An hour before the doors of the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center opened to visitors, the vast, multi-level space was filled with a theatrical pre-curtain hush. Only a few docents were here, getting reacquainted with the 170-some air- and spacecraft on display, machines that had made some of the most important history of the last hundred years. The docents were there to tell their stories.
So was the man I'd traveled to Chantilly, Virginia, to meet: Robert "Hoot" Gibson. Hoot (the nickname originated with cowboy movie star Edmund "Hoot" Gibson) knew many of these flying machines personally. From light piston aircraft to thundering World War II fighters to supersonic jets to the space shuttle, Gibson had flown them—111 types so far (see the complete list here).
He arrived one minute early. Though 62, he looked very much as he did in shuttle crew photographs from the early 1990s: the same trim build, the same mischievous glint in his eyes.
"So where would you like to start?" he asked.
"How about the beginning?" I said.
As we walked through the quiet museum, Gibson told me about his early influences. His mother was one of the few women to fly general aviation aircraft in her day; as a college student in 1943, she and two girlfriends had chipped in to buy a J-2 Taylor Cub. His father was a test pilot for the Civil Aeronautics Administration; as a kid, Gibson accompanied him on CAA business and slowly learned the art of flying. One day they were in Phoenix, having flown there in a Bonanza with one control yoke. "When it was time to return to L.A., he passed the control wheel over to me in the right seat and said, 'It's your takeoff.' " Gibson was 10. "I was so proud that he trusted me," he recalled. "He was my inspiration."
Gibson pointed at a diminutive Piper Super Cruiser hanging from the rafters. It was the City of Washington, the first light, personal airplane to fly around the world. "I soloed in a [Piper] Colt on my 16th birthday; it was similar to that Super Cruiser up there," said Gibson. "We were living near Manassas, Virginia. The airport was just a grass strip, and it was a nasty day to fly: windy, rainy, a solid overcast. But my dad thought I was ready." He got his private pilot's license the following year.
We left the civil and general aviation displays and continued on to Modern Military Aviation. Gibson told me that in 1969, he graduated from college and entered the U.S. Navy Aviation Officer Candidate School in Pensacola, Florida. He never considered any career other than flying.
We stopped beside a McDonnell F-4 Phantom. As a young Navy aviator, "I was in awe of the F-4," he said. "It looked so big and heavy, and the wings seemed so small…. I was reluctant to slow it down. I was sure it would fall out of the sky." But "it was just totally rock-solid on approach to the carrier," Gibson said. "It flew on rails at 145 knots."
From 1972 to 1975, Gibson flew three tours in Southeast Asia off the carriers USS Coral Sea and Enterprise. He was looking forward to shore duty when his commanding officer asked an unusual question: "How would you like a third tour?"