By Jerry Lips
I was driving back to my office, with aviation Legend Charlie Gates in the right seat. We had set up a special appointment that day, to have lunch and visit with Charlie Johnson, CEO of Aviation Technology Group, and to see their new Javelin jet being built in a hangar near Airport Journals’ hangar office. Charlie liked hanging out at Airport Journals’ hangar; from the smell of jet fuel to just good old hangar talk about the Golden era of aviation or the exciting days at Gates Learjet, he enjoyed everything about aviation. He shared memories of him and Harry Combs and their great adventurers in aviation. The soft-spoken legend’s stories were sprinkled with gems of aviation history, knowledge, and, always, fun.
Charlie Johnson arrived at our offices, and over lunch, the two Charlies got a chance to talk. A young Charlie Johnson had worked for Gates Learjet as a test pilot, and went on to become president of Cessna, and now they were able to meet and discuss their perceptions of aviation today. Charlie Gates wanted to hear about Charlie Johnson’s Air Force days as an F-105 “River Rat” and Charlie Johnson wanted to hear how Charlie Gates decided to put winglets on the first Gates Lear 55. As they shared stories with hand gestures showing aircraft in flight, you could see these aviators bonding.
Suffering from macular degeneration and nearly blind, Charlie Gates walked slowly around the Javelin, sliding his fingers along the leading edge of the craft’s wings. With limited vision straight ahead, he would turn his head slightly away as he circled the aircraft slowly, feeling the smooth surface. As he came to the back of the Javelin and looked somewhat puzzled, Johnson piped in, “Oh, the stinger is not on; it’s in the corner of the hangar.” Gates then smiled and asked if he could examine the cockpit. After he sat in the cockpit for a few quiet moments, I began to wonder what he was thinking. Was he reminiscing about his design and production days at Gates Learjet? Was he imagining what it would be like to fly the little fighter type jet? His gratifying smile seemed to say he was visiting a chamber of his mind that allowed him to feel the excitement and joy that aviation had brought to his 80 plus years of life.
Charlie Gates succumbed to cancer, one year ago this month.
Two weeks ago, I sat at a table near the front of the convention hall in Dayton, Ohio. The National Aviation Hall of Fame was holding their annual enshrinement ceremony. Charlie Gates’ daughter, Diane Wallach, was seated at the same table; she had flown left seat into Dayton that afternoon in one of the last Gates Learjet 55s off the assembly line before her father sold Lear. She was at the enshrinement to announce that her family was going to fund the Combs award that ran out of money and was in jeopardy of being discontinued. The National Aviation Hall of Fame also announced that from this time forward, the award would be known as the Combs-Gates scholarship award. It is as it should be. The Combs and Gates names were inextricably connected in life and will continue to be connected as the aviation legends that they are.
Diane’s son, Clark, was also seated at our table, next to Bob Hoover. As the evening progressed, you could see the excitement building in the young lad as he met many other legends and friends of his late grandfather. As Charlie said, “Once aviation is in your blood, it’s always there.”
Often referred to as the Academy Awards of Aviation, this year the National Aviation Hall of Fame enshrinement included Tex Hill, Bessie Coleman, Robert White, and our very good friend and columnist, Cliff Robertson. We congratulate him on all of his many achievements.