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.
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.”
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.
“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.