Erasing four decades of regret, and remembering a friend

It’s impossible to remember the exact date now, but one evening during the fall of 2000, Susan and I returned from a dinner engagement with the intention of hitting the sack early. We were both exhausted. It had been a long day and the bottle of wine consumed at the restaurant had only exacerbated our fatigue.

In preparation, we went about tackling our routine pre-bedtime chores – catching up with e-mail, feeding our loquacious cat, Buddy, and checking the answering machine for messages. After finally working my way around to the latter, out of habit I punched the phone’s keys and stood patiently, listening while its monotonous litany was repeated for the umpteenth time. Finally, a human voice and a short message… “If this is the Jay Miller who was Ray Tenhoff’s friend, would you please call me?” A phone number followed.

Thus began – unknowingly for me at that moment – a closure that I had considered unattainable for just over 40 years. Four decades of regret were about to be erased absolutely and unequivocally by the kindness of a person I had never known.

B-58 Hustler
The B-58 was a a groundbreaking supersonic bomber, but it had its share of growing pains.

It all started on April 22, 1960, with another phone call – this time, for my father, Lippman Miller. Ray Tenhoff’s B-58 supersonic bomber was down and missing over the Great Salt Lake of Utah on a test flight from Convair’s Ft. Worth, Texas, facility. Ray was presumed lost. Could my dad travel to Ft. Worth from Odessa to be with Ray’s family?

At sun-up the next morning we were on our way. Loaded in the family car and trekking east on Highway 80 to Ft. Worth, there was a premonition this would not be a happy occasion.

The wait at Ray’s house was long and frustrating for all concerned. Whispered conversations presumed the worst. And as the fates would have it, those presumptions would soon prove sadly accurate. Ray and his second-seater, Walter Simon, had been lost. The third-seater, Kenneth Timpson, had survived to fly again another day, but not without having come within seconds of impacting the Great Salt Lake encapsulated like his fellow crew members in the Mach 2-capable delta wing bomber.

The crash of the aircraft, 58-1023, later was attributed to a system/hardware malfunction and subsequent loss of control, but at the time of our visit to Ray’s house, all of that was, for me, irrelevant and arcane. I was 12 years old and essentially oblivious to the finality of what had happened. Ray was a near-mythical figure in my eyes, and therefore invincible. I could not begin to imagine a scenario that would end our treasured friendship.

Ray had known me all my life. He and Dad had met at Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) in Des Moines, had taken separate paths through World War II (though both wound up in the Air Transport Command), and had reunited at Iowa State after the war to continue their respective educations. I arrived in early 1948, and Ray, in effect, was there to greet me.

For whatever reason one cares to speculate, I became infatuated with aircraft and aviation at a very early age. Influenced strongly by my dad, it didn’t take much of a stretch for one to see how Ray would become my role model, albeit from afar.

Ray’s influence was indeed strong. A physically impressive ex-college football player with a modestly charismatic personality, he was remarkably patient with my childish enthusiasm. With little fanfare, he relentlessly encouraged my aviation interests by sending photographs of airplanes, old copies of Aviation Week, The Aeroplane, and Flight, and once in a while, an out-of-date flight manual.

As the years passed and my ability to understand the more esoteric parts of an airplane’s workings expanded, my all-too-few visits with Ray proved a series of epiphanies that served only to increase my unbounded curiosity about the aviation world.

Less than a month prior to Ray’s demise, I spent a day in tow as he went about his routine at the mile-long Convair plant in Ft. Worth, Texas. Between meetings, he made sure I saw with my own eyes and touched with my own hands a real, live, honest-to-god B-58 Hustler. During one break, we stood on a maintenance stand over-looking a B-58 cockpit; he wanted me to experience, albeit vicariously, his “real” office. We also walked part of the B-58 production line together.

As topping on the cake, he later loaded me into the company station wagon that was serving as the “safety” chase for a B-58 taxiing to the Carswell AFB runway at the start of a routine company test flight. Let me tell you that riding in a car a scant 50 feet behind an 85-ton B-58 as it lumbers into takeoff position is a pretty damned big deal when you’re 12 years old. The images are absolutely seared in my memory.

A month later and I was standing in Ray’s home office next to Ray’s desk with Grover “Ted” Tate’s hand on my shoulder. I was staring at a photograph on Ray’s desk depicting a test pilot in a silver pressure suit standing next to the first North American X-15 hypersonic research aircraft. Written on the photo were the words, “Best regards to Jay, Scott Crossfield.”

Scott Crossfield picture
An incredible gift for a 12-year old obsessed with airplanes.

It was as if I had received a note from God Almighty. Scott Crossfield, arguably the most famous test pilot on the planet at the time that photograph was taken, had sent me – 12-old Jay Miller – an autographed picture!

