Himes – A Tribute to Two Great Pilots – 1970
Those of us who graduated from West Point, but entered the US Air Force for our service, gained a different military family. The Air Force is a smaller branch of our military, so we would become close friends with a set of budding pilots. Some of us did our flight training at the same base while others were assigned to other training bases. Regardless of location, we all went through the same training program flying the three training aircraft in use at that time. The title photo of an amazing jet is the T-38 advanced jet trainer that we finished our training on. For obvious reasons we called it the White Rocket. And, yes, it flew like it looked.
On this Memorial Day, it is appropriate to remember two classmates that chose to go into the U S Air Force instead of the U S Army. Some of us Air Force guys would cross paths again after West Point; some not, but we shared a love for being airborne. Today, we salute their service and commitment to our Country.
Dave Kirby and I were both in the same cadet company (B-4) for 4 years. That meant that starting with Beast Barracks through graduation we lived with the same couple of dozen fellows…. for better or worse. Kirbs was definitely on the “better” side. To be fair, they were all in that category. My B-4 classmates were as outstanding a group of young men you could find. My only regret in going Air Force was that I’d likely never see most of them after graduation. Anyway, my academic prowess was mediocre at best; Kirbs was way up there. I don’t think he actually worked a lot harder than most of us, but he could grasp difficult math and engineering concepts on the first read. As a result, his GPA was far above mine and I think he was ranked at the top of the list for those of us going AF. A small backstory: Our required academic load left very little room for elective courses. In my case I took 4 years of Portuguese (2 years of a foreign language were required) mainly because it was one of the few classes I could get a 3.0 in. Second semester of Firstie year, Kirbs took what was for all practical measures a post-grad level engineering course… CH499, I think. Naturally, he got a 3.0 in it. Course numbers ending in “99” were never on my class schedule. FYI, at the time 3.0 was the max grade in a course; 2.0 was barely passing or “tangent”. After all, we were all engineers back then. On the off-duty side, Kirbs was a car nut. He had a Pontiac with the biggest engine GM put in the thing.
Of course, he could (and did) take it apart and reassemble it like it was a Lego toy. I’m barely able to adjust the little chain in a toilet tank. Anyway, he got around the academy prohibition on car ownership by keeping the car titled in his dad’s name until Firstie year spring break. He died in a single car crash late at night shortly before Undergraduate Pilot Training graduation. In pilot training at Randolph Air Force Base the time of Dave’s accident was one of his West Point Classmates, 2LT Scott Nix (https://thedaysforward.com/scott-nix/). Scott was honored to be the officer who escorted Dave on his final journey home to his grief-stricken family – a sad assignment, but a real-life example of the camaraderie of graduates of West Point and the Long Gray Line. Dave’s untimely death left a big hole in the future of our Air Force. What if he had not been taken from us so soon. What could he have accomplished?
Kent Crenshaw and I were in different regiments as cadets, so our paths seldom crossed at West Point. After graduation we never met face to face, but our flying careers occasionally ran in parallel. Of the small group of us that went to USAF Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT), his aviation career overall seems most impressive.
After UPT Kent was assigned to the C-7 Caribou tactical airlifter at Cam Ranh Bay and was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and three Air Medals during his tour there. As some of you may recall, the C-7 was a light tactical cargo plane that supported Army Special Operations/Green Beret missions in what we now call USAF Special Operations Command. Tiny airfields and low altitude flying were the order of the day. Returning to the U.S. he was assigned to Westover AFB, MA as a B-52 heavy bomber pilot and later Warner Robins AFB, GA in the same aircraft. TDY deployments back to SEA were common for that aircraft.
USAF’s post graduate engineering school at Wright-Patterson AFB, OH was his next stop for a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering. The follow-on assignment was to US Air Force Academy as an academic instructor where he also was an instructor pilot in the cadet glider training program. In that capacity, he introduced a motorized glider into their system which reduced the need for routine use of tow planes.
After his teaching assignment Kent went to Edwards AFB, CA to the USAF experimental test pilot school and was the 1981 Distinguished Graduate. Another academic tour at USAFA followed. Then it was back to Edwards AFB as an instructor pilot in the test pilot school. An Outstanding Instructor of the Year award followed. I sense a trend here. Kent retired from active military service at USAF’s flight test center in 1989.
Northwest Airlines hired Kent as a DC-9 pilot but after a few months he got the proverbial “offer you can’t refuse”. Northrup Grumman offered him a job as a civilian test pilot on the still super-secret B-2 stealth bomber. A return to the California desert followed where he remained as the company chief test pilot on that aircraft until the by now well-known B-2 production ended. Are we done here? Apparently not. Gulfstream aircraft, which builds long range corporate business jets, made the next offer. Kent and Judy were off to Savannah, GA where he was involved in flight test operations for Gulfstream’s growing line of large corporate jets. In this capacity he was testing the brand new G650 on Apr. 2, 2011 at Roswell, NM. During a takeoff planned for very challenging conditions, the test aircraft crashed killing the two pilots and two test engineers. Among other things, the accident investigation determined that Kent had flown the aircraft precisely as planned.
His wife Judy and their son Cameron lost a husband and father. The world-wide aviation community lost one of its best. We lost an irreplaceable classmate. Truly Best of the Line.