John Glenn had two life-long love affairs: one with Annie, his wife of seventy-three years; the other with flight. From the summer day in 1929 when the eight-year-old Glenn accompanied his father aloft in an open-cockpit WACO biplane, he was smitten. He began building model airplanes out of balsa wood, watching barnstormers and air races, and dreaming of flying. Overcoming his parents' fear that he would die in a plane crash, Glenn received free flight training under the new Civilian Pilot Training Program, a thinly veiled preparedness initiative on the eve of America's entry into World War II. He earned his pilot's license before his twenty-first birthday. The government's investment would ultimately pay off handsomely.
Fifty-five years later, John Glenn, then in his final term as a U.S. Senator, was still piloting his own airplane, a twin-engine Beechcraft Baron. In 1996, he enlisted me to assist him in creating a public service institute at Ohio State University. The endeavor entailed a number of flights from Washington's Dulles Airport to the Columbus airport that now bears his name. While I didn't share his love of flying, especially in small planes, the fact that John Glenn was the pilot always instilled confidence. Even when we once flew through a turbulent storm, his close monitoring of the plane's radar to avoid any dangerous cells provided some reassurance. My duties from the co-pilot's seat were to work the communications and navigational controls at his instructions. Most of the time, I simply watched and listened.
Our conversations in the air naturally focused on flying. Once he sighted a distant airplane at "eleven o'clock." I looked but saw nothing. Finally, after searching in the direction he had indicated, a tiny silver speck became barely visible. When I commented on the acuity of his vision, he replied that in combat, a pilot's life often depended on his ability to detect enemy aircraft at great distances. I learned that among his wartime artifacts were the gun-camera films from his combat missions. In reminiscing about the 1962 Friendship 7 flight, in which he became the first American to orbit Earth, he continued to be fascinated by the mysterious clouds of luminous particles he had observed on each orbit. He described how he had used the hand controller, what we would call a joystick, to control the capsule and guide it back to earth at precisely the right angle after the automatic altitude control system had failed. NASA subsequently presented Glenn with the perfect souvenir from the flight: the pewter-colored hand controller, mounted on a walnut base. A replacement was attached to the Friendship 7 capsule now in the National Air and Space Museum.
John Glenn used less of the runway to land an airplane than any pilot I've ever experienced. The first time we landed at Dulles, it seemed that the wheels had barely touched the tarmac before he executed a sharp right turn toward the Signature Aviation complex. I suggested that he could land a plane in my driveway. He explained that he frequently flew to small rural Ohio airstrips, which often had very short runways. Consequently, even when using major airports, he exercised economy so that he wouldn't get out of practice and overshoot the shorter runways.
The Beechcraft's cabin held six passengers. Annie Glenn often accompanied him, as did Mary Jane Veno, Senator Glenn's chief of staff. Richard Baker, the Senate Historian, flew with us on one trip to Columbus; writer Nick Taylor on another. During one flight, when Glenn had his sights set on a return to space aboard the shuttle, I sat in a back seat next to Annie. I asked her reaction to what then seemed a long shot that her seventy-five-year-old husband would become an astronaut again. Her response was emphatic: "Over my dead body!" Having endured the agony of worrying about him during the 1962 space flight, she was not at all interested in risking his life again, but she ultimately acquiesced.
In his "campaign" for a second space flight, Glenn compiled research to develop a scientific justification—studying the impact of spaceflight on aging—for including a senior among the astronaut crew. He also enlisted Admiral John Eisold, the attending physician for Congress, to provide a thorough physical exam. The results, which were later confirmed in the Johnson Space Center's rigorous exam for current astronauts, concluded that the seventy-seven year-old Glenn was in amazingly good shape. Anyone who had spent an exhausting twelve-hour day with him could attest that his physical stamina was truly remarkable.
I happened to be in Glenn's Senate office with several Ohio State University officials on January 15, 1998, when he received the long-awaited call from NASA Administrator Dan Goldin. John Glenn would become "NASA's oldest and newest astronaut." The Senator was sworn to secrecy until Goldin's press conference the following day, but the good news could not be contained. The Senator's wide grin conveyed his joy, even as he joked that he was supposed to frown. Reporters and television crews had already assembled in the hallway outside his office. Newscasters were beginning to confirm the story on the air. He finally walked into the hallway and told the reporters that he would have nothing to say until tomorrow. After Goldin's call, space flight dominated our conversation. When one of us asked how the astronauts' food had changed since his orbital flight, Glenn reached into his desk drawer and produced an aluminum tube with a long detachable nozzle. It was astronaut applesauce, vintage 1962.
The shuttle Discovery's launch was scheduled for October 29, 1998. A NASA official sent a boilerplate letter to all U.S. Senators, including Glenn, inviting them to Florida to watch the launch from a VIP location. Glenn considered the following reply: "Dan Goldin promised me a better seat."
