Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Feet on the ground, heart in the clouds

Express Staff Writer

When former Arizona neighbor Bob McCall died last month at 90, memories of the aviation history I've lived out of joyful good luck came alive.

In my years in the Phoenix suburb of Paradise Valley, I visited Bob for hours while he painted spectacular images of outer-space flight in a studio brimming with his genius. Other times, I'd chat with astronaut friends who popped in. In 1989, Bob, his artist wife Louise, my spouse and I were invited to the Association of Space Explorers meeting in Saudi Arabia, which assembled a hilarious collection of communist cosmonauts and Free World astronauts harboring no Cold War antagonisms.

In his extraordinary career, McCall designed 25 space-theme postage stamps, painted a spectacular mural just inside the Air & Space Museum in Washington, wrote countless magazine articles and books, did hundreds of paintings, designed patches for astronaut flight suits and worked on the film "2001: A Space Odyssey." His one disappointment: He didn't fly in space.

My introduction to space flight and astronauts by Bob topped off a lifelong love affair beginning in 1944 with my first flying lesson at 14 years old in a J-3 Piper Cub at a grass strip outside Miami, Fla., instructed by a woman, Verna Burke.

After washing Douglas DC-3s at Eastern Airlines' Miami base one summer, I vowed to become an EAL pilot. When the time came years later, I got cold feet.

Even as a full-time journalist, I couldn't shake aviation. I tried my hand with nearly two dozen single- and twin-engine aircraft models. The FAA examiner for my instrument rating and commercial license was Mary Gaffaney, onetime world aerobatic champ. I've wrangled permission for cockpit flights on the largest U.S. and foreign commercial airliners and military jet fighters and transports. Several airlines allowed me to "fly" jet simulators.

To write a piece about the emerging entry of female airline pilots, I was invited to one of their first ISA+21 meetings in Denver.

Along with a few Florida aviation figures, including the late X-15 test pilot Scott Crossfield, we championed (unsuccessfully) the idea of building shortfield takeoff/landing (STOL) airports near large cities, plus designed a new zoning law for land around Miami International Airport.

Giving something back to aviation rescued me from merely having fun. The Air Line Pilots Association gave our committee a special achievement airport safety award. Embry Riddle Aeronautical University was kind to confer an honorary Ph.D. in aeronautical studies on me, while the Greater Miami Aviation Association named me Aviation Newsman of 1971.

Even if my feet are now on the ground, my heart still is in the clouds.

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