It is with great sadness that I report that Captain Thomas French Norton, former senior editor of General Aviation News, died Dec. 2, of complications following heart surgery. He was 77.
Tom leaves behind his wife of 15 years, Anna, and two grown daughters, Heather and Alexandra.
Tom was a devoted family man and active in his community, church, and local airport.
“In the last year and a half Tom had been on the airport board at Easton/Newman Field Airport (ESN),” said Anna Norton. “He took great delight in that. He also enjoyed bringing the Collings Foundation to the Easton airport.”
Tom was well-known in aviation circles for his encyclopedic knowledge of aircraft.
He joined General Aviation News’ parent company Flyer Media in 2001 as editor of the now-defunct The Southern Aviator and writer for General Aviation News.
Tom was born Feb. 23, 1934, which makes him the same vintage as my father. Often when we would be at air shows, walking through rows and rows of antique airplanes or warbirds, it reminded me of spending time with my father.
Tom was a retired Naval Aviator, having spent 31 years flying A-4s in the Naval Reserves after serving in Vietnam. He was also an attack squadron commander and training officer, “turning nuggets into Naval Aviators,” he used to say.
His call sign was Mongoose. “My best friend was Snake and I became Mongoose by default,” he told me.
Since I live on one side of the country and Tom on the other, we only saw each other at air shows and fly-ins like Sun ’n Fun and Oshkosh. While the rest of us ran around in tennis shoes, cargo shorts or jeans and the company polo shirt, Tom kicked it up a notch by wearing khaki pants, boat shoes, the bright pink company polo, and a Panama hat. Other times he wore a blue wool Navy cap with his flight wings pinned to it or a green nylon flight jacket with his name patch and insignia on it.
A devout sailor, Tom always looked like he was just back from a Regatta. The exception was the evening gatherings, where Tom would appear in grey wool slacks, a starched white shirt, tie, and a blue wool blazer with his Navy wings of gold on the lapel.
One of my fondest memories of Tom was created at Sun ‘n Fun 2003. It was windy and bitterly cold and people were rushing to get exhibits set up. Tom and I were pressed into service helping officials from the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) unload the replica of the Wright brothers Flyer. Tom found himself kneeling in front of the aircraft, holding the canard while the other workers assembled the aircraft. He made quite a picture, a grey-haired man in khakis and flight jacket kneeling in front of what is arguably the most important aircraft ever built. Tom later told me that the moment had been nerve-wracking, but the smile he had on his face as he held this piece of history was pure little boy meeting his hero.
Tom was born into an aviation family. His mother, Catherine Medary, and her three sisters, Mary Lou, Patti and Juliet, were among the first women in the United States to earn their private pilot’s licenses. All four earned their tickets Oct. 4, 1929. They were known as the Flying Sisters of Philadelphia. Tom used to tell me that his family always had airplanes, and used them like most people use their cars.
Tom took his first flight with his mother in 1939 when he was 5 years old. “She had a prewar Luscombe, a Model 8 Silvaire, and she took me everywhere in it,” he said. “That was the first airplane that I controlled myself at the age of 11.”
During World War II the family pitched in for the war effort.
Tom put together models that were used to train aircraft spotters and helped searched the skies for enemy aircraft. His mother and aunts went to work for various aircraft companies that helped the war effort.
Tom earned his private pilot’s license in 1950. Ironically, the first time he took his mother for a ride, they ran into trouble. “We were in a Piper Tri-Pacer and when we were on downwind the damn thing swallowed a valve,” he said. “We were able to land safely, but it was embarrassing. Mother was very calm, much more so than I.”
Tom was more than a coworker and friend to me, he was a mentor. He helped me with both my writing and flying. He told me once that I had “the fire in the belly,” which I took as a compliment of the highest order.
After Tom left General Aviation News to pursue other endeavors, I would often send him photos of warbirds, especially Navy aircraft, that I saw on the ramp at air shows. Often the subject line read “What is this?” Tom always answered back with not only the name of the aircraft, but where it was used and the advantages and disadvantages of the design, often including what came before it, after it, and what its mission was.
When we parted ways after air shows we never said goodbye. I am happy that the last words Tom and I exchanged were “Safe journey.”
The same to you, Captain Norton.
Memorial services will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 10, at the Old Wye Parish, Wye Mills. Inurnment will be in the Old Wye Parish Cemetery. Click here for more information.