READY, PULL! Harry in his element, leading the Redhawks on the backside of a line-abreast loop.
At the risk of making this page an obituary for passing friends, let me say this: There’s absolutely no way we can let the passing of Harry Shepard go without saying something, if not profound, at least irreverent. Because that was Harry—a little profound, a lot irreverent and massively talented.
Harry was something of a wildly cultured, wildly talented junkyard dog. And a fighter pilot through and through. He also was my first introduction to an aviation giant. We were in our very late 20s or early 30s when we met. He was just out of the Navy and flying 74s for Pan Am. But the job was nothing more than something that kept him away from what he truly loved and excelled at—edge-of-the-envelope aviating, especially formation aerobatics.
He had been an F-8 Crusader pilot and, as is the case with most Crusader pilots (“when you’re out of F-8s, you’re out of fighters”), he sorely missed it. He was so anti-authority, however, that I can only imagine how he struggled within the constraints that squadron service represented. But he put up with it so he could look down that catapult rail and know that he was one of only a few who could claim the title “Crusader pilot.” He lived to get the gear in the wells; everything else was a major annoyance. And that’s pretty much how I saw him: He was grossly out of place on the ground because he didn’t belong there. Nonaviators around him knew it; he tolerated them, but barely.
Harry was perfection personified—in the way he lived, in the way he flew and in the way he saw the world. Which was both a good thing and a bad thing. I always was afraid I’d leave a fingerprint on his Marchetti SF.260 while helping him push it out. When he came over for BBQs, he brought his own wine and his own hamburger. He owned only the best and did his best not to associate with anything less. Still, somehow, he didn’t come off as an elitist. He had his own way of seeing things, but didn’t expect anyone else to agree. He lived the way he wanted to live, and just wanted to be left alone.
To some it was annoying, but to those who knew him and flew with him, his annoyances were a form of entertainment: When you’re that good at something, people overlook your foibles. It was entertaining to see him careen down the dirt road at the end of the runway in his hopped-up Z-car, jump out, slam the door, his eyes on fire, his head down as he stomped to the hangar where he pulled his airplane out and went ripping down the runway. He was obviously pissed. He had just returned from an airline trip and needed an av-fix to clear out the mental dirt that associating with the world had left behind. The Harry who got out of the airplane a half-hour later was a different Harry—warm, congenial, relaxed.
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.