airline fare — well, until you add “extras” like a seat, a bag, water and use of the lavatory (just kidding, Allegiant, but not far off).
I’m pretty familiar with this kind of event. For 25 years, I’ve been a nominator (certainly not an enshrinee) at the National Aviation Hall of Fame, held, until this year, in Dayton, Ohio. And what an honor when I was invited to introduce a beloved friend at his enshrinement in Georgia’s Aviation Hall of Fame. But the Living Legends website depicted something more like a Hollywood extravaganza. Four of this year’s six inductees were honored primarily for throwing themselves into the air in balloons, spaceships, gliders and helicopters; two others made the cut — one as an airshow announcer, and the other was the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s Mark Baker. Then there were eight other honorees recognized for work with aviation charities or industry leadership, plus several über-entrepreneurs and one for vertical flight. Finally, two catchalls: the Harrison Ford Legacy in Aviation and the Steven Udvar-Hazy awards (hey, you gotta love the guy responsible for that museum at Dulles).
Among the past 90-some living inductees are Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Morgan Freeman and Harrison Ford. While these big-name guys might fly airplanes, are they really living legends? But they, of course, lend the glitz — the splash and sparkle of Tinseltown — and attract the big-bucks sponsors.
Three months out, I launched on a search for an appropriate frock. At a local store with a large inventory of evening dresses, I found (at 5-foot-5 and 97 pounds) that most of my options resembled something appropriate for a high school prom. Finally, crammed into a tiny dressing room with no fewer than 25 choices, I peeled off jeans and sweatshirt and got to work. (Picture a “mature” Goldie Hawn valiantly fighting her way through layers of tulle and lace.)
The dresses and I spilled out of the tiny room and I emerged for help with a hook or a zipper and to look in the large three-panel mirror. Soon there was an audience of salesladies and curious shoppers with interesting comments and charming advice such as, “Uh, no, dear, the cleavage on that requires a little more.”
Finally, 24 dresses later, tired and discouraged, I climbed into the last one.
“Yes! It’s you. Perfect. … Stop obsessing about your skinny arms — no woman likes her arms. Just wear a shawl. ... Well, it could use a little padding in front. ...”
Even though by now price didn’t much matter, I was surprised that under a bunch of scratched-out markdown figures it said $53.95 (absolutely no returns)!
Thirty-seven states have aviation halls of fame to honor their outstanding native sons and daughters; interestingly, Ohio, the “Birthplace of Aviation,” isn’t one of them! And aviation halls of fame exist for Army and Navy aviators; U.S. astronauts and international space crews; agricultural aviation and soaring pilots; and EAA’s multiple categories for outstanding pilots in Antique and Classic, Homebuilt, Warbirds, Flight Instructor and Aerobatic areas. I’m nowhere close to listing all the government and industry awards, including no fewer than 13 from the National Business Aviation Association.
Makes you feel kind of left behind in the dust.
There have been scores of iconic, pioneering, daring and deserving aviators since the brothers flew at Kitty Hawk. And military pilots and astronauts — well, they’re in a category all their own. But I think it’s these truly outstanding aviators and astronauts who deserve the honors at big events like the National and Living Legends halls of fame. Are we running out of heroes? These days, people who never piloted an airplane or rode a rocket or soared in a balloon or glider are being honored because they’re remotely related to the Wright brothers, or they’re well-known movie stars or politically connected or generate money and valuable sponsorships for the event. OK, most of the pioneering greats have already been recognized (with notable and, I believe, glaring exceptions such as Howard Hughes, Herman “Fish” Salmon and Al Haynes). And, frankly, the Dayton event got lost when it began inducting a bunch of obscure Air Force (and other service) generals who ran obscure aviation-related programs and offices.
Anyway, all this award stuff got me thinking. I’ll never be (and don’t remotely deserve to be) inducted in anybody’s hall of fame, but what about that FAA Wright Brothers Master Pilot thing? Heck, I’ve been actively flying since I soloed more than 50 years ago. But, uh, wait. This award recognizes “individuals who have exhibited professionalism, skill and aviation expertise for at least 50 years while piloting aircraft.” The reality is I’ve occasionally been crashing (well, more like dinging) airplanes since that first solo 56 years ago. The rules say that cases like mine might qualify: “Any prior accident history will be reviewed and considered on a case-by-case basis.” Somehow, I’m pretty sure my case would receive neither favorable reviews nor much consideration by the feds.
Rats. I guess I’m out of luck. No name on that honor roll in Washington and no special pin. But, hey, I’m OK with that. I’ve never hurt anybody (except the ramp rash on my butt from that Cub go-around), and most important, in 56 years, I’ve “earned” a helluva bunch of great friends and memories.
After all the excitement and preparation, even smearing on expensive goo guaranteed to unwrinkle your arms (which doesn’t work), I decided not to go to Beverly Hills in January. I’m truly not sure why except I had a strong feeling that this fanciest of all aviation halls of fame just wasn’t my thing. OK, maybe it had something to do with that photo of a beautiful Julie Clark, who not only flies better than I can but wore a drop-dead-gorgeous low-cut gown that certainly didn’t require extra padding in front.
Every once in a while, I’ll pull out my $53.95 frock from the closet, stuff socks in the front and waltz around the house, pretending I’m accepting a hall of fame award for, oh, I don’t know, flying under bridges or giving DC-3 type ratings or enjoying an occasional terrifying encounter with weather or simply having survived, mostly intact, from nearly 30 years on the dark side.