Carrier Decks and Beyond

Carrier Decks and Beyond

Carrier Decks and Beyond

Captain Robert “Hoot” Gibson and Captain Tom “Huffer” Huff reflect on how aviation changed their lives

By Rachelle Haughn and Jay Smith

As seen in the January 2012 issue of Model Aviation.

In the January 2012 issue of Model Aviation, we paid homage to jets—from coverage of the Jet World Masters to a construction article on a Gloster Meteor. And who knows jets better than pilots Capt. Robert “Hoot” Gibson and Capt. Tom “Huffer” Huff?

Both Hoot and Tom have had extensive careers with the U.S. Navy. Although best known for his career as an astronaut, Hoot served as a jet fighter pilot and flew combat missions in Southeast Asia. Tom has been in the U.S. Navy for 27 years. Throughout his military career, he has served as a jet fighter pilot and a test pilot.

Hoot and Tom are members of the AMA and good friends. When they get together, the pair loves to talk about model aircraft and, of course, jets.

We took the opportunity to interview both of them to share some insight on their experiences as modelers and also as aviators. They have taken their love of flight to heights most of us can only dream about, yet they are humble and friendly and have been great supporters of the AMA.



Aeromodeler and retired astronaut, Hoot Gibson, reflects on his life and career

Robert “Hoot” Gibson, lifetime AMA member, took a brief break from making appearances at the AMA’s 75th Anniversary celebration, held at AMA’s International Aeromodeling Center, in July 2011, to answer a few questions.

The interview was conducted at Hoot’s new exhibit at the National Model Aviation Museum in Muncie, Indiana. The exhibit includes his flight suit, six trophies he won at modeling competitions, a scale F-16 ducted-fan model he flew in competitions, and scale replicas of some of the aircraft he has piloted throughout his career. The exhibit was dedicated during the AMA’s Diamond Anniversary Event.

Hoot became an astronaut in August of 1979, and has flown five missions, and spent 36-1/2 days in space. He served as commander of four of the flights. He has served as Chief of the Astronaut Office and Deputy Director of Flight Crew Operations. He also worked as a first officer for Southwest Airlines.

Hoot was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame on June 21, 2003. He also had a lengthy career flying other types of aircraft—logging more than 6,000 hours in more than 50 types of civil and military aircraft.

MA: How did you get interested in aeromodeling?

HG: I have been into aeromodeling ever since I was a kid, so five, seven, eight years old. I have been building, initially, rubber-powered model airplanes, and the Spirit of St. Louis model, things like that. And [I] have been doing that ever since [I was] about kindergarten age. When I was 10 years old, we got a Cox Piper Cub U-Control model and I remember I was able to fly it, actually on my first try; [I] didn’t even crash it on my first try. [I] flew it all the way until the engine ran out of fuel.

MA: Were any of your relatives involved in aeromodeling?

HG: I was really fortunate to grow up in a flying family. Mom and Dad were both pilots and so, therefore, the airplane, the aviation has been there ever since I can remember. And for birthdays and Christmas I remember one year I got a Towline Glider for a birthday present, and so there was support from the family and interest from the family. And like I say, just have been involved with it ever since I was a kid.

MA: How did aeromodeling help you decide a career path?

HG: What aeromodeling did for me in that aviation career was to teach me the fundamentals of how airplanes flew, how an airplane’s controlled. You learn a lot about stability and control by building and flying model airplanes. All of which was going to be real important to me—both as an aeronautical engineer, as well as being a test pilot, [and] in the military as well.

It is one thing to build an airplane; it’s another thing to fly an airplane. And you learn so much about aerodynamics and the requirements of stability and control in the course of building airplanes that I feel like it really put me ahead of the game when it was time to go through pilot training, as well as going through test pilot school.

MA: What were your thoughts on the end of the shuttle program?

HG: I hate to see the space shuttles being retired. It was such a remarkable program. It was such a spectacular achievement in the world of aviation as well as in space. The fact that we took an airplane to orbit and brought an airplane back from orbit flying at 25 times the speed of sound, Mach 25, and flying back into the atmosphere and were able to do that 135 times all together. It has been a remarkable accomplishment.

I almost hate to see us going back to the old space capsules that are going to land under parachutes out in the ocean, because it was such a gentlemanly way to come back from space and to land on the runway and walk down the ladder from your winged vehicle that brought you back home. We are going to get, I think, a little bit reminiscent about the fact that we were able to bring back so much payload from space with the space shuttle.

We were able to bring back thousands of pounds of payload back to the earth and we are not going to be able to do that with a parachute system or any kind of a vehicle that’s going to land in the ocean. We might be able to bring back a hundred pounds, maybe 200 pounds at most. So the things that the space shuttle was able to do for us, and the flexibility that it gave us, I think are going to be very much missed.

