Flying Lessons: A Tale of Two Dinners

Bruce Cruikshank receives
certificate for his work with EAA
Chapter 663 during the chapter’s
annual awards dinner.
Dan Moore

The way I see it, Angelina Jolie and I have a lot in common. We're both women pilots who own our own airplanes. We've both flown with Air Serv International in Africa. We've both spent time with Darfur refugees. And, as of one recent Friday evening, I can say with all truthfulness that we've both been photographed on a Hollywood red carpet by bona fide paparazzi. So, OK, I'm not with Brad Pitt, and I don't make gazillions of dollars making movies. But I choose not to focus on those trivial details.

I was in Beverly Hills for the seventh annual Living Legends of Aviation Awards — a black-tie, star-studded affair complete with champagne, glitz and half a dozen A-list Hollywood movie stars, including Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Morgan Freeman, Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn. I was there as a guest of Bombardier/Learjet, the event's main sponsor.

I got downstairs a little early and picked up my ticket in the hotel lobby. The main doors hadn't opened yet, so the Bombardier person handling the tickets said, "Why don't you just walk down the red carpet and go get a drink?" It was the same hallway, adorned with a red carpet and logo-print backdrop, that had been the photo-op location for the triumphant Golden Globe winners just a week earlier.

The section with the backdrop was brightly lit by lights supplied by the, ohmygod, large crowd of paparazzi who were assembled behind a velvet rope line, waiting for the Hollywood stars to appear. As I walked past, I could see the gears turning in their heads. "Who is she? Should we know her? Is she maybe famous? Is she married to someone famous?" A couple even snapped photos, just in case. I smiled and walked past, but then stopped just beyond the bright lights.

"When," I asked myself, "are you ever going to be on a Hollywood red carpet again?" I had my little Canon Sure Shot camera in my clutch purse, so I walked back to the rope line.

"Could I ask one of you boys to do me a big favor?" I asked in my most beguiling manner. "If I give you my camera, would you take my photo?"

A dashing Italian photographer obliged and then said, "Wait, wait! Don't move!" He put down my camera and picked up his monster Nikon and started flashing away. A number of the other photographers who'd missed the lead-in started snapping away as well, afraid to miss something that clearly seemed important to one of them.

I've gotta tell ya, it was a giggle. As I thanked the photographer, I found a big video camera, spotlight and microphone in my face.

"Are you a Legend?" the cameraman asked me from behind the glare.

In my next life, I'll have a much quicker and wittier comeback to questions like that. Really I will. As it was, I just said, "Oh, heck no" with a laugh, and moved on to the event.

The event was impressive. John Travolta hosted, and four new "Legends" were inducted over filet mignon, wine and an exquisite confection of desserts.

Then there were the awards: The Harrison Ford Aviation Legacy Award went to a Colorado minister-pilot named Jeffrey Puckett; the Aviation Industry Leader of the Year Award to Pres Henne, a key aerodynamicist in the development of designs including the Gulfstream V; the Aviation Entrepreneur of the Year to Elon Musk, a commercial space entrepreneur; and the Lifetime Aviation Entrepreneur Award to Joe Clark, who developed the winglets used on Learjets, Boeing business jets and numerous other aircraft.

Kermit Weeks won the Bob Hoover Freedom of Flight Award for inspiring people with his message that flight is just a metaphor for the limitless potential we all hold within us. Kurt Russell won an Aviation Mentor Award for his work encouraging new pilots. Tom Cruise won the Top Aviation Inspiration and Patriotism Award for inspiring young people to go into military aviation with the movie Top Gun.

Finally, Dr. Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin was given the First Out-of-This-World Landing and Takeoff Award. Someone stretched a bit with the award titles there, but in essence, the event was a celebration and appreciation of individuals who had contributed to the world and community of aviation by designing and building new airplanes, encouraging new pilots and inspiring people through their efforts and accomplishments.

Twenty-four hours later, I found myself at another awards dinner, 350 miles north and a world away from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. Chapter 663 of the Experimental Aircraft Association is based in Livermore, California. And its awards dinner consisted of perhaps 70 or 80 people in a small room at the Robert Livermore Community Center.

