I met Gene when someone referred him to me while I was looking for a mechanic to check out the Aztec I was looking to buy. He gave me an honest picture of what was wrong with it and I hired him to refurb the plane. I worked with him over the next three months on the plane, got to know him and became friends with him.
He talked a little about his life and what little he said was facinating to me. He is an lesson in aviation history. Gene grew up on the farms of middle America (don’t remember which state now) during the depression and quit school in the fourth grade to help out at home. When America entered WWII, he was 15 and lied about his age to join the Army. They taught him to fly and he was sent to Europe. He told me he flew right seat on B-26s and showed me what is left of his pilot’s license (up until recently, they were paper) and on the remaining scrap I saw ratings for C-47 glider tow (i.e. Normandy, but he hasn’t mentioned supporting it), B-26, and some other military aircraft types. He also learned how to work on aircraft and flight instruct while in the service.
After the war, he went to University of Tennessee (don’t know how he got in, but he did. I don’t know if he finished) and got a job with General Electric in Pennsylvania in the 50’s. The space race was starting in the later part of the decade and GE was one of many companies supporting the effort. Gene was hired by a friend of his, who knew his talent and abilities, to head some projects that they were working on. Gene questioned him, feeling that he wasn’t the man for the job because dropping out of school at such an early age haunted him personally as an adult and the guys who would be working for him were scientists and college graduates. The man told Gene he believed he could do it and that no one had to know about his educational shortcomings.
Gene’s group developed the first space docking simulator, shown here with Gene in the seat (I asked him if I could scan these pics from his album):
The Five Degrees of Freedom chair, which simulated floating in space and used compressed air, actuators, and springs, was another invention. They weren’t able at the time to get the sixth degree, but this was a big deal. Gene has a picture of him putting Warner Van Braun, the German scientist who was heading the US space program, in the chair but couldn’t find it right now- he is looking for it.
No one had done these things before– space travel was an unknown at the time. All kinds of ideas were tried and evaluated. This shot shows something called MOOS (don’t remember the acronym’s definition), an atmospheric re-entry vehicle for a individual astronaut if the primary vehicle was damaged and couldn’t bring them back. Gene is in the MOOS and that is styrofoam around him. They enclosed him in it, lifted it up, and dropped him from 20 feet to see how it worked. On the back, they wrote “Gene’s Coffin”. He wasn’t hurt, but that’s how they did things back then– build it, get in it and test it.
After those programs ended, he started a Cessna dealership on a little airstrip that he bought. Through that business, he made lots of contacts with parts suppliers and others in the industry. He moved to Florida when he “retired” and has been working on airplanes 6 days a week since. He is 81 now and through all that, he has battled cancer and other medical issues. He moves a little slower now, but he is still sharp; he went back to school, got his GED in his late 70’s, his A.S. at the local community college recently, and is still going to school because he enjoys learning. I been able to help him understand some of his school work like he has helped me with my airplane, so our relationship isn’t too one-sided. I consider him a good friend and enjoy working with him whenever he needs assistance.
Here is Gene today working on the Canary he is restoring:
If some of the details of this post are a little off, I will correct them once I talk some more to Gene. Trying to remember specifics of all this stuff off the top of my head is a little tough.