When Neil Armstrong presented Combs with a copy of the papers of the Wright Brothers, Combs was amazed. “I’ve been flying and selling planes for 50 years and, like most people, I thought the Wrights were just two bicycle mechanics who got lucky. I mean this is a real eye opener … this is a piece of our national heritage.”
- In 1929, at the age of 16, Combs built and flight-tested a sport biplane named Vamp Bat.
- In 1938, he and a partner formed Mountain States Aviation, a fixed base operation and flying school that later became Combs Aircraft.
- In 1939, he designed, built and tested the Combscraft.
- During World War II, Combs Aircraft Company trained 9,000 military pilots.
- President Kennedy appointed Combs to “Project Beacon” the project that helped form our present air traffic control system.
- In 1974, Combs received America’s General Aviation Man of the Year award.
- Recipient of the Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy in 1985.
Harry Combs was a man of plain speech and no nonsense. He was cut from a cloth whose threads are timeworn, but incredibly durable.
Like the aging mountain man in his epic novel Brules, Combs was a rugged individualist driven by a conviction that the tales of his frontier must be entrusted to a new generation.
For Combs, the frontier in question was not one of ragged mountain peaks and dense brush. The trail toward Harry Combs’s frontier was born of wind and cloud and bluest velvet giving way to blackest black.
If Harry Combs was passionate when conveying the heritage of America’s western territory, then he was positively lyrical in discussing the union of man and machine that lead our nation skyward.
During a 1996 magazine interview, he offered a poignant glimpse at “the province of the birds…”
“I recall the next morning, rocketing out of our base over the walled waters of the fjord, where a flock of white Arctic terns rose at the sound of our jet.
“When we reached a cruising altitude of 45,000 feet I began to think again of those beautiful birds. Surely they instinctively knew the compelling secrets of the sky. I jotted down an ode to those magnificent soaring creatures who seem to embody the fierce passion that all fliers have for the beauty and glory of flight…
Like free spirits
From the polar snows
They soar on shining wings
And climb to dizzy heights above
And lose the little sordid earthly things
Up where there is wind, and space,
And stars, and time to love.”
For Harry Benjamin Combs, the dream of “dizzy heights” became a reality at the age of 13. After shelling out $2.50 each, Combs and a friend from Denver climbed into the cockpit of a mail plane and savored the fleeting thrill of circling the airfield.
It wasn’t much, but it was enough to marry boyhood fancy with grown-up ambition.
Harry Combs’ life would never be the same.
By 15, Harry was attending Taft Preparatory School in Connecticut, but his brief encounter with the province of the birds had planted a persistent seed. When he saw an advertisement for $99 flying lessons at a St. Louis airport, he convinced an older classmate to shuttle him cross-country in pursuit of his dream. After only three hours of flight instruction, Harry Combs tasted the white-knuckle rapture of a first solo flight.
Within two years, he was not only flying airplanes but building them as well. His first effort, “The Vamp Bat was a sport biplane that he successfully flight-tested, before crashing it in Pueblo, Colorado in 1931. Nine years later the Combscraft, a low-wing, retractable-gear monoplane, showed genuine market potential, but was scuttled by America’s entry into World War II.
But Harry Combs had not been idle in the years that spanned the Vamp Bat and the Combscraft. As was his custom, he was flying hard and fast.
After earning a degree in Applied Economics from Yale University’s Sheffield Scientific School in 1935, he took a job as a ticket agent with Pan American Airways and also operated a Warner-Fleet biplane in partnership with Jimmy Pyle, who later became FAA administrator.
Still searching for that breakthrough experience that would shape his future, young Harry returned to his native Denver, where he tried his hand at investment banking. He also joined the Colorado National Guard, flying the 0-19E and gaining valuable flying time; enough, in fact, to earn an instructor’s rating.
Though his skill and training in financial matters pulled him in one direction, his passion for flight stirred something deeper and more compelling.
At the ripe old age of 25, Harry Combs seized the brass ring nearest and dearest to his heart. He and a partner opened Mountain State Aviation, a fixed-base operation and flight training facility.
Combs’ brief encounter with the business world had taught him one undeniable lesson: “I had to work for myself. My satisfaction could not depend on what someone else thought or did. As my own boss, I might go broke, but I wasn’t going to be fired.”
In fact, going broke was far less a problem than meeting the crushing demand. Mountain States quickly acquired a government contract to conduct civil pilot training. By the time the U.S. entered World War II, the flight school that had opened its doors with under $7,500 was worth roughly $300,000. In three years during the war, Combs’s operation trained over 9,000 pilots.
But Harry Combs also did his part for the war effort on a personal level, joining the Army Air Forces and flying C-54 transports across the North Atlantic, Africa and India.
