If you’ve never heard of Charles A. Lyford, III, you can still benefit from his example.
Early this month Chuck’s friends were stunned to receive this message on his email account:
“Today at the Festival of Speed in Spokane, Washington my Elva Mark 7 left the track at very high speed, encountered boulders which launched me end over end over beyond a high bank into a pile of tires. Both the car and I sustained unsurvivable injuries. I lived a magical life full of joy and adventure and I treasured your friendship and the fun we shared.
“My parting words to you sent with love...
“Every day counts!”
That shocker was posted by Pam Lyford on her husband’s behalf. But the voice was entirely in keeping with Chuck’s philosophy.
Chuck Lyford was one of those rare people who lived his 75 years to the fullest, often tip-toeing along the precipice or walking the proverbial high-wire without a net.
I first saw Chuck and his great friend Ben Hall when they flew near-identical P-51 Mustangs at the Pendleton, Oregon air show around 1964. At the time Chuck was about 22, already an experienced, capable warbird pilot.
Chuck recalled, “Ben Hall was one of my greatest mentors. I started flying Mustangs when I was 19 and would trade engine work that I learned while boat racing for flight time. While at San Jose State I purchased my first airplane, a P-51D fresh from the California Air National Guard. I would never have learned how to fly that airplane as well as I did without Ben.”
In the popular Top Gun movie phrase, Chuck felt “the need for speed.” He would race absolutely anything, from cars to boats to airplanes—to reclining chairs. In the 1950s he drove unlimited-class hydroplanes, recalled by fellow competitor and mentor Brien Wygle. “Chuck was 16 years old when he worked on my Thriftway II as a crew member. Then he set limited-class records in his hydroplane Challenger.”
Subsequently Chuck set a world record in the 48 cubic-inch class and won the seven-liter national championship.
Wygle concluded, “He was agile and quick on his feet and he did a lot of things better than anybody else.”
One of those things was high-performance air racing. In the premiere 1964 event he finished second in the cross-country race from Florida to Nevada. The next year he was second in the unlimited race, just behind arch rival Darrel Greenamyer.
Chuck also enjoyed a joke. Flying his modified Mustang, Bardahl Special, in the 1967 race, Chuck decided to confound the legendary event coordinator Bob Hoover. Chuck obtained a weather balloon, intending to inflate it in Hoover’s hotel room, but security was lacking and somebody pumped up the balloon in Chuck’s room. In trying to dislodge the offending object, Chuck perforated it with impressive results. Shreds of the envelope were strewn throughout the room, which Chuck tried unsuccessfully to clean out. Lacking more time—he had a race to fly—he stuck a $10 bill on the mirror for the maid. When he returned, the Alexander Hamilton was gone but there was a note: “Not enough.”
The race began with Chuck neck and neck with Greenamyer’s Grumman Bearcat. But on the back stretch Bardahl began streaming smoke—an expensive sign. Chuck pulled up, trading speed for altitude to execute an emergency landing. The audience appreciated his artistry, as Flying Magazine described “a beautiful approach, and at the last minute popped his gear.” He rolled to the end of the runway with a dead Merlin engine and the all-white racer streaked with hot engine oil.
Much as he enjoyed competing with other racers, Chuck sought a higher form of competition—literally. In 1969 he got his shot at combat. Chuck was one of three Americans recruited to fly Mustangs for El Salvador in the brief border war with Honduras, and a stronger lineup hardly could be found. Chuck joined fellow racer Ben Hall and Korean War ace Bob Love, willing and able to test themselves against Honduras’ Vought Corsairs. It was the last time that piston-engine fighters fought each other.
Working with Chuck on his 2014 Flight Journal article was a memorable experience. He had been in prime condition for the Central American adventure he described. At age 28 he had 3,500 hours of flight time including an impressive 800 in Mustangs. And as I recall he had 150 in Corsairs. His experience was priceless—hundreds of meaningful hours in the two fighters, racing, chasing tails, and aerobatics.
As it developed, the gringos arrived just a tad late. The “soccer war” (so-called because the two countries opposed one another in the 1969 World Cup) wound down before any of them could engage in air combat. The aerial phase was resolved in favor of Honduras, with a senior Corsair piloto downing three El Salvador fighters.
Then there were the reclining-chair races.
Various accounts have described Chuck’s path to Barkolounger glory, but here’s the most common:
With Chuck’s well-worn reclining sofa banished from the living room, he mounted it on a wheeled platform with remote-control steering. He set the contraption into motion outside his home, into the path of two Seattle bicyclists—Bill and Melinda Gates. Subsequently Chuck used the sofa to steer his friend and shooting instructor, Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper, around the Seattle Museum of Flight.
Things evolved from there…
In 2005 the Pacific Raceways debut event, eight motorized chairs (one an Air Force ejection seat) spooled up with Chuck setting the style wearing a fuzzy blue bathrobe and slippers. Daughter Kim represented The Housewives of Madison Park.
The flag dropped, the electric-powered seats whined off, and hydroplane legend Billy Schumacher took the checkered.
Meanwhile, Chuck and Pam entered rally events all over the world, including North Africa and South America, some exceeding 6,000 miles. As I recall from their far-flung reports, they routinely won their class. They favored the vintage category, winning the 2013 Cape Horn event in their 1938 Chevy. And they won again in 2016.
Chuck’s lifelong friend Bruce McCaw spoke for many:
“We all thought Chuck was invincible. He lived life fully on his own terms, right on the edge and always at full throttle. Anytime you were with Chuck and Pam, you knew that you were in for an adventure."
Wherever Chuck Lyford went, he lived by his own motto:
“Every day counts!”