Remembering Harry Combs

My thoughts on a great man in aviation who I was privileged to know.
I first met Harry Combs in November 2002, not long after I’d taken over operation of the airport. I’d been subletting his hangar every summer for my helicopter for three years, but had never met him in person up to that point.

Mr. C, as many folks called him, had a home at Rancho de los Caballeros in Wickenburg. He’d arrive in Wickenburg each November as a passenger on a Lear 35 jet — the same jet he’d owned and flown years before. At the Pima Air Museum, there’s a Wright Brothers display that includes a photograph of Mr. C standing beside his Lear with the distinctive Kitty Hawk monument in the distance. Mr. C had sold the jet to a fractional jet company with the stipulation that any time he wanted to fly, that same jet would take him.

Last year, Mr. C would occasionally stop in at the airport terminal to chat. He had many nice things to say about the work I’d done at the airport and it was an honor to receive complements from such an aviation legend.

I recall a conversation I had with Mr. C at the terminal one spring, when he told me about the Wright Flyer reproduction he had commissioned for display at Kitty Hawk. He’d been almost outraged that there was no full-scale reproduction of the plane at the park and had done something about it. “It’s going to cost a lot,” he told me more than once during the conversation. I never asked how much.

Every year, someone would ferry Mr. C’s Bonanza down to Wickenburg, not long after his arrival. At that point, the subletter would be kicked out of his hangar — sometimes with as little as two days’ notice — and his plane would be moved in.

I recall seeing him arrive at the airport with Joyce, his secretary, for a flight in the spring. Mr. C had turned 90 in January and he was a bit unsteady. Joyce looked nervous. We all tried to talk Mr. C out of flying — without insulting him, of course. But Mr. C was stubborn and it appears he knew what he was doing. His takeoff on runway 23 looked smooth as silk, despite the crosswind. After flying around the desert northwest of the airport for a while, I heard Joyce’s voice on the radio, announcing their return. (Mr. C left all radio communications to Joyce.) Mr. C landed smoothly and taxied back to the hangar. Ed and Rob put his plane away. That’s the last time I saw them fly.

Mr. C was 90 when he made that flight. He’d been flying for 75 years, since he was 15 years old. He had witnessed aviation grow from the days when flying was left to daredevils to a time when getting on a plane to go from one point to another is commonplace for anyone. He was a great supporter of aviation and aviation history, the author of a book about the Wright Brothers (Kill Devil Hills), and a contributor to aviation museums.

Mr. C died just after his trip to the 100th anniversary celebration of the Wright Brother’s first flight. He was two months shy of his 91st birthday.

I’ll miss Mr. C, but I’m glad I had a chance to know him.

2 thoughts on “Remembering Harry Combs

  1. I met Harry some years prior to his death. We attended an author’s party in Nashville, TN, which was held in conjunction with the annual Southern Festival of Books. I had already arrived at the party prior to Harry arriving. We had not met prior to then, and I was not familiar with him or his writing. I happened to see him, though, as he first entered the door. With his height, he was a looming presence. I can’t recall either of us walking up to the other at the party, but we very quickly became engaged in conversation which lasted throughout the course of the 3 or 4 hours of the party. I think we stopped talking only once, and that was to dance to The Tennessee Waltz. We both were staying at the same hotel in downtown Nashville, and we walked together after the party back to our hotel and sat in the lounge for another 3 or 4 hours and continued our conversation. For some years after that event, Harry and I remained in touch with each other, and I still have the written correspondence which Harry sent to me over time. We remained “friends”, but never saw each other again. That, I suppose, was my own fault because Harry told me more than once that any time I ever wanted to come visit at his ranch, he would have a jet waiting for me at the Memphis airport. I just never took him up on his offer, though I have often regretted my choice not to. During our conversations and communications, Harry shared with me personal tidbits from his life which I doubt that few people ever knew. Although he never asked me to not share those things with others, I always felt he told me those things in confidence. And I honored our friendship by keeping those things that he told me. I was deeply saddened to learn of his death. For certain, he lived an extraordinary life, and I always felt so blessed to have had him come and walk for a while upon my path with me as I traveled the course of my own journey.

    • That party sounds like one of those magic evenings when you meet someone and just click.

      I only knew Harry in his later years, and only in my capacity as someone who rented his Wickenburg hangar in the summer months and later as airport fuel manager. He was a great guy.

      Thanks for sharing your memories of him with other readers here!

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