Retired astronaut coming to Urbana

But in October, retired Navy Capt. Robert “Hoot” Gibson will be inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton.

“What a thrill,” he said.

“All my kids want to come,” he added. “It’s going to cost me a fortune.”

Dave Shiffer, chairman of the fledgling Champaign Aviation Museum, is just as thrilled that the former fighter pilot and NASA astronaut accepted an offer to visit Urbana next month.

Gibson will speak at the museum’s gala dinner — its first fundraiser to support the collection of airworthy vintage planes — at 5:30 p.m. April 13.

“It’s just amazing,” Shiffer said. “I was overjoyed he was able to do it and wanted to do it.”

Tickets are $100 and should be purchased by April 1. Call 937-652-4710 or visit champaignaviationmuseum.org to order.

The night includes dinner, music and dancing, plus a flyover of the museum’s restored B-25 Mitchell, piloted by Shiffer himself, if the weather cooperates.

“The controls are very heavy. Even when it’s cold outside, you finish and you’re sweating,” Shiffer said of the museum’s Mitchell bomber, dubbed Champaign Gal. “It’s a whole body experience. It’s the sound, the smell, the feeling of sitting in the seat. You get tingles.”

Even still, it will be hard to upstage the man known as Hoot, who, at 66, still flies in the Reno Air Races at speeds of 476 mph just 50 to 70 feet off the ground.

“At some point,” Gibson explained, “you need to step down from air racing. I’m not there yet.”

A recipient of the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross and three Air Medals, the Murfreesboro, Tenn., resident was an experienced combat pilot over Vietnam, a graduate of the Navy’s famed Top Gun school and one of the first F-14 Tomcat jocks when NASA unveiled the space shuttle in the mid-1970s.

Unlike most others in NASA’s astronaut corps, Gibson didn’t harbor childhood dreams of one day visiting space — until he saw the shuttle.

“Everything before it had been capsules,” he said. “They didn’t have wings on them.”

However, he instantly was attracted to the world’s biggest, fastest airplane.

“It doesn’t turn like an F-14 does, so it wouldn’t be good in a dogfight,” Gibson said. “But you talk about speed. You’d criss-cross the United States in either eight or nine minutes.”

At speeds of 17,500 mph, the shuttle could cover five miles per second, he said.

Selected as a shuttle astronaut in 1978 — as was his future wife, medical doctor Rhea Seddon — Gibson made five trips to space, beginning in 1984 as a pilot and commander.

In all, he spent 36½ days in space.

His last shuttle mission, in 1995, was also the first shuttle mission to dock with the Russian space station Mir.

What’s ironic is that he’d been groomed during his Navy career to shoot down and kill the Russian pilots then aboard Mir who previously had been trained to shoot down and kill him.

“It was a real change of pace,” he said.

Entering active-duty Navy service in 1969, Gibson found himself a part of two iconic fighter squadrons — squadrons that are instantly identifiable to anyone who assembled model airplanes in the ’70s and ’80s.

Gibson first flew 56 combat missions in 1972 over Vietnam with VF-111, the “Sundowners.” With their painted-on shark teeth and sunburst fins, their F-4 Phantoms were made to stand out.

“We wanted the MiGs to be able to see us, so we could, pardon the expression, wax their (expletive),” Gibson said. “We were all trigger-happy for MiGs.”

Unfortunately, Gibson never saw a single MiG.

He did, however, later go up against Randy Cunningham, the Navy’s only flying ace during Vietnam (and later a disgraced congressman), in a one-on-one mock dogfight at Top Gun. Gibson’s claim to fame is that it ended in a draw.

Gibson also can claim to have seen the exact end of the Vietnam War from the cockpit of an F-14.

Flying with VF-1, the “Wolfpack” squadron, Gibson provided air cover on April 30, 1975, for the helicopters evacuating Saigon.

Even though it marked the Tomcat’s first combat outing, the mood that day was grim.

“It was a big disappointment to see all that expense and those lives wind up going for nothing at the end of it,” he said.

But, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Gibson’s career is what he did after all the combat missions and orbiting the Earth.

He became a pilot for Southwest Airlines for 10 years, beginning in 1996.

“They don’t want to see a bank angle of even 30 degrees,” Gibson said. “Everyone wanted to feel like they were sitting in their living room.”

“Every so often,” he added, “the flight attendants would find out who I was and they’d make the announcement that the captain was a former astronaut.”

When that happened, he always ended up signing autographs.

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