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Neil Armstrong poses with the first X-15 in 1960. He flew seven X-15 missions, reaching 3,989 mph.  Photo by NASA

Humble Hero

The world knows him for his “one small step,” but as Neil Armstrong once told 60 Minutes, “I guess we all like to be recognized not for one piece of fireworks, but for the ledger of our daily work.” The ever-humble Armstrong was always quick to give credit to “those 400,000 people who had given me the opportunity to make that step.”

Armstrong’s ledger went far beyond his command performance in history’s most famous spaceflight. He flew 78 combat missions as a Navy fighter pilot during the Korean War, on one occasion ejecting after his F9F Panther was struck by anti-aircraft fire and lost an aileron. Joining the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NASA’s predecessor) as a test pilot in 1955, he flew research aircraft at Edwards Air Force Base in California, from the X-1B to the X-15, accumulating 2,400 flying hours.

Armstrong’s love of airplanes began at an early age and continued throughout his lifetime. He took his first flight in a Ford Tri-Motor at age 5 with his father. By 15 he had learned to fly in an Aeronca Champ. Ironically, in his early years Armstrong felt that he had been born too late and missed his chance to make a lasting mark on aviation. “I was disappointed by the wrinkle in history that had brought me along one generation late,” he told his biographer James Hansen. “I had missed all the great times and adventures in flight.”

Later, after his celebrated career as an astronaut, Armstrong sought to reconnect with his passion for early aviation by serving as a presenter at the annual National Aviation Heritage Invitational ceremony (story, P. 10). “I was fortunate enough to be on hand several times when Neil was there to present the awards,” said Jeff Lee, president of LiveAirShowTV. “The sheer joy that he got being around these aircraft of his youth was obvious.”

“He was a student of aviation history and he had a great regard for the pioneers of flight,” noted Ron Kaplan, NAHI deputy director and enshrinement director for the National Aviation Hall of Fame, which inducted Armstrong in 1979. “And he also had great respect and admiration for people that restore these airplanes and bring them back to flying condition….” To honor Armstrong’s contribution, following his death on August 25 the NAHI re­named its top award the Neil A. Armstrong Aviation Heritage Trophy. Among the aviation legends on hand to unveil the trophy this year were World War II triple ace Bud Anderson, famed test pilot Bob Hoover, record-setter Dick Rutan and aerobatic champion Sean Tucker.

On September 14, Armstrong’s family committed his ashes to the sea while aboard the cruiser USS Philippine Sea. It was a fitting end for a man who had begun his career as a naval aviator. Earlier his family had released a statement that said in part, “While we mourn the loss of a very good man, we also celebrate his remarkable life and hope that it serves as an example to young people around the world to work hard to make their dreams come true, to be willing to explore and push the limits, and to selflessly serve a cause greater than themselves.”

Godspeed, Neil Armstrong.