Following the war, Combs returned to the United States and to his thriving company…which had ceased to thrive. Without Combs’ dynamic leadership, the company’s net worth now totaled minus $11,000!
“I didn’t let anyone know I was broke,” he recalls, “I just got to work.”
Combs’ refusal to admit defeat would weigh heavily in his favor as he rebuilt his company, by then called Combs Aircraft, into one of the most successful fixed-base operations in the country.
During the 1950s Combs acquired sole ownership of the company and expanded it into Wyoming and Montana. He established sales agreements with Ryan Navion, Piper and Beech, becoming the top Beechcraft salesman in the country by 1958 and first in the world by 1962.
But it was not simple chance or a post-war aviation boom that gave Harry Combs his edge over the competition. It was his approach to customers and product. To succeed in any endeavor requires equal measures of skill, customer service and self preservation instinct. Combs had all three, and he summarized his philosophy with the statement “we live to serve…and those who serve the best, live the best!”
But it was Combs’ managerial and administrative talents that caught the attention of President John F. Kennedy. In 1961 Kennedy had to face increasing demand for air travel balanced tenuously against an antiquated air traffic control system. To solve the dilemma, he consulted with America’s top aviation professionals, convening a task force tagged “Project Beacon.”
Project Beacon hit pay dirt when Harry Combs devised a method of segregating aircraft based on performance. The FAA reviewed his recommendations and promptly adopted them.
His impressive performance on the Project Beacon task force was followed by a request for assistance from NASA Administrator James Webb. Combs’ reputation for blunt talk from a sharp mind, coupled with his wealth of aeronautical knowledge, made him a valuable NASA consultant during the formative days of the manned space program. Jim Webb, himself a straight shooter, was thrilled to have the kind of informed, candid input that was Harry Combs’ trademark.
By 1967, Combs found himself on the brink of a new adventure, one that would see him honored in 1974 as America’s “General Aviation Man of the Year.”
Combs had just recently sold Combs Aircraft to Charles Gates of Denver’s Gates Rubber Company. Staying on as a consultant to the new owner, Combs urged him to purchase Roscoe Turner Aeronautical of Indianapolis, which spawned the wildly successful Combs-Gates network of fixed base operations.
Also at Combs’ urging, Gates purchased Wichita’s troubled LearJet Industries, an act that would soon place Harry B. Combs at the pinnacle of American aviation.
When the President of Gates LearJet died in an automobile accident, Combs stepped in and took the reins. It was a daunting challenge. LearJet had seriously depleted its corporate coffers by expanding into non-aviation products. Additionally, Combs found many deficiencies in LearJet’s approach to marketing and sales.
“They’re building one hell of a product,” he told Charlie Gates, “but their system of selling it is ruining them.”
At 58, and enjoying partial retirement in his beloved Colorado, Combs had every reason to run from the spectre of a fading LearJet Industries. But his pioneer soul couldn’t resist climbing one more mountain, just to savor the view from the top.
“All my life I’ve been faced with challenges,” he noted at the time, “This could be the greatest challenge of all.”
Immediately, he addressed the company’s condition with characteristic frankness, telling its employees that “this is a good company, but we’re going broke…so we will have to be austere and humble. But, we’re going to be austere with class and humble with pride.”
Encouraged and supported by Gates, Combs set about dismantling and rebuilding the Gates LearJet company. He first scrapped the distributorship system, choosing to centralize sales in Wichita. Next, he remedied deficiencies in pilot training by contracting with FlightSafety International. FlightSafety established a training center in Wichita, complete with simulators, maintenance and ground school instruction, and the first time an aircraft manufacturer had ever offered a purchase package that included training.
Then Combs set out to build an even better mousetrap. The LearJet 35, marketed as the Longhorn 55, would be Harry Combs’ baby. It boasted an unprecedented civil aircraft operations ceiling of 51,000 feet, along with greater cabin space, more fuel efficiency, higher cruising speed and longer range.
Harry Combs’ response to LearJet’s difficulties generated one of the most dramatic corporate turnarounds in American history.
When Combs assumed command, the company had a net worth of minus $13 million. By the end of his first year of leadership, he had pulled Gates LearJet from the brink of bankruptcy and given it a net worth of plus $3.7 million. Combs would step down as President eleven years later in 1982, leaving Gates LearJet with a net worth of $200 million.
In 1969, Combs received yet another call from NASA asking for assistance. This time, his response would provide a life-long friendship and the inspiration for an acclaimed book.
NASA was looking for recommendations for a “dude ranch” where astronaut Neil Armstrong could relax after returning from the moon.
