There’s no possible way that most of us can pass any kind of judgment on the flying skill of someone like Harry. We aren’t good enough to make that judgment. Still, the first time I had him fly an airplane for a photo session, I didn’t have to be a genius to realize that the skill I was witnessing was consummate. If I asked him to move a foot forward or up, that’s exactly how much he moved—a foot. And it didn’t make any difference what he was in. I had him fly a C-3 Aeronca for me. Same thing. Then a P-51, and, on his first flight in the Mustang, he was holding close-in, knife-edge formation for me. The owner of the Mustang commented that he wished he flew it that well. He made me look good as a photographer so many, many times.
And then there were the air show acts he put together, all of them specializing in serious, hard-core formation aerobatics. First it was with Larry Kingry, who was the second aviation giant I came to know. And he was the absolute polar opposite of Harry in personality. As intense as Harry could be, that’s how much of the “nutso” clown Larry was. As professional as Harry could be, that’s how loose Larry was. Harry wanted to know everything he could about an airplane before he flew it. Larry just wanted to kick the tires, light the fires and figure it out for himself. But the combination worked: He and Harry did some of the tightest formation work any air show crowd had ever seen, including canopy-to-canopy loops and rolls with their vertical fins overlapping. Harry would fly wing, and it was honestly scary to watch them.
Then there was the Redhawk Aerobatic Team: Harry, Carl Pascarell and Bob Gandt. And I came to know two more aviation giants. I flew with them on a number of occasions, usually with Carl, and it was awe-inspiring to see him change formation by inches to compensate for energy differences in a three-ship roll.
And you can’t talk about Harry Shepard without mentioning that his skill with an airplane was matched by his skill with a trumpet. He was well-known across the country; there’s not a jazz joint within driving distance of a Navy base that didn’t welcome him, not to mention bands and clubs all up and down the East Coast. He definitely wasn’t a one-trick pony.
I could launch off on a tangent about how if he had seen doctors more often, he’d still be with us, and there’s a lesson to be learned, but I won’t. What I will say is that the one hard lesson I learned from his passing is that even those who appear to be immortal aren’t. And I guess there’s a lesson to be learned there too.
P.S. At the exact same time that a missing man formation was being flown in Harry’s Florida hometown, Marlene and I were taking off on our own Harry Memorial Flight in Arizona.
Budd Davisson is an accomplished aviation writer and photographer, CFII & CFIA, aircraft owner and builder. He has authored two books and lectured at the Smithsonian and NASA’s Langley Research Center. Check out his website at www.airbum.com.
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