What Most Americans Don’t Know About Neil Armstrong

by Chuck Donovan

Neil Armstrong died Saturday.  Of course his family suffers the biggest loss, so my sincere condolences go out to them.  The small thing I can offer is that I will miss him too.   He was a great guy and a great aviator.

I respected his desire to live a private life after the bright spotlight of worldwide attention must have been a massive confrontation to his family.  Still, I longed to hear more from the man and to get to know him a little more.  An autobiography would have been nice to read.  It amazes how much we Americans know about inconsequential, unproductive people in our world, but how little we know about a great man like Neil Armstrong.

We all know that Neil was the first man to step onto the moon, but there was much more than that first step and the famous words he spoke for the whole world to hear.  Here are some of the things I want you to know about Neil from the standpoint of a “fellow” aviator.  It includes something I learned less than a year ago.

Neil was one of my inspirations.  I wore the same Naval Aviator wings he wore through the first part of his military career, before he upgraded to Astronaut wings.  I also fly little airplanes off of grass fields, just as Neil did at the beginning and end of his flying life.  For a short time I had the fantasy of going to Test Pilot school and then to the space program like Neil did.  In these last goals Neal far exceeded my paltry achievements.

Neil Armstrong was a Naval Aviator.  That means he flew from the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier current day Naval Aviators would consider small.  Armstrong flew 78 combat missions off the USS Essex during the Korean War.  During one of those missions he had to eject from a damaged jet and wait for a rescue from an area close to the enemy.

Neil got his Bachelors degree after returning from the Korean War.

Neil Armstrong was a test pilot when the less dangerous jobs of fighter pilot and carrier pilot were enough to disqualify a person from buying life insurance.  It is still dangerous to be the pilot of a high performance tactical aircraft, but as recently as the mid 1980’s, some life insurance companies wouldn’t consider selling you a policy.  After flying in combat, Neil went and did the most dangerous thing a high performance jet pilot could do.  He flew experimental prototype aircraft.  Then he went to something even more dangerous.  He flew what would be the highest and fastest flying aircraft ever built, the X-15.  The X-15 got dropped off the wing of a B-52 at about 30,000 feet.  It then lit a rocket engine that propelled it to over 200,000 feet and faster than 2100 miles per hour.  Compare that to your next airliner ride that usually tops out at 39,000 feet and 500 miles per hour.  After a short powerful run, the X-15 ran out of fuel.  The pilot had to “dead stick” the stubby-winged X-15 back to Edwards Air Force Base.  During one of his flights, Armstrong’s craft assumed an angle that caused it to accidentally bounce the earth’s atmosphere.  [1]  He recovered control of it and landed safely.  All in a days work for a guy like Neil Armstrong.

Neil was a Gemini astronaut.  Before the Apollo flights to the moon there were Mercury and Gemini flights.  The Mercury flights had only one astronaut.  Gemini flights had two.  Apollo had three.  Neil was in Gemini VIII, a mission to practice linking up with another vehicle in orbit.  It was all going well until his capsule physically linked up with the Agena target vehicle.  An attitude thruster suddenly stuck on at full power.  Both vehicles immediately began an uncontrolled spin that quickly built up to more than one rotation per second.  The automatic stabilization system tried to compensate with the remaining thrusters, but it couldn’t and the system was about to run out of fuel from its’ efforts.  Without maneuvering fuel the capsule would have tumbled in orbit forever.  It was Neil Armstrong’s capable skills that took over manually, disconnected from Agena, and began a series of manually controlled short bursts on the remaining maneuver thrusters to stabilize Gemini VIII.

Neil Armstrong ejected from the Lunar Module test prototype known as the “Flying Bedstead” just before it crashed and exploded.  He initiated ejection at less than 100 feet and just 0.5 seconds before it would have been too late.  He walked away from the crash site then went to his office to do some paperwork.

Neil Armstrong ejecting from the “flying bedstead”

The first landing on the moon almost crashed.  Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were riding through an automatic approach and landing.  That was the plan and it seemed to be going well.  When they got close to the surface, the two astronauts noticed that they were being flown into a field of huge boulders.  Neil Armstrong took manual control of the vehicle and flew across the face of the moon looking for a better place to set down.  He managed, but they landed with only 17 seconds of fuel remaining.

What Neil meant to say was…. “That’s one small step for a man.  One giant leap for mankind.”  It makes a little more sense that way, but it’s impossible to criticize a guy who did some much else exactly right.

I never met a person nor have I ever heard of someone with an unkind word to say about Neil Armstrong.  One of the perks of my aviation career has been the fun of meeting famous people in aviation and getting inside stories about historic events in aviation.  I can tell you about other famous aviators who you would know, and about whom I have heard many criticisms.  Not so with Armstrong.  He was true blue from start to finish.  Neil Armstrong honestly was the kind of guy who really make you proud to be an American.

The Internal Revenue Service went after Neil Armstrong for making money with his autographs.  You read that correctly.  No, Neil was not making money from his autographs.  He was giving them away for free.  Other people were making money from those autographs.  So what!  So, the IRS went after Neil.  Less than a year ago another pilot at my airline told me he met Neil on one of his flights.  He said Neil was gracious and generous with his time.  However, when asked for an autograph Neil apologized politely and said he would really like to but he could not.  He explained about the IRS.  No one could believe it.  However, it was no surprise when Neil said he could take a picture with him.  That lucky pilot got a picture with a real American hero, but no autograph because of the IRS.

Next time you are watching a reality show with someone pierced, inked, “licious”, and full of loud, superficial, baseless attitude, ask yourself just what these people did to hold your attention and your precious time.

Next time you are thinking about tax and government regulatory policy, don’t figure all the bad stuff will only be done to bad people.  (See “Chuck’s Rules of Thumb”, # 6.  Complex laws are never equally enforced upon all.  Instead they get selectively enforced upon an unlucky, politically unconnected few.)

The next time you are looking for a hero, don’t assume the loudest personality is the one most deserving of your respect and admiration.  Neil Armstrong quietly went about doing the right thing with excellence and with the right stuff.


[1] To the edge of space and to the edge of Los Angeles, http://www.sierrafoot.org/x-15/adventures/flight_051/flight_51.html