By Deb Grigsby Smith
Noted author and general aviation safety evangelist William A. “Bill” Hamilton and Reno Air Race champion Joseph H. “Joe” Thibodeau could not have picked a better day to celebrate their induction into the Colorado Aviation Historical Society’s (CAHS) Hall of Fame. It was a sparkling autumn afternoon, and the brilliant blue sky was the perfect backdrop for the 38th annual event, held Saturday, Nov. 1, 2008, at the Lakewood Country Club in Lakewood, Colo. The mid-day gala, presided over by CAHS president Bea Khan Wilhite, summoned some of the most notable names in Colorado aviation history, including keynote speaker Air Force F-4 Phantom pilot, confirmed ace and 1997 Hall of Fame laureate, retired Brig. Gen. Steve Ritchie.
“I appreciate the opportunity to be with you today,” said Ritchie. “I appreciate who you are, what you stand for and what you’re doing but, more importantly, what you will do.”
Wilhite offered her personal accolades and presented each new laureate with the Society’s unmistakable red ribbon and medallion.
If you don’t like the weather, call Bill Hamilton
Native Oklahoman William Hamilton, J.D., Ph.D, is best known for his work with former Governor Bill Owens to establish the 12 new automated weather observation stations (AWOS-111) along the Continental Divide, as well as his heroic efforts to rescue the Granby and Kremmling airports from closure.
In true storyteller fashion, Hamilton recounted for the audience his historic phone call with former Governor Bill Owens that made AWOS out west possible.
“So I’m in Granby one morning,” explains Hamilton, “and this guy named Bill Owens calls me up and tells me he’s running for governor—which I already knew. And then he proceeds to tell me he has a knot on his head, which I did not know.”
According to Hamilton, Owens had told him he was out over the Western Slope in a King Air and was unexpectedly thrown against the overhead compartment, even though he had his seatbelt attached.
“So was there something wrong with the plane or was there something wrong with the pilot?” Hamilton said Owens asked of him.
Hamilton explained to Owens the problem was the fact there was very little weather data collected west of the Continental Divide.
According to Hamilton, Owens was now curious.
“Well, what could you do about it?”
“Well, there’s this little thing called an automated weather observation system (AWOS),” said Hamilton.
“What does it do?” asked Owens.
“Well, it tells you the weather,” said Hamilton.
“Well, how many do you think we need?” asked Owens.
Hamilton chuckled, “pulled a number from some dark place” and said, “I think we need 12.”
Of course, that leads to the next question of cost.
Hamilton, who had already been working on another AWOS project, told Owens he could get one (at that time) for about $75,000.
Hamilton said Owens paused at the cost, but then retorted “Well, if I’m elected governor, I’ll get the money.”
Owens was elected 40th governor of the state of Colorado in 1999.
With the support of then-Rep. Lewis Entz, a 1992 Hall of Fame laureate, Hamilton called the governor to remind him of his pledge—as well as the knot on his head.
Owens made good on his promise.
“And we got $250,000 to get started,” said Hamilton.
Hamilton admits that he’s not sure of exactly how many lives the now-complete AWOS has saved, but he is “more than certain the money was well worth it.”
Hamilton also worked with Entz and other members of the Colorado Assembly to establish the Colorado Division of Aeronautics, the Colorado Aeronautical Board and the Colorado Aviation Trust Fund. He is the presiding president of the Friends of the Granby Airport, Inc. He had a distinguished 20-year military career, earning his commission through the University of Oklahoma ROTC. He served with the 1st Air Cavalry Division in Vietnam and Cambodia. Hamilton was awarded Master Parachutist Wings and held the Jumpmaster qualification. His military decorations also include the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart.
A resident of Granby, Colo., since 1992, Hamilton is the current Central Region representative for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and promotes general aviation and aviation safety throughout the state.
Hamilton is a member of the Delta Upsilon International Social Fraternity, which honored him in 2005 with the Distinguished Alumnus Award. In October 2008, he was named to the University of Oklahoma Army ROTC Hall of Fame.
“I am humbled by this honor,” concluded Hamilton. “I will try to work and continue to be worthy of your trust.”
Getting far more in return
Joseph H. “Joe” Thibodeau began practicing law in 1966 as a trial attorney and entered private practice in Denver in 1972, forming Joseph H. Thibodeau, P.C., in 1979.
For more than four decades, Thibodeau has specialized in tax controversy resolution and has been a frequent American Bar Association (ABA) lecturer on tax-related topics. He also serves as an adjunct professor with the University of Denver’s Graduate Tax Program.
Named among the “Best Lawyers in America,” the “Top 100 Lawyers in Denver” and “Who’s Who in Practicing Attorneys,” Thibodeau sports a list of accomplishments that literally expands exponentially each year.
But if you can stop him long enough to ask what motivates him most, chances are he’ll say aviation.
Thibodeau has had a life-long love affair with airplanes — a love that has culminated in an impressive collection of aeronautical ratings and two beautifully restored historic warbirds, a P-51D and a R-3350 powered Sea Fury.
Pilot, patriot and philanthropist, Thibodeau has been described as a “selfless citizen..eminently suited for induction into the Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame” through his insatiable enthusiasm for flight and his genuine, approachable demeanor.
As an active, airline transport-rated pilot, Thibodeau serves on the executive committee of the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum and is a member of Silver Wings Fraternity and the NBAA. Since 1996, he has successfully competed in the National Championship Air Races (unlimited division) in Reno, Nev.
“Now there really is a bit of clarification I need to make on the dubious win in Reno in 2002,” Thibodeau laughed. “I think it’s probably the first time ever anyone has crossed the finished line in Reno in the number five position and actually won the race.”
But according to Thibodeau, accolades are not what he’s after.
“By comparison, my (aviation) ‘accomplishments’ are so inconsequential,” Thibodeau blushed from behind the podium. “In the 35 years of recreational flying I’ve done, I have had the privilege of getting far more back from aviation than I will ever be able to give back.”
And that thought resonates clearly in the stories Thibodeau holds dear.
“There’s a young man back there sitting in the corner,” said Thibodeau pointing toward the back of the audience. “When I first met Josh, his grandfather would bring him out to Centennial (Airport) every weekend, and he was always in my hangar.”
Thibodeau said that the young man knew more about the P-51 Mustang at the tender age of five than “anybody on the planet.”
“So one day I said, ‘Josh, why don’t you hop in the back? You wanna go for a ride?””
“So we get in the back seat and he’s down below the rail,” added Thibodeau. “You can’t see him and he can’t see out.”
Thibodeau and his young co-pilot were off.
Upon landing, the boy’s grandfather rushed up to the plane and said, “So Josh, how was the flight?”
“It was great, Grandpa! It was really great!” the youngster replied.
Curious, but trying not to dampen the boy’s enthusiasm, the boy’s father (also present) asked Josh about the ride.
“Terrific,” the boy replied.
“Well how could ya see anything? You couldn’t see out over the rail,” asked the father with growing curiosity.
“Oh yeah, no problem,” said the boy.
“When we went upside down, I could see everything.”
While Thibodeau readily acknowledges the stories are “not always dramatic,” he does admit they are what keep his spirits soaring.
“Thousands of times a year, at any air show anywhere, any time a kid comes into the hangar and you give them a pin, it really is a gift from them to me,” said Thibodeau. “And you should see what happens to the big kids! They light up like they just got a government bailout!”
In closing, a truly moved Thibodeau reiterated his gratitude.
“I have been extremely blessed to have been entrusted with these treasures (aircraft), these magnificent machines, and to be their steward, their trustee for a brief period of time and to be in the position to share them with others,” he said. “I am extremely grateful for what aviation has brought to my life. I thank all of you.”
In March 2008, Thibodeau was appointed by Governor Bill Ritter to the Colorado Aeronautical Board, a seven-member body responsible for the development of aviation in the state of Colorado.
Founded in 1966, the Colorado Aviation Historical Society is dedicated to the preservation of the development and history of aviation in the state of Colorado and elsewhere. The CAHS Heritage Hall, showcasing Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame laureates and Colorado aviation artifacts and exhibits, is located in Denver at the Wings Over The Rockies Museum, 7711 E. Academy Blvd., and is open to the public during regular museum hours.