Last month, it seemed that Memorial Day came early, didn’t it? Regardless of the calendar, it came early for some of my old buddies in aviation. And it came decades late for some World War II GA fliers I knew. Let me explain.
First, there was the memorial luncheon for my buddy and president of the National Association of Aviation Officials, Henry Ogrodzinki — the much-loved Washington association leader and former communications exec who left us way too soon.
Our careers had paralleled from the start, it seemed. When I left the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), Henry — known by most as Henry O — took my job there. I was pursued by Gulfstream but chose Beech instead. Henry later took the Gulfstream job and excelled, doing the launch of the G-V. (He later resuscitated the Dayton Air Show, then took NASAO to unprecedented heights while helming major D.C. aviation functions like the Wright Day Dinner.)
Many Washington aviation types gathered May 15 to celebrate a guy who made the Washington scene a brighter, “funner” place to work for aviation. State aviation officials sang his praises, then audience members rose with remembrances and perspectives. Henry’s co-recipient of last year’s Elder Statesman of Aviation Award, former FLYING publisher Dick Koenig, graciously came to D.C. for the event.
I took my turn to say that one’s impressive bio (in a city of extensive resumes) pales in the final accounting. One’s true measure is what you have been to people. Here, again, my peer Henry beat me by a mile. I was proud to say he excelled in this and so many other ways.
While we were still digesting our emotions about Henry, time moved on. News arrived that Jim Christiansen had died suddenly that day. You may not know the name, but he was big (and much admired) in business aviation — especially the charter business. He was a good guy. And (gulp), he was “only” 67.
Then, another sad notice: “Skeets” Coleman had “flown West” at 95. He had been famous for “flying UP” – taking off and landing vertically atop the bizarre Convair XFY-1 Pogo, a 35-foot-tall turboprop “tail-sitter” fighter. Backing-down from vertical hover without instruments or computer guidance, Skeets would land it by twisting around in his seat, straining to see down over his shoulder!
Air & Space Magazine recalled that Skeets was “one of the last people ever to venture aloft in a machine that nobody knew how to fly, that no simulator had proved would fly, and that no computer could promise would be controllable.”
Coleman was awarded the 1955 Harmon Trophy for his exploits despite the Navy’s abandonment of the concept. (The XFY-1’s competitor for a shipboard vertical-takeoff fighter, the Lockheed XFV, is on outside display at SUN ‘n FUN in Lakeland, Florida.)
Why do I mourn Skeets? It’s based on just one evening with him as a bunch of us guys “did dinner” in Atlanta at the National Business Aviation Association show. I guess I got myself invited through the generosity of Bob Hoover. But there I was, talking the night away with the walks-on-water test pilot I had just read about in one of Bob Searles’ “Reflections” columns in Business and Commercial Aviation magazine.
In any case, that’s aviation: The bond that joins us all can stretch across industry segments and experience levels, or at least it can with great guys like Jim Christiansen or Skeets Coleman (and Bob Hoover, for that matter.) Some modern-day “superstar jet jocks” may think themselves “too good” for a GA guy but they pale in comparison. I’m not going to envy, let alone celebrate, their lives. They will do enough of that on their own.
And now to the very nearly forgotten: Memorial Day came decades late for the Civil Air Patrol Subchasers of World War II, but it finally came. On May 30, the President signed Senate Bill 309 awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to veterans of Civil Air Patrol.
No doubt pushed by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, the U.S. national honor is one of few for WWII CAP veterans and decades later than recognition for other military auxiliaries like the WASPs. I was proud to engineer a major tribute to CAP Subchasers at AOPA EXPO ’95 in Atlantic City, NJ. From this, I continued years of such pro bono work under the CAP Historical Foundation.
If you don’t know, volunteer Coastal Patrol pilots flew against marauding Nazi subs off U.S. shores in 1942-43 in single-engine Stinson 10s, Fairchild 24s or anything else they had. CAP operations during all of World War II totaled 86,685 missions, 244,600 flight hours, 24 million air miles and 59 dead fliers (including 26 lost at sea.)
Honoring these daring GA flyers was gratifying. But best was my association with these modest heroes in their later years. Like others of our “Greatest Generation,” they did it for their country — not for fame or bragging rights.
There are now only about 100 still with us, CAP says. They all just carried on with their lives after the war, not expecting payback. In fact, pilots often told me they never expected to be remembered. But a new generation of fans — like D.C.-area independent CAP historian Roger Theil or those supporting the 1997-2008 CAP Historical Foundation — re-told their story before most were gone.
Memorial Day is sometime around the end of May, isn’t it? For me, it seemed to come early this year, then again later. These were especially meaningful memorial days.
© 2014 Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved