Bob Lock was a good ol’ boy, in the best sense of the word.
You may have known him. If not, you almost certainly know someone who did.
Aviation is a tight-knit, fairly small community of individuals who somehow manage to cross paths with one another somewhere or other as they walk along the road of life. For me, Bob was one of those connections.
Bob was an aircraft mechanic for well over 50 years. He taught the mechanic’s trade at Reedley College in California for more than 30 years.
He personally participated in the restoration of a long list of classic and antique aircraft over the course of his life, which earn him the prestigious Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award. He was also awarded the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award in 2010.
That’s a life to be proud of, surely.
Years ago I was doing some fabric work for Kermit Weeks at Fantasy of Flight. Kermit knew me as a writer, not a mechanic or pilot. And he was understandably wary of letting unproven talent mess with his airplanes.
While I was in the restoration hangar stitching fabric onto a wing one day, Bob Lock wandered in and struck up a conversation.
He leaned his long frame against a large wooden shipping crate as we chatted. We’d known each other for a few years at that point, so we talked casually about this and that and whatever came to mind for several minutes.
I continued stitching and tying knots, while Bob watched my method and gauged my progress. Suddenly, pushing himself up straight he announced, “You know what you’re doing. You don’t need my help,” then wandered back through the various fuselages and wings scattered around the hangar, disappearing through the back door.
That was the best compliment I ever got. If Bob thought you knew what you were doing, you knew what you were doing. It was a good day.
Bob went west last week. I’d just seen him at SUN ‘n FUN and spoke with him for a bit. It was a light conversation, nothing particularly important or memorable passed between us. But I didn’t know it was the last time I’d see him. Bob didn’t know it either.
I learned of Bob’s passing from a text while attending a friend’s birthday party. How’s that for irony?
The next text I got asked if I would participate in a missing man formation for Bob on Sunday, as his family and friends were planning a celebration of life to be held in his hangar. Of course, I said yes.
To be honest, I’ve never flown a missing man formation before, and I’ve certainly never considered doing it in a Piper J3 Cub fitted with a 65 horsepower engine and wooden prop. But we did it.
Our leader, Steve Alcorn, sketched out the route on a whiteboard just prior to the flight. He told us where we would be making our turns, called out an altitude for us to cruise at, pointed out a couple pertinent landmarks that would guide us, and instructed me to peel off to the west after passing Bob’s hangar. The rest of our party would continue north, paralleling the runway.
Bob would have been pleased.
We took off one after another, formed up into a loose formation, and headed for Flanders Field, where Bob’s friends and family were gathered not so much to mourn his passing, but to remember him and celebrate his life.
The sky was as blue as it could be, with only a smattering of bright white puff ball clouds gathered here and there over the Florida peninsula. As we lined up on the runway, I could see the people gathered below spilling out of the hangar to look skyward. Four Cubs purred through the ether, cruising at a gentlemanly speed of no more than 70 knots. It was a sight Bob would have appreciated.
I turned west, the others continued north, and our tribute was done. It felt good to be a part of making an aerial statement for a friend who went too soon, but lived so well.
Several minutes later, I returned to the field, lined up on 2,000 feet of deep green grass, slid down through the trees, and touched down with all the grace a Cub can offer.
Pulling up to the hangar, I tucked up onto the lawn beside a Luscombe, which sat beside Bob’s final restoration project, an immaculate Aeronca Champ, and flipped my mags off. The prop spun down, I climbed out, and made my way to the hangar where the celebration of Bob was well underway.
Before I made it to the wide open bi-fold door, a tall slender gentleman emerged from the crowd and asked, “Did that Cub come from Minnesota?”
I bought my Cub from a fellow here in Florida. And he bought it from a guy in North Dakota. But it does sport an emblem on the tail that identifies it as a former resident of the North Star State.
That’s just one of the things I love about general aviation. Bob and that Cub brought together two people from entirely different parts of the country, both of whom came to a specific hangar to say farewell to a friend, only to make a new friend in the process.
As I said earlier, aviation is a tight-knit, fairly small community of individuals. They came from near and far to share their affection for Bob with each other. Tears were shed, but not nearly as often as laughter was heard.
Stories were shared, and Bob certainly had lived enough of a life to fill several books.
For instance, while you and I have seen video of Howard Hughes flying the H-4 Hercules (Spruce Goose) in 1947, Bob was there. He saw it first hand. And decades before, The Right Stuff, made Chuck Yeager a household name, Bob was a visitor to his home, as well as an enthusiastic hiking and camping partner.
Bob Lock lived a good life. Not nearly long enough for those of us who knew him, but he packed a lot into the years he had. And we are thankful for that.
Via con Dios, Bob. You will be missed.