By Ralph Hood
Aviation, still a young industry, was even younger when I got into it in 1969.
By 1969, many early aviation pioneers, including the Wright Brothers, were gone, as was Jimmy Doolittle (who led the bomber raid on Japan early in WW I) and General Billy Mitchell, known as the father of the U.S. Air Force. Lindbergh was still alive, but died five years later. Others lived on, and I was lucky to meet many of them.
In many cases, I knew these people. That does not, however, mean that they knew me! I met them not because I was important, but because they were.
General Chuck Yeager was the first person to break the sound barrier in level flight (1947). I love to tell everyone that Yeager and I both set—may still hold—world aviation speed records into Kitty Hawk. We competed in two different classes. He flew a civilian turboprop at about 300 mph; I was in a four-seat Cessna flying about 160 mph. Two men and a dog met my flight. The next morning at dawn, hundreds of people met Yeager’s flight. He sat down facing the crowd, which eagerly awaited his first words. He grinned and said, “Flying’s a lot of fun, but it’ll never beat sex.”
BTW, when Yeager broke the sound barrier, Scott Crossfield was flying the chase airplane. Crossfield was one of the greatest of the greats, and the first to fly at twice the speed of sound. We met several times and were speakers on the same program once.
Burt Rutan—airplane designer/builder of note—and I met several times, but I must admit he didn’t like me at all. His brother, Dick Rutan, and I, however, are friends. Dick is the one who flew around the world without refueling at just about the time that Yeager and I set our records into Kitty Hawk.
I also met General Paul Tibbetts several times. He was the man in charge of building/training the team to fly the first atomic bomb to Hiroshima. Not only that, he was the pilot who flew the Enola Gay on that historic mission. I had the privilege of introducing him as a speaker for an Alabama aviation group.
One of my long-time friends—aviator Pat Epps, who shared the same birthday with Tibbetts—threw a birthday party for both of them. Pat invited me to come, but I had to speak in Texas that day, so I missed the party and never saw Tibbetts again.
John Leahy, called “the greatest aircraft salesman in history,” is another person I’m proud to know, and even prouder to say he is a friend of long-standing. It is said that he is the single person most responsible for the success of Airbus.
I knew Ed Long and Evelyn Johnson very well. Ed flew more hours than any other person who ever lived. Evelyn—from Morristown, TN, BTW—had more flying hours than any other woman who ever lived and more than any man except for Ed.
I met many of the Tuskegee Airmen, including Gen. Benjamin O. Davis—the first African-American general officer in the USAF.
The list goes on, but I’m out of space.
I’ve been so fortunate to meet these giants.