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(Dane Penland)

The Man Who’s Flown Everything

Robert “Hoot” Gibson’s priorities: (1) Fly. (2) Fly some more.

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Gibson showed the same precise touch on his next shuttle mission, in which Atlantis was to dock with the Russian space station, Mir. Gibson was named to command the mission.

Atlantis launched on June 29, 1995. Once in orbit, Gibson began the delicate dance to bring the shuttle closer and closer to Mir.

"We had to make contact at .1 foot per second," said Gibson. "Much faster and we'd break something. Too slow and the latches wouldn't capture. I brought Atlantis in at .107."

The Mir docking mission would be his last shuttle flight. Gibson served as the shuttle program's deputy director of flight operations for a while, but "I really wanted to get back to flying," he said, and his wife wanted to move to Murfreesboro, where she'd grown up. Gibson retired from NASA and went to work flying as first officer for Southwest Airlines, a job with a reasonable commute.

Was it an awkward career move, for someone with a flying background as extensive as his?

"A few old captains went out of their way to show that I didn't impress them. But most couldn't have been friendlier, and then I got to be an old captain myself." In 2006, Gibson turned 60, then the age of mandatory retirement for airline pilots.

Since 1984, Gibson has indulged his passion for speed by racing airplanes, a sport NASA had frowned upon as too risky. (The agency grounded him for a year in 1990 for racing. In one race, his airplane and another collided, and the other pilot was killed.) In 2004, Gibson flew his green and yellow Cassutt, an experimental homebuilt designed for aerobatics and pylon racing, at 237.9 mph, beating a 20-year-old record. He also set a world altitude record in it.

The Cassutt is fast, but it's Riff Raff, a big red and white Hawker Sea Fury that Gibson races at the Reno Air Races, that draws the crowds. At the 2007 races, Gibson clocked a blistering 437 mph—the aircraft's fastest qualifying time.

Riff Raff 's owner, retired physical therapist Mike Keenum, has over 10,000 hours of flight time and flies Riff Raff in airshows, but at Reno, he wants Gibson's hands on the stick and throttle. In races, says Keenum, "the difference between winning and losing, between life and death, is measured in split seconds. You've got to be able to think fast, decide fast, and act fast. Hooter does all those things better than anyone I know."

Our tour was over. The Museum was about to open for business as we walked outside into the windy winter air.

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