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Sun, Sep 11, 2011

Gone West: Aviator/Actor Cliff Robertson

Cliff Robertson, One Of Aviation's 'Great Souls' Has Gone West, 09.09.23 - 09.10.11

Here is a test to find whether your mission on Earth is finished: If you're alive, it isn't.
Richard Bach

As the aviation world shudders with the memory of what occurred barely a decade ago, we have received news of yet another loss -- this one quite personal and profound. Cliff Robertson was a man known to many as a fine actor in everything from "Charly" to "Spiderman" -- but, far more important to me, he was known to those of us in the aviation world as a quiet, friendly and uncommonly humble flyer with a heart of gold and a never-ending supply of flying stories.

He was one of the true treasures of the aviation world and every time we sat down to chat, it was never one of those awkward movie-star conversations, but a simple chat between flyers. He earned both the Academy Award and Emmy Award -- but I don't recall him ever bringing those up. Instead, our chats were about our mutual love of warbirds, soaring, and "There I Wuz" flying stories (and he had some really great ones... often hysterical and poking fun at himself in the process). 

Cliff was a Commercially rated pilot with single and multi-engine tickets, as well as an instrument rating. He had a passion for ballooning (even after taking a swim in the Pacific after one balloon race didn't quite meet his expectations) and was a passionate advocate for all things aviation; earning the EAA Eagle award, and having been inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, as well as too many other honors to count. He also had great taste in airplanes... having owned (among other birds), a Spitfire MK IX, a Messerschmitt ME-108, a Stampe SV4 biplane, a Grob Astir glider (in which he earned a distance record) and a Beech Baron 58. In particular, though, Cliff was exceedingly proud of the work he had done as the First Chairman of the EAA Young Eagles program.

And yes, he was a bonafied movie star... having played John F Kennedy in the unforgettable, iconic, PT-109; and known for amazing roles in everything from 'The Naked and The Dead' to 'Gidget', to 'Charly', to 'Spiderman.' He also took on the Hollywood 'machine' during a particularly troublesome scandal that nearly got him blacklisted for standing up to the truth... and for that, I've always admired him. But for some reason... in all the chats we had, those things just didn't come up... not when he wanted to know what was new in the flying world and just be one of our flying buddies.

A few years ago, at one of the aviation world's enumerable conventions, I spotted Cliff taking a breather off in a corner all by his lonesome... his mobility, that day, being a bit more troublesome issue than he cared to admit. I sat down with him for a while and just shot the bull until a close friend of mine stopped by to join us -- at first oblivious to who he was. This young lady was charmed in no time at all by Cliff's warm manner and funny stories... and some half way in, this gal, a bit younger than either of us, finally figured out who she'd been chatting with and her face lit up in mid-sentence...

"'Charly!' You're Charly! Oh my... I loved you so much in that!"

Cliff beamed, almost blushing, plainly pleased at being remembered for something he was justifiably proud of (a truly inspired and touching performance from 1968... a year or so after his new friend was born... but a classic that stands the test of time), and our little group chatted on long enough to get kicked out when the event folks closed the room we were talking in. It was a delightful afternoon... and a truly cherished memory.

Afterwards, this lovely lass playfully castigated me for not telling her who she was chatting to for so long without recognition. 'Aw heck,' I replied... "that's Cliff, he's always been just a flying buddy, and I think that's all he really cares about, around here."

So; to Cliff Robertson, one of the all-time great flying buddies... a fine aviator and an even finer friend and human being... we wish you Godspeed and Fair Winds. God Bless you...

FMI: www.cliffrobertson.info, www.imdb.com/name/nm0731772/bio

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