By Nissen Davis
I met Neil Armstrong at an aerospace industry retreat on Charlie Gates’ A-Bar-A ranch in Wyoming in 1979. I was then a VP for Flying Tiger Line. After dinner one evening we were sitting outside in the moonlight when one of the coeds waiting tables said, “Oh Mr. Armstrong, I want you to know I have jumped out of a plane seven times.” With a twinkle in his blue eyes, Neil asked “On purpose?” As she walked away, he said quietly, “I never saw the sense of jumping out of perfectly good airplanes.”
For reasons I have never quite understood, Neil and I became friends at the ranch, a bond that continued throughout the rest of his life.
In 1984 I joined McDonnell Douglas, Long Beach as Director of Communications. I dropped Neil a line to let him know this, and he replied on his Computing Technologies for Aviation, Inc. letterhead with his usual gentle humor: “Delighted to hear of your new position at Douglas. Sounds like enough responsibility to keep you out of trouble.”
In 1994 I was head of customer services for Hughes and in charge of a huge exhibit at an AIAA trade show in Washington, D.C. I saw Neil, who was one of the speakers, wandering about and invited him to inspect our Pavilion. As I escorted him through our space, defense and commercial products booths all I remember is the goggle-eyed faces of my colleagues and bosses who could not believe that we had snared the most famous man in the world to tour our site.
I say most famous because every schoolchild be they American, Chinese or Russian, learns who was first on the moon – just as they learn about other great explorers like Christopher Columbus, Sir Walter Raleigh and Marco Polo.
2003 HHMA Recipient
The selection committee for the Howard Hughes Memorial Award (past recipients plus the president and VP of the Aero Club) chose Neil to receive the 2003 Award and it was my duty to let Neil know that he had won. I made the call with some trepidation because I knew that he had turned down dozens of achievement awards in the past.
However I was pleasantly surprised when he accepted my news with enthusiasm and his usual humility. His award banquet in 2004 was the first time we had to hang out the SRO (standing room only) sign! Those lucky enough to get tickets marveled at the way he graciously chatted with almost everybody at the reception and cheerfully posed for countless photos.
As always, he politely declined to sign autographs. He told me that after he had initially signed anything put before him, including a lot of Eagle Scout certificates, it became apparent that most people wanted his signature just so they could sell it.
Armstrong Steps In
Our 2009 honoree, Bob Hoover, was supposed to receive his Award from the 2008 honoree, Dr. Ron Sugar. However shortly before the dinner Ron informed me that he was going to be abroad on the night of our event and suggested I ask another former honoree to replace him. “Bob Hoover was a great test pilot, so why don’t you ask one of your former pilot honorees to officiate,” he asked.
So I sent letters to two of our best known alumni, Chuck Yeager and Neil Armstrong, asking if they would do the honors – doubting that I’d get either man but hopeful that one of them would agree. I was stunned when they both said yes! I felt like the guy who invited two girls to the Prom – and they both said yes. All I could do was fess up to Chuck and Neil, and invite them to do our first duel presentation, which they agreed to without hesitation. The dinner, as all who were there know, was a howling success. Attending celebrities included Buzz Aldrin, Sully Sullenberger, Tom Morgenfeld, Fitz Fulton, Dick Rutan, Bob Gilliland, Clay Lacy, Bill Anders, Jim Albaugh, Sam Iacobellis and Frank Robinson.
Supporting Our Troops
In 2010 ACSC member Tom Lee called and asked if I would assist him in getting famous pilots to join his Morale Entertainment Foundation which, to that point, had been taking NCAA football coaches to boost troop morale at overseas US bases. Tom was particularly interested in getting Neil. I asked Neil if he’d like to go and he immediately said yes, schedule permitting. Once he was aboard, we had little trouble signing up Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon, Jim Lovell, the hero of Apollo 13, ACSC member Bob Gilliland, famed SR-71 and U-2 test pilot and Brig. Gen. Steve Ritchie, probably the last ace we will ever have, with his five MIG-29 kills in Vietnam.
Tom and I went to the Aviation Hall of Fame induction in Dayton, Ohio to witness the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the landing on the moon and were so impressed with the way founding Good Morning America host David Hartman handled the tribute that involved crew members from Apollo 2 through 17 that we invited him to be our moderator as we visited our troops overseas.
David asked Neil how he stayed so cool when landing on the moon. “Mission Control kept warning you were almost out of fuel yet you calmly took over from the computer and landed by hand.”
Neil responded with, “David, you drive a car. You know when the gas gauge reads empty there’s always a gallon left in the tank.”
To me the highlight of that evening was when Neil saw me in the audience and bounded off the stage to give me a bear hug!
The Legends of Aerospace Tour began in Chicago on March 10, 2010 and for the next 10 days I was Neil’s companion as we visited troops in Germany, Turkey, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, the carrier Eisenhower sailing in the Indian Ocean, Bahrain and England.
I have dozens of memories of that trip but here are a few that stand out.
When we toured the Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany, where troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan were taken, I was at the tail end of the procession. After our Legends had moved on I saw a young soldier who had lost both legs to a land mine smiling broadly. I stopped and asked why he was so happy.
His answer? “Because Neil Armstrong flew halfway around the world to thank me for my service!”
A couple of days later we were touring the flight line at the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar where USAF B-1-B bombers are based. The crews had requested that our Legends write rude messages on their bombs which would be dropped later that day. The Legends climbed the ladder to the bomb bay, Sharpie’s in hand. Each wrote a mostly unprintable message to the enemy except Neil, who turned to me and said, “Don’t they know I don’t give autographs?” My reply was, “Neil, this signature won’t go on eBay, it’ll go BOOM in Afghanistan.” He then said okay and climbed the ladder. When he came down I asked what he had written above his signature. He gave me a mischievous grin and replied, “I wrote ‘Sincerely, Neil Armstrong.’ “
Neil rarely showed emotion, but on the carrier Eisenhower I saw tears in his eyes. That was because the US Navy had just made up for a 40 year omission! It seemed that our other two Apollo Astronauts, Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan, had received Astronaut Wings of Gold from the Navy because their service with the civilian NASA agency began when they transferred from the Navy. In Neil’s case he resigned his commission to become a civilian test pilot at Edwards AFB – where, among other activities, he made seven flights in the X-15 rocket plane, the predecessor to the space fleet. Then he joined NASA. Because of this break in Government service he was deemed ineligible for the coveted Wings. Eisenhower Captain Mewberry made up for lost time by pinning the Wings on Neil’s chest.
I only went on one tour with Neil, but he made three more trips for Morale Entertainment – all to Iraq and Afghanistan.
These trips had a profound influence on him as he demonstrated when he came to the Jonathan Club a third time – this time to receive their Reagan Distinguished American Award on October 27, 2010. Expecting him to talk about the moon landing, the packed audience was surprised that he chose to discuss the trips he took with Morale Entertainment to the Middle East instead.
My final communication with Neil was on July 23, when he cast his vote for this year’s HHMA honoree. He ended his e-mail with these words: “Best, Neil.”
Those are also my last words to him. Best Neil as, once more, you look down on us from far above.