A chapter member named Trina had gotten there early to put colorful blue paper tablecloths and centerpieces on the tables. The dinner was a buffet line, with chicken or beef tri-tip, and the wine lined up on a table in the corner came from Australia. But as we cleared our paper dinner plates, the awards began there as well. There were awards for the volunteers who'd kept the club running throughout the year. There were awards to the veteran builders who provided technical assistance to others building new airplanes, and awards to veteran pilots who'd shepherded pilot/builders safely through their first flights. And then, there were the certificates for four pilot/builders who'd built and flown new aircraft during the past year.

The certificates said, "Be it known that on the [x] day of [y] month, Two Thousand Nine, [John Doe] did, of his own free will and accord, intentionally and wantonly take to flight for the first time [RV-4/6/7/9, N12345], an aircraft constructed by his own hands."

"An aircraft constructed by his own hands." The phrase sent shivers down my spine, because in those six words was a recognition of just how miraculous that achievement still is. Pres Henne might have figured out breakthrough aerodynamic designs for the G-V after many tough nights of wrestling intractable engineering conundrums. But he had a lot of help turning those ideas into an airplane.

The Livermore builder/pilots bucked every single rivet of their aircraft themselves, over long, chilly nights in garages and hangars. They then climbed in those creations, with all the excitement, risk and fear a first flight of an experimental design entails. And then, all by themselves, these spiritual descendants of the Wright brothers "intentionally and wantonly" took their creations off the planet, re-creating homemade flight all over again.

But who struck me most at the EAA dinner was an awardee by the name of Bruce Cruikshank. A veteran Marine Corps pilot, he's built three airplanes, flies and supports Young Eagles flights, and serves as the chapter's secretary. That alone is a volunteer effort worth recognizing. But what caught my attention were the Canadian crutches Bruce had to use to walk to the podium to collect his certificate.

"Why the crutches?" I asked Bob Cowen, sitting next to me.

"He was doing a rotation as a forward air controller in Vietnam and got his legs blown off by a land mine," Bob answered. "He's designed special legs for flying, and works on his airplanes without his legs sometimes. But he's a huge supporter of the Young Eagles program."

I looked at Bruce, smiling as he got his certificate, stiff-legging his way back to his seat, and a million thoughts went through my mind. How huge an effort every day must be for him — and must have been, for the past 40 years. Just getting out of bed in the morning. How much he'd lost; the horror he'd endured. How so many veterans in his position had ended up spiraling down into depression, alcohol and drugs. How I'd gotten a letter from one, after writing about a posthumous Distinguished Flying Cross ceremony for a Navy pilot, thanking me for acknowledging the sacrifice and suffering of the pilot's widow, noting how many spouses of Vietnam veterans paid a staggering price for their husbands' emotional and physical scars. I asked about Bruce's personal life and discovered that he'd been happily married to the same woman for 33 years.

God bless.

Bruce was back in the cockpit flying a scant two years after he came home from Vietnam. He's personally designed a whole series of different flying-oriented prostheses, and I'm told he "rows" his airplane into his hangar with a tow bar, sitting on the floor without his legs, because it's easier that way.

I had already decided that, trappings aside, the two successive dinners were far more alike than they were different. They were both about celebrating and recognizing individuals who had contributed significantly to the world and community of aviation. But sitting there at our paper-tablecloth table, all I could think was that, while Kurt Russell might do a great job of mentoring, and Tom Cruise might have done a great job of inspiring, they'd be hard-pressed to match the mentoring and inspirational power of Bruce Cruikshank. His contributions weren't on a big screen, and they didn't come with such fanfare. But just by going through his life the way he has — by showing kids that even losing your legs doesn't have to keep you from living, by still finding enough joy in life and flight to want to share it with others, by setting an example of what it is to pick yourself up from a calamitous blow and go on to make something meaningful and worthy of your life …

I was right, I realized, when I told the cameraman I wasn't a Legend. Bruce Cruikshank is a Legend. And if I ran the world, he'd get his well-deserved time on the red carpet, complete with medal, applause and one of the shiny statuettes they gave out to the aviation stars down in Beverly Hills.


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