The following article is from the January 2013 print issue.
Way back in the early ’70s, an old friend of my husband’s, Harry Combs, invited us to join him and his wife at the National Aviation Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony and dinner in Dayton, Ohio. Serving as master of ceremonies that year, Combs was also playing host to a famous “space guy” and his wife for the weekend. Ebby didn’t want to drive the 50-some miles to Dayton and stay over for the weekend, but he relented when I threw a hissy fit of massive proportions.
Well, it was pretty special because at that time many early aviation heroes were still on the scene and came to these annual Hall of Fame events. I actually met and shook hands with Bob Reeve, Kelly Johnson, Scott Crossfield, Bob Hoover, Elrey Jeppesen, Joe Kittinger, Jimmie Mattern, Claude Ryan and probably others I don’t remember. Talk about star-struck!
But the high point was on Saturday afternoon, before the Hall of Fame ceremony, when Ebby and I, Harry and Ginny Combs and their famous guest and his wife toured Hawthorn Hill, the Wright brothers’ mansion in the Oakwood suburb of Dayton. Almost nobody got to see it in those years because it was privately owned and used as a VIP guest residence by NCR Corp. Today it’s open to the public as part of the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park.
The house was beautifully preserved and interesting, built by the brothers after they finally won their patent-rights suits and were making some serious money from the airplane invention. Curiously, it had two identical and imposing entrances — one for each brother — but I guess Wilbur died before he could enjoy his half. And it was unchanged from the days when Orville lived there, full of interesting gadgets that only an engineer would devise, like complicated “surround-spray” showers in the bathrooms and lots of intricately designed reading stands and lamps. The caretaker showed us a grandfather clock with the hands frozen on 3:15 a.m., the exact time Wilbur died — even though you could still hear it running.
Well, it was a gloomy afternoon, and the house was dark as we finished the tour and descended a long staircase to the entrance hall. But suddenly I had one of those “moments” and stopped, looking down at the little group below.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “I’m standing in this house built by the first man to fly off the face of the Earth with the first man to walk on the moon. I’m a little overwhelmed by that.”
The astronaut, a Midwesterner, would move his family to a farm near Lebanon, Ohio, just north of Cincinnati, and teach aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati. I’d see him occasionally, and I especially remember a party given by Otto Pobanz, Federated Department Stores’ chief pilot and then-president of the National Business Aviation Association. After a number of vodka martinis, I was sitting on the floor with my friend, chatting and laughing, but (again) suddenly I got quiet and tried to explain:
“Maybe this is weird, but we’re chattering away about all kinds of trivial stuff, and then I suddenly remember and get really uncomfortable with you. I think it’s because I can’t get my arms around the fact that you were ‘out there,’ completely detached from the Earth, looking back at this planet through space.” He just laughed and tried to pass it off as really no big deal. He said they had trained so long and so intensely that, when they actually flew, it was “just another mission.”
Anybody who knew him had to be struck by his quiet, self-effacing modesty, which I saw in action one summer afternoon on the terrace of a golf club in Cincinnati. I was entertaining a visiting English friend, Joe Waldron, when four men emerged from the locker room. We were at a large, round table, and one man in the group, a good friend, asked if they could join us for lunch before resuming their game on the back nine. Amid the chatter I made introductions and, as drinks and lunch were served, noticed that Joe was deep in conversation with one of them.
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.” _