Friday, February 14, 2014


Earlier this month I was privileged to be inducted into the Arizona Military Aviation Walk of Honor, sponsored by the local wing of the Commemorative Air Force.  This year was the third installment ceremony, which I shared with WW I ace and entrepreneur Ralph O'Neill, Major General Carl Schneider, and Rear Admiral Denny Wisely.  Previous inductees included Frank Luke, Joe Foss, and two helicopter luminaries--Sergei Sikorsky and Fred Ferguson, a Vietnam Medal of Honor recipient.

My selection was based on the aerospace education category, as I’ve written nearly 50 books and more than 600 articles, largely on military aviation subjects.  But clearly I’m running in mighty fast company.  Therefore, I’d like to attempt to place my aviation perspective in broader context: air travel as it evolved from transportation generally.

I believe that the history of America is a history of transportation, from the Mayflower to the moon.  I'd like to offer a brief survey based on my family's experience, as many of you will share similar backgrounds.

Both sides of my family came to the New World in the 1630s.  They crossed the North Atlantic by sailing ship, covering about 3,200 miles in 30 to 35 days.  That's an average rate of advance of about 90 miles per day or not quite 4 mph.  They fetched up in Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas, and there they stayed most of the next 200 years.  Their main mode of transportation was horseback, about 8 to 10 mph.

But some looked west.  Two of my maternal great-great grandparents wanted more than the east offered, so they invested everything in a Conestoga wagon and an ox team.  In the spring of 1852 they crossed the Missouri south of the mouth of the Platte, and set out on the Oregon Trail.  Contrary to what you see in movies, they seldom rode that wagon.  Mostly they walked 2,000 miles in five months, engaged in a ponderous race against nature itself.  They had to reach Oregon City before the end of October when winter arrived.  Over those five months they averaged about 12 miles per day.  Their actual travel was 2 to 3 mph, depending on terrain.

John and Martha's grand daughter was my great aunt Areta.  "Auntie B" was one of the most memorable people I ever knew, and that is saying something.  She was born amid one of the last Indian wars in the Northwest, as her parents forted up with friends.  That was in 1878, almost three years before completion of the second transcontinental railroad.  Raised hardshell Baptist, she really did run away with a traveling salesman, and it was years before she could show her face in her hometown.  Yet she watched Neil Armstrong take One Giant Leap For Mankind.  

Think about that.  Areta was born when the fastest thing on earth was the steam locomotive, maybe 60 mph, though 14 to 40 mph was more typical between stations.  But 90 years later we attained escape velocity of 25,000 mph.  That’s one of the things that makes aviation so fascinating to me.  Apart from the exceptional men and women who populate aviation, it’s a limitless endeavor where innovation and risk-taking produce astonishing progress in a blink of history’s eye.  Let’s hope that the pioneering spirit of the innovators and risk takers survives us into the next century of flight.

For my acceptance speech at Falcon Field, the organizers asked me to share some recollections of notable airmen I’ve known.  I said that the committee should have tapped Tom Cruise for that task because it’s Mission Impossible, but since the CAF is military oriented, I focused on the following:

First of course has to be Jimmy Doolittle, perhaps the most complete aviator of all time.  His master’s and doctoral papers in 1925 extended our knowledge of the theory of flight; he carved unique records with instrument flight and his spectacular racing career; and of course his wartime influence is well known.  My first interview with him was in 1976, writing the program for his 80th birthday party by the LA Chamber of Commerce.  He was still working at Mutual of Omaha, and he said he took the stairs to his third-floor office “keeping in shape for World War III.”

Among Arizonans, I had to mention Joe Foss.  The Marine Corps has wronged him for 70 years by accepting Greg Boyington’s claims, but Joe was too much of a gentleman to make an issue of it.  (Even accepting Pappy’s USMC claims, he finished with 22 victories as a Marine to Joe’s 26.)  But the thing about Joe was that he was absolutely genuine.  His son said “Never an unspoken thought!”  When Joe spoke at opening of the Pacific Wing of the National WW II Memorial in 2001 he said, “They told me not to mention God or guns so that’s what I’m gonna discuss.”  The audience cheered its approval.

My friend and fellow Oregonian Marion Carl was another Guadalcanal fighter ace and longtime friend of Joe’s.  (In fact, Marion had instructed when Joe went through Pensacola.)  Marion was arguably the finest naval aviator of his generation—he had the flying gene the way Mozart had the music gene.  Marion soloed in 2 ½ hours, and anything less is hardly credible.  Yet despite his combat and flight-test records, he was devoid of ego.  He described aerial combat and milking cows in the same tone of voice.

The astronaut I knew best was Wally Schirra, as we coauthored a book with two other Golden Wingers, Blue Angel Zeke Cormier and carrier skipper Phil Wood.  Wildcats to Tomcats took years to complete but it was worth the effort.  Once Wally picked me up in his new purple Porsche and, though knowing better, I asked, “What’s the top end, Wally?”  He shot me that Gotcha grin: “Idunno.  Let’s find out!”  On the winding roads behind Rancho Santa Fe I remember thinking, “My name will be in all the papers because I’m going to die with Wally Schirra!”

They’re all gone now, but I remember each with abiding respect and affection, for I was privileged to know such men.