High Desert Hangar Stories: The heroes who inspire me

Meeting one of my heroes: The writer and triple-ace Bud Anderson. (Courtesy photograph)

There was a time when heroes of the cinema were based on real, individuals. The crossover between fantasy and reality was the type of thing that kept young imaginations fueled with passion.

The generation I belong to, which became known as the Baby Boomers, was never short of cultural figures and role models who were larger than life. In a time when the world was in peril, seemingly ordinary people who could have been our dads or moms became the subjects on the big screen many times over, when we kids would watch those old war time propaganda movies on black and white screens or movie matinees of that era. We wanted to grow up to be as brave as those souls who freed the world from tyranny.

Today, we seem to have an endless supply of superheroes heavily based on fantasy, as well as the celebrity culture surrounding the actors who portray them. It seems like they are regarded more as true heroes then those who, without all the glitz and glamor, are carrying the heavy load of protecting our citizens against real threats in the real world. I find this disheartening. Fantasy has its place in the world of entertainment, and a good escape from reality every now and then is great for the soul, but at the end of the day it’s just a cartoon that will, in the long run, leave you empty and still looking for the real-life individual that you can relate to and draw inspiration from.

Harrison Ford and Bob Hoover. (Copyright 2014 Tyson Rininger)

Writers of the past and those of the present can sometimes find common ground when it comes to subject matter, and so we revisit the heroes and legendary men and women of my generation who lived in an era that required heroic actions on a daily basis. Technology and science had not yet advanced to the point of removing danger from the equation when it came to actions that were required to reach excellence and, in many cases, survival.

Case in point was the movie 12 O’Clock High, made and shown in the years after World War II, which shared the reality of combat in the skies over Europe. Films like this were not based on fantasy, but on real-life drama and situations, showing how fragile individuals and those larger than life could, over time in extraordinary conditions, exchange their roles and control their destinies. We kids would watch these movies drawn in by the planes and action, while at the same time forming opinions as to what a real hero was all about — after all, these guys represented the neighbors and friends that lived in our communities all across America.

Growing up in the Antelope Valley in the 1950s and 1960s, we looked to Edwards and we didn’t need fictional Heroes — we had the real deal living amongst us. When the movie Into the Unknown or X-15 hit the big screen, we knew that these actors were portraying our neighbors and friends. The special effects were not really necessary back then, for as corny as they sometimes were, we needed only to look to our own skies to see the reality of the Heroes we looked up to.  

Bob Hoover’s autograph. (Courtesy photograph)

Many of the action movies today are more or less just spin-offs of the Star Wars formula of overpowering special effects, likable characters, defeating evil at every turn and wrapping it all up in two hours and hoping a sequel will be required. Great entertainment, but it’s tough to find that real personality!  One of those actors from the original Star Wars trilogy gave us a look at who inspired him as a hero, and credited him with saving his life. It wasn’t a fantasy character — it was none other than one of my all-time heroes and role models, the late aviation legend Bob Hoover.

Harrison Ford was invited to sit down with Sean Tucker and Bob for the aviation documentary project “Flying the Feathered Edge.” In the opening scene, as the three sat down for a roundtable discussion, it wasn’t the on-screen actions of an actor that were being praised, but rather the lesson of a legend. When Han Solo (Harrison Ford) took off from Santa Monica Airport and was suddenly faced with life and death decisions in a failing plane, the wise words from a seasoned old pro like Bob Hoover etched in to his thoughts had him flying his little PT-22, with no power, to a rough but successful landing on a local golf course.  Even some of our onscreen actors share a bit of that nostalgic desire to look up to and learn from those who actually strapped into an airplane and learned to fly by the seat of their pants, back when there was no other way to learn.   

Gabby Gabreski, World War II and Korean War ace. (Courtesy photograph)

What brought on my inspiration for this story was a feeling of nostalgia and a longing for the Heroes of the past, in a world where men like Bud Anderson, Jimmy Doolittle, Joe Walker, Scott Crossfield, Gabby Gabreski and Bob Hoover were real men who flew real planes and faced danger and the unknown in a way that inspired all us youngsters.

Buck Rogers, Steve Canyon and Sky King were great entertainment on a Saturday morning, but you can sure bet that come the rest of the week, our Friday night model kit projects of a P-51 Mustang or F-104 Star Fighter were seen streaking down the hallways, powered by would-be aviators with big dreams and bigger imaginations. We were in the cockpit chasing the enemy, or that devil that lives out in the thin air, knowing our adventures were based in reality of real men who, if we were lucky enough, we would get to meet someday at an airshow or a museum.

Yes, we still have those Heroes serving today and a tip of the cap to them, but I just can’t get past this old man’s memories of what inspired my generation. I wonder if there will come a time when future generations will look back at we Baby Boomers and wish they had that special gift of real, larger-than-life personalities who became Heroes that inspired!til next time, Bob out …

Robin Olds (Courtesy photograph)