MA: Do you think manned flight still has value?

HG: Oh, absolutely. There is a place in our space program for robot flight, as well as manned flight. The things that humans can do in space cannot be done by robots in many cases. Robots generally cannot fix themselves. Having the humans onboard gives us the ability to overcome some difficulties that robots traditionally have.

[In 1984, on the Challenger STS-41B] we had an experiment in the cargo bay and opened up a door and we couldn’t get it closed. It was a problem with a microswitch. It wouldn’t let us close the door. So, a space walker bent a tab to fix it.

MA: How do we inspire young people to consider the space program as an avocation?

HG: What we need to do is we need to inspire young people to get involved in aviation and aeronautics. We need to show them the exciting things they can do. We couldn’t fly airplanes without mathematics and physics.

We need to show young people just how needed aviation is. This could lead them to careers in space, and to be physicists and imagineers. We couldn’t go to space, we couldn’t design airplanes, [and] we couldn’t fly airplanes without the use of mathematics and physics.

And it is a very motivating thing to show young people, “hey, look at how cool this is. Look at what I can do with math, look at what I can do with physics.” And one of the ways that we need to make that happen is by showing young people just how neat model airplanes are.

MA: You have taken many career paths in your life. Which was your favorite and why?

HG: I guess the answer is, yes. I have enjoyed the daylights out of everything I have gotten to do. [My Navy career] is the career path that got me into being an astronaut and an airline pilot after that.

All of these things have just been more fun than any person should be allowed to have in a lifetime. So it’s hard to point at any one of them and say this one was more fun. They have all been more fun. It has just been a wonderful life to get to live it through model aviation and full-size aviation, as well.

MA: If you could go back and do something differently in your life, what would that be?

HG: If I could go back and do something differently in my life I can’t imagine what I would want to do other than what I actually got to do. I have just been so lucky that I still to this day pinch myself about once a week and say, “Am I really awake? Is this really happening? Do I really get to do all this?”

I guess the one area where I felt a little bit jealous was of the men that landed on the moon. When you look at the adventure that that was, the challenge that that was, the courage that it took to go to the moon and hope that you’d be able to come back; when you look at some of the scenery that they saw, and some of the experiences that they had, I look and that and say, “Wow, I really would have enjoyed getting to do that.” But that’s about the only thing that I would have changed.

The only problem with doing that is if I were old enough to do the moon flights, I wouldn’t have been able to do the space shuttle flights. So I actually would not trade that for going to the moon. But that is the one thing that I have missed out on, is not getting to go to the moon.

MA: Have you ever cheated death?

HG: Oh, golly. I guess in a whole career in aviation, I would have to say a number of times. I’ve had some close calls. It would be a number of ways through aviation, primarily. Of course, I flew a few combat missions in Vietnam so I’ve been shot at a number of times.

On my third shuttle mission, [Atlantis STS-27] we had something happen to us that was similar to what happened to [Space Shuttle] Columbia. We were hit by debris that came off a rocket booster when we launched and it hit 700 thermal tiles. Part of the nose-cap broke away and hit the right wing. So, we almost burned through on reentry. They termed it a close call.

An ablative was on the nose cap and it just wasn’t strong enough. It protects the nose cap from heating.

MA: What is the best advice you have ever received?

HG: I guess I would say the best advice that I’ve ever been given is to always get out there and do your best. Always be working to achieve the highest thing you can possibly achieve.

The other advice that I’ve heard and that I give people all the time is go into something that you really enjoy. If it is something that you really enjoy you’re gonna be really good at it. Get into something you really enjoy. Go find something that you really have a passion for.

MA: How did your parents react when you told them you had been hired by NASA?

HG: My parents were very excited about anything space shuttle. My Dad—he and Mom—drove all the way to Palmdale, California, for the rollout of the [Space Shuttle] Enterprise. The family was really excited. There’s been a lot of excitement and support.

MA: Is there anything you would still like to accomplish?

HG: I would just dearly love to go back to space again. I’d love to do that.

There’s a rocket company working on a NASA contract. They’re going to be flying a lifting body, which is like a test shuttle. They’ll probably pick someone younger for that.

Whether it’s big or small, Tom Huff has probably flown it

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.


The AMA History Project Presents: Biography of Robert “Hoot” Gibson

AMA Ambassador Astronaut Hoot Gibson AMA Expo Presentation YouTube

The AMA Podcast - Episode 54: Astronaut Robert "Hoot" Gibson

The AMA History Project Presents: Biography of Tom Huff

Capt. Tom "Huffer" Huff USN Commander Naval Test Wing Atlantic


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