Hoot Gibson Reflects on Life & Career

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

ROBERT “HOOT” GIBSON, lifetime AMA member and AMA ambassador, took a brief break from making appearances at the AMA’s 75th Anniversary celebration, held at AMA Headquarters in July, 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.

Robert "Hoot" Gibson at his new exhibit during the Model Aviation interview.

Hoot became an astronaut in August of 1979, and has flown five missions and spent 361/2 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.

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 5, 7, 8 years old. I have been building, initially, rubber-powered model airplanes, and the Spirit of St. Louis model, things like that. And have been doing that ever since 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, 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 on board 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 were 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.

Also enjoy a playlist of more Hoot Gibson videos.

Read Model Aviation's Exclusive Interview with Capt. Tom "Huffer" Huff.

Build the Columbia, the Shuttle Hoot Gibson commanded.

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I met Hoot Gibson as the 75th Anniversary event in Muncie. Super nice person and a great aviation spokesperson.

Hi Tony- Thanks for celebrating with us during the 75th Anniversary Event! We are excited to announce that Hoot Gibson will also be presenting at our 2012 AMA Expo. Visit www.amaexpo.com to learn more.

Great video and presentation of a successful AMA member showing how possible it is to achieve a dream. Wish more people had access to this. I will pass this on to others. AMA has influenced my interests in RC aviation and look forward to a bright future ahead. Thankyou

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