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Written by Rachelle Haughn
Bonus content for the November 2012 issue of
Model Aviation.
Also featured in the
Model Aviation tablet app.

Neil Armstrong was a private person. He didn’t like interviews, he avoided cameras, and he didn’t want any special recognition for his famous walk on the moon. Few people had the opportunity to get to know him personally. One who did is retired astronaut and AMA Ambassador Robert “Hoot” Gibson.


The retired astronauts had known each other for more than 30 years. “He had a personality that I couldn’t picture anyone not liking him,” Hoot said. Neil and Hoot clearly had a love for anything that flew. Both had retired from the Navy, and for both, their interest in full-scale aviation began with aeromodeling.


Hoot first met Neil in 1978, shortly after he began training at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to become an astronaut. “We had most of the former astronauts come back to brief us,” Hoot said. Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins also discussed their experiences with the astronauts. Neil, Buzz, and Michael made up the crew of Apollo 11. Buzz and Neil became the first men to set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969.


That wasn’t Hoot’s only encounter with the man who tended to shy away from the public eye. “Gee, over the years I’ve seen [Neil] a number of times,” Hoot said. When reflecting on Neil’s passing, he had some good memories to share. One of those memories wasn’t related to space exploration.


Hoot, who competes at the annual Reno Air Races, held in Reno, Nevada, said Neil often attended the event and made sure to see Hoot’s airplanes and say hello. “He was just a really, really nice guy,” Hoot said. He said he believes the National Aviation Heritage Trophy, awarded during the event to pilots who restore vintage aircraft, will be renamed in Neil’s honor.


Hoot is an ambassador for the National Aviation Heritage Invitational, which awards the trophy. Neil presented the trophy to the winners at the 2006 Reno Air Races and the 2003 Dayton Air Races.


The two also once found themselves sharing close quarters.


In the early 1990s, Neil hosted a television show called First Flights. It aired on A&E. Neil asked Hoot to be part of an episode called “Rocket Pilots,” Hoot said. The episode was filmed at Edwards Air Force Base in Edwards, California, which is where some of the NASA space shuttles landed when returning from orbit.


The television crew filmed Neil riding alongside Hoot in a shuttle training aircraft. Hoot said that Neil quizzed him and gave him tips on climbing up to altitude, landing, etc. during the flight.


“He wasn’t just the first man to set foot on the moon. He was a gifted test pilot, an accomplished pilot,” Hoot said. He believes he still has that episode on video tape.


Last summer, Hoot saw Neil at a convention held in Atlanta. Neil was there for a ceremony, Hoot said. “He was just walking around and looking at airplanes. There were no name tags, so most of these people didn’t know who he was.


“He did kind of hide from the limelight a bit,” Hoot added.


Although Neil didn’t like to be recognized, he felt it was important to recognize others.


In early 2011, Neil spoke at the Space Camp Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Hoot said. “What a gifted speaker. How clever, how insightful he was. He just had everything wrapped up in one package,” he said. Hoot was inducted into the Space Camp Hall of Fame this year.


Hoot clearly was affected by Neil’s August 25 death. He said he was at his home in Tennessee when he overheard of his friend’s death on the news.


His last memory of Neil is one that he will always treasure.


In April of this year, Hoot was inducted into The Golden Eagles, an organization for naval aviators. He said Neil attended the ceremony.


“Six people were inducted. After we had all been introduced, a whole bunch of people came up to me. Neil gave me a great big hug” and introduced his wife, Carol. Hoot said he was expecting merely a handshake. “Neil saw it fit to give me a big hug the last time I saw him.” Hoot said he will never forget his last memory of Neil.


He plans to attend a tree-planting ceremony held in memory of Neil at the Johnson Space Center in late 2012. Hoot added that he likely would contribute if a scholarship were created in memory Neil.





1 comments

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