Tom Huff Has Probably Flown It

Print this articlePrint this article

Written by Rachelle Haughn and Jay Smith As featured on page 48 in the January 2012 issue. Read the entire interview and online exclusive photos.

U.S. NAVY CAPT. Tom “Huffer” Huff, an AMA member, loves flying both RC and full-scale aircraft.

He began modeling as a child, and learned to fly full-scale aircraft long before he was taught how to drive a car. He is a self-proclaimed “airplane nut,” and his early passion translated into a career with the Navy.

When he isn’t at his local flying field or working, he enjoys meeting up with his friend, Robert “Hoot” Gibson, and swapping military stories.

Tom took time out of his busy day overseeing the U.S. Navy’s largest test organization to answer a few questions for MA.

MA: How did you get involved in aeromodeling?

TH: It was building plastic models with my father [at age 6 or 7], and then I got into CL and RC kind of on my own while I was in middle school. In middle school I met my first mentor, Ed Mitchell, a shop teacher. He was scratch-building scale 12-meter sailboats so I brought my airplanes in and he ended up getting into the airplane business again.

We went to the airfield together after school in Columbia, Maryland. I was a member of the Fort Mead Modelers. The field is still there, but couldn’t tell you if the club is.

MA: Which came first: aeromodeling or full-scale aircraft. Did one lead to the other?

TH: Being just a complete airplane nut, I think it was just a forgone conclusion that I was going to take flying lessons. I’ve had a subscription to a flying magazine since I was 12, and first flew an airplane at age 14. My mom had to drive me to my flying lessons. I got my flying license shortly after my 17th birthday.

I took lessons at Bowman Field in Louisville, Kentucky. I worked there pumping gas and washing planes to pay for my lessons. That was a dream job for me.

MA: Do you prefer to fly full-scale or RC aircraft?

TH: Both. It’s all fun. [RC is] a different kind of flying. I fly RC more often.

Besides flying small helicopters and electric foamies in my front yard, I get out to the field every other week or so. The problem is I’ve got too many hobbies. I race bicycles, too.

I have a dozen RC models—everything from Giant Scale to helicopters. I don’t own any full-scale aircraft.

MA: How did you meet Hoot Gibson?

TH: At [AMA] Expo 2010. Obviously, he’s a legend. I knew of him. I finally got to meet him and hang out with him at Expo 2010. He actually became an astronaut. I tried to and didn’t. He’s a fighter pilot and so he and I had a common interest. He’s an airplane nut like I am.

I invited him to be a guest speaker at a test pilot school graduation. He also came to the local RC club field and got to fly everybody’s airplanes.

We did Sun ’n Fun last year. He had a panel and he invited me to come. I’ve been kind of riding on his coattails. [If Hoot is invited to an event and can’t make it, he goes.] I don’t mind being second fiddle, not to Hoot.

MA: When you decided to join the military as an aviator, what led you to the Navy?

TH: To receive further in-flight training, the military was the [best] option. I was really after the Air Force Academy and got an alternate selection to the Naval Academy. It was definitely the better second choice in the end.

Flying off the aircraft carrier, the uniqueness of naval aviation [made the Navy a better choice for him].

MA: Do you see the role of the fighter pilot changing significantly in the next few years with the continued development of unmanned aircraft?

TH: No. I still see a consistent role, at least for the next few decades. We’re going to take an unmanned aircraft to the carrier in 2013, but we’re still going to need strike fighter pilots doing many of the same roles as they are today.

MA: Is there any kind of airplane (RC or full-scale) that you haven’t flown but would like to?

TH: Yeah, I have a fairly lengthy bucket list but let’s put V-22 at the top. It’s a prop-rotor, half airplane and half helicopter. It’s probably more airplane but can hover.

It’s a Marine Corps aircraft, not naval. We have some here. It’s next on my list. I’m waiting for the opportunity to fly it; waiting for stuff to slow down [here].

MA: Looking back on your career, what are you most proud of?

TH: At the risk of sounding a little corny, I guess the opportunity to lead men and women; to do multiple command tours.

The average age of many of these kids that work on the flight deck is about 20, and it’s arguably the most dangerous place to work. Twenty-four/seven, 365 [days a year] we have people working off carriers. But what’s cool is we have 225 in the F-18 squad. That’s a lot of responsibility. It’s a lot of fun.

I have been with the U.S. Navy for 27 years. This is my third command.

MA: The Navy is celebrating 100 years of aviation and the AMA 75 years. What are your thoughts on these milestones?

TH: I don’t remember when I joined AMA. I’ve been affiliated with both for many, many years and I see the value and the contributions that AMA has made in the sport of aeromodeling.

Right now, I’ve got the privilege of being at the right-hand side of the bookend, testing everything—testing new stuff [including the F-35 and the MQ-8 unmanned helicopter].

MA: As a naval aviator and model airplane enthusiast, have you used simulators (as airshow pilots do sometimes) as a supplement to your full-scale military flying? Do you feel your modeling background (and the use of simulators) has been beneficial and helped you in that aspect?

TH: Yes for both. My observation is that when people come out to the RC field they adapt much quicker if they used a flight simulator.

In the Navy, we use simulators for flight training and dress rehearsal. They spend a lot of time on simulators. Probably half of their training is done on simulators. It has increased because the fidelity of the simulator has gotten better so the realism has improved—so the skills translate better to the full-scale application.

Also, modeling has improved too. Doing simulators first for RC will accelerate your flight training and it will keep you entertained on rainy days when you can’t go to the flying field.

MA:How can adults attract today’s youth to a career in aviation?

TH: Pursue some sort of mentoring program. I currently have two. I try very hard to accommodate it in my busy schedule.

In a local middle school we have a flying club called the AMA Delta Darts, and the students can progress to the Midwest Delta Dart IIs [1/2A CL]. We have a variety of RC helicopters and airplanes that we use both inside and out. I took it over from another gentleman. He moved on so there was a hole there.

My other program is working with a local high school for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. They have a university-level autonomous air vehicle competition. This high school came in 17 of 33 teams that entered, and was the only high school to successfully fly. For their effort, they won $1,000 in prize money.

MA: For children, even young adults, interested in modeling as well as a military aviation career (or any type of full-scale aviation) what advice would you give them?

TH:For modeling, I would suggest going to a local hobby shop or local club flying field and just asking questions and observing and seeing what your interests are going to be.

[In terms of the military] you can always go to a recruiting office and ask for points contact. I’m sure there’s other equivalents in other branches of the military.

Enjoy five videos with Capt. Tom Huff, including footage from his previous AMA Expo appearances. Tom Huff will be attending the 2012 AMA Expo, learn more at

Read Model Aviation's Exclusive Interview with Capt. Robert "Hoot" Gibson.


I agree with Tom that flight simulators are a very useful tool to build flying skills!! But new pilots still need a mentor, which I'm sure Tom would agree.

Add new comment