The Man Who’s Flown Everything

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

Dane Penland

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?"

"My initial reaction was: 'Is that a joke?' I was extremely ready to hit the beach. But then he said, 'In an F-14.'

"No way I was turning down something like that," Gibson said.

He was assigned to the first F-14 squadron: VF-1 at Naval Air Station Miramar in California. "I had just 30 hours in the F-14 when I went up against a thousand-hour F-4 guy. We called 'Fight's on!' and 30 seconds later I was sitting in his six [behind him]. We ran the engagement three times. The results were always the same. An F-14 with a nugget [novice] at the stick could outmaneuver, outturn, and outfight a Phantom flown by an old hand."

In 1976, Gibson got a slot in the test pilot school at Maryland's Naval Air Station Patuxent River. There he learned to methodically wring out new designs—single-seat jets, heavy transports, helicopters—moving step by step from known to unknown. "I was exactly where I wanted to be, doing exactly the kind of flying I wanted to do. Then I picked up a copy of Aviation Week & Space Technology and saw an artist's drawing of the space shuttle…. The shuttle was the fastest, highest-flying airplane in history, and I just had to snivel my way into the left seat."

He sent the paperwork in to NASA. On January 16, 1978, he got the news: He was in.

That day, NASA named its eighth group of astronauts. One, a surgeon named Rhea Seddon, later became Gibson's wife. Today, they live in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and have four children, Julie, Paul, Dann, and, the youngest at 13, Emilee.

We left the F-14 and made our way to the Museum's space hangar, where the shuttle Enterprise reigns. "The shuttle doesn't fly like anything else," said Gibson. "The control surfaces are huge. When you move them, you reduce your wing area, so, at first, pulling up makes you sink. Pushing over makes you sink faster. Pulsing the stick gets you into serious trouble. Below a certain altitude, every input you make is going to be wrong."

Gibson was picked to serve as pilot for a 1984 Challenger mission. The flight marked the first untethered spacewalk, and the first shuttle landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, instead of Edwards Air Force Base in California. Gibson's next mission would be as Columbia's commander. Once in orbit, bad weather at various landing sites kept the crew up longer than scheduled. The launch of the next shuttle, Challenger, was pushed back to January 28, 1986, a morning that dawned very cold.

"I was doing a debriefing at the Johnson Space Center in Houston," Gibson recalled. "The launch looked perfect." But at T-plus-73 seconds, a stiff, cold-soaked O-ring in the right solid booster failed. A flare of gas burned through to the external fuel tank.

"I kept staring at the television," said Gibson. "It took a couple of minutes before I realized that I had just watched my friends perish. Mike Smith was my instructor at test pilot school. Ellison Onizuka was my office mate for four years, Dick Scobee and Judy Resnik were both in my astronaut class. I flew my first spaceflight with Ron McNair. I'd lost friends before in aviation, but never so many all at once."

Gibson next commanded a classified military mission, STS-27, to carry a surveillance satellite into orbit. Atlantis lifted off on December 2, 1988, at just after 9:30 a.m. But at T-plus-85 seconds, part of the nose cap on the right-hand solid booster broke loose and shattered against the orbiter's wing.

"Dave Hilmers, our CAPCOM [capsule communicator], called up and told us they'd seen something fall away from the vehicle," recalled Gibson. "It probably was no big deal but we ought to take a look. Luckily, Atlantis had the remote arm in the cargo bay. We used the camera on it to look around." The bottom of the wing looked like it had taken multiple shotgun blasts, the thermal tiles showing white scrapes and dark, jagged holes. Gibson relayed the images to Houston. Because STS-27 was a military flight, the data were encrypted, the pictures low-resolution.

"The engineers came back and said it didn't look any worse than they'd seen on previous missions," said Gibson. "Well, I'd been with the shuttle program from the start…. I knew for a fact there'd been nothing like this before."

Reentry heat topped 3,000 degrees. The aluminum under the shuttle's tiles melted at 1,000. But reentry was four days away, and the crew focused on deploying the satellite, trying not to think about the orbiter's damaged belly glowing white-hot at Mach 25.

"We didn't know if Houston really thought we were okay," remembers crew member Mike Mullane, "or if they knew the situation was hopeless and just didn't want us to panic. But we knew what we'd seen, and Hoot was seriously ticked off that mission control wasn't listening to him. Things got pretty quiet up there."

Gibson felt that if something bad was going to happen to Atlantis, Houston was going to know why. If the right wing started to burn up, he said, "the first sign would be a 'split' in the elevons as the controls tried to hold attitude against increased drag: If they differed left to right by more than two degrees, I was going to get on the mike and tell Houston exactly what I thought of their assessment. I figured I had 30 seconds. It wouldn't help us, but it might save a future shuttle crew."

Reentry began. Gibson kept his eyes on the elevons. The shuttle entered the region of maximum thermal stress. The elevons remained in synch; the wing stayed intact. Gibson brought the orbiter in for an exceptionally smooth touchdown at Edwards.

"When we got out, we saw a bunch of engineers gathered under our wing. They were shaking their heads. The damage was massive. A whole tile was missing where the L-band antenna was mounted. There was a thicker skin panel there, and the metal had partly melted. If we'd lost a tile anywhere else, it would have burned through and we'd be dead.

"We should have developed an on-orbit patch kit right after STS-27, but NASA was playing Russian Roulette, hoping nothing critical would get hit, and it finally caught up with Columbia."

In January 1992, Gibson commanded a flight of the shuttle Endeavour, the program's 50th. The landing at the end of the mission was particularly satisfying. "The officially recorded touchdown sink rate was 0.0 feet per second," Gibson said; "we were almost perfectly asymptotic." Translation: despite the shuttle's perverse flight characteristics, Gibson brought Endeavour in for the kind of whisper-soft landing that earns airline pilots applause.

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.

"When the next generation of commercial rockets for tourists is ready to test fly," Gibson said, "there'll be a line of pilots hoping for a seat." He flashed a confident smile, then added, "I'd kind of like to be at the front of it." He has already been part of one effort, signing on in 2006 as chief pilot at Benson Space Company, which did not survive the death of its founder, Jim Benson, last year.

Beyond the parking lot, we could see a 737 approach nearby Washington Dulles International Airport. "Someday that's what leaving for orbit will be like," said Gibson. "A scheduled flight in a spaceship with wings." With Hoot Gibson in the cockpit? 

Robin White is the author of eight novels and two nonfiction books. A new book, on business in a post-petroleum world, is due out this fall.

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