Long before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969, he flew Navy jets in combat during the Korean War, and later piloted NASA’s X-15 rocket planes at more than five times the speed of sound. Neil was one very hot pilot.
I was the astronauts’ public affairs officer at NASA Houston.
On occasion Neil flew as my co-pilot in a number of private aircraft. Yes, of course he was the more experienced aviator, but whenever we flew together his famous modesty would kick in and he’d climb into the co-pilot’s right seat, ceding the left, pilot-in-command seat to me.
Neil could find pleasure in anything that flew – he piloted sailplanes and held Silver, Gold and Diamond awards for flying them to extreme altitudes over long distances. “Gliders, sailplanes are wonderful machines,” Neil once told me. “It’s the closest you can come to being a bird. Silent flight – it’s wonderful.”
One day I was taxiing a small, private four-seater past a hangar at Clover Field near Pearland, Texas, where Neil and a crew were pushing their sailplane into its hangar – Neil had been soaring for two hours in that little engineless glider.
“Hi,” I shouted.
“Wait a minute,” Neil hollered back.
They closed the big hangar doors and Neil came over and jumped into the right seat of my idling Piper Tri-Pacer. “Let’s go,” he said. It was fun having Neil Armstrong as my co-pilot. He was already very well known in aviation, and soon he’d be the most famous man on the planet.
I didn’t know that at the time, thank God… I was nervous enough with him sitting next to me.
We took off and flew an hour or so, each taking the controls while sight-seeing all over southeast Texas. Neil’s house near the NASA space center had recently burned to the ground so we over-flew its remains so Neil could survey the damage. We flew well below legal altitude, but his neighbors were also astronauts and didn’t mind a bit.
It was getting dark when Neil said, “Let’s head out over the Gulf.” He was happy up there and wasn’t ready to come down. The Gulf was vast so I added power to climb to a safe altitude for night flight over water. By now the horizon ahead was stark black; the lights of Houston twinkled dimly behind us. I kept us in a climb ‘til we approached 10,000 feet in that tiny airplane. Houston’s lights had disappeared. We were suspended in a giant bowl of ink under a starless sky.
Finally Neil said, “Let’s head home.”
By now we were very high over black water in a black sky with Houston out of sight behind us. I pulled the carburetor heat knob so the engine wouldn’t ice up on the long descent. SILENCE!
The engine quit… I had pulled the wrong knob, starving the engine of air.
I pushed at the panel, hoping to find the right control to restore carb heat. Finally I hit the right knob and the engine burst into song. Neil knew I had done a truly stupid thing, but he never uttered a word… just gave me that tiny, knowing smile
We were never in danger, given our extreme altitude, but I had surely “screwed the pooch,” to use a test pilot’s vernacular. I had to make sure that once back over terra firma my landing, at least, would be perfect.
As we parked the old Tri-Pacer and signed the logs, Neil whispered: “Bob, as a test pilot I learned that once you activate an aircraft’s control you hang on to its handle to make sure it does what you told it to do. Only then do you turn it loose ‘cause you might not be able to find it again when the stuff hits the fan.”