LeAnn and I decided to liberate our three sons from school for the trip to Florida, even though we had been informed that we would not be able to see Senator Glenn. He and the other astronauts would be in isolation. On the day before the launch, we reported to the Kennedy Space Center's visitor complex for a briefing as guests of the crew. A bus tour with Glenn family members and friends followed. As we rode around the facility, our guide described the process of becoming an astronaut and answered our questions. When someone asked what the crew was doing today, the response was, "I can tell you what they are doing right now. They're waiting for us!" A moment later, the bus stopped at a grassy field beside the gravel road. We emerged from the bus to find all seven of the STS-95 crew in their blue flight suits, standing on the opposite side of the road in compliance with their medical quarantine. For the next half hour, we visited with them and took photographs. Annie Glenn had brought her ubiquitous little Canon Elph. When Senator Glenn saw his grandson Daniel and my son Rob, who had interned together in his Senate office that summer, he asked me to take a picture of the boys with him centered behind them. After our bus returned to the visitor complex, we spent another half-hour and a small fortune in the crowded gift shop. As LeAnn emerged from the shop with an armload of tee shirts, caps, and other souvenirs, she announced that she was no longer worried about NASA's budget.
On the following day, we watched the launch of Discovery from the Banana Creek viewing stands. After a final delay in the countdown when five unauthorized aircraft entered the shuttle's air space, the rockets ignited for blast-off. Clouds of smoke erupted as the powerful rocket engines rumbled. We felt the earth around us tremble from the controlled explosion as the flaming exhaust flashed, growing brighter as Discovery ascended. A rush of emotions—pride, fear, hope, and awe—overwhelmed us spectators. We cheered spontaneously after liftoff and again when the external rockets were detached. Soon there was nothing left to see but billows of smoke in the sky and the empty launch pad.
My last flight with John Glenn was one of the most memorable and certainly the most unique, although neither of us sat in the cockpit. As chairman of the advisory board of the John Glenn College of Public Affairs, he always tried to enhance our meetings with special presentations, tours, and events. For several years, he had even proposed to combine a future meeting with a tour of an aircraft carrier. None of us took him seriously until we received word that our next meeting would take place in San Diego and include an additional day aboard the USS John C. Stennis, one of the navy's newest carriers. Since the vessel was eighty miles out of port in the Pacific Ocean, we had to reach it in a twin engine turbo-prop aircraft that bore no resemblance inside or out to a commercial airliner. After we were outfitted with goggles, cranium helmets, and life vests in case of a "cold catch," we boarded the C2A—COD through the cargo bay ramp in the plane belly. The aircraft had virtually no windows, so we flew in the dark for forty-five-minutes until the arrested landing on the carrier. As we deplaned, the strong odor of diesel aviation fuel exhaust swept over us and remained throughout the day. When the Senator and Annie followed us into the officers' mess for lunch, everyone in the large room applauded, affirming my judgment that the best way to board a carrier was in John Glenn's company. The chaplain delivered an ecumenical prayer that was light on spirituality, though heavy on naval assets. We spent most of the afternoon exploring the enormous vessel and taking photographs of the thrilling takeoffs and landings as pilots went through recertification.
Among the carrier's 3,000 crewmen and 2,000 airmen was a Marine wing. Entering the small briefing room for Marine aviators was one of the day's highlights. Olive-drab camouflage netting covered the walls and ceiling, and red Marine banners were displayed. The men and women within were obviously as thrilled to be with John Glenn as he was to be with them. His visit generated lots of handshakes, reminiscences, and photographs. As we filed out of the room, Glenn declared "Semper fi!"
At the end of the day, we boarded a COD for the return flight to San Diego. Our instructions for takeoff were to secure ourselves by crossing our arms, holding our shoulder harnesses, and tucking our chins onto our chests. For additional bracing, we pressed our feet against the seats in front of us. The crew waved their arms frantically just before the engines revved. Suddenly, we experienced the catapult boost, which felt like being shot out of a cannon. The sensation lasted only a few seconds, comparable to a very short amusement park ride on steroids.
I was last with John Glenn two months ago in Columbus. Throughout our twenty-year association, the agendas, destinations, and forms of transportation varied, but one common element never changed: his remarkable connection with the American public. Even as he aged, he remained easily recognizable as one of the most famous men on the planet. Yet, he bore his fame with genuine humility and friendliness. In his encounters with the many strangers who approached him every day, he always stopped and turned his focus to them. They inevitably left with a feeling of pride at the attention and respect he had shown them. Those of us who traveled with him and Annie, who loved visiting with people as much as John did, simply had to be patient with these inevitable delays.
Once after a long day of meetings in Columbus and Cleveland, Senator Glenn and I flew back to Washington at night. By the time we arrived at his Bethesda home, where I had left my car, it was after 10:00 p.m. I briefed Annie on our day's activities, while John excused himself to check on a cable company repairman, who was working late outside. Senator Glenn was gone for what seemed like an eternity. I was exhausted, but I didn't want to leave without saying good-bye. When John finally returned, Annie asked him why he had taken so long. He explained that the cable guy was interested in the space program and that they had just been visiting. That was John Glenn.
Michael L. Gillette