First-time author wins Combs Gates Award

DAYTON, Ohio — The National Aviation Hall of Fame (NAHF) will award its 10th Annual Combs Gates Award to first-time author, Regina Wirtanen Buker, of Baltimore, Maryland. Buker is being recognized for her as yet unpublished book, “The Skytrain Pilot: Flying a C-47 into Combat,” about her late father, Lieutenant George Neale Wirtanen.

Buker will receive the $20,000 cash award in a formal presentation on the morning of Wednesday, Oct. 31, at a special opening session of the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) 65th Annual Meeting & Convention in Orlando, Florida.

Presenting Buker her award will be NAHF Chairman of the Board, Philip A. Roberts, accompanied by Hall of Fame enshrinees including former astronaut and the last man to walk on the moon, Eugene Cernan; business aviation pioneer and aerial cinematographer, Clay Lacy; Tuskegee Airman, Charles E. McGee; former Chairman and CEO of Cessna Aircraft, Russ Meyer, Jr.; and air show legends Bob Hoover and Sean D. Tucker. NAHF Enshrinement Director, Ron Kaplan, will lead the ceremony.

The Skytrain Pilot is the story of Lieutenant George Neale Wirtanen, who flew the military version of the venerable twin-engine Douglas DC-3 transport, the C-47, with the 442nd Troop Carrier Group (TCG) in World War II. The first of his 87 missions in the European Theater of Operation was the D-Day invasion, flying unarmed and unarmored. Using wartime letters, flight logs and other documentation Buker found after her father’s death in 1999, the author has crafted a tribute to the courage of thousands of unsung troop and transport crews of the ETO as much as finding a compelling way to preserve her father’s legacy.

Buker points out that General Dwight D. Eisenhower once cited the C-47 as one of the four pieces of equipment that won World War II, but her book spotlights the people that flew them in harm’s way. “The acts of valor and self-sacrifice demonstrated by the C-47 crews are equal to those of any other fighting men, regardless of their assignment,” said Buker in her award application. “The contributions of the TCGs significantly impacted the final outcome of the war in Europe. The Skytrain Pilot serves to commemorate their role in aviation history and ensure it is not forgotten.”

The Combs Award, its original title, grew out of a donation to the NAHF by the late Harry Combs, a 1996 enshrinee of the Hall of Fame. As part of his $1.3 million gift for the creation of a NAHF research center, Combs stipulated that the Combs Award be established to encourage and support relevant aviation history research and preservation efforts. A panel of expert judges reviews each submission based upon criteria such as historical accuracy, creativity, potential for long-term impact, and value to the Hall of Fame mission of honoring America’s outstanding air and space pioneers.

Combs was instrumental to the growth and development of business aviation. Consequently the NAHF partnered with the NBAA to host the award presentation at its annual meeting and convention, the largest purely civil aviation event in the world. The inaugural award was presented at the Opening General Session of the NBAA Meeting & Convention in 2003, the 100th anniversary of the first powered flight.

John Gates and his sister, Diane G. Wallach, are co-trustees of the Gates Frontiers Fund, created by their late parents and philanthropists, Charles C. and June S. Gates. The late Mr. Gates, who passed away in 2005 at age 84, was a partner with Combs in several aviation businesses, including the Combs Gates FBO chain and Gates Learjet. This year marks the 10th year for the award and the seventh year with the name changed to reflect a multi-year commitment by the Gates Frontiers Fund to fund the award.

The award pays homage to Gates’ belief in the benefit of historic preservation and study, and to Combs’ own research efforts behind his acclaimed 1979 book, “Kill Devil Hill: Discovering the Secrets of the Wright Brothers.” Combs was inspired to write the book after close friend and fellow NAHF enshrinee, Neil Armstrong, presented him a bound collection of the Wright Brothers’ personal papers.

Combs died in December 2003 at age 90. During the inaugural award ceremony at the NBAA convention held a month before his passing, Combs remarked, “Just as Neil’s gift inspired me to discover the secrets of the Wrights, I want to motivate a new generation of historians, researchers and preservationists to continue the process of clarifying and preserving our nation’s amazing air and space history for generations to come.”

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