I could hardly speak. But words weren’t necessary. Ted knew I was awestruck. “Here,” he said, “take this with you.” I stared at the photo, but couldn’t respond. Finally, I turned to Ted and said, “I want Ray to give this to me.” I was absolutely certain Ray would be back. I didn’t want to be so presumptuous as to take the photo without his approval. I knew, as sure as the sunrise, that in due course I would receive that signed photograph. Ray would see to that.

Though the adults sitting and standing around Ray’s house and visiting with Ray’s family members on that fateful day had already accurately concluded that Ray’s life had come to an end, I was slow to be convinced by their pessimism. I refused to understand the irrefutability of what had happened.

For the following 40 years, the image of that photo sitting on Ray’s desk haunted my memories of what became a terribly sad event in my life. I thought of that photo often.

My career as an aviation writer and photographer officially got underway about four years after Ray’s accident. Newspaper and magazine articles eventually transitioned into books, and from books I became involved in the television and aviation museum businesses. In turn, those segued into consulting contracts, directorships, and now, to all intents and purposes, retirement.

Along the way, over the course of my career I was privileged to meet and befriend many accomplished aviation people. Among them was the late, great Scott “Scotty” Crossfield who in fact became more than just a casual acquaintance as the years flew by. I am proud to say we were good friends until the day he made his final flight on April 19, 2006. He was 84 years old at the time.

Scotty, as many of his friends in the test piloting profession will be quick to acknowledge, was not only a compassionate human being and legendary flyer, but also, among many other things, one of the founding fathers of the prestigious Society of Experimental Test Pilots – which was, not coincidentally, conceived by his good friend and my mentor – Ray Tenhoff.

On more than one occasion I relayed to Scotty my lament at having passed on the opportunity to take the photo that had sat on Ray’s desk on that fateful day in 1960. I had, of course, many books and photographs signed by Scotty by that time, but arguably the most important signature – in terms of memories – remained the one I had let slip through my young fingers so long ago.

Anything concerning Ray Tenhoff that passes across my desk always has my full attention. I punched the numbers left on the answering machine the moment I heard the dial tone on the phone. The voice on the other end was male, sounded about my age, and had already concluded it was me by the late hour of my call.

Ray Tenhoff
Ray Tenhoff was a test pilot, but also a mentor and friend to the author.

“Jay, I’m in Idaho. My wife is Jane Tenhoff’s daughter. We were digging through my mother-in-law’s papers a few days ago and found a photograph you might be interested in having. It’s signed by Scott Crossfield to you. There’s a letter to Ray that goes with it. If you’d like to have these, I’ll mail ‘em to you tomorrow. By the way, I found your name by doing a search on the internet…”

As I hung up, the tears began rolling down my face. Never give up hoping, I thought. Never, ever, give up hoping.

Forty years after the fact, a package arrived by post at my front door. I opened it slowly and gently removed its contents. I simply could not believe what I was holding in my hands.

The letter, from Scotty, was dated April 20, 1960. In part it read, “Ray – Your kind letter of 1 March was misplaced and I finally found it again. I would be delighted to give your friend a picture, which is enclosed.”

Neither man will ever know or begin to understand what that photo means to me today. On the one hand, it depicts and is signed by a truly noteworthy friend and extraordinary test pilot; and on the other, it is a material reminder of the beginning of the end of my childhood innocence. Ray Tenhoff was bigger – in fact, much bigger – than life when I was 12 years old. When he died, a small part of my childhood happiness died with him.

Now, as I move rapidly toward my seventy-second birthday, it is hard for me to realize that I am almost thirty-five years older than Ray was on the day he and his B-58 impacted the Great Salt Lake. It is just as difficult for me to wrap my arms around the fact that nearly 60 years have passed since I first stared at that Crossfield photo sitting on Ray’s desk. It was then, and it is now, a treasure of incalculable value.

I can only hope that Ray, wherever he is in the cosmos, takes some pride in my few accomplishments in the aviation community. They are, after all, the summation of a single photograph and a small act of love and kindness shown a 12-year-old boy over a half-century ago.

16 Comments

  • I am always amazed at the quality of the stories I read in Air Facts, and this one ranks right towards the top. I will be looking for some of Mr. Miller’s other writing immediately.

  • Those of us, now in our 70s, grew up and were amazed by some of the aviation greats. I think this is one of the best articles that helps to bring back those memories. Thank you Jay.

  • WOW! What a story……thanks very much for sharing this wonderful and inspiring tale. I must confess I shed a tear or two. What a gift it was to be mentored by such a giant in aviation history. Bravo!!