Combs was appalled at the idea of shuttling the reticent Armstrong to a public facility where he could be mobbed by sightseers and space enthusiasts. Following a relay of phone calls between Combs and the Governor of Colorado, Neil was invited to hole up at Combs’ 6,000 acre Sleeping Indian Ranch in Southwest Colorado.
The two men hit it off and Armstrong returned to enjoy Combs’ hospitality many times. Typically, the conversation would gravitate toward aviation topics. On one occasion, following a glorious morning ride through the hills of Wyoming, discussion focused on the achievements of the Wright Brothers.
“It was not clear how or why talk turned to Wilbur and Orville Wright; nor was it surprising given the nature of the group,” Neil Armstrong later wrote. “It was surprising that (we) were unable to agree on certain major facts relating to the brothers’ lives.”
The collective absence of knowledge about the Wrights disturbed Harry Combs. In fact, it kindled a small ember somewhere deep that roared to life when Armstrong presented his friend with a copy of the Wright Brothers’ notebooks.
“I look at this stuff and I’m amazed,” he told The Washington Post in 1980. “I’ve been flying and selling planes for 50 years and, like most people, I thought the Wrights were two bicycle mechanics who got lucky. I mean this is a real eye opener…this is a piece of our national heritage.”
Determined to preserve that heritage, Combs began researching the Wrights with his typical bulldog precision. He traveled to Kitty Hawk, N.C. and to LeMans, France. He interviewed, read and absorbed. He called on the expertise of famed aerospace writer Martin Caidin…and when the dust had cleared Harry Combs was the proud papa of a definitive work on the brilliance of Orville and Wilbur Wright. Kill Devil Hills: Discovering the Secret of the Wright Brothers traces the myriad of influences on the brothers that shaped and defined their scientific approach to flight. It offers a detailed account of the tireless research that preceded the world’s first manned, powered flight. And it dispenses with the idea that the Wrights were anything approaching “two weirdo bicycle mechanics who got lucky.”
In addition to considerable critical acclaim, the book also earned the Aviation/Space Writer’s Association James J. Streiberg Award, America’s highest honor for excellence in aviation writing.
Combs followed the book with a compelling video documentary about the brothers titled “How Strong Is The Wind.” Fast-paced and packed with little-known facts about the Wright’s experiments, the video remains a vital educational tool for those seeking to trace the history of flight.
Following the publication of Kill Devil Hill Combs was quoted as saying “If I’d known what a pain in the a** it is to write a book, I would have never started.”
Apparently, the pain of authorship was a fleeting one, as Combs was soon “back in the saddle” developing a sprawling, meticulously researched trilogy about the American West.
The three books, Brules, The Scout, and The Legend of The Painted Horse offer a gritty yet oddly poetic look at the taming of the American frontier. He later published a study of one of America’s most infamous massacres, titled “At the Battle of the Little Big Horn: Where Was Custer?”
Any effort to pigeonhole Harry Combs is somewhat akin to describing the tenets of Taoism; if you can define it…that’s not it.
Who was Harry Combs? He was a man in love with the endless expanse of sky…yet hopelessly enamored by the vivid, timeless peaks and valleys of America’s frontier states. He was a tough, frank businessman who could be moved to poetry by the vision of a flight of terns across an Icelandic fjord. He was a man who speaks with authority on Caesar’s governing skills, Newtonian physics, wildlife preservation or General Washington’s efforts to buoy the morale of the continental army. He was a “man’s man” who recalls his first solo flight with a starling depth of emotion and imagery.
No, Harry Combs cannot be defined…and God Bless him for that. He remains today in death what he always had been in life: a true American original.
It is with deep sorrow that the National Aviation Hall of Fame notes the December 23rd passing of enshrinee Harry B. Combs. Mr. Combs was a passionate supporter of the NAHF. His generosity made possible our new research center, as well as our resource lab, this web site and the dynamic Heroes and Legends magazine. He was truly unique…passionate, motivated and always looking for new ways to preserve, promote and participate in America’s aviation and space endeavors. Like so many NAHF enshrinees, he played by his own rules and blazed his own trails. The world is a better place because Harry Benjamin Combs lived…and it is a slightly less vibrant place now that he is gone. Part-entrepreneur, part-explorer, part-poet, part-philosopher, Harry Combs was a man of multiple talents and endeavors. He was a force to be reckoned with and a voice not easily stilled. The National Aviation Hall of Fame is proud of our association with Mr. Combs and we are honored that he considered us a “worthy project.” Like all NAHF enshrinees, his vision and energy will live on in the NAHF exhibit hall and in every initiative we undertake. Thank you, Mr. Combs, for believing as we believe…that the sky is never the limit!
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