It was just an old warbird in a hangar. There it sat, still and silent, waiting for wisps of conversation to break up the quiet.
Birds chirped in the background, as we usually hear from the rafters of old hangars. I stood and stared as people strolled on by, at the ladder hanging below this old warbird’s belly, transfixed with some memories of a man I knew very well.
How many times did that man make the trip up and down that ladder in the hot days of summer or the cold of winter, performing the tasks that were required to keep this old bird moving forward toward the unknown, during a time when our nation was trying to move ahead from a bitter war in Southeast Asia? It was during a time when the Cold War was just as cold as ever, and all the talking heads could not agree on what technologies would be the best means to defend ourselves or take the war to our enemies. But to that man, I knew it was a job that brought his love for flying and the skills he had acquired in a lifetime of working in the aerospace industry to the flight line, where he loved to be.
Standing there had me wishing that more stories had been shared about those special days that would have had me sponging in the information well, knowing that in the future I would be kicking myself for not taking the time to take his daily routines to heart — and giving me some answers to my lonely vigil at the base of a ladder in a museum.
That man made many trips in support of this old bird, as he worked on special aspects in the design phase that had him visiting rocket sled tracks in El Centro, Calif., and Alamogordo, N.M., and many places in between. As the plane began to take shape, he moved from one project to another, until the day came that a shiny new aircraft rolled from a hangar in Palmdale before the nation. In December 1974, it would take to the skies for the very first time and end up at Edwards Air Force Base, where, as the budgets and ideals in Washington fell victim to politics, those committed to the program pressed on with development that would someday find its end when the headlines in newspapers used the words “cancelled,” “expensive,” “dinosaur” and “missiles.”
When the end came, it also brought to a close that man’s lifelong commitment to the aerospace industry that had employed him since the 1930s, where he worked with many of the giants in the aircraft industry and was present to see the advancements from propellers to jet engines, and from straight wings to swept wings. It was time to move on to a retirement that he hoped would fulfill his own personal dream of building his own plane and flying it around the country, taking in the heart and soul of America at little airport cafes off the beaten path. That was never to happen as life dealt him some harsh realities, when an unforeseen hemorrhage behind his eyes robbed him of his vision and took away his lifelong dream of soaring in the skies and chasing the clouds.
Now here I stand years later, long after that man’s passing, looking up the ladder of this B1-A at a museum in Denver, Colo., and wishing that a familiar voice would call down and invite me up for a look around at what he helped to create … but only silence is heard. He wasn’t a big-time test pilot or an industry leader; he was a man who made the planes fly. He was not alone with his skills and commitment; he was like so many others who answered the alarm at 4 a.m. and made those trips out to an old lakebed covered with hangars and made the magic happen.
This old bird is that amazing accomplishment of so many who gave their all and felt that a paycheck was not the reward — it was the opportunity to be a part of history being made in the skies over the High Desert. I never met a man or woman from that time who didn’t feel a special pride in what they brought to the projects, no matter how big or small their involvement.
As the time to go came, I found it hard to leave this old bird and I kept glancing back at it, hoping for some kind of sign that it was ok to let go of the memory. It never really came, for the words, I never spoke to my Dad now haunt me in terms of the closure we all need when a loved one departs. This holiday season, my story here is one of self-reflection but more importantly, a message to all who should not wait until life happens and you’re left with more questions and wishes that would bring you peace when the living years are behind us.
Bill Alvis, my Dad, was a man who was dedicated to his family, to his craft, and his country — just another one of the thousands behind the scenes who make this country a special place and inspire us to keep being the best we can be.
Peace my friends!