  • Warm stories like this one remind me why I have always felt blessed to be part of aviation and the people who fly. Thank you Jay Miller and Air Facts.

    • The B-58 Hustler! Quite a machine. While attending Purdue, and being part of AFROTC, we took a trip to Grissom AF Base not far from campus. Got to crawl up the access ladder and scan the cockpit of one of those fast birds. Sitting there ready for departure during those Cold War days these aircraft could be launched at a moments notice. Just another fond memory for a life fascinated with aviation since childhood. Thank you for sharing this memory.

  • Wonderful story, Jay. I have been in the industry for over 55 years, and am always amazed at what an incredible group of people make up our industry. There is a special bond among us, and the story of your relationship with Ray Tenhoff is certainly proof of that. Thanks for sharing.

  • Having met both of these gents as well as flying with two Doolittle Raiders, the worlds first double and triple jet aces and others, I salute you Jay Miller. Thanks for using your camera and pen to make our world better. Howard Bialas, B-58 Hustler Test Group.

  • Utterly stunning. Thank you and may your blue skies continue Ray Tenhoff. Jay. You’d better hang around a while longer. We need to read more of these!

  • I used to subscribe to the original AIR FACTS magazine in the small size pages.
    “About Air Facts | Air Facts Journal
    https://airfactsjournal.com/about/

    About Air Facts. This is NOT your father’s Air Facts. Richard L. Collins. Air Facts was first published in 1938 by Leighton Collins, dedicated to “the development of … ”

    Now that I’m getting old, such stories about personal memories are more important than travel log [ pun on travelogue ] . AIR FACTS was about facts but aviation is more than facts about aerodynamics, navigation, and politics.
    Pilots are special people I’m tearful and thankful for the wide emphasis in on line AIR FACTS.

  • Jay; I rarely come across an article that is so well written, and absolutely impossible to stop reading from start to finish. I was hooked by the first line. It is very important to remember the pioneers of aviation, such as Ray Tenhoff, and your connection to him at age 12 was a wonderful reminder of why it’s so important to spend time with young people to pass on the gift of aviation. Thanks!

  • The airplane in the photo with Scott Crossfield in the foreground, X-15 s/n 56-6670, is the first of three built by North American. There were 199 flights in the X-15 program and this airplane flew both the first and the last, the first with Mr. Crossfield — employed at the time by North American — at the controls. This photo is a real treasure.

    The airplane is, for the present, displayed in the Milestones of Flight gallery at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s National Mall building. In a couple of months, it will be temporarily de-installed in connection with the museums major multi-year renovation, so if you want to see it, come visit in the next couple of months or it will be a multi-year wait.

    Mr. Miller, thanks for sharing your story.

  • Mr. Miller, I appreciate your story very much. My father was a B-58 pilot and I loved being around any type of A/C, but the B-58 was a very special bird. As any pilot knows…”There but for the grace of God go I.” Thank you for sharing.

  • My most sincere thanks to all of you for taking the time to read the Ray Tenhoff story. So many kind words – every single one of which means the world to me. It’s good to know that Ray and Scotty will not be forgotten. As an aviation writer/photographer, the latter is always on my mind. I think it is so terribly sad that so very many aviation pioneers and personalities have faded into the great abyss of history. Their stories are eternally lost to posterity. As to the X-15 in the photo being the no. 1 a/c, that is correct. And yes, it is the a/c displayed at the NASM in D.C. I might add that the other surviving X-15 of the three built is the X-15A-2, which is the world speed and altitude record holder for conventional fixed wing a/c – and it is displayed at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, OH. The third X-15 was destroyed in an accident on November 15, 1967; Maj. Michael Adams, the pilot, was fatally injured. Again, thanks to all of you.

  • My father was Program Director of the B-58. He was totally involved from original design until they were decommissioned. At the time of his death in 1972, he was beyond retirement age, but working more than full time in logistics and as special advisor to Fort Worth President Frank Davis. He was Chief Test Engineer when transferred to Fort Worth from Consolidated Vultee (which became Convair) in San Diego to build and staff the test labs in the early 40s. I have Star Telegram articles from that time, as well as a very large B-58 collection of original Convairiety and General Dynamics News articles and photos, and articles from areas such as Little Rock, Waco (where he contracted for modification), etc. Every time a plane went down he would immediately leave to go to the site, even at 3 AM, and would not rest until he learned the cause of any problem. He had very high standards. I grew up knowing a person could truly love a machine. He dedicated his life, worked all hours, and had nothing but admiration and respect for the pilots (several of whom I knew) and everyone who worked on the B-58 project. He greeted many a return flight, handed out many Mach II pins, and never sought any accolades or attention for himself.

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