By Cliff Robertson,
There’s nothing this former journalist relishes more than smashing stereotypes. Particularly when those stereotypes are inaccurate, ill perceived and unexamined. A classic example of a stereotypical, unexamined portrait would be one that identified the chairman of the board of one of the world’s major hotel chains, who inherited his father’s chairmanship. At first blush, one would have an immediate image of silver spoons spoon-feeding this fortunate son of the elite and buffering all inconveniences in a cushioned life. Well, fasten your safety belts, readers, as I smash that erroneous stereotype of my dearest friend—pilot extraordinaire and aviation man of all seasons, Mr. Barron Hilton.
Born in Dallas, Texas, in 1927, Barron moved with his family to Southern California in 1935. After youthful duties in the United States Navy during World War II, Barron joined the Hilton Hotel Corporation at age 19 and immediately plunged into entrepreneurial distributorship of Vita-Pakt Citrus Products, a leading manufacturer and distributor of citrus and other food products on the West Coast. As if this weren’t enough to satisfy his hungry work ethic, in 1960, Barron founded the professional football team, the Los Angeles Chargers. Later, he moved the franchise to San Diego, where his team won four Western Division titles and one American Football League Championship in five years. In addition, he proceeded to found and serve as president of the American Football League. He sold his majority interest in the team in 1966.
In his role as president of Hilton Hotel Corporation, Barron was instrumental in expanding into the universal Carte Blanche credit card system, developed the Hilton Inns franchise program and subsequently led the way when the Hilton Hotel Corporation became the first New York Stock Exchange company to enter the casino gaming industry in 1971.
As if this weren’t enough in one’s lifetime, Barron, an aviation enthusiast, proceeded to form the Air Finance Corporation, leasing aircraft and aircraft equipment to commercial airlines, including the Flying Tigers and Pacific Southwest Airlines.
My column doesn’t have enough space to even touch the many, many humanitarian activities that Barron has immersed himself in. Just a few should at least be noted: honorary director of Boy Scouts of America and the Great Western Council; trustee of the City of Hope, the World Mercy Fund, the Eisenhower Medical Center, St. John’s Hospital, the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, International Order of St. Hubert, the PEACE Foundation Council and the National Honorary Advisory Committee of the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation; director of EAA.
OK. Fasten that safety belt another notch. As the late Al Jolson would say at the end of his brilliant Broadway singing appearances, “You ain’t heard nothing yet!” The young, impatient, ambitious scion of the Hilton Hotel chain learned to fly at 19. He attended the University of Southern California Aeronautical School, where he earned his twin-engine rating. He commuted weekly from his home in Los Angeles to the USC campus in Santa Maria, Calif., in his Cessna 140—only the third airplane to be based at Santa Monica Airport. Over the next 20 years, he managed to start up a number of businesses, including an oil production company. His Air Finance Corporation leased and sold commercial aircraft, including two Lockheed Electras to PSA, two Lockheed 1049H Constellations to Flying Tigers and another Constellation to TransOceanic Airlines.
His family of personal aircraft continued to grow, as did his family with Marilyn Hawley. Finally, he and Marilyn proudly surveyed their proud brood of eight children and 15 grandchildren. It should be noted that like so many old-time pilots, including this writer, Barron, in his early teenage days, rode his bicycle from his home in Dallas to Love Field and watched and dreamed and was mesmerized by the beauty of aircraft taking off and landing.
I can relate to those teenage dreams, for at 14 and 15, I, too, was riding my blue Iver Johnson Steed 13 miles from La Jolla to a sleepy little airport near San Diego Navy Base under the proud name of Speer Airport. I was allowed to enter that hallowed corrugated hangar, and permitted to not only touch, but also clean, airplanes stabled therein. Lucky? You bet I was lucky. The luckiest kid on the block. For in exchange of my labors, every third or fourth summer day I was allowed to go up with the chief pilot, Bud (Speed Smith). Alas, today so many of our youths are more interested in cocooning themselves in their rooms with their computers. But I digress…
Barron didn’t join his father, Conrad, in the business until many years after he had proven himself as an entrepreneur. Over the next 30 years, Barron built Hilton Hotels Corporation into a $4 billion enterprise (now still growing) with the strongest balance sheet in the country.
Barron’s private aviation family now includes a Cessna Citation V Ultra for corporate and personal travel, four gliders and a tow plane, a Stearman biplane, a Citabria aerobatic plane, a McDonnell-Douglas 500-E helicopter, a restored Beech Staggerwing and two hot air balloons—and he flies them all. Always generous, he allows many of his pilot pals to join him at his Flying M Ranch in Northern Nevada. For over three decades, I’ve been graced with his wonderful and generous hospitality at that ranch. To all who go there, it’s a virtual Shangri-La.
In 1981, Barron inaugurated an international soaring competition with Helmut Reichman, Germany’s late three-time world champion. For 10 days at this soaring camp, glider pilots who’ve distinguished themselves internationally in the long triangular flights in five regions of the world are allowed to compete in what has become the Olympics of soaring.
The Hilton Cup is the largest aviation competition in the world, with more than 3,000 flights entered during each two-year competition. Recognized by the FAI, the Barron Hilton Cup is the only Category One competition on the international soaring calendar other than the biennial World Championships.
If there’s another notch on your safety belt, pull it up: Barron was a principal sponsor of the first attempts to circumnavigate the earth in a manned balloon. Indeed, first, second and third attempts in the process failed to circumnavigate the earth. New flying systems were developed using a double balloon system. It was what Barron has called perhaps the last great plum in aviation history. This isn’t to ignore the attempts of Barron’s close friend, Steve Fossett, or the final successful attempts by the Swiss team two years ago.
I hope that in “smashing the stereotype” of a rich man’s son being supported by other peoples’ work ethics, I’ve given you just a small insight into the character, talents and accomplishments of a man of great business and aviation acumen. Barron Hilton did it the old-fashioned way—he earned it!
I’m not in the habit of flaunting my relationships with people of high profile, in or out of aviation, but I feel a salute to my dear friend Barron was long, long overdue. So Barron, thank you on behalf of aviation folk everywhere. Would that this weary world had more like you!
Cliff’s reminder: “Man is the only animal capable of blushing. He is the only one that should.” Mark Twain.
Academy Award and Emmy Award winning screen star Cliff Robertson has owned and flown a wide array of aircraft, including a Spitfire MK IX, a Messerschmitt ME-108, a French aerobatic Stampe SV4 biplane, a Grob Astir glider (in which he still holds a distance record) and a Beech Baron 58. A holder of single, multi, instrument and commercial licenses, as well as balloon, the pilot of many thousands of hours has accumulated many aviation awards, including EAA’s highest Eagle award and the AOPA Sharples award. He was recently inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, and the American Veteran Association has honored Cliff as Veteran of the Year. His columns will appear in his soon-to